Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Venus in Furs: An Interview with 'Island of Clouds’' Gerald Brennan

Venus: the enigma of the Solar System, and Island of Clouds' target. Gerald Brennan's newest book supposes NASA sent astronauts on a flyby mission to Venus in 1972. 1974 Mariner 10 image from NASA, processed by Ricardo Nunes 
I am tired, I am weary
I could sleep for a thousand years
A thousand dreams that would awake me
Different colors made of tears

- The Velvet Underground, “Venus in Furs”

One of the exciting new space titles to hit bookshelves in 2017 is Island of Clouds, part of the Altered Space Series from Tortoise Books. To be released during the spring, it tells the story of three astronauts who flyby a then-yet-unknown planet, and in the process – for better or worse – discover themselves, warts and all. The mission is based on actual Apollo Applications blueprints to fly astronauts to Venus, and the crew consists of three legendary (if somewhat unexpected) Apollo astronauts.

This Space Available interviewed author Gerald Brennan this week about his newest book, the lure of Venus as a destination, and the myth of the astronaut as “superhero.” Note: some book spoilers included.

This Space Available: First of all, when will this title be released to the general public? 

Gerald Brennan: Right now, the official release date is May 13th, 2017. Island of Clouds is longer than past installments in the series, so we’re trying to do the right amount of pre-release work—Publishers Weekly reviews, blurbs, etc.—to try and get it in front of the general public. Having said that, if we get a good amount of advance blurbs, we may get it up on Amazon a month or so before it’s up on the other channels—we’ve had so much great support for the series that I want to get it to fans as soon as possible!

TSA: Your newest book, Island of Clouds: The Great 1972 Venus Flyby, is an alternate history discussing a fictional 1972 Venus deep-space mission flown by three (real!) NASA astronauts. While this type of human-helmed mission never happened in real life, the Venus flyby scenario was legitimately discussed and, at the very least, sketched out during the Apollo Applications Program. Why, out of all possible “never flown” missions, did you explore this one to tackle in your book?

Brennan: I remember stumbling around on Wikipedia and being really intrigued that I’d never heard about any of the flyby plans, and like any space enthusiast, I’m prone to wondering why we don’t do things that we have the capability to do. Also, Venus doesn’t get much attention nowadays because we already know it’s such a hellish and lifeless place.

But in the late 60s, when this mission might have been planned, we knew a lot less—we knew Venus was hot, but we didn’t know much else, so there was a little more speculation that it could have harbored life in the upper atmosphere, or that it could have eventually become one of these sci-fi places where people could live in floating cities. And I think this mission poses interesting existential questions for anyone interested in space. There’s always going to be some ratio of travel time to time at the destination, and I think it’s interesting to wonder: what’s an acceptable ratio? Would it be satisfying to spend a year in space, with not much to look at for the vast bulk of that time, but then a few hours where you were seeing another planet up close in a way that no human had ever seen it? Would that be more satisfying, or less satisfying, than spending a year in Earth orbit seeing something really beautiful that many others had already seen?

But in the end, I don’t know that I always “choose” my topics…I’ll read something like that Wikipedia article, and go on about my day, and I’ll find that this idea has started to grow in my mind, and I’ll start envisioning characters and scenes, and it’ll be a little hazy, but I’ll know that I need to start getting it down so I can make it real and share those visions with someone else. So the topics choose me, in a sense.

The cover of Island of Clouds. Image from Tortoise Books
TSA: Your book takes place during 1972. The first Venus flyby yielding fairly high-resolution photos was Mariner 10, which performed a flyby in early 1974. However, the spacecraft got to only visualize clouds; the synthetic aperture radar which allowed the Magellan spacecraft to take incredible surveys of the planet’s surface was not available on Mariner 10. Does Venus’ “clouded,” enigmatic (and somewhat hellish) aspect lend some symbolism to some of the events taking place within the book? Venus had a lot of “secrets,” and so did the mission!

Brennan: Yes, the symbolic aspect was definitely another reason this topic was appealing to me! I think part of the lure of exploration is not knowing what you’ll find. Mystery can be very compelling and enticing—it’s more fun, in a way, than knowledge, because you can let your imagination run wild. And there’s nothing more enticing than a cloud-shrouded planet! (In 2017, we have the benefit of decades of probe-generated knowledge about Venus, but the first generation of astronauts would have grown up with some hopes that it would be a candidate for human exploration and colonization—before 1962 and Mariner 2, sci-fi writers often envisioned it as a lush jungle planet.)

Also, I think the fact that it’s the only other “female” planet was interesting, symbolically. Many female authors and critics talk about “the male gaze,” and the notion that men are so often the ones doing the observing, while women are stuck being observed. And I don’t necessarily look at everything in those terms, but it is important to entertain ideas without necessarily agreeing with them, and I think you can view space exploration as another manifestation of that phenomenon.

And in terms of Venus’ hellishness, I think that is one of the more depressing things about space exploration—we’re at a unique phase in human history, in that we’ve explored and cataloged and photographed every corner of the globe, and we don’t have anywhere “new” to go where we can survive easily. So there’s a bit of a “no place like home” effect on a species-wide scale. And that’s not to say that we shouldn’t keep pushing the outer limits of the human experience, but any future exploration is going to be orders of magnitude more difficult than it has been in the past.

TSA: I don’t want to give prospective readers too many spoilers, but I thought the flight crew was a very interesting mix of personalities. Without giving away too much, why did you put these three particular people together, united as a crew?

Brennan: Ever since I started reading about the Apollo astronauts, I’ve related to Buzz Aldrin, perhaps more than all the others. Not only is he a fellow West Pointer, but he’s also talked openly and candidly about his issues with drinking and depression and finding a way forward from that. And (without going into all the gory details) I’ve had to deal with those issues in my life as well.

I’m not sure how I chose Shepard for my crew—I think that was another one of those ideas that just popped into my head and wouldn’t leave. And in some ways it doesn’t make sense, but then again I think he’s the type of guy that would have always wanted to be ahead of everyone else, even in a group of overachievers like the early astronauts: to be the first, to go the fastest, to travel the farthest.

As for Joe Kerwin: I initially had Owen Garriott slotted as my third crew member! I wrote the initial space scene and the Cocoa Beach interlude with him in mind, but something about it was bugging me, and then I talked to David Hitt, and I started to think maybe they’d have rather had a doctor on board for a mission of that length, and it seemed like he worked better from a dramatic standpoint, because then you had a slightly overbearing commander, a slightly resentful narrator/protagonist, and a doctor/confessor he could talk to. But I didn’t want to throw out the Cocoa Beach scene! And I didn’t think it would work with Kerwin, and I was thinking of clouds thematically not just in the macro/physical sense, but in the atomic physics probability-cloud sense, and I kind of came up with this idea of a narrative where the main events happen but there are also some side scenes with some of the same characters that may or may not have happened in some parallel universe.

TSA: Island of Clouds also addresses the myth of “astronaut as hero.” LIFE magazine and other periodicals from that era tended to portray astronauts as perfect supermen. Again I don’t want to give spoilers, but the three crew members engage in sometimes all-too-human behavior. Why was it important, for you, to get beneath the glossy LIFE magazine veneer, and portray the crew as very real people with real issues?

Brennan: I actually think there’s a danger now in lionizing the first generation of astronauts, and it’s the same danger inherent in being overly reverential towards anybody who’s done anything great—you can start to think that they’re somehow qualitatively superior to anyone in the present. (It’s sort of a “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” mentality, but with people instead of cars.) And from there, it becomes easier to think that we’re incapable of doing great things nowadays. It can actually be an excuse to not do anything worthwhile, if you view a past generation as superheroes. But if you look at, say, Wally Schirra’s behavior on Apollo 7, or Gordon Cooper’s auto-driving antics, you see that they were people, too.

Also, from a dramatic standpoint, I think it was more interesting for me to present characters who had real human failings. Before I went to West Point, I thought of everyone there in those “perfect supermen” terms, to the point that I was a little surprised they let me in! And once I got there, I realized plenty of my classmates—not all, but some—had been drinking and even smoking up in high school. Which isn’t to say that they weren’t, by and large, smart and capable and talented people, but the reality is always a little more complicated than the recruiting posters. (There were, of course, people who did seem larger-than-life, who did seem almost as perfect as the posters. My depiction of Ed White, for instance, is based in part on a classmate and good friend of mine who had no real discernible vices, who was a tremendous scholar and athlete and leader, and an all-around great guy, who’s a battalion commander now. But even those people had their quirks and their foibles.) So ever since I went there, I’ve been interested by that difference between image and reality, between two-dimensional portraits and four-dimensional people.

And I want to respect the real people enough to portray them accurately, so I’d never, say, write a scene where Joe Kerwin or Jim Lovell or Bill Anders was trying to cheat on their wife, because they were all very devoted husbands. (The standard I aim for whenever I write a character based on an actual person is “respect, but not reverence.”) But in Public Loneliness and in this book, I think it was essential to pick protagonists who were a little more flawed, so I could explore some of the themes I wanted to explore.

TSA: Your two previous books, Public Loneliness and Zero Phase, are also alternate spaceflight histories. Any hints on future alternate histories, if you’re comfortable discussing them?

Brennan: Yes! I’m planning on doing a story about a successful Soviet moon landing. I’m amazed that I haven’t seen one that’s to my liking. And I also have an idea related to Dyna-Soar and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, but I don’t want to spoil it by talking too much more than that. And I have had a couple other ideas that are in more embryonic stages.
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Island of Clouds will be available from Tortoise Books in the spring. Check them out on Twitter and Instagram.