Interview with Astrophysicist & Author Alan Smale

alan smale author interview

It’s not often that you see a hard science fiction novel crafted with such care and meticulous research as Hot Moon by Alan Smale.

Astrophysicist by day, award-winning author by night, Alan Smale’s newest book is about an alternate 1979 where the Soviets are bent on wresting the Moon from NASA’s hands. This sci fi novel features accurate details of orbital mechanics, daring feats of ingenuity, and a thrilling battle in space.

We sat down with Alan to discuss how he started writing, the inspiration for Hot Moon, and his future plans.

Isaac Payne: So Alan, I know that not only are you an award-winning author, you’re also an astrophysicist for NASA. Tell me, how did you decide to get into astrophysics?

Alan Smale: Sure. It really started when I was a kid. I was always interested in astronomy, and fascinated by the Apollo program as well. I used to go out in the backyard with my dad when I was young and look at the Moon and planets, the stars and galaxies. I stayed interested in astronomy for all of my formative years.

And then later on, I went to college to study physics at the University of Oxford, they had optional astrophysics courses in the first and third year, and so I took those and enjoyed them thoroughly.

After my bachelors degree, I was accepted for a doctoral program. It’s actually called DPhil in Oxford, Doctor of Philosophy, rather than a PhD, but it’s the same thing. I did optical and x-ray astronomy research there for three years or so while earning my doctorate. After that I did a post-doc at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, part of University College London.

When my first post-doc ended, I moved to the States to take up a job at NASA, at the Goddard Space Flight Center. I’ve been with NASA ever since.

IP: What kind of research do you do at NASA?

AS: I study low mass x-ray binaries, which are binary star systems that are quite tightly bound, and one of those stars is a compact object, either a black hole or a neutron star. These are extremely dense objects. Material from the more normal companion star spirals into that compact object, and that’s where the x-rays come from. If we study those sources by looking at both the x-rays and the optical emission, we can learn a lot about them.

IP: So obviously you’ve been pretty ingrained with science and astronomy since you were young. Were you an avid science fiction reader, too?

AS: Oh, yeah, I cut my teeth on all of the old classics. When I was growing up, I read a lot of Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Larry Niven. All of this stuff was really prevalent in the atmosphere around me at the time.

I’ve been interested in science fiction all my life, as well as science and astronomy. In fact, all the sci-fi I read probably played a big role in my interest in the sciences. The space program, astrophysics, and science fiction have always coupled together quite tightly, for me.

IP: And when did you start writing science fiction? Did you start pretty early on with that as well?

AS: I started writing science fiction in a very juvenile kind of way. When I was a kid I used to write what now would be called Star Trek fan fiction. But I really started writing seriously for publication when I turned 30. I was already living in the States and working at the Goddard Space Flight Center by then. I’d finished my academic studies, and I was no longer a student at that point, so I had a little more free time. Then, pretty soon after that, I started having stories accepted.

IP: What was the name of your first publication?

AS: It was a short story called “The Breath of Princes” and it appeared in the A Wizard’s Dozen anthology from Harcourt Brace, edited by Michael Stearns.

It was actually a fantasy story, which is kind of funny looking back on it now. In fact, my first two or three published stories were fantasy, but over the past fifteen years, most of my writing has been alternate history or hard science fiction.

IP: What about the genre of historical fiction do you find fascinating?

AS: I’ve always been a history buff. Growing up in England, there was a lot of history around. My family used to go to Hadrian’s Wall for vacations, and to Bath, so I got to explore a lot of Roman ruins and remains there.

I’m not actually sure what the precipitating event was that made me focus on historical writing, but one thing about it is that it’s very different from my day job. I feel as though I’m using very different mental muscles when I’m writing history-based speculative fiction than when I’m doing academic research.

My most recent book, Hot Moon, is very technical, hard science fiction, but until I got to that book, most of my fiction writing was in a different head-space from the day-job work I was doing. Doing scientific research is very different from writing about history, so it was a complete break for my brain, the two sides didn’t bleed into each other.

It feels very refreshing, somehow, when I’m working hard at both science and writing. A change is as good as a rest!

Anyway: I’d always been fascinated by history, and by some of the older alternate history tales. Books like Lest Darkness Fall by Sprague de Camp, and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.

The past is a very fertile playground for fiction. And one of the things I like about alternate history is that it kind of holds up a mirror to the real history; I get the resonances of what really happened, underlying the tale that I’m telling, and they both reinforce each other and play off each other.

If you know the real historical events, then you’ll know that the events in a given story are different because of a different result in a war, or an election, and perhaps different people are in the foreground. And by doing that, it kind of makes you think about how history is made. Who the important people are. How history really works.

I just found myself gravitating more and more to that kind of writing over the last 10 or 15 years. Over that period, a lot of my reading has been historical non-fiction, and most of my writing output has been historically based.

IP: You mentioned that Hot Moon is hard science fiction, as well as being an alternate history. Can readers expect for Hot Moon to stay within the bounds of 1979 astrophysics, or does the book move into science fiction with more advanced technologies?

AS: I definitely stay within those bounds. There’s nothing in Hot Moon that wouldn’t have been possible with the technology that they had back then. I spent a lot of time researching the Apollo program, which was a real labor of love because as I mentioned before, I was really into it when I was a kid.

I spent a lot of time getting into the nuts and bolts of the technology, really getting deep into figuring out what was possible and what wasn’t. I obey the laws of physics throughout the book, which is actually a pain because orbital mechanics are quite complicated and it really constrains what my characters can do! They need large amounts of fuel for relatively small orbit changes, for example, and things like that.

So in the first book, there is nothing that wasn’t possible with the technology of the time. The Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft, the Lunar Rovers, and other hardware in the book either existed in the 1970s, or could have been in existence in that timeframe if the US and Soviet space programs had continued. There would have been no technical showstoppers with implementing any of the vehicles, machinery, or bases in Hot Moon.

In the second book we’ll certainly see more of the speculative technology that was suggested at the time. These are ideas that people had done a bit of experimentation with, some prototyping and technical development, but which never came to fruition. There were a lot of bright ideas around then, but a lot of those programs ended up being canceled, or not coming to fruition for other reasons.

So, overall, I’ve tried really hard to keep the science very close to reality. There’s a key political difference in how we get to the world of Hot Moon in 1979. And one of those differences is that the US involvement in Vietnam is much more limited, and of a shorter duration.

As a result, the US has quite a lot more money. In reality, the US couldn’t possibly have pursued the war in Vietnam and the Space Race simultaneously without making huge concessions elsewhere. So, a different Vietnam War, and a rather different Cold War, are central to the Hot Moon universe.

Make sure to check out the second part of our conversation with Alan Smale, right here on the Signals from the Edge blog on Thursday, July 14th!

In the meantime, check out another one of our interviews:

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