BIOLOG: TOM JOLLY
By Richard A. Lovett
It’s the type of cliché writers try to avoid, but the fact is that Tom Jolly may as well have been born to become an Analog writer. The only surprise is how many other things he did en route to the magazine’s pages.
To begin with, his mother was an aerospace engineer, working throughout the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s on a variety of vintage satellite programs, back at a time when that was rare for women. His father wasn’t an engineer, but he was a machinist—another field that blends well with classic science fiction.
Growing up, Jolly read The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, to which his parents subscribed, and joined family gatherings to watch each new episode of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek. He still treasures a picture of himself holding a model rocket at age four or five. “There was always an influence of science and science fiction in the family,” he says.
But it wasn’t until 2016 that he sold his first story “Catching Zeus” (Jan/Feb 2017) to Analog.
That’s because he spent decades following his mother’s footsteps, working as an aerospace engineer on such projects as the Titan rocket program, testing satellites after they were mounted on the rockets, transporting satellites from the factory to the launch site, and working on a variety of civilian and military projects. “I had a very science fictiony type of life,” he says.
But he was never single-focused on engineering or space. In college he took “the usual gamut of random classes,” with a strong interest in art. Off and on, he’d submit stories to science fiction magazines. And in 1985, he designed and sold the first of what are now fifteen professionally published board games (one of which sold 300,000 units). He also designed puzzles made by skilled woodworkers for limited runs of about fifty copies. “They are custom-crafted pieces of art, beautifully made with all sorts of exotic woods,” he says.
Jolly’s literary breakthrough came in 2011, when he sold a story to Daily Science Fiction. But it wasn’t until 2014, when he retired after 27 years with Lockheed Martin, that his output picked up, with four rapid-fire sales to Analog, plus other sales that jacked his lifetime total to somewhere in excess of 20. “I have a lot more free time, so I can concentrate on researching stories and sitting down and writing,” he says.
For Jolly, research is an important part of his process. “What makes a good science fiction story,” he says, “is a balance of characterization, a faithful attempt to make the science accurate within the bounds of what we already know, and a plot that carries you through the scenario.”
Fantasy writers may draw on historical settings that require similar levels of research, but for Jolly’s type of science fiction, that “faithful attempt” to get the science right may require a lot of work, especially because he likes to draw on the latest ideas, right on the edge of existing knowledge. “You better understand [it] before you start putting pen to paper,” he says.
At the moment, for example, he’s working on a story that involves tethered objects in space, and he wants to make sure he knows enough about tethers to get it right, rather than making them up from some form of science-fantasy unknownium. “I’m having to read up a lot on tether science,” he says. “It’s amazing how much is out there.”