I’m not all that sanguine about our future in space. Now when I was a kid, space was where science fiction began and ended. Brave pioneers would someday push to the asteroid belt and beyond to found their pocket utopias, then benign aliens would beckon or ferocious aliens threaten, and eventually great ships would span galactic empires effortlessly. Space was dangerous, yes, but only if a meteor slammed into your hull or someone pushed you out of the airlock. There was precious little story time wasted on how living in space might make your muscles shrink or your bones rot.
As I write this in January, 2001, the year of Arthur C. Clarke, the lead story in National Geographic offers this sobering statistic: During a three year mission to Mars, the crew will receive a radiation dose of 1000 millisieverts, which is about five hundred times the dose a nuclear reactor worker receives in a year. For the time being, “Breakaway, Backdown ” can be read as a hard science story, since we just don’t know what will happen to our bodies should we ever try to live permanently to space. Perhaps space medicine will someday develop effective measures to counteract the catastrophic side effects of moving to the high frontier. Personally, I’m not planning on getting measured for a spacesuit anytime soon.
You’ll quickly notice that I’ve played a narrative trick in “Breakaway, Backdown ,” which was originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1996. I’m afraid I must ask that you write a good part of this story yourself. Don’t worry, you won’t have any trouble. You’ve been developing the necessary skill for years, thanks to the ubiquity of the telephone. I’ve discovered that this trick works only in print, however. I adapted “Breakaway, Backdown” into a stage play and later into an audioplay. You can listen to its audio incarnation for free at the Scifi.com website. In both instances, I was forced to reveal exactly what Jane is saying.
But I still think the story is more interesting this way.