The Spark: Tracer


The Spark is a series of guest blogs highlighting new African fiction with authors writing about what lit up this book in their heads. This piece is by Rob Boffard who describes himself thusly:

Rob. Thirty. Author. Journalist. Sound Engineer. Snowboarder. Hip-hop artist. Tall. Basketball-player-length arms. Lots of tattoos. Glasses. Bad hair. Proud South African. Born in Johannesburg. Splits time between London and Vancouver. Digs New York. Doesn’t dig Vegas. Loves New Orleans. Not a helicopter pilot.

And here’s his blog on where this book came from:

Rob Boffard Photo for Web (Credit Nicole Simpson)The Spark: Rob Boffard on Tracer

It’s not every day you get to meet an actual rocket scientist. They look just like normal people.

This particular rocket scientist was named Barnaby Osborne, and his job was to work on things that went into space. He was charming, and friendly, and prepared to explain in great detail why my idea for a space station sucked big time.

This was important to me. I’d been thinking about space stations for quite a while. Since I was about ten years old, in fact. But this was the first time that I was actually going to write something about them. I had it in my head to write a story set in a massive, city-sized space station, and Dr Osborne was on hand to make sure I got it right.

So we sat at a conference table at the University of Kingston in south London and hashed it out. I’d envisioned a central hub with spokes shooting off it, similar to a bicycle wheel without the actual wheel. No, no, no, he said – that just won’t do. Not unless you’ve got some way of generating gravity. If you’re going to set this thing in the real world, then you can’t have human beings in space without artificial gravity, and you can’t generate that unless your station spins. You need them living on the wheel, not the spokes.

He reached over to pull my notebook closer to him, and sketched a quick diagram. It would work, he said, like a fairground ride – the one which spun very fast and plastered the outside walls. Assuming you get the rate of rotation right, you should be able to have artificial gravity at the point where humans were walking around on the station. Centrifugal force, that was the ticket.

Of course, he said, you’ll have to think about other things, too. Food and water and air recycling and the Coriolis effect and maintaining fuel supplies. And what, by the way, was this station going to be made out of? How would it be built? Space elevator?

I’d love to say I knew the answers to those questions, but I didn’t. He wasn’t too perturbed, and even gave me a tour of their lab, showed me the wind tunnel simulator and the gravity tester and the positron cyclomatic engine (I concede that those may not have been their actual names). It was fun and illuminating, but I left the university slightly worried. Clearly, this science-fiction lark was going to be a bit harder than I thought.

But something, deep in my subconscious, was turning over. The thing is, we always assume the big structures like space stations are built with the best of intentions. We assume that they will be efficient, well-made, well-maintained. It would be difficult to look at how an organisation like NASA operates, with their multiple systems of redundancies and cost-per-payload measurements, and not expect this to be the case.

But what if, I thought, my space station wasn’t built with the best intentions? What if it was the orbital equivalent of those horrific structures in North Korea and Communist Russia, the ones which had huge amounts of money and labour poured into them, and ended up badly built and useless? What if this enormous structure, floating in space, was fuelled by the hubris and corruption of a dozen or more Earth governments?

The thoughts built on each other, spinning out of control as my original space station design might have done. The space station – massive, unwieldy, badly designed –would be a pretty unpleasant place to live. The people inside were only be there because there was no other alternative, which meant something had happened to the planet below. That meant these people were stuck there indefinitely. What would such a colossal disaster of space station be like in fifty years? Or a hundred?

You’d have factions, gangs, no-go areas. You’d have rust and dirt and grime. Food and water shortages. Any sort of social order would be tenuous, at best. If there was any public transport, it would have broken down a long time ago.

The real impetus to start writing what would become Tracer came when this line of thinking arrived at its logical conclusion. If there is no public transport, how do people get messages and packages between different locations? They’d need couriers – futuristic versions of the bike messengers in New York City. And these couriers would need to be hard as nails: fast, agile, good in a fight, and fearless. They’d need parkour skills to navigate the station’s guts. They’d have to be very relaxed about carrying illegal cargo, too…

I had my book. I’d tell the tale of one of these couriers, and what happened when she found she was carrying something particularly nasty.

That was at the end of 2011. Tracer arrives this July, published by Orbit Books. Dr Osborne and I have stayed in touch, by the way. You should see what he and I have cooked up for book two.

Rob’s Website

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