by David D. Levine
If you want to know what someone’s real priorities are, look at what they do — how they spend their time — rather than what they say. Applying this metric to myself, I’m clearly a researcher who writes rather than a writer who researches.
I love research. I will spend weeks or months doing research for a short story, then a couple weeks writing it. And if anything pops up during the writing that can be answered by more research, I will drop everything and do that research right away rather than keep pushing my nose against the drafting grindstone. I did this even back in the days when research meant a trip to the bookshelf or the library (oh, oh, don’t throw me into that library briar patch!); now that the whole Internet is on the same device I use for the writing the temptation to research instead of drafting is even harder to avoid. And the impact of the research on the finished product can be minimal. I saw a tweet recently that sums up this problem: “I spent a whole day researching toilets and sanitation in the time period of my story, and the end result was exactly one sentence: ‘There was a privy in the corner, and it stank.’”
But — I say to myself — it’s worth the effort because it makes the story richer. And even details that don’t make it onto the page directly can have an indirect impact, by making the writer’s visualization of the setting denser and more realistic, which can impact word choice and atmosphere even if a specific fact doesn’t appear in the text. I often find that facts that turn up in research can suggest plot twists, aspects of character, and even entire stories. And it’s fun! I find that for anything in life, anything at all, the closer you look the weirder it gets. Even something as simple as a pencil has a fascinating history that touches on history, technology, and politics, leading to endless rabbit holes of more research.
I like to say that the weirdest bits of the alternate history in my Arabella of Mars books are those that came straight out of my research. The steam-driven wheelchair equipped with a Gatling gun, for example, was real (albeit just a proposal, never implemented) and not a product of my fevered imagination. There were even bits that were too weird for science fiction, such as the “spine pads” which British soldiers wore to protect their spines from heat in tropical climates. Yes, in hot countries they would add layers of cloth to their backs. That was a fact that I never managed to work into the story. The character James Barry, who was born female but lived his life as a man, and the Frost Fair held on the frozen river Thames in 1816 — caused by the eruption of Mt. Tambora in the Philippines — both came from my researches.
The whole idea of my story “The Bucket Shop Job” (F&SF, Jan/Feb 2023) came from my researches as well. It began with an offhand remark by a character in my SF novel The Kuiper Belt Job (Caezik F&SF, Sep 2023) that he and another character had originally met on Titan — a moon I picked just because it sounded like a plausible place for the two characters in this future history to have met. When I later decided to write up that meeting as a prequel novella to the novel, I looked into Titan and discovered it is an amazing place. It is the only known moon with a substantial atmosphere, and the only known body other than Earth with lakes and seas (albeit of methane rather than water). Furthermore, Titan’s dense atmosphere means that humans can walk around on the surface without a space suit — again, the only known body other than Earth where this is possible — though they do need supplemental oxygen and heat to survive. The things I learned about Titan from my researches suggested a whole industrial system, centered on harvesting and processing hydrocarbons, which formed the infrastructure of the plot and provided a backstory for the main character.
My Wild Cards character Tiago Gonçalves is also the beneficiary — or perhaps victim — of my researches. When I first proposed him to George R. R. Martin way back in 2008, his power was to draw discarded man-made objects to himself and form them into an armored suit, which surrounds his human body and effectively becomes part of him. George liked the character, but was concerned that his power was too similar to a couple of existing characters. “My own Turtle was based in a junkyard for most of his career and built his shells out of scrap metal and junk parts, although he did the old-fashioned way, slowly, and with tools. We also have an established minor character called Detroit Steel, a Motown tinkerer who wears a huge armored suit made of old auto parts (headlights on the chest, fins on his shoulders, etc). He’s never been a viewpoint character, but he has appeared in at least two books. I think your Recycler has promise, but somehow you need to tweak him to differentiate him from those two.” So I limited Tiago’s power to organic materials (in the chemical sense, i.e. containing a carbon atom, which includes plastics but excludes metal and glass) and that’s how he was accepted into the Wild Cards universe… though he didn’t actually appear in print until “Discards” (tor.com, Mar 2016).
For Tiago’s second appearance as a viewpoint character, in Joker Moon (Tor, Jul 2021), he found himself on the Moon, helping to build a moon base for jokers to live their own lives away from the judgement of aces and nats. I posited that the moon base technicians would equip him with a custom space suit that leverages his power to attract organic materials and make them part of himself. When wearing the suit he becomes a gigantic, and gigantically strong, man of plastic and Kevlar whose ability to manipulate and feel objects is as good as ungloved human hands: a perfect lunar construction machine.
But here I ran into a place where my previous decisions painted me into a corner. One of the reasons to build a base on the Moon rather than in orbit is the availability of local materials. So can plastics be made on the moon? I did some research, and discovered that making conventional plastic from lunar materials is impossible because the moon completely lacks hydrocarbons! Even the tiny quantities of amino acids found in Apollo samples have been definitively identified as contaminants from Earth. No hydrocarbons means no plastics, and obviously there will be no cardboard, bones, wood, or other organic materials (Tiago’s usual media) except for what was brought from Earth or farmed hydroponically. Did the limits I placed on Tiago’s powers make him almost completely useless on the Moon!
Time for more research. A page on space.com offered a hint: a scientist working on self-replicating 3D printers for building a moon base stated “Although we are using [polylactic acid] plastic [to 3D-print components], I envisage replacing this with silicone plastic — this can be manufactured from lunar volatile carbon compounds and lunar water.” (https://www.space.com/37101-self-replicating-3d-printer-moon-bases.html) I didn’t find any other sources confirming that silicone could be made from lunar materials but I was prepared to run with this. (One of the ways I keep my research obsession under some kind of control is that if I find something that provides a plausible-sounding answer to my question I go ahead and use it, rather than spending additional time trying to figure out if it’s 100% true. This isn’t something I would do in non-fiction but I figure it’s close enough for science fiction.)
Now, is silicone organic? “Silicone polymers, more properly called polysiloxanes, do not have carbon as part of the backbone structure. Although silicon is in the same group as carbon in the periodic table, it has quite different chemistry. Many silanes are known which are analogous to the hydrocarbons with Si-Si bonds.” (https://chem.libretexts.org/Core/Organic_Chemistry/Polymers/Silicone_Polymers) So silicone is not organic, but maybe because of silicon’s elemental similarity to carbon Tiago could learn to manipulate silanes the way he does hydrocarbons. This would be something the project would want him to learn how to do so that he can “feel” the silicone structural elements. This could start on Earth during a more extensive training period before launch; he would also be issued his giant-robot suit before launch, as manufacturing it on Earth would be much easier.
I started writing using this idea but then I received a query from George: “My understanding is that Recycler’s ace only gives him control over organic material. Since when is plastic organic?” Time for more research! I replied: “Polymerized siloxane, aka silicone, is not technically a plastic; it’s a synthetic rubber that is used in all kinds of applications including caulk and cookware (you probably have some silicone spatulas or bakeware in your kitchen). Its chemical backbone is based on silicon, rather than carbon as in true plastics, but it may contain some organic side groups. Truly rigid silicone is not a material that exists in the real world, but I’m positing that the moon base scientists have come up with a way to make a structural building material from elements available on the Moon, possibly with the addition of small amounts of carbon brought up from Earth. This would result in a material that’s only slightly organic, thus Tiago’s power can affect it but it feels weird. The people building the moon base would probably come up with a pithier name for it than ‘rigid polysiloxane,’ but Tiago just calls it ‘Moon plastic.’”
In the end, though, did all that research — planetology and chemistry and materials science and all — make it a better story? Well, honestly… it didn’t have much effect. One paragraph near the beginning explained “Moon plastic” — or “regolene,” as I decided to call it — and there were several instances throughout the story in which Tiago found it uncomfortable to work with, but the overall shape of the story was pretty much exactly what it would have been otherwise. But I don’t regret the time I spent on it. The time I spent reading websites and articles about the moon, its minerals and chemistry, and ideas about building moon bases with lunar materials helped me to visualize the base and its environment, and made the hazards and challenges of life on the moon clear in my mind.
It’s my job as a writer to visualize the events of the story in my mind, and then to put them in words so that you, the reader, can share the experience. If that means doing hours of work on research only to wind up with nothing more than “There was a privy in the corner, and it stank,” so be it. If nothing else, I’ll have learned something.