Kali Wallace: Five Things I Learned Writing Dead Space

Hester Marley used to have a plan for her life. But when a catastrophic attack left her injured, indebted, and stranded far from home, she was forced to take a dead-end security job with a powerful mining company in the asteroid belt. Now she spends her days investigating petty crimes to help her employer maximize its profits. She’s surprised to hear from an old friend and fellow victim of the terrorist attack that ruined her life—and that surprise quickly turns to suspicion when he claims to have discovered something shocking about their shared history and the tragedy that neither of them can leave behind. 

Before Hester can learn more, her friend is violently murdered at a remote asteroid mine. Hester joins the investigation to find the truth, both about her friend’s death and the information he believed he had uncovered. But catching a killer is only the beginning of Hester’s worries, and she soon realizes that everything she learns about her friend, his fellow miners, and the outpost they call home brings her closer to revealing secrets that very powerful and very dangerous people would rather keep hidden in the depths of space.

***

Nobody knows where AI is going.

Writing a book that features artificial intelligence in a major role was not, perhaps, the wisest idea I ever had. I am not an AI expert. I am not even an AI amateur. As soon as I start writing, I had a huge amount of research to do. I started reading through a great pile of articles and books and learned a few key things. The first is that everybody who does AI research disagrees with everybody else who does AI research. The second is that nobody who does AI research truly knows how AI will evolve in the future. The third, and most interesting, is that AI is every bit as flawed and messy as the humans who create it.

These things might be annoying for the scientists, but for me, lowly sci fi writer, it was a huge relief. I was writing a mystery/thriller, which meant that in-fighting, uncertainty, and fucked-up humans were exactly what I needed.

The asteroid belt is a big, weird, mysterious place.

In the real estate of our solar system, the asteroid belt is like that creepy empty lot that’s sitting between the cute bungalows on one end of the street and the imposing mansions on the other, the one that’s so overgrown you can’t really see what’s been dumped there, except for how sometimes you catch a glimpse of a something that might be a rusty bicycle frame or might be a discarded murder weapon, and there might be a shortcut through it but you know better than to take that path after dark.

The asteroid belt is huge, it’s mostly empty, and everything is unimaginably far from everything else. Until last year the closest we ever got was photos from targeted flybys. I didn’t appreciate its scope and mystery before I started writing Dead Space. Now I know better, and I understand why so many sci fi writers love to set things in the asteroid belt.

You can handwave more than you think in sci fi.

On a similar note, writing my second thriller set in space taught me some valuable lessons about what kind of details you can handwave when writing sci fi.

I do enjoy the intellectual challenge of solving scientific problems in fiction. But more and more I come down on the side of “exactly what you need and no more” when it comes to scientific rigor in books. That’s not always a simple thing to figure out. Does it strengthen the emotional impact to know how the spaceship works? Do the stakes rise if you know how the life support systems function? Does detail about the state of futuristic medicine draw the reader in deeper? Sometimes the answer is yes, because sometimes key parts of the story are in the scientific and technical details.. Sometimes the answer is no, and what the book needs instead is more corpses and explosions and sadness and space crime. Writing sci fi is an ongoing exercise is figuring out what your story needs every step of the way.

You need to know what works in a story as much as what doesn’t.

While my previous books had taught me to be pretty good at identifying where a story has serious problems, somewhere during writing this one I lost the ability to know where it was working. I don’t know why this happened. Maybe it was my natural evolution as a writer, my emotional state, the editors and readers I was working with, the state of the world, the nature of this book, or all of the above. I have no idea.

Whatever the case, I found that trying to figure out what aspects of the book were strong and effective was a bit like trying to determine which kinds of wallpaper paste have the best flavor or which kinds of pebbles feel the nicest when stuck inside your shoes. And that made it very hard to write. What made it even harder was that I didn’t know how to ask for that kind of feedback.

We talk a lot about how authors need to accept criticism; editors joke about the “compliment sandwich” to protect delicate author feelings. But I think we forget that its not actually about accepting criticism or delicate feelings. It’s about making the story the best story it can be. To do that we need to know what could be better, but we also need to know what’s already strong, compelling, and interesting.

Every book grows out of the environment in which it is written.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to separate Dead Space from the year 2020. This is unfortunate, because I think it’s a pretty good book that doesn’t deserve such a scurrilous association.

But I spent the first half of 2020 revising Dead Space, and it was only after the novel was finished did I realize just how much that experience had altered book. My revisions took it farther away from science fictional ideas of AI and space exploration, while at the same time pushing it much deeper into an exploration of corporate capitalism, political corruption, the perceived value (or lack thereof) of human labor, and the many ways in which human systems of economics and politics can fail.

I was also learning just how important it is to recognize that human social systems rely on humans, and humans make terrible choices. I was also learning to have a great deal of sympathy for people stuck in relentlessly shitty situations. Sometimes all of our possible choices are bad choices. Sometimes the whole game is rigged against us.

I suspect the feelings of helpless, unending rage have also seeped into the book in ways I don’t even recognize. I haven’t read a word of it since I turned in the last proofs. I’m a little bit afraid of what I’ll find.

***

Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels for adults, teens, and children, as well as a number of short stories and essays. After spending most of her life in Colorado, she now lives in southern California.

Kali Wallace: Website | Substack | Instagram

Dead Space: Mysterious Galaxy | Powells | B&N | Indiebound | Bookshop | Amazon