A Conversation with Thomas Mays

Monday , 27, April 2015 Leave a comment

Jeffro: So how was Madicon? I’m usually playing games the whole time so I rarely get to sit in on the various panels and discussions. Did you get laughed out of town by the college kids?

Thomas Mays: First of all, congratulations to you on your Hugo nomination for Fan Writer. This is a very big thing! I’m only sorry the about all the sniping going on around it. Best of luck!

Jeffro: Oh, hey… thank you!

Thomas Mays: Now, to the question, I had a lot of fun at Madicon. It was my 4th con and my first as an official guest. It was small, but I thought it well run, and they bent over backwards to see to my needs. The panels were a lot different from what I’m used to as there were fewer group panels and a lot more lectures / Socratic discussions with me by my lonesome. No one laughed at me! And everyone seemed nicely attentive, interested, and participatory. I did Indie Publishing as a group, then Writing the Military in SF/F, and finally Emerging Technology and writing Hard SF. I’d probably list them in that order from best to . . . I’m still working on my routines. The most fun, surprisingly, was the guest coffee on Sunday. That was a blast. I met a ton of great fans and content creators and look forward to doing it all again soon.

Jeffro: I wish I could have made to to the one on Emerging Technology. Every time I sit in on some of the documentaries my son watches, I realize that everything I think I know about science is a good twenty years out of date. That’s… that’s comparable to how old the Isaac Asimov books were to me when I first got hooked on science fiction. And they seemed old to me even then!

Thomas Mays: I loved the old Asimov shorts, but never much got into his longer works. I’d often try to figure out how the positronic brain was supposed to work, but I’m ridiculously bad at programming. I’m more of a huge power-transient, sub-orbital railgun shot, blowing things out of space with hypervelocity kind of guy. Reading when I was a kid, Heinlein was my biggest influence, though. I’m sure that’s not uncommon.

Jeffro: That doesn’t surprise me. I’m not much of an engineer myself, but I have to hand it to you… I was utterly riveted by the scene from your A Sword Into Darkness when they used those fancy missiles of yours on an asteroid for target practice. It’s never crossed my mind that such a thing could be a problem in the first place, much less that a real spaceship would have all manner of ancillary problems to deal with in the process. How did you come up with all of that?

Thomas Mays: You mean in terms of “It’s not like Star Wars, where the target blows up and that’s it?” Well, It’s a question of weapon effects. If you’re going to vaporize something, you have to have a mechanism that can contain the target long enough to apply sufficient energy to break down every molecular bond it has. That’s . . . a LOT of energy and actually very difficult to do. Even with antimatter, the target and the antimatter would tend to blow one another away from contact after only a few micrograms exploded. Aside from my engine (which is a handwavium 1g reaction drive with no reaction mass requirement, used so the story stays exciting (it moves at the speed of plot!)), most of the tech is within the realm of reason. For the most bang for my buck, I wanted nukes. But nukes don’t work the same way exo-atmospheric. They burn and vaporize up close, and only produce a real blast effect if they blow up inside something. And if you do that, you’re going to have a lot of debris. How do you handle that? Use a different weapon that can reach out and touch someone. So I thought, LASER! But no. Lasers don’t zap things. They burn and vaporize, and they take time and focus. So that means I need big mirrors or lenses, and still the focal length will be relatively small. Lasers weapons are shorter range devices. Kind of like CIWS. So, I went to my old standby: electromagnetic railguns, which I worked on for my Master’s Degree in Applied Physics. Figure out the proper shell velocity, then figure out your ammo for various effects. Everything in that scene derives from first principles. But I did have a lot of help and reference material from the Atomic Rockets website by Winchell Chung. That helped with a lot of the book’s technical details.

Jeffro: I can’t remember reading a book quite like yours since… well The Mote in God’s Eye. In fact… there are a few parallels between the two books beyond just that sort of attention to detail that you just described. And you even mention the book in the first chapter. When you first began brainstorming for this, did you really have an idea to do some sort of homage…? Or was some other muse driving you into the direction you ultimately took?

Thomas Mays: A Sword Into Darkness, or ASID as I refer to it, began about 10 years ago. I had written my second book — another space opera — (my first two books will NEVER see the light of day) and another Navy author Jeff Edwards and his agent/book doctor Don Gerard liked it. Don really liked parts of my world building, so he asked if I’d ever thought of writing a sort of primer for space warfare. I hadn’t, but I gave it a lot of thought for a couple of years. And I thought about The Mote In God’s Eye, which is a GREAT book. I asked myself what would happen to us if the sort of situation that sets off that book were to take place with us now. The idea went through a lot of false starts. Gordon Lee was the only constant. I originally had him as the director of NASA, and there was this whole metahuman/nanotech subplot, but it didn’t work. But then the idea of a space warfare primer and this advance warning first-contact situation finally jelled together. Gordon Lee became an Elon Musk / lunatic fringe industrialist and the story turned into the birth of the first space navy. Nathan Kelley became my everyman main character, incorporating my experiences from 20 years in the USN Surface Fleet. I needed a tech genius to build my handwavium drive, and I felt I needed a female as a foil/partner for Nathan, so Kris Munoz was born.

I intentionally made science fiction an influence upon the characters. These stories exist in our world and should be honored, so why wouldn’t people in this situation turn to them for ideas and inspiration. The Mote In God’s Eye. The Kzinti Lesson. Honor Harrington. Star Trek. Even Deep Impact and Armageddon. All of these and more are referenced in part because I can’t imagine we, us not mining them as resources. So it is a very intentional homage. Most people appreciate that. Not all. Chris Gerrib recently latched onto ASID as a way to excoriate Sad Puppies and he confused me with James May, who is very prominent on Brad Torgerson’s blog. Chris has a grand old time on his blog talking about how derivative and average ASID is, then he posted his dismissive review pretty much wherever he could. I keep finding him mentioning it on various forums. Even after I demonstrated I was not James May. Ah well, free advertising.

The biggest hurdle in plotting ASID after I had the basic story idea and the characters was in figuring out why the aliens would be coming here. There are so many alien invasion tropes that just make no damn sense. Chapter 3, the interview chapter, pretty much covers all the problems. Resolving it, or finding a rational resolution that wasn’t done to death took a while. Even I didn’t have it firmed up until I finally committed to the whole “art snob” angle. I’ve been praised for coming up with something actually original with that motivation, a reason that actually makes sense if you look at things from the perspective of a decadent, post-scarcity, nanotech-enabled society where resources are abundant and energy is essentially free. Then there’s a lot of folks that simply can’t accept my reasoning and say the whole thing is ridiculous and ruined the book for them. Most seem to appreciate it though.

Once all the ducks were lined up about 5 years ago, I wrote it. I was attached to Surface Warfare Officer’s School as an engineering instructor and then to USS BONHOMME RICHARD as Navigator, writing chapters in between deck watches. I finished it 4 years ago in Kauai, when I was doing range safety and range operations for ballistic missile defense testing, laser testing, and fleet training. The rejection rounds between the Big 6/Big 5 publishers took almost 3 years, which is a good thing (I guess) because Baen Books kept bouncing it between their second and third look piles. After it was dead, though, Jeff Edwards encouraged me to go indie with his author’s consortium, Stealth Books, and I’m a big believer in the indie publishing industry now.

Jeffro: That switch from NASA director to industrialist is a big one. At one extreme, you have something like GURPS Interstellar Wars where humanity gets into space through some sort of United Nations type effort. At the other, there’s stuff like Firefly where the earth’s superpowers get into space more or less with the national identities intact. Then there’s stuff like classic Star Trek, where it looks like the United Nations but everyone in the Federation seems to think like red blooded Americans. I mean, Kirk can recite the preamble of the constitution and drop kick some Kohms as well as anyone, after all!

You obviously went the route that getting into space would not automatically mean everyone starts singing “Imagine” together. This is maybe a hot button question, but… how much of your portrayal of that would you put down to “realism”? Or would you say it was really just a matter of what the plot required…?

Thomas Mays: Oh, I very definitely believe that national identities and borders will follow us into space. A little confession: I do what they say you shouldn’t do and read my reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I’ve got pretty good reviews there, but some people have criticisms as well. It’s a first book and I know it’s not perfect, but I want the sequel to be better. So I am very consciously trying to answer the criticisms I thought were valid. Two are that a) I didn’t really cover how society on Earth changed as a result of all this space war build-up; and b) my space navies seemed to be very rah-rah USA with a little NATO nation support thrown in for flavor. Where was Russia or China or India? In the sequel, Lancers Into The Light or LITL, I’m spending a lot of focus on the changes at home, why I kept the defense of the planet confined to the US and her allies, and how that might possibly bite us in the rear once those disregarded nations get the tech that was denied to them.

So, no, in this sort of situation, I don’t believe we’re all going to go skipping in to space as one people, holding hands and singing “Cumbaya!” If military research takes us into space, or if the need to acquire resources for our country takes us out there, it will be as independent nations with some allied nation exchanges and partnerships. We don’t share military tech with economic or political competitors/adversaries. International efforts get traction only for reasons of politicking or because it is necessary to share the cost in an economy that doesn’t see much value in expanding our presence in space. That’s what gives you the ISS and the Russians carting us up to orbit. But look at China, doing their own thing and going to the moon. By and for themselves. Were there to be another space race, we’d do it as USA only, and I expect other countries would be the same.

Private space ventures make it possible that corporate entities would be the first to take us to Mars and Ganymede, but mostly those are done as proprietary contractors to the government. Mars One? Please, stop. Those guys have zero chance of making it to Mars for their little one-way reality show. And as far as the UN goes, they haven’t the funds or the will. They very well might negotiate some treaties, but they’ll lead no effort themselves.

For a good take on this, I recommend John Lumpkin’s Through Struggle The Stars. He’s got national boundaries extending to entire other star systems, and it’s great hard military SF too.

Jeffro: There’s one more thing I see in your work, that I want to ask you about. There’s this powerful scene in the first episode of the The Twilight Zone where they have this shot of the moon. This is 1959… and the whole episode is focused on a seemingly insurmountable problem facing potential space travelers. But the overall sense when they cut to that positively thrilling “long shot of the moon hanging bright and lustrous in the sky” is that we are going to solve those problems and, by golly, we are going to go there. It took my breath away when I watched it a few weeks ago.

I can’t remember the last time science fiction gave me that sort of feeling. But I got it from your book! Again… is that conscious on your part, or do you think that’s something I bring to it as a reader?

Thomas Mays: Oh, I hope it was my writing that did that! I can’t claim it was part of some cunning plan, though. It may have been inadvertent. I believe in space. I want space to be inevitable. And I am by temperament pretty optimistic. Some editors thought my characters’ path to space and their encounter was too much a foregone conclusion, that there weren’t enough obstacles in their path, that even with their setbacks, it did seem inevitable. Maybe that’s my optimism infused into the tale. Even when it’s darkest, there’s hope and faith the plan will succeed. I like it the way I wrote it and others seem to as well. I get comments from a lot of people that ASID gave them hope that it really could happen, and maybe even happen that way.

I’m the sort that gets into long arguments with people that believe the moon landings were faked, that there’s no way we could have gone there in the 60’s. That’s pessimism and a bias against the accomplishments of our forebears. I can’t be that way, and I can’t believe that low Earth orbit is all our future holds. I realize it won’t be as easy as it becomes in ASID. Unfortunately, the enhanced photonic drive is only sci-fi. But we can get there. If we invested in tech to lower the cost of getting into orbit, well, from there you’re practically halfway to Jupiter energy-wise. After you climb out of the gravity well, we could use nuclear power and VASIMR drives to make a slow, efficient burn to pretty much anywhere we want, in timescales much quicker than our probes have used with their years-long Hohmann transfers and gravity slingshots, timescales that humans could safely ride out and return home with.

I’m a realist too, though. The first explorers will, by necessity, be robots. That’s why I wrote so many drone and AI short stories (check out my collection REMO if you like, or “Within This Horizon” in the Riding the Red Horse anthology). But, once the robots get out there to mine the first asteroids, my dream is that there will be a compelling need to send out people too, if for no other reason than to be the most versatile general-use repair units in the universe. I’d go be a robot’s celestial mechanic if it got me out there!

Jeffro: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me about all of this. It’s been a real pleasure. Also, I’d like to congratulate you on the success of your novel– you’ve earned it.

Thomas Mays: Thank you, Jeffro! Any time.

Thomas Mays is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, A Sword Into Darkness. He blogs at The Improbable Author and can be found kibitzing about science fiction on Google+.

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