David Nabhan: Five Things I Learned Writing Pilots Of Borealis
Strapped in to artificial wings spanning twenty-five feet across, your arms push a tenth of your body weight with each pump as you propel yourself at frightening speeds through the air. Welcome to world of The Pilots of Borealis.
Inside a pressurized dome on the Moon, subject to one-sixth Earth’s gravity, there are swarms of chiseled, fearless, superbly trained flyers all around you, jostling for air space like peregrine falcons racing for the prize. This was the sport of piloting, and after Helium-3, piloting was one of the first things that entered anyone’s mind when Borealis was mentioned.
It was Helium-3 that powered humanity’s far-flung civilization expansion, feeding fusion reactors from the Alliances on Earth to the Terran Ring, Mars, the Jovian colonies, and all the way out to distant Titan. The supply, taken from the surface of the Moon, had once seemed endless. But that was long ago.
Borealis, the glittering, fabulously rich city stretched out across the lunar North Pole, had amassed centuries of unimaginable wealth harvesting it, and as such was the first to realize their supplies were running out.
The distant memories of the horrific planet-wide devastation spawned by the petroleum wars were not enough to quell the rising energy and political crises. A new war to rival no other appeared imminent, but the Solar System’s competing powers would discover something more powerful than Helium-3: the indomitable spirit of an Earth-born, war-weary mercenary and pilot extraordinaire.
1: Researching the Future
A fantastic plot and great characters are required for any good piece of fiction; that’s no great revelation. A science fiction book like Pilots of Borealis though has even a more basic premise governing its success. There are a thousand scientific facts, from every discipline, to which science fiction must conform in order to create a work with an important patina, one whose absence will be as obvious—and unseemly—to the reader as a pair of scuffed and unpolished shoes worn to an important interview: it must be scientifically correct. Imagine what kind of fact-checking should be required to create a civilization that stretches from Earth out to Titan in the twenty-fifth century and one can appreciate the rather daunting refresher courses necessary to bring a work like Pilots of Borealis to life, in every curriculum between astronomy and zoology—including flora and fauna that don’t exist! The density and speed of the Solar Wind, whether bees can flourish in a low-g environment with high concentrations of carbon dioxide, the subtleties of artificial gravity, the effects of nuclear detonations in the vacuum of space, how titanic mirrors might be placed on the Moon to shine light onto the floors of deep craters otherwise in perpetual darkness—these and quite a few other very important details had to have been addressed…and with just the right touch.
2: Family Friendly Future
This second lesson wasn’t actually learned, just confirmed. There are few more hair-raisingly adult, white-knuckle thrill rides than Pilots of Borealis. It treats horrific and eye-averting topics that humanity may plausibly face in centuries to come, so its pages are hardly populated with characters like those found in the Sound of Music or other genteel literature of a less lurid time than the present. However, it accomplishes everything while refraining from explicit set-piece forays into obligatory sex scenes, unnecessary cursing, and other dressing that the reader will at end see we can not only do without, but come away with a more fulfilling feeling of having taken in something worth the time. Here is a view of the future that is thoroughly unpredictable, astounding, sublime, and terrifying, yet one that the elderly can gift without embarrassment to their grandchildren, and which teachers can assign to their classes. Why not write a book like that? I don’t know when, if, or how the never-to-be-forgotten protagonist of the story makes love with Nerissa—herself, the most pre-eminent, bone-achingly beautiful athlete in the Solar System—I don’t know, and I wrote the book. I do know there is a very poignant love story within the pages, and much of it left to the most fertile place for such tales: the reader’s mind.
3: Your Editor Probably Knows Best
Even on those occasions when the changes he asked for seemed to necessitate violating a few constants of the universe, in the end, there was a way around it, and he turned out right after all. He made the book exponentially better. This in stone, then: trust your editor.
4: “Erase, Erase, and Erase.”
When Horace was asked for three rules of good writing two millennia ago, he responded with the above witticism. I’ve known that for a while, but was one of the few lucky ones that never had to take it to heart. Traditionally, I’m a science writer, and well-known for three books on seismic forecasting that have caught media attention and put on the air throughout the world. My books on earthquakes, though, have never been described as “beautiful,” not be me nor by anyone else. Math equations can’t really be dolled up too many ways, a fact is a fact, and there is only so much literary verve that can be brought to bear in referencing peer-reviewed abstract. So I’ll not give the number of drafts that gave birth to my other books; I have enough detractors in seismology with sufficient weapons at their disposal already. I will say though, that I wrote Pilots of Borealis over, and over, and over…and over again. I have to admit, and hate doing it, Horace is right. But, then again, maybe not. Which leads me to . . .
5: Trust Yourself and Your Story
Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned is that there are no formulaic recipes a writer can follow to sure success—not even if they’re written in Latin and two thousand years old, and certainly not the ones you’re reading now. One can diligently prepare reams of plot outlines and character sketches and every other stratagem and artifice but there must come a time—if you’re lucky and on to something!—when the story or a character bolts out the door, insisting that you follow whether you like it or not. Sometimes the writer will catch up out of breath only to see that the destination is a dead end and the time was wasted. It wasn’t though; it was exercise, good aerobic road work, training for the test ahead, because in the end the only way to write is to do it. No one takes his notes and diagrams into that crucible—that’s just you…alone.
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David Nabhan was a certificated bilingual public school teacher for nineteen years in South Central Los Angeles. Nabhan is now retired from teaching and has relocated to the Northeast, where he travels, writes, and tutors Spanish.
David Nabhan: Website