Horizon is my debut science fiction novel published by HarperVoyager Impulse. It’s an SF thriller centred on a deep space exploration mission that goes very wrong, with repercussions for the future of all life on Earth.
A lot of the action in Horizon takes place inside the cramped confines of the Magellan explorer ship, so the interactions between the characters are intense. As part of the development process, I did a lot of thinking about what I wanted Horizon to be about. This was my first attempt at writing a science fiction novel, and I knew from the start that I wanted to explore a number of scientific concepts relating to space travel, planetary exploration and alien environments. But I also wanted to make sure my characters were as ‘real’ as possible. Here’s an extract from my original proposal:
While the plot will be the main driver, the characterisation will also play a major part in developing the themes of the story. The characters will not follow the stereotypic ‘space hero’ mould. As much as possible they will be real people with hopes, fears, strengths and weaknesses placed in an extraordinary situation. Specifically, their characterisation will be used to explore:
the reasons individuals may have for abandoning a life on Earth for an extremely dangerous mission from which they may never return
the feelings of loss etc. that they experience when they are faced with the reality of being fifty-five years out of step with the rest of humanity and the culture clash that this involves
the paranoia, mistrust and power struggles that can emerge very quickly even among the most well-balanced individuals, and
how the characters face the ethical dilemma of being asked to help a humanity that some of them no longer feel any connection with, and what they must do in order to live with their decision.
So let’s meet the crew.
Flight Commander Cait Dyson — Mission Leader / Astro Sciences (Pax Americana)
‘Earth, the Pax and the Compact are light years away now. There’s only us, and we need to depend on one another, because at any instant our lives can turn on what each individual does.’
When we first meet Cait, she’s choking to death and her ship is out of control. Yet she manages to deal with the immediate dangers and rouse the rest of the crew. She’s more than competent in a crisis, but she’s increasingly isolated as the mission unfolds and she doesn’t always trust her own judgement. Several times she wishes she could just give up, but she knows none of the other crew are up to the task: either because they lack the perspective a commander needs or because they just can’t be trusted. Before the flight began, some at Mission Control thought she was too indecisive, but Cait has her own way of dealing with problems. She prefers not to act until absolutely necessary, waiting and watching as issues play out so she can identify the most effective intervention at the right time. Despite what she might think of her own abilities, she is a great leader, willing to put her own personal interests and fears aside and look at problems from all possible perspectives. She believes in ‘win-win’ but others among the crew, and on Earth, don’t necessarily support her efforts to achieve it.
Mission Specialist Nadira Coomlah — Planetary Physics / Climatology (Compact of Asian Peoples)
‘It sickens me that people with so much can want so much more, while we had so little and shared what little we had.’
Nadira was a late addition to the Magellan crew, and not a popular one. History between the United Pacific States and the Compact has been complicated in the decades leading up to Magellan’s launch [see my post Futureshock: Charting the History of Tomorrow], and during the initial outward leg of the trip before the crew went into deepsleep, the thin veneer of civility between the UPS crewmembers and Nadira rapidly broke down. The fact that Nadira is rightly proud of the Compact’s achievements and how it has raised the living standards of the poorest nations in the world, despite what she sees as UPS antagonism, does not endear her further to the crew. Cait alone does her best to build a common understanding with Nadira, particularly when the news they receive from Earth on waking brings a whole new, and potentially destructive, political dynamic to shipboard life. Despite the hostility directed at her, particularly from Mission Specialist Tom Harris, but also from Lex Daziel, Nadira is an effective member of the crew and works diligently on her mission goals, and it’s Nadira who first alerts the crew to the hypercane raging across the face of the planet Horizon, and the dangers that it poses to the viability of the world’s biosphere.
Mission Specialist Lex Dalziel — Life Sciences / Ship’s Medical Officer (European Union)
‘I didn’t travel all this way to put up with this sort of bullshit. I say we ignore the whole bloody broadcast. Earth’s too far away to bother about now.’
Although from an unspecified part of the European Union, in my mind, by name, and certainly by disposition, Lex is Scottish. A brilliant scientist, he could do a lot better in the social skills department, and he delights in setting up conflict among the crew just to see how it unfolds. But Lex also has some deeply held core principles which shape his actions. First and foremost he believes in the importance of the science he performs and the absolute necessity of ensuring the environment of Horizon is not contaminated as a result of the presence of Magellan. He also feels that — since Earth is a one hundred and ten year round trip away — the needs of Earth and whatever orders they may issue to the crew are a distant second to what he believes is right. When Earth re-establishes contact, and things don’t go the way he thinks they should, he challenges himself to show the courage of his convictions and for that he needs an ally. Cait and Lex were close on the initial outward journey until she understood his predilection for troublemaking. Now their relationship is difficult, and so he tries his best to enlist Mission Specialist Bren Thurgood, the bio-jack, to help him.
Mission Specialist Bren Thurgood — Computer Control / Remote Sensing (Pax Americana)
‘And now everyone needs me again. You, Cait, Earth . . . Where were all of you when I needed someone?’
Bren is a bio-jack, which means she has a chip in her head that lets her interact with and remotely control a range of ship’s systems. The transhumans of Earth’s future are often viewed with distrust and fear. Tom Harris is certainly no lover of bio-jacks and worries about Bren’s ability to ‘meddle’ with the systems he controls by more conventional methods. Bren was an unlikely addition to the crew, but Cait lobbied hard to have her included, firstly because she likes the younger woman, but also because they both had difficult upbringings in the desolate former USA. Bren feels like an orphan. Cut off from humanity because of the chip she carries, and cut off from other transhumans because of how far she’s travelled from Earth, she can only rely on herself.
Mission Specialist Tom Harris — Ship’s Drive / Life Support Systems (Pax Americana)
‘And as for the others . . . well, you know what I think about them, but I’ll keep my opinions to myself for the sake of shipboard harmony. As long as they do the same.’
Harris is a talented engineer. He understands technical systems a hell of a lot better than he understands people and he doesn’t have much time for the niceties of social interactions. He’s also an old-fashioned patriot and resents Nadira’s presence on board and Lex’s apparent disregard for the orders coming out of launch control. But for all his faults he’s a straight shooter and what you see is what you get. He recognises Cait is trying to do her best to follow mission requirements, and he respects the lengths she has to go to in order to bring the rest of the crew with her. He knows he couldn’t do what she does and so he does his best to support her, even though it’s hard to keep a lid on his own temper sometimes.
Phillips — Computer Interface Personality for Magellan
‘You have something that belongs to me, Thurgood. For everyone’s sake, I suggest you give it up.’
Modelled on Launch Director Dan Phillips of the Pax Air and Space Administration, Phillips is essential to Magellan’s operation, maintaining integrated control of all ship’s systems as well as balancing the drive and performing the billions of calculations required to create and control the pico-pulse thrust cascades that allow Magellan to travel at 0.6 lightspeed while ensuring the safety of the fragile humans on board. He’s also — when the crew wake from deepsleep — acting very strangely indeed.
And there you have it: five souls and one artificial intelligence as far away from the rest of humanity as you can imagine, with the fate of two planets hanging in the balance.