The Science Behind the Story: To Climb A Flat Mountain

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The Science Behind the Story: The View from the Top
Jerry Oltion

"The View from the Top" (Analog, September 2010) came from a challenge I made to my writing workshop, the Wordos, in Eugene, Oregon. We wanted to see if we could study something as squishy as literary quality in a scientific way. One principle of scientific investigation is to reduce the number of variables under study, so we decided to have everyone write the same story. That way we could examine the same characters and scenes and plot as written by different authors and see how (and maybe why) they differed and what worked or didn't work in each case.

We brainstormed a basic story idea: An astronaut on the space station is overwhelmed by feelings of joy, which become so uncontrollable that he decides he has to go back to Earth early, but after he's made his peace with that huge loss he learns that he's actually reacting to allergies as well as his emotions. Eliminating the allergies is enough to reduce the physical symptoms to a point where he can once again control his emotions. And for a kicker, we decided he would be worried that his rigid self-control would prevent him from experiencing normal feelings of joy, but in the end he would learn that he was okay.

I took that basic plot and wrote a thousand-word outline from it, identifying key scenes that we all needed to include, then gave that outline to the workshop and we all set to work writing.

Six of us finished stories. One deviated from the outline so badly that we only knew it was an attempt at the challenge because of the title and the inclusion of a crying astronaut, but five of the stories worked pretty well. While they had their differences, they followed the basic plot. We were able to study similar scenes and agree in some cases on what worked and what didn't, and we even proposed some theories on why. (Character interaction makes scenes more interesting, especially if that interaction leads somewhere.
Establishing high stakes early on is good. Setting details are good, but moderation is a virtue.)

Three of the authors were happy enough with their stories to send them out for publication. We decided to send them as one submission package and let Stan decide which one, if any, he wanted to publish. He chose mine, but offered an excellent opportunity to the other two authors, John Burridge and Joshua Skurtu. Stan suggested we publish their stories on the Analog website so people could read all three.
So here they are for your reading pleasure: two alternate takes on "The View from the Top," one by John Burridge and one by Joshua Skurtu.
See what discoveries you can make by comparing all three. (And no, I don't think the best bits are all in my version.)

A note on the space station: We knew there would be six-person crews on the International Space Station by the time these stories saw print, but we chose to use three-person crews for two reasons.
Foremost, the story only required three characters, and there's no sense adding characters you don't need. Second, keeping six astronauts supplied via Russian or commercial launch vehicles seems like a pretty iffy proposition in the long run, so we assumed that the ISS would go back to three-person crews by August of 2017, when the story is set.
(That's when the eclipse happens. Mark yourcalendars.) Whether the ISS will even be operational in 2017 is another big question, which we chose to answer optimistically. So consider those a couple of speculative elements to the story. Time will tell whether we guessed right or not.

Copyright © 2010 Jerry Oltion