Last night, fellow writer Sarah Brand and I attended a lecture at NASA Goddard given by Goddard’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Jim Garvin. The lecture was about the current exploration of Mars with the Mars Science Lab, aka Curiosity. Needless to say, I learned a lot about the history of NASA’s exploration and research of Mars, why they feel it’s important, and what they hope to learn. It was some really fascinating, inspiring stuff. Climate, geology, chemistry, and physics on Mars operate in ways we’ve never seen before. Because, well, it’s a different planet! Another interesting point he made regarding the need to explore other planets is that most animal species confined to a single island have difficulty surviving over a long period of time. Might the same hold true for single-planet species? Is it actually the natural order of things for us eventually need to expand beyond our own planet? I’m not sure I know the answer to that, but the question interests me a lot (which means at some point there will probably be a book about it).
But that’s not actually what I wanted to talk about here.
When Dr. Garvin described how operation of Curiosity worked, he said they sent some commands to “her”, over millions of miles, then “she” would follow those commands, and report back, again over millions of miles. He said, relatively speaking, it was like clicking your TV remote, and thirteen minutes later, the channel changes. By that time, of course, a new show could have started, perhaps even one you wanted to see. But if you then clicked the remote to go back to that channel, the TV would update thirteen minutes after that, by which time, the show you were trying to get back to might be over. So clearly, every move has to be carefully thought out, planned, and timed.
“This is patient exploration,” he said.
But it’s even more complicated than that. They pinpointed the spot where they want to end up. A spot that has a huge potential to show them whether or not Mars was ever capable of sustaining life, and if so, what that life might have been like. The problem is, the spot is right on the edge of a crater, so they couldn’t just drop Curiosity right there. So they dropped her in the nearest stable place they could find. Now they need to navigate it around sand pits, through ravines, and up a mountain. It’s not an entirely wasted trip, because they will be able to take and analyze a lot of samples along the way that they will then be able to use as comparisons for the final analysis along the crater. Essentially, they’re learning about the world they are in as they go, so that hopefully by the time they get to the end, it will all make a lot more sense.
To make it even more interesting, there have already been, and most likely will continue to be, unexpected things along the way. They recently stumbled across a stray, mysterious shiny bit of metal or plastic. Could it be natural to the area? Or from a meteorite? Or from an older Mars rover or satellite? Or even from Curiosity herself? They have no idea what it is and they have to pause all scheduled plans until they’ve examine it, because it could be unimportant or it could be the most important thing. And once they figure that out, all the careful planning they have done may need to be altered in some way. Perhaps in a major way. They simply have no idea. This is unknown country in the most extreme sense and they have to roll with events as they develop, hoping that it will eventually get them to where they want to end up, at the edge of the big, important crater potentially chock full of answers.
You know what this is starting to sound a lot like? Writing a novel.
A story begins out of curiosity. What would it be like if this or that happened? How would it feel if I suddenly could do such and such? We start with a question, hopefully a dramatic one, and through the story we attempt to answer it (and sometimes succeed, although that’s not necessarily a requirement for a good story). What would it be like to be a demon girl in Catholic school? How would you feel if you were the son of the most famous monster ever? I don’t know, let’s write a story and find out. That is curiosity.
Stories are big. Stories are complicated. You can’t just drop the reader off at the big exciting conclusion, because they have no context to understand the world in a meaningful way. So you have to start them somewhere nearby but relatively stable so they can get an initial footing and feel confident that whatever crazy things you through at them, they have some grounding in the world. Then you begin the journey. A physical journey, an emotional journey, hopefully a bit of both. But whatever it is, you have to plan it carefully so you don’t take a wrong turn or overshoot the destination and fall into a massive crater of story-fail. You must go with thoughtful intension. But when unexpected things happen, and I guarantee that they will, you must be patient. With the story, and with yourself.
Life on Mars
Because let’s face it, unexpected things are going to happen. You’re making up a new world. A whole new place. And nobody can anticipate every single aspect of this new world right at the inception. Not even you, the creator of it. You have to learn as you go, paying attention to discoveries along the way, some small and some so big that they might very well change the entire course of your story. And that’s okay. That’s writing. That’s life on Mars.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” — John F Kennedy
Writing is hard, my friends. It’s been my experience that anything worthwhile usually is.