Some have asked me why I write or how I got started writing science fiction when it seems so far removed from the discipline of engineering and our widespread reputation of being horrible and uninteresting writers. While the latter still remains to be disproven in my case, I thought I would sit down tonight and see if I can figure it out for myself.
Do what you enjoy – I enjoy writing, I always have. I’ve had a longstanding belief that the “written word” was one of the mediums that allows us to best express ourselves in exactly the way we want to be presented to the degree of effort we want to invest in it. However, I am a full believer in keeping the editor’s guild in business, so I intentionally use bad grammar and punctuate horribly, just so that I can keep them in business.
You can use all the words you want to use, say it in the way you want to say it and can put it on paper so that you and others can go back to what you said exactly. Unless you are an incredibly gifted orator, not many of us leave an argument or a romantic situation without saying to ourselves, “Awe man, I should’ve said THAT!” or in my case, “Damn! I wish I hadn’t SAID that!”
In 2012 I went through a life re-evaluation and determined that over the course of my life I had accumulated a lot of stuff that I didn’t enjoy and wasn’t good for me. We all get busy doing the things that we “should do” and we end up not where we “thought we ought to be”.
So, my wife and I sat down and talked about all the ways we could decrease the “suck” in our lives and increase the “awesome”. And for me, spending every spare and stolen moment writing was a major step in the right direction, along with some financial re-planning, radically changing our eating habits and a re-alignment of my home-work life balance. And to date, the writing has been an outlet for my creative side that is not massively disruptive to the day-to-day activities of my family.
Bucket List – Whether it is the situation where I got to the point in my life that I was conceited enough to think that I could produce something that others would enjoy reading, or if it was the fact that several of my friends have become wonderful writers and thus inspired me to warm up the keyboard, who’s to know where between the two I fall. But, at the end of the day, there was an item on my Bucket List to write and publish some of my written works. So this past summer I confronted myself, “If not now, when? Life is not getting any slower or easier, so I might as well get started.” However, it will take time to finish, polish and make ready most of them, so they will be rolled out over time.
Maybe I Was Pre-Programmed – When I first started college, I had a remarkable English teacher who first challenged me to engage my creative writing side. Once, after reading a particularly challenging assignment that exposed all kinds of emotionally sensitive areas, Mrs. Jane Bouterse (http://old.texarkanacollege.edu/~mstorey/faculty/2005award.html) said, “Terry, you are a young man who has a lot to say, but you need to find your voice.” For many years I didn’t really know what she meant by that, but I always remembered the words as they struck me as strangely important at the time. Now, a few decades later, I finally understand what she meant. I guess the analogy that I can offer is this: it’s much like making wine; it takes wine time to reach something that can be considered drinkable. It has taken those years for my ideas to percolate, and for my life experiences to shape me into a person who might now have something to offer back.
Storytelling – It’s in the Blood – Telling stories is intrinsic to who we are as humans. The most primitive societies were formed and centered around food and storytelling. It’s how we communicated. All of our written historical information comes from storytelling; not documentation for the sake of documentation. All of our historical literature is in the form of stories to communicate the human condition, morals, ethics, the tragedies of catch-22 scenarios and to allow yourself to be completely immersed in an alternate reality with the luxury of pulling the virtual rip-cord when you’re ready to return to your every-day reality. It is who we are as a species. Even today, given the opportunity, we will sit and listen or watch or read a story someone is telling to us before we will opt to sit down and read the dictionary or How to Code C++ for Dummies. Granted, I do have some friends that do not quite conform to my theory, but I consider them victims of their educational degrees.
But Why Sci-Fi?
Now to the second question of why I choose science fiction, and in particular dystopian science fiction. Well, in short, it’s just who I am.
I know, I know. I owe you more than that.
As you know, I have spent the better part of two decades working in many different areas of the space industry—everything from advanced exploration design reference mission planning, to technology development, to support of existing space suits onboard the Shuttle and ISS. So, that is the obvious link to space. And of course, like most men, I have a love for Star Trek, Star Wars and the ilk.
However, the other part to writing science fiction is the ability to look into the future and create credible worlds, situations, threats and technological innovations. Arthur C. Clarke was one of the most notable in recent history who was able to do it with such logical extrapolation and clarity; it seemed as if he had his own desk-top wormhole into the future. You have to understand the technology—real or yet to be developed—that might be credible in the future and still obey the laws of the universe of which we live and as we now know them to be. The science fiction readers can be a tough crowd if you can’t connect the dots between the world of the future and what is possible in the time and the physics available.
Looking into the future and understanding trending of data is something that I have done all of my life. As a child I would always run all the possibilities, the conversations and how they would all likely play out—knowing the parties involved—to determine the course of action that would allow me to get away with the most. Then in college it took a fair amount of planning and speculation about the future and my ability to pass all of my classes to determine what I needed to do to get a job that paid a decent wage. Additionally in college, and then once I arrived at NASA, my job was deeply geared toward looking at raw data and developing the mathematics to understand where a vehicle was—for navigation purposes—and then integrating it into the future. I won’t go into the complexities with all of that, but suffice it to say, you start to build an intuition regarding the trending of data, data signatures and what will happen in the future, etc.
As my career developed, I decided that there were quicker and easier ways to kill myself other than writing the computer code for the aforementioned mathematics, so I delved into the world of project management. In hindsight, the tools that I had in my tool chest for developing navigation algorithms were particularly useful in assessing the different project metrics and extrapolating them into the future for the purposes of determining any possible risks to the project. Additionally, the mathematic principles learned regarding vehicle control theory mapped nicely to the implicit behavior of managing a project and a group of people. It worked so nicely, I published a first of its kind paper on the topic. http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpls/abs_all.jsp?arnumber=5747643&tag=1
The last key ingredient, or life experience as the case may be, was becoming a parent. Those of you who are parents and/or project leads or managers, you will sit and nod your heads as you read the next part. To this day, I am not clear if being a parent made me a better project manager or vice versa. Largely, the skills required are the same for both. Basically in the new, more civilized world in which we live, it is no longer acceptable to chastise your employees or beat your children. So, the remaining stick in your toolbox is leadership through influence. The key parts are being able to communicate in a clear and concise manner as possible to gain buy-in. And the second part is to be able to identify the employee’s/child’s weaknesses—excuse me, growth opportunities—extrapolate into the future as to how they will develop and make corrective actions early as possible. All the while, you do these things in such a way they think it is their idea and are left wondering what exactly you do for a living.
So there you have it. Visualizing, imagination, looking into the future as a child to stay out of trouble, looking into the future as a project manager to stay out of trouble. And working with astronauts doesn’t hurt either…
Terry R. Hill