How Science Journalism Helped Me Become a Better Sci-Fi Writer

Credit: NASA

Hello all! I hope that the readers here don’t mind that I kick things off with a little introduction and shameless self-promotion. Basically, I wanted to talk about my recently published novel — The Frostline Fracture — which is the final installment in my sci-fi trilogy, The Formist Series.

However, I also wanted to take this opportunity to talk about hard science fiction and how writing for a science publication helped me grow as a writer. By definition, hard sci-fi refers to stories where scientific accuracy is emphasized. This essentially means that the technology in the story conforms to established science and/or what is believed to be feasible in the future.

So when I set out to write The Cronian Incident, I wanted it to be as realistic as possible, both in terms of technology and setting. Many of the ideas I came up with, and much of the material I drew from, were inspired by my work at Universe Today.

Since I joined the team in 2010 and became a regular member in 2014, I’ve had the chance to write about space-related news, as well as exciting research and scientific breakthroughs. From the beginning, I felt that what I was writing about was inspiring me in my other major pursuit, which was to become a sci-fi author (something I had been pursuing for years).

In fact, it was an article that I had just finished writing for our Guide to Space (The Planet Mercury) that inspired the entire series. After writing it, I began talking to a friend about how humans could make a go of living on Mercury, provided they had the right technology and followed proper precautions.

Basically, I said, Mercury is very metal-rich and close to the Sun, which would make it an abundant source of minerals and energy for our future selves. The only problem is that miners would have to remain on the dark side of the planet to avoid being incinerated.

But since Mercury has a spin-orbit resonance of 3:2 — where it completes three rotations on its axis for every two orbits around the Sun — a single solar day works out to about 176 Earth days. That means that as long as they stayed well ahead of the terminator (the line between the day-side and the night-side), miners would have lots of time to pull ore out of Mercury without being cooked in their spacesuits!

Meanwhile, I argued, permanent bases could be built in Mercury’s cratered polar regions, which are permanently shaded and have abundant supplies of water ice in them. Inside some of the larger craters — such as Prokofiev, Kandinsky, Tolkien, and Trggvadottir — bases could be built where miners would stay between work shifts.

Credit: NASA

Water and building materials could be harvested in-situ, and solar arrays placed around the edges of the craters could gather all the electricity they needed. With the right technology, some of this could even be beamed off-planet to Venus, Earth, and Mars.

My friend then indicated that it would be very hard to get people to want to live and work on Mercury, to which I suggested that perhaps only convict laborers would ever be sent there. That set off the light in my head, and before long, a much larger idea began to take shape.

I didn’t just want to talk about Mercury and a colony full of miners, but how future generations might go about colonizing the Moon, Mars, Venus, and beyond. I also wanted to write a story that explored the reasons why humanity became a multi-planetary species.

This is an increasingly relevant issue, thanks in part to the many high-profile individuals who want to see a permanent human presence established on the Moon and/or Mars in this century. These include Elon Musk, Buzz Aldrin, Robert Zubrin, James Lovelock, and the late and great Stephen Hawking.

Credit: Lockheed Martin

Here too, I have had the privilege of reporting on what these plans are and how they have taken shape over the past years. I’ve also learned a great deal about the history of proposals to colonize the Moon, Mars, and other bodies in the Solar System.

While various works of fiction helped me learn how authors have addressed these proposals in the past (such as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Kim Stanley Robinson, et al.), there was also the theoretical work of scientists like Carl Sagan, James Lovelock, Freeman Dyson, Geoffrey A. Landis, and others to draw upon.

Looking at this from a contemporary angle, I went with the idea that the main drivers behind off-world settlement will be Climate Change and the accelerating pace of change brought about by the Technological Singularity (both of which are expected to culminate around the middle of this century).

I also wanted to explore the long-term idea of terraforming, which was inspired by the Complete Guide to Terraforming series I was writing at the time. This is where the hard part of hard science fiction came into play. In writing about colonies on Mercury, Venus, the Moon, Mars, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn (the Jovians and Cronians), I did my best to describe the settings based on what is actually known about these bodies.

Credit: NASA

As for how people would live on them, that too needed to be dictated by what we know about their environments and surface conditions. It was a fortunate coincidence that my day job happens to include writing about these very things. That way, when it came time to describe what it was like walking around on the surface of Mercury or Titan or describing how Martian settlers lived on the planet over time, I had something solid to draw upon.

In short, The Cronian Incident owes its existence to my work at Universe Today, and a handful of other science publications. It also owes its existence to Castrum Press, who published the book after the 18 months it took for me to write it (in the summer of 2017). Its sequel, The Jovian Manifesto, was released about a year later. The third and final installment, The Frost Line Fracture, came out this past December.

These are the first three books that I’ve had professionally published (I did some indie writing back in the day too.) But in the near future, I hope to add to this collection with a series of short stories, standalone novels, and additional trilogies. My feeling is that I’m just getting started and I hope to keep writing until I’m no longer able!




Space/astronomy journalist for Universe Today, SF author, and all around family man!

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Matt Williams

Matt Williams

Space/astronomy journalist for Universe Today, SF author, and all around family man!

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