Jerry Oltion on “Shepherd Moon”

Jerry Oltion talks about the harrowing journey to write and publish his story before the facts of NASA’s real life DART mission overtakes his fictional predictions. Read his story, “Shepherds Moon” in our [September/October issue, on sale now]  

Back in December of 2021 I heard about the DART mission, in which we plan to crash a half-ton space probe into an asteroid to see if we can change its orbit. The idea for this story came to me in a flash, but there was just one problem: Getting it into print before the impact. 

The lead time for a print magazine is a lot longer than most people think. You’ve got the time it takes for an editor to even look at the story (which can be anywhere from a couple weeks to many months, depending on how busy they are running other aspects of the magazine), then the time to revise it if the editor wants changes, then time to copyedit it, typeset it, proof it, assemble the issue, print it, and distribute it. It takes a minimum of six months if everybody works at top speed. It’s usually over a year. But the September issue comes out in late July, which meant we had seven months. It was just do-able.

So I emailed Trevor and asked: If I can get you the story by the end of the year, could you get it in the September/October issue? I didn’t ask him to commit to buying it, just to publishing it before the probe hit the asteroid if he did buy it.

Trevor said “Go for it,” so I sat down to write. I originally conceived of the target asteroid as an alien spaceship, inhabited by aliens who were watching over Earth, but I couldn’t bring myself to kill off so many innocent beings. So I made it an automated outpost on a natural asteroid instead. That provided enough mystery to drive the story, and subsequent research on the planned follow-up missions provided more twists and turns. The characters developed as I wrote, which is one of the neatest things about the writing process, especially when you write fast, as I had to do with this one. I watched the characters come to life almost as quickly as I could type (which after 40+ years of doing this is pretty quick.)


I like to write stories with happy endings. The world is a miserable enough place; I see no need to add to the sum total of human suffering even in fiction.


Another neat thing about writing fast is how tight the story becomes. It was like telling a fish story around a campfire: I just powered through it from beginning to end, embellishing as I went along and feeding off my own enthusiasm. The actual encounter with the alien watcher surprised me, but I wound up giggling as I wrote that scene, thinking of how someone who knew practically everything about humanity and who was just a little bit bored might set it up. 

I also realized that I was treading on well-worn ground. Clarke and Benford and Sagan and dozens of others had been there before me, each proposing their own version of first contact with an advanced alien race. What could I add to that subgenre? 

I like to write stories with happy endings. The world is a miserable enough place; I see no need to add to the sum total of human suffering even in fiction. Also, I get tired of stories in which the aliens are so inscrutable or so advanced that we can’t interact meaningfully with them, or in which the aliens clearly could interact with us but won’t until they think we’re advanced enough to deal with it. I figure if the aliens are so advanced, they’ll know how to handle the situation gracefully. So I wrote that story. 

In a cool bit of synchronicity, I began this story within a few days of the launch of the DART probe. It will be (was) published a month before the impact. So the timeline of this story’s path through the publishing pipeline closely matches the timeline of the mission itself. We get a brief few weeks of speculation before the story becomes alternate history…or the most prophetic story in science fiction. As I write this short essay, I’m on the edge of my chair, waiting to see which it is.

Special thanks to Trevor and Emily and all the crew at Analog who expedited this story so it would see print before the DART impact. I work in magazine production myself, and I know how big a disruption it is to push something through the pipeline ahead of everything else. Your dedication and sacrifice did not go unnoticed. Many thanks!


Jerry Oltion is the most prolific fiction contributor in the history of Analog/Astounding magazine, with 102 stories as of “Shepherd Moons.” He has published another 80 or so in various other magazines and anthologies. He has written several novels, both stand-alone and in shared universes such as Star Trek, Dark Sun, and Isaac Asimov’s Robot City. He’s also a columnist for Sky & Telescope magazine, writing their monthly amateur telescope making article, and the science columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He is slowly putting his previously published stories up online at Amazon. Visit his website at http://www.jerryoltion.com.

One comment

  1. “Shepherd Moons” by Jerry Oltion . I LOVED this story; it’s in the current ANALOG 2022 SEPT., a novelette. An interesting and original take on a first contact story, having to do with deflecting an asteroid from Earth’s orbit. Well told, well written, and a shout-out to #WomenAstronauts . (NASA DART project is next month too) #recommended
    So far this one of the top two novelettes I have read in Analog this year. (The other one is by Sean McMullen in the MAY 2022 issue)

    Like

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