The Minds of Earth-Bound Astronauts
Meg Howrey on deep space travel simulators and her mind-warping novel about astronauts
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Spoiler alert: The Wanderers is a space exploration novel that never leaves Earth. That’s not really a spoiler, but the book’s cover art — and comparisons to The Martian — might give you the wrong impression. Luckily, the terrestrial nature of Meg Howrey’s latest novel makes it no less fascinating than fiction set among the stars. In fact, The Wanderers should be required reading for anyone interested in becoming an astronaut.
In the near-future, three astronauts train for the first manned mission to Mars by spending 17 grueling months in the Utah desert, trapped in claustrophobic copies of their space modules. Where The Martian focused on science, The Wanderers explores the human psychology of space travel — not just how it affects astronauts, but the toll it takes on their families as well.
Meg Howrey was a professional ballet dancer at the Joffrey Ballet and the City Ballet of Los Angeles before co-writing City of Dark Magic and City of Lost Dreams with Christina Lynch, under the pen name Magnus Flyte. I recently spoke with Howrey via email about space, Mars, writing from so many distinct points of view, and the future of NASA and private space exploration.
Adam Morgan: Why was it important for you to write about a training mission on earth, instead of an actual mission to Mars?
Meg Howrey: The inspiration for the book’s setting was an experiment I read about: a simulated Mars mission designed to study the physiological and psychological effects of long duration missions in space. At that point, I knew very little about space science so what really stuck me was the simulation aspect. Simulations are troubling and fascinating. Jean Baudrillard has suggested that part of our unease with them comes from the fear that, “Simulation…always leaves open to supposition that, above and beyond its object, law and order themselves might be nothing but simulation.” Along with law and order we might add “love” and “sense of self.” There’s also — in this case — the element of observation, and being tested and evaluated. All of this was territory I wanted to explore.
Morgan: What did your research process entail? Did you approach NASA or any private space companies for help?
Howrey: I was nervous about what I was doing and half-drowned myself in research for a while. I read. I practiced every form of note taking: the index card, the highlighter, the color-coded binder. I attended a one-week astronomy workshop for writers called Launch Pad, run out of the University of Wyoming. I toured some facilities and went to lectures and symposiums. After reading a lot of astronaut memoirs and interviews, I became too much on the side of the astronaut to want to conduct an interview with one myself, especially as I was decimating the privacy of my fictional astronauts. If I were an astronaut, I would not want to tell me anything either. After I finished the book, I asked two space scientists to vet for errors, and they couldn’t have been kinder or more generous.
Morgan: As a former ballet dancer, what drew you to astronauts? Would you ever volunteer for a trip to space?
Howrey: I thought I was venturing far, far out of my backyard when I started thinking about astronauts, but comparing the two professions is a fun experiment. Let’s see: dedication to precision, ability to withstand endless repetition, the presence of constant scrutiny, necessity of lifelong training, stoicism in the face of physical discomfort, much more time spent rehearsing than performing, permanent damage to the body, early retirement. Ballet dancers aren’t generally risking literal death when they step on stage, but they have a similar prayer: Please don’t let me f — k up. (Or whatever version of that you can print!) I wonder if ballet technique would be helpful for things like space walking, or negotiating different gravities? I volunteer to test this.
Morgan: Did you spend time in Utah to help with the book’s sense of place?
Howrey: The astronauts’ time in Utah is either spent inside their crafts, or, when they’re outside them, under significant virtual enhancement, so I stayed inside the simulation with them and worked mostly from photographs of Mars. I also made a lot of drawings of the interiors of Primitus and Red Dawn. But I wish I had gone to Utah. Also Mauna Loa, where they’ve a Mars analog mission program called HI-SEAS. Oh, and also, Devon Island, in the Canadian Arctic. Let’s add Mars while we’re at it.
Morgan: Writing from multiple perspectives — particularly when the points of view are so diverse — is a tall order. How did you find and maintain so many different voices?
Howrey: More than anything, writing convinces me that free will is an illusion. At a certain point, every character comes to feel inevitable and you don’t feel you are crafting them, it’s more a process of recognition and acknowledgement. For years the people of my book were my constant companions, and I’m still lonely for them. I can see that it’s a risk to divide a narrative seven ways, but it couldn’t have happened any other way. And every time I switched over, I felt such excitement. “Oh, HELEN.” “Oh, Luke, how ARE you?” I act everyone out while I’m writing, including accents and physical gestures. I write at home, so as to not frighten others.
“More than anything, writing convinces me that free will is an illusion.”
Morgan: Based on your research, are you more excited or apprehensive about the future of real-life space exploration in the next 20–30 years?
Howrey: Space science right now is wildly exciting, but given the current political climate, it’s hard not to be apprehensive about all possible futures. One thing to be noted about human missions to Mars, though, is that they’ll almost certainly require an international collaboration. It will have to be “Discovery First.” Scientists and artists tend to be very good at that, so that’s where I allow myself to hope.