Hard Science Fiction, Nomads, and Metaphors

Hard Science Fiction, Nomads, and Metaphors

Guest blogger Lance Robinson

Like many fiction writers, I do not make a full-time living from writing. I’ve had a career happening in parallel with my speculative fiction journey. Those parallel journeys have involved twists and turns, a handful of publications in small press magazines, and a decade and a half of not writing fiction at all. They also involved a long trek through a career in sustainable development.

Much of that career has involved mobile peoples, particularly pastoralists, whose livelihood is based on mobile livestock keeping. Pastoralists tend to live in the most variable and unpredictable environments on Earth, some of them in the driest environments on Earth, environments that most people would consider harsh, extreme, and inhospitable. But as much as pastoralists are tough and have learned how to cope with these conditions, it would be unfair to emphasize their ability to cope as their defining cultural feature—that would suggest they’re in a battle against nature. Instead, I look at it like this: mobile pastoralists have learned how to create lives and livelihoods that are embedded in and adapted to the ecosystems they find themselves in. When things are going well, they are not merely coping but living lives worth living.

Lance tagging along with some pastoralist women on their daily 5 km. trek to fetch water.

Lance tagging along with some pastoralist women on their daily 5 km. trek to fetch water.

The question of what makes a life worth living has been finding its way into my fiction for a few years now. It was one of the questions at the back of my mind as I wrote “Five Days Until Sunset,” which won first place in the quarterly Writers of the Future Contest and now appears in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume 40.

Other questions that inspired that story were, “What does living in harmony with other human beings and with nature look like?” “Why is it that we human beings sometimes know exactly what we need to do, yet so often find excuses not to do it?” and “How can I bring some of the recent scientific discoveries about the diversity of bizarre planets orbiting other stars into a story?”

Eyeball Planets

One of the fascinating discoveries from the past two decades of exoplanet astronomy is that, in all likelihood, a large percentage of the planets orbiting within the habitable zone of their parent star are tidally locked. That is to say, the planet’s rotation has slowed to the point that its rotation is synchronized to its revolution around its star so that the planet always presents the same face to the star, just as our moon always presents its same face to us.

Such worlds will be lethally hot at the spot experiencing permanent noon, and unspeakably cold on the planet’s night side. Some of these planets might resemble an enormous eyeball, with a seared pupil directly under the sun, a bit of color around that, and the rest a frozen, white snowball. Could life exist on these “eyeball planets” that don’t experience day and night? And what would life on such a world be like?

Eyeball Planet

It is likely that many of the planets orbiting within the habitable zone of the parent star are tidally locked. Life on such planets might be possible in the twilight region that experiences a permanent sunrise/sunset.

Sounds like the perfect setting for a hard science fiction story, right? Well, maybe. However, the problem is that science fiction writers have been imagining life on tidally locked planets, at least since Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote “Parasite Planet” in 1935. So, for “Five Days Until Sunset,” I decided to give the popular questions a twist. I added another speculative “WHAT IF…”

The Future of Connectedness?

Another thing I tried to do in this story is something that several stories in this edition of the Writers of the Future anthology seem to be doing: asking questions about relationships between people and the wider social and natural world in which they live. In asking such questions, several of the stories in the volume explore themes of interconnectedness, colonization and colonialism, and indigenous identities. “Life and Death and Love in the Bayou,” for instance, is the story of a young woman who is culturally and socially on the periphery and her relationship with the society that marginalizes her. “Ashes to Ashes, Blood to Carbonfiber” is about a character seeking redemption after realizing he has caused the devastation of his whole world. “Da-ko-ta” and “Shaman Dreams” both feature indigenous cultures. And in “Five Days Until Sunset,” the characters are wrestling with how to adapt their lives to be in harmony with the natural world. I suppose that today, with the challenges our world faces, ideas about indigenous peoples and connectedness with nature are just part of the zeitgeist.

“Five Days Until Sunset” illustrated by Steve Bentley.

“Five Days Until Sunset” illustrated by Steve Bentley.

Speculative fiction is well-suited to making sense of the prevailing zeitgeist and exploring social and philosophical questions—questions like, “How do different cultures engage with each other, and how might they?” “How might our culture engage with nature differently?” and ultimately, “What are the possibilities?” One of the ways that speculative fiction does this—which is what I tried to do in “Five Days Until Sunset”—is to take a social, philosophical, or spiritual metaphor and then imagine the metaphor as being literally true.

Keep Moving

And that brings me back to the lessons I learned as metaphors from pastoralists. Two of these lessons come to mind—two lessons which, at first glance, may appear contradictory: first, it’s essential to keep moving; second, nomads don’t wander.

They don’t wander because even those pastoralists who practice true nomadism, as opposed to one of the more cyclical forms of mobility, have a destination in mind when they move. They may not have a final destination in mind—another migration will follow any migration, and their plans may change mid-journey (they are the quintessential adapters)—but they do not “wander.”

I’m feeling good about where my own migrations have taken me. For a long while—more than fifteen years—I migrated away from writing fiction. I chose to fill my life with other things, and I was okay with that. But some journeys lead you in a big circle, and a few years ago, I came back to writing. My skills were somewhat improved, and I was a bit older with a bit more life experience to inform my storytelling. I guess something positive happened in those years because, in the past few months, I’ve had my first professional publications in the Writers of the Future anthology and the magazine Analog.

Lance Robinson Writers of the Future Workshop 2024

Lance and his fellow authors at the annual Writers of the Future workshop.

I’m excited about everything that has happened in my writing career since then. I’m at work on a novel set in the same universe as “Five Days Until Sunset.” I’ve got new short stories out searching for homes, and my short fiction collection, Chasing New Suns, is coming out in September. But where I’m at now isn’t a destination I’ve reached. I’m trying to take the nomads’ advice: keep moving.

Lance Robinson Headshot

In his day job, Lance Robinson is an environmental social scientist who often works closely with mobile peoples. He is a sporadic nomad himself, having lived variously in countries such as Ghana, The Gambia, Colombia, Israel, and Kenya. He currently makes his home in Thunder Bay, Canada.

He began writing speculative fiction as a child, and by his early twenties, his stories began appearing in small press magazines. He generally doesn’t put an “environmental science fiction” label on his work. Still, environmental themes and musings about human beings’ economic, cultural, and spiritual relationships with nature are often woven into his fiction.

Learn more at lancerobinsonwriter.com.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *