The Saturn V rocket had been broken into its constituent stages and laid out horizontally, end to end, along the vast length of one of the public buildings at the Kennedy Space Centre. Simply to visualise this incredible machine lifting itself off the ground was astonishing enough. It required a real leap of the imagination to think of it carrying three human beings all the way to the Moon and back. And yet this piece of technology was already forty years old, conceived and fabricated in an era when computers filled basements, and had about as much processing power as a cheap cellphone …
It was 2008. My wife and I had arranged our trip to Florida around the chance to see one of the last few space shuttle launches. By the time we were committed to the trip – flights, accommodation and rental car all booked – the shuttle launch had been indefinitely postponed. All the same, we couldn’t turn down the chance to visit KSC. With a year to go before the anniversary of Apollo 11, thoughts were already turning back to those heady years of the late sixties, when anything seemed possible.
Like many of my generation, I’d spent much of my life both excited and frustrated by our subsequent progress in space exploration. On one level, there was much to celebrate. We had gained an unprecedented knowledge of almost all the planets in the solar system, as well as many of their moons. But at the same, progress in human spaceflight had been faltering and directionless. The shuttle hadn’t turned out to be the reliable and inexpensive space taxi many had hoped for. The space station, decades in the planning, seemed hobbled by compromise. No one was actually sure what it was for, or what to do with it next. In the four decades since Apollo, people had gone no further than low Earth orbit. It was hard not to wonder about the missed opportunities, the roads not taken. Why were we no closer to returning to Mars, or even the Moon, than we’d been in the eighties?
And being this close to the start of it all, seeing the pads, the crawler, the assembly building – it didn’t leave me feeling dispirited. Quite the opposite. There seemed to be a buzz in the air, a sense of better things to come – a real chance for NASA to regain direction and purpose. New ships and capsules were on the drawing board – new plans to return to the Moon and beyond.
Suitably galvanised, I spent the rest of the trip with my head swimming with ideas for a grand new series of novels. I could see the shape of a trilogy, each book expanding on the last, taking us from the familiar locales of the solar system out to the depths of interstellar space. Well-trodden territory for a science fiction writer, perhaps, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t make it feel new and fresh.
The structure of the thing would be simple, based on an exponential progression. The first book would span about a hundred years of future history. The next, one thousand. The third, ten thousand. Eleven thousand years, plus change. I started referring to in shorthand as the “11K” sequence.
Bad mistake. Never talk about things until you’re absolutely sure where you’re going.
I started work on the first book. I had the plot early on – a family saga involving the legacy of a dead space explorer, also the matriarch of a powerful industrial clan. What I didn’t have was anything that made it feel distinct or fresh. By chance, though, I’d been listening to a lot of world music. A particular track by the Ugandan musician Geoffrey Oryema began to paint images in my mind. I could see a woman, of African heritage, standing on the bridge or control deck of some vast spaceship, some unguessable number of years in the future, far from whatever place she might have called home. I knew that this woman was faced with a terrible decision, one that would involve the sparing or the destruction of countless lives, but that whatever action she chose would also have momentous costs for others.
I didn’t know the name of this woman, or have any sense of how she fitted into the arc of the trilogy. But I knew I had to find my way to her, and tell her story.
By anchoring the trilogy on an African family, in a future in which the African nations have risen to immense economic and technological prominence, I felt I had something fresh to bring to the table. I’d read enough SF novels in which the default assumption was that the future belonged to the West. Why not try something different? People seemed to have no trouble believing in an American-dominated future, or even a Russian or Chinese one, so why not Africa? In the end, for plot reasons (I needed the action to happen in the vicinity of Kilimanjaro) I opted to locate my Akinya family in the area of what was once Tanzania and Kenya, although by the time of the novel these nations have been subsumed into the East African Federation, an economic union that has already been proposed and discussed. I populated my novel with mostly non-Western characters and tried to hint at the linguistic complexities of my rich, populous, multicultural mid-twenty second century society. At the same time, my protagonists were for the most part standard SF archetypes – scientists, explorers, politicians, businesspeople and so on – they just happened not to have Anglo-Saxon names. My world was peaceful, prosperous and yet recognisably derived from our own. Although not conceived as a utopia, it was certainly a contrast to the prevailing mode of pessimism about the future often found in SF – not least in some of my own novels.
Once I’d finished Blue Remembered Earth, I began work on the second books in the sequence, On the Steel Breeze. According to my 11K scheme, it had to span about one thousand years of future history. Quickly, though, it became obvious to me that I couldn’t make it work. I wanted the whole sequence to be a family saga, but the implied shift from the first to the second book made it really hard to maintain any sense of continuity. I wanted to skip a generation, maybe two, but not five or six! With some misgivings, I dialled back from the 11K idea. The second book would advance the story by a few centuries, that was all. And indeed the third book – Poseidon’s Wake, which is now about to be published – eventually takes us to about a thousand years from now. In that sense, I bottled out. But I think the sequence is stronger for having a clearer thread of family relationships running through it, and there are characters who overlap between each of the books.
The odd thing is, despite all this, I don’t think I’ve quite scratched that 11K itch. Perhaps one day I’ll have another shot at it – or something similar. Or perhaps there will be a fourth novel in the Akinya saga, if I can think of a sufficiently compelling story. It’s a trilogy as it stands, but the individual books have been structured to be read as independent novels, and while the third book does resolve the major themes and mysteries set in motion by the preceding volumes, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t scope for a continuation.
But not now. Not for a while. It’s been fun, and challenging, and occasionally terrifying, but for the time being I’m done with it. I am grateful for the editors who had the conviction to back me when I first started talking about the sequence, those who worked with me through the enterprise, and for the readers who followed me through the trilogy, even though I was definitely giving them a different flavour of SF to what they might have expected given my earlier books.
As for the spark that started it all, back at the Kennedy Space Centre – there have been ups and downs since 2008, to be sure. But at more than any time in decades, there does seem to be a renewed sense of optimism about what we can achieve in space. And I consider myself very fortunate to be alive to see it happening.
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