Award-winning sci-fi writer shares storytelling tips
Eric Choi is a longtime sci-fi writer who specializes in “hard” sci-fi and drawing from real-life stories in space exploration.
Choi wins Winner of the Aurora Prize in 2011 and 2015, and twice winner of one of the highest awards in Canadian science fiction. Choi told Space.com about the publication of his recent collection, Just Like Being There. (opens in new tab)(Springer Press, May 2022).
The 15 short stories are a collection of Choi’s work over the past 25 years, with an afterword at the end of each story explaining the real inspiration behind the characters, plot and other details.
Space.com recently met with Choi to talk about his new book and how he uses space as inspiration for compelling storytelling, from “Star Trek” to Mars. Read on to see what he said.
Eric Choi is a Licensed Professional Engineer (P.Eng) with a BASc in Engineering Science and an MASc in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Toronto and an MBA from York University. In 2009, he was one of his top 40 finalists (out of 5,351 applicants) in the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut recruitment campaign.
Space.com: How did you get started with storytelling?
Eric Choi: Throughout my life, the science and science fiction aspects have been almost two sides of the same coin. Some of my earliest memories, of course, were of the earliest shuttle flights, including the first Space Shuttle mission, STS-1. At the same time, there was a longstanding interest in drawing inspiration from science fiction. Of course, so is “Star Trek.” I was part of the generation that wasn’t there when the original series aired in the 1960s. But I remember seeing it in reruns when I was a kid.
I think my earliest memory of that show was of this very unfortunate person in a red shirt about to be eaten by an acid-secreting creature. I later learned that it was The Devil in the Dark. I advanced my engineering career. We never gave up on the science fiction aspect either.
My big breakthrough came when I was an engineering science major at the University of Toronto, where I entered a writing competition. At the time it was called the Isaac Asimov Award. Now he is a Dell Magazines Award. Amazingly, he actually won 1st place in the contest the first year it was offered. It really got things going for me.
Space.com: Let’s go story by story. Let’s start with the Aurora Award-winning “Crimson Sky”. Can you talk about the scientific inspiration behind it?
Choi: The driving force behind that story goes back to my graduate studies at the University of Toronto’s Aerospace Institute. I’ve noticed some people wondering how to operate or fly an aircraft in an atmosphere that is heavier than the local atmosphere, in a difficult environment like Mars. [Editor’s note: The NASA Ingenuity mission is testing out drone flights on Mars right now.]
I took these concepts from academic publications and thought about what it would take to operate crude versions of these vehicles in the challenging environment of Mars. The real story is a search and rescue mission on Mars.
My next thought was that there are paramedics and people on the planet who need first aid. How would it work in a challenging planetary environment like space or Mars? For example, if someone injured their neck, how would you support them? For example, ask the person to remove their helmet I can not do it. How do you handle these things? How do you administer the medicine? You can’t just stick a needle in the arm of someone in a space suit.
I was also interested in talking about the nature of exploration and pushing the frontier. In some ways it was prescient and reflected some of the discussions and controversies of wealthy people who are interested in spaceflight these days.
Space.com: What inspired the short story “Just Like Being There” for which the anthology is named?
Choi: It was written for a previous anthology compiled by [Canadian science fiction writer] Julie Cherneda. She was actually a biologist and was very interested in using science fiction to improve outreach and education and scientific literacy. I have compiled a series of books aimed at young readers that explain, [junior high] in Ontario. I wrote the story for the collection with the intention of exploring the eternal question of humans versus robots. What are the pros and cons?
The context is that it is set in the near future, when it has been decided that we can no longer send humans into space due to a series of tragedies involving human exploration.A communications device developed by Ursula Le Guin. There is a little technology called Ansible that is This technology allows her to remove one of the most serious obstacles to robotic exploration. [communications] time delay. For example, if you’re trying to remotely control a robotic system on Mars or in the depths of the solar system, wouldn’t it be like being there if you could be anywhere in the solar system in real-time and without latency?
It turns out that his father, the protagonist of the story, was one of the last people to directly explore Mars. There is a bit of a relationship conflict between his father and son. What I have done with this story not only explains some of the fascinating science behind planetary exploration, but it also sparks an interesting discussion about the relative strengths and weaknesses of human and robotic space exploration. I hope it will happen.
Space.com: The last thing I want to talk about is “Sky and Heaven.”
Choi: The background to that story comes from two places. In 2003, I had the opportunity to go to Kennedy Space Center to see her STS-107 landing on Columbia, which sadly and tragically never happened. That experience has stayed with me all these years. Some time ago, in 2016, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel at the International Space University. One of the special events at that session was that the late widow of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut to die in Colombia, was on the distinguished panel. It touched me deeply. I was struck by the enduring legacy and power that Iran Ramon’s memory lives on in Israel.
I was thinking about how to combine those elements into an alternate history story. What could have been done to save the crew of STS 107? The answer is yes. Because this was actually well documented in the Columbia Accident Investigation Report. Two scenarios are detailed in evaluating flight options. One was a rescue scenario involving another shuttle and the other was an attempt to repair damage from her EVA in orbit. [extra-vehicular activity, or spacewalk.]
These two scenarios are therefore outlined in the Columbia research report. Indeed, these were the origins of the story. This is the genre of what they call alternative history or counterfactual. It took a lot of research to write this, but it was a very personal story.At the risk of being humble, I am very proud of it. I am happy that this is the final piece for my collection.
Space.com: If you’re writing science fiction for the first time, how do you tell a good story while respecting science and engineering as much as possible without sacrificing plot and all means of storytelling?
Choi: If people are interested in writing, do it. It’s not easy.Robert A. Heinlein’s First Rules of Writing in his Late American Science Fiction Writer and Space Enthusiast (opens in new tab) If you wanted to be a writer, you had to write, and you had to finish what you wrote. If you have the courage to do so, please put it out there for people to read and enjoy.
I tend to write in the subgenre known as hard science fiction. It’s basically the type of story that doesn’t have a story, except for the scientific element. A classic example of this is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Another aspect is that the science or engineering depicted is based on current understanding or on reasonable extrapolations thereof.
Clearly, the science fiction genre is much broader and more diverse than that. For example, Alternate History, which I wrote in some of the stories in this book, is definitely another subgenre of that. It covers these aspects of hard science fiction, but also alternative history, fantasy, or horror.
These stories become, in the words of American science fiction writer Larry Niven, a playground for the mind. (opens in new tab)It’s like a playground for the mind to think about what’s possible in the near future. It appeals to me because I hope that in the near future people like you and me, and many others, will be spending more of our time. It’s just a little bit of a preview of what might happen.