In The Wanderers (Putnam, Mar.), three astronauts prepare for Earth’s first mission to Mars in a highly engineered 17-month simulation. Their greatest challenges are not scientific but personal.
You’ve shared that the 520-day Mars 500 mission, which ended in late 2011, inspired The Wanderers. How did this story develop from there?
What followed was a period of convincing myself that I couldn’t write this book because I didn’t know anything about space science, and then a deep dive into research because why not at least try? I started reading. History of space exploration, memoirs, biographies, lectures, essays, training manuals. I was always returning to the idea of simulation and simulacra, and to what extent simulations factor into our lives in ways we don’t realize. Typically, I brood on ideas for a long time before I write, but I don’t usually do things like go to Space Camp or book myself sessions in a sensory deprivation tank. There were a lot of firsts with The Wanderers.
What inspired you to cast the Eidolon crew as you did?
Helen almost predates the book, or maybe she arrived at the same time. Anyway, Helen was always going to Mars, so it was a matter of figuring out who was going to go with her. I imagined their selection as a beautiful theorem, something that the Prime Space [the company that arranges the mission] of the book would consider a piece of technology. But humans are quite intricate machines. And they say that everything breaks in space.
Your other books—The Cranes Dance and Blind Sight—center on family relationships. Were the families always so central to The Wanderers?
After I wrote the first chapter for Helen, I wrote a chapter for her daughter, Mireille, as a way of understanding Helen better. I didn’t intend for it to live in the book. At that point, I was only thinking of the three astronauts. Of course, Mireille was having none of that and bullied her way in and changed the whole novel. That is always one of the happiest moments when you are making a book: when your carefully constructed plans fall apart.
What struck me while reading The Wanderers was that it all seems so plausible. What did you find powerful in telling such a near-future story?
To be honest, it was a nice motivator for those times when I’d fall into a research hole or was otherwise malingering. I would tell myself to stop lollygagging or we’d actually be on Mars before I finished the book. Also, science fiction is right now, isn’t it? I keep expecting to learn the robot apocalypse has already happened.
You’ve done so much research into the practical, psychological, and social challenges of space exploration. What do you hope we’ll learn as we push forward to a viable mission to Mars?
Like the character Luke in The Wanderers, I have a hope that humans landing on Mars could be a consciousness-shifting event. I think our planet is overdue for another Age of Enlightenment, don’t you?