Explorer by nature: ‘Strangest of All’ author interview with G. David Nordley

I’ve been interviewing authors from my astrobiological SF anthology Strangest of All developed for the European Astrobiology Institute, some on video and some through e-mail, and I’m bringing you the interviews. You could have already seen the video interviews with Gregory Benford and Peter Watts, and here’s the interview with Gerald David Nordley. Enjoy!

G. David Nordley (* 1947) is the pen name of Gerald David Nordley, an author and consulting astronautical engineer. He lives in Sunnyvale, CA. A retired Air Force officer, he has been involved in spacecraft orbital operations, engineering, and testing as well as research in advanced spacecraft propulsion. As a writer of fiction and nonfiction, his main interest is the future of human exploration and settlement of space, and his stories typically focus on the dramatic aspects of individual lives within the broad sweep of a plausible human future. Gerald is a past Hugo and Nebula Award nominee as well as a four-time winner of the Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact annual “AnLab” reader’s poll. He’s the author of several dozen pieces of short fiction in Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF and elsewhere, and six books so far. His latest novel is To Climb a Flat Mountain, and the latest book is a collection, Around Alien Stars, available from Brief Candle Press in print or e-book through Amazon.com. Find out more at his site http://www.gdnordley.com.

What do you think of the role of science fiction in science education – is it still relevant, or has ever been? 

That is probably a better question for an educator or a developmental psychologist than a writer. However, teaching by stories is age-old. Stories can enliven a subject and make the information more retainable, so we embed useful lessons in less forgettable stories. In my field of astronautical engineering, we now have real stories, such as that of Apollo 13, to teach what was once the province of science fiction.
    Of course, the last frontier is still out there. If one looks back at Verne, he inspired generations of rocket scientists to build the machines that are now exploring the Solar System, as well as occasionally showcasing the dangers of misused technology. I think that his discipline in using plausible science for his stories is what keeps them relevant today. 
     I think that, at its best, science fiction is where we do thought experiments on the future and view its dangers and hopes through the mists of what might be. So, everything else being equal, the better the scientific underpinnings of a story, the less mist and the more relevance.  These days, one listens to bloviator after bloviator saying no one could have anticipated what we face now with this pandemic, this ban on large gatherings, creative people who depend on audiences out of work or severely constrained, seemingly unending social distancing. But Sarah Pinsker did, with her Nebula_winning A Song for a New Day.
      One must keep in mind, however, how small the research budget must be for a story that might bring an author less than a thousand dollars, and not expect too much!

What had been the factors that drew you to engineering and to astrodynamics?

I’ve been enthralled by space travel and exploration since before I can remember. Literally. I have a Christmas stocking my mother made for me, probably when I was about three, with rockets and planets on it, because I liked them so much. I can’t remember when it showed up–it had just always been there. I think I’ve always had a great deal of curiosity–I’m an explorer by nature. I was one of those kids who read encyclopedias for fun. And I was almost as fascinated by dinosaurs and evolution as I was by space travel. Also, for whatever reason, what was real and tangible in nature was always more interesting to me than anything supernatural. I’m also a problem solver by nature; the best way to get me working on something is to tell me it can’t be done.

Is there any science fiction story, in any medium, that you consider an exceptional primer for developing an interest in science?

I think Walt Disney’s movie of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is probably as good as anything. You have the adventure, the engineering, the life sciences, and the ethical questions all wrapped up in what is still a very watchable film, with very little nonsense that must be unlearned later (except perhaps for the lyrics of “It’s a Whale of a Tale”).  The novel and the movie have inspired generations of young scientists. For the next release, there should probably be a trailer that explains that Verne’s Nautilus was powered by electricity from what were essentially sodium/water fuel cells, not a nuclear reactor, but that’s a quibble. Destination Moon was shown in our school gymnasium 2/3 of a century ago, and it still works very well. Compare it with, though not fiction, Apollo 13 (the movie), still a riveting story. Much of Arthur C. Clarke’s fiction is especially good at depicting real scientists and engineers working with (mostly) realistic problems. His collection Across the Sea of Stars is one I keep coming back to. Heinlein’s “The Menace from Earth” and Fritz Lieber’s “A Pail of Air” are also classics still worthy for both realistic background and sense of wonder. For more modern writers, Nancy Kress with Yesterday’s Kin and its sequels has done some very interesting things with scientifically plausible human astrobiology, as C. J. Cherryh has done with many aliens.  And, of course, anything by my friends Goeff Landis and Greg Benford. I could go on and on, but I’ll end here for time and space.

Your stories are set in a consistent future history. How did you come about to creating this world, and what has been most fun and most difficult about it?

Actually, it was a certain amount of laziness. It saves me much reinventing of wheels. The fun for me and hopefully for those who read a lot of these stories was making a bit of a meta-story of a kind of possible future of humanity. It was, of course, inspired by Robert Heinlein’s future history chart. As for difficulty, well, I’d send you a copy, but I keep revising it! Like with Heinlein, there are some inconsistencies and branches of stories that don’t really fit, technology has gone in slightly different directions in the last thirty years, though I use a similar technological S-curve for almost all of them. One of the hardest things to anticipate is terminology; the whole “definition of a planet” thing flattened me. I matured when a personal digital assistant was the next big thing (I still have my HP 67); how was one to know they would morph from calculators to “phones?” Such a future history chart is surprisingly hard to maintain. Much of the first 300 years or so of it is described in the glossary that Ms. C. Sanford Lowe and I did for our novel The Black Hole Project.
       A note: It is not hard to predict that a combination of advanced robotics and, almost unlimited raw materials, including continuous energy from the sun, in space mean that the dismal science of economics must fundamentally change. The “zero sum game” that puts its less fortunate players in awful circumstances is over, but some people refuse to accept that. 
      We could, I think, already feed and house everyone adequately, and keep everyone from being too many by making birth control available to everyone, without taking anything away from anyone but taxes, and those not that painful. Our problems are ideologies, traditional boundaries, distribution, and the collective will to do it. But at some point, the human race must establish world-wide minimum standards of food, housing, and access to health care: a floor through which governments do not allow their people to sink. I anticipate this happening, and fervently wish the process to be less messy than it might be.

“War, Ice, Egg, Universe” is by no means the only story of yours addressing life in environments very different from the Earth. I’ve really liked how you played with the issue of surface gravity and its impact on life in “To Climb A Flat Mountain”. How did the idea for this novel come about?

For “War, Ice, Egg, Universe” I read an article, possibly in National Geographic, about divers finding colonies of living things on the underside of antarctic ice. “The Forest Between the Worlds” is probably my most biology-heavy story. 
      For “To Climb a Flat Mountain” I was casting around for an oxymoron of a title, like that of my first sale, “The Snows of Venus,” which would pique editor interest. “A Calendar of Chaos” is another example.
      So, what does a “flat mountain” look like? Can one make one that has life and a breathable atmosphere? Then, having done all the worldbuilding, how do I put someone on one of the biomes that lets him or her experience it for the readers sake without having the process overwhelmed by technology? Flat Mountain was about as big as I could make a cubical world, with the peaks themselves requiring some special engineering. The result was just big enough to retain a breathable atmosphere with some help. It’s basically a “warm Titan,” with those eight big pyramidal mountains. Please see more here.

What do you perceive to be the most important change in science throughout the last few decades, and what do you expect (and wish or wish not) to change in the future?

Data processing and analysis by computers has made many sciences much different in how they are done today versus before WWII, and have greatly increased the amount of scientific output, as measured in papers. We have seen disruptive stuff done on garage workbenches and machine shops change how almost everyone does and communicates everything. One of the big changes is how and how fast research results get published; preprints show up on arXiv within days of the work being finished, rather than waiting months for a final journal article.   
      Going forward, I expect artificial intelligence to reduce the frequency of errors in scientific work. Science will become ever more reliable and there will be less and less wiggle room for those greedy for money or power to exploit. The “boundary” between biology, including medicine, and cybernetics will continue to blur, with interesting consequences.
    A couple of “black swans” to be wary of wait in the wings. What are dark energy and dark matter made of? If we find out, it might be another game changer. And, of course, might we find evidence of alien intelligence?
      The wish or wish not is difficult. What I am hopeful of is that we gain enough control of our own genetically programmed biological impulses, especially in our social behavior, that racism, crime, and war cease to be part of human history. But we may have to give up being what is today considered “human” to do that. To many, transhuman will be feared as not human.

How do you expect the private sector’s involvement in space change scientific planetary exploration?

Mainly, it will be very much less expensive. Non-government organizations like the National Geographic society will be able to mount their own space exploration efforts. Instead of buying throw-away rockets at a billion dollars, researchers will be able to buy rides for their instruments to the outer solar system for a few million, if not a few hundred thousand, of today’s dollars. In some places, such as Mars, Ceres, and the denser asteroids, protocols will need to be developed to keep miners and makers apart from research planetologists, while other planetologists will find employment with them.

If you could mount any space mission (up to the large/flagship class), what would it be and why?

I would fly the “Gravity Lab” proposed by the Space Studies Institute. We need to understand how the 0.38g gravity of Mars and Mercury would affect people living there for long periods of time, and also the ≈0.16g of the Moon, Titan, and Jupiter’s moons. We have data points for microgravity from the ISS and other spaceflight and 1g+ on Earth with centrifuges, with hardly anything between.

What place do you consider astrobiologically most relevant in the solar system?

For transplanted Earth Life, Mars underground, and surprisingly Pluto–which I think is where I think one would get the nitrogen needed to give Mars a livable atmosphere–and Ceres, for its water.   
     For non-Earth life, Europa is probably the best bet.  It has a lot of internal heat from tidal interactions with Jupiter and other moons, a fairly briny world-ocean over a geologically active surface.  It may be have been hard for life to start, but a few bacteria-laden meteors knocked off Earth may have made their way there ages ago. 
     Beyond that, Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, has those geysers.  In fact any of the icy moons probably has some place inside where water (their version of magma) might be fluid.  The icy dark craters at the poles of Mercury and the moon might have surprises for us.  The “dwarf” planets beyond Neptune may have bacteria-friendly interiors.  I’ve had fun putting alien life in all sorts of places in the solar system, including inside Uranus’ moon, Miranda, but it’s really a long shot.

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