An Interview with Simon Morden

Portrait of Simon Morden courtesy of Lawrie Photography
Portrait courtesy of Lawrie Photography

Dr Simon Morden trained as a planetary geologist, realised he was never going to get into space, and decided to write about it instead. His published work includes: Another War (2005), a ‘wonderfully tentacular’ novel featuring an old manor house and dimension-puncturing machines; The Lost Art (2007), a novel about an Earth that has been plunged into a perpetual Dark Age; Equations of Life, Theories of Flight, Degrees of Freedom (all 2011), and The Curve of the Earth (2013), four books featuring ‘everybody’s favourite sweary Russian scientist, Samuil Petrovitch’; Arcanum, an massive alternate-history fantasy; The Books of Down, a duology following refugees on the run from a London that may or may not have been destroyed, and their atttempts to unravel the mysteries of their adopted world; One Way (2018) and No Way (2019), two novels which feature the unique talents of father, architect and murderer, Frank Kittridge, and which might best be described as The Martian meets The Dirty Dozen (John Cassavetes would have made a great Kittridge); Bright Morning Star, a brilliant novella about a space probe that makes first contact with the humans of Earth, in the middle of a war; Gallowglass (2020), a scientifically rigorous and thrilling riff on Treasure Island, airlocks and mineral-rich asteroids replacing planks and buried gold; and most recently, The Flight of the Aphrodite (2022), the powerful and harrowing story of a mission to the Galilean moons of Jupiter that goes wrong in ways nobody could have anticipated.

I interviewed Simon Morden via a collaborative Google Doc and by email in February 2022.

A cautionary note: herein are mild spoilers for The Flight of the Aphrodite.

First of all, what is The Flight of the Aphrodite?

The Flight of the Aphrodite is the fourth book in the tentatively-named Future Space series. Two are linked—One Way has an immediate sequel, No Way (both are set on Mars, with the same protagonist)—while Gallowglass is set some 20 years afterwards, in the asteroid belt and on the Moon. The Flight of the Aphrodite starts a few years after the end of Gallowglass, with the main continuing character being the deep-space exploration vessel Aphrodite. Luca Mariucci is back in command for this one, but you don’t need to have read any of the others to enjoy the full impact of the horror I inflict on the poor crew, as they investigate the Galilean moons of Jupiter.

The investigation of the Galilean moons involves some tricky orbital maneuvers. Did your son help you to calculate those in this book, as he did with Gallowglass? What sort of software do you use for that?

I want to say that those parts of the book were done to the letter—but neither of us have the skill of the Aphrodite’s navigator, Deirdre Colvin. We cranked out some back-of-the-envelope delta-V calculations and went from there. Sam’s maths is way better than mine, and he has some hand-made python programs that calculate burn times iteratively—the Aphrodite has a continuous thrust drive that pulls about 0.1g, which it can use it more-or-less indefinitely. It leads to more complicated orbits than a short-burn chemical rocket, but all the cool kids will be using plasma drives in the future.

The Aphrodite is a major character, as you note. How much research went into building the ship from an engineering perspective?

We worked from first principles: what do we need it to do, and how long do we need it to do it for, and went from there. We decided that we were going to build it in orbit, and it would be a proper deep space vessel—but we also wanted it to be just a little bit elegant. It needed a gravity section large enough for the crew to usefully use—that’s the wheel behind the command section, then behind that is scientist country. Following that are the four probes, one for each of the Galilean moons, and then everything gets a bit more industrial. The last section is Lazlo Molnar’s novel fusion drive, which not only provides the thrust for the drive, but the electricity to power the ship’s functions, not least of which is the magnetic shield to protect the crew from the lethal Jovian radiation.

The Aphrodite, designed by Sam Morden

Most of this was me simply telling Sam, my son, what I wanted, and he went away and built it for me. We did a couple of rounds of that, tweaking the design and compromising between what we thought would be possible by the 2070s, and what the mission profile needed to be. Once we’d settled on the final build, we ran the numbers again and wrote them all out, so that I couldn’t cheat when I came to write the book.

This is what makes it a hard SF book. If the numbers don’t stack up, I simply have to find another way to do what I want, or not at all. There’s a bit in Gallowglass where Jack thinks he can get the Coloma‘s crew section home without the drive, just using the little cold propellant they have. They were down to kilograms on that one, and even then, I had to invoke a gravity assist from the Moon to make it work. If nothing else, it looks like I know what I’m doing, and I’m satisfied that it’s all arguably doable.

The Aphrodite has a crew of 12, but no artificial intelligence. There is no HAL 9000 here. How did you go about deciding who would be onboard, and are there any easter eggs in the names?

The mission patch for the Aphrodite (courtesy of Simon Morden)

I did wonder about whether or not to have a computer—not HAL-like, but something that would interact with the crew. But I decided early on not to. Firstly, I wanted space between Aphrodite and 2001: there are enough superficial similarities without deliberately invoking something as iconic as HAL. Secondly, the plot is acutely concerned with the human condition, and I didn’t want to dilute that in any way. There are 12 crew members, and yes, there are computers, but they’re tools in the hands of the competent scientists. The drama comes from the people on board.

The crew was handpicked—I already had Mariucci and Colvin from Gallowglass, but needed to fill out the roster. I started with technical crew, 5 plus the captain, and then the mission specialists. Because it was an ESA mission, I chose countries for each role, then names to go with them. I’d like to think there’s serendipity there: who wouldn’t want to be on a spaceship with a Danish engineer and a Hungarian physicist?

And no, no Easter eggs at all! I followed my usual naming convention, which is to pick an obscure national sports team of the country that I want the character from, choose unrelated first and surnames, and check that they sound right and follow local conventions. I will use Google at that point, in case I’ve accidentally used a famous politician, or mass murderer, or similar. It is tempting to use in-jokes and potentially recognisable names, but I’d only do that if there was a solid in-story reason for it. The AI/spaceship in At the Speed of Light is called Corbyn, because the UN program uses notable historical figures from the past as a naming convention. See, I can do irony…

The science in this book immerses us in the world of Aphrodite, but the scientific exposition never feels excessive. Were you ever tempted to cram in extra factoids about the Jovian moons or descriptions of the trip out to them?

The science happens whether or not the crew of the Aphrodite are there to see it—hopefully what makes it a story worth reading is the way that people interact with the ship, each other, and the environment outside.

Simon Morden

Sure. There’s nothing here that would happen without the science: that the crew are scientists, all at the top of their professions, that the Aphrodite is the most advanced ship we’ve ever made, and is in orbit around Jupiter, are absolutely essential to the plot. Everything that happens I can justify (sometimes with a few tweaks) with actual science. Thrust calculations, weight allowances, orbits… everything.

But I couldn’t lose sight for a moment that this was a human story, about people having the opportunity to go on this magnificent adventure to Jupiter. Their motivations and their experiences are the central pillars I used to make the story work. The science happens whether or not the crew of the Aphrodite are there to see it—hopefully what makes it a story worth reading is the way that people interact with the ship, each other, and the environment outside. It’s the journey, not the destination.

In the book you explore the reasons why Jupiter might be such a powerful force in human culture. How early on did you fix on Jupiter and its moons in particular as the stages upon which this wild adventure would play out?

The Aphrodite was always supposed to go to Jupiter. Its commissioning flight was interrupted to save the world in the last third of Gallowglass, so I kind of wanted to make it up to the ship. Obviously, I needed a plot—I wasn’t going to write a ‘just a travelog of the moons of Jupiter’, because while that might have worked in the golden age of SF, it wasn’t going to cut the mustard now. It’s inevitable that, at some point, if we survive long enough, we’re going to send people to Jupiter. Robotic probes are brilliant, and far more cost effective than a crewed ship, but we know we’re going to do it. So I was going to write about that, the King of Planets, and what they found when they got there.

Fortunately, there’s been a lot of progress in the scientific understanding of Jupiter, jovian space, and the many, many moons, so there’s plenty of research to mine. Some of it will inevitably prove to be inaccurate, but there’s enough to give the background a proper solidity. I’m trying to convince readers that these are places I’ve been to.

Along with the science and engineering, there is mythology and psychology. What were some of the strangest things you found yourself researching for this novel?

Oh, there is a small but significant body of research on the effects of hard radiation on humans—not just the long term exposure, but the short, immediately-lethal stuff which will kill you way before you have to worry about an increased risk of cancer. Most of it is profoundly awful, because obviously it relies on actual people who’ve either accidentally or deliberately exposed themselves to massive amounts of high-energy particles, and the researchers (and sometimes the patients) have then documented their decline and death.

And, of course, there’s the very relevant matter of how magnetic fields affect the nervous system. Short answer, no one really knows. Long answer, no one really wants to know. But you can do some really interesting things with the brain and magnets. If you want to fall down a complete rabbit hole, look up transcranial magnetic stimulation. The things you’ll see…

This is a very pacy novel. You are economical when it comes to exposition and you know when to end a scene. Did you cut a lot out during later drafts to make it so propulsive?

Yeah, I get that. The book feels so much more than its word count—it comes in under 95,000 words but there’s nothing rushed about it, and there’s nothing missing. When I’ve reread it, which I’ve had to do several times because of revisions and editing, it’s never been a chore. It’s literally the length it needs to be, and it was pretty much there from the first draft.

Some parts were cut—occasionally I take a wrong turn, and need to backtrack—but other scenes were lengthened, because I underwrote them and was chided by my editors for not giving them enough information. I’ve just checked: the first draft was just over 91,000 words.

A lot of bad stuff happens in this book. Characters deaths are described in exquisite detail. I could not only see what was going on, but hear it as well. It is at moments a wince-inducing read, in the best possible sense. When in the writing process did you first decide to put a character into a sealed container of water and drop them into the atmosphere of Io? Did you brainstorm other ways of getting an astronaut down to the surface of that moon?

Part of the joy and terror of writing how I do is that I sometimes find I have to macguyver my way out of plot corners I’ve just painted myself into. And sometimes, not even then. In Arcanum, the young prince charges onto the battlefield at the head of his hastily-assembled cavalry and, for a moment, it looks like this surgical strike against the enemy flank is actually going to work. Then I as I continued on with the scene, I couldn’t quite work out how I was going to extricate him. I looked at the numbers and the maps, and that’s how Corinthia ended up as a republic. I could have simply deleted the scene, rewritten the history so that he never made that charge, and only I would ever know. But I decided that I was going to see what the other characters, who would by convention and habit always defer to their lord, did when left essentially leaderless against a superior foe. It completely altered the trajectory of the later part of the story, but entirely for the better: some of them stepped up to meet the challenge, and yes, I trashed the usual fantasy epic narrative, but I contend that what I did with it was far more interesting.

No one is going to pull a rabbit out of a hat in my stories, unless I’ve already implied that this hat contains a rabbit—I’m a great fan of Chekov’s gun as a narrative device.

Simon Morden

So, to answer the question: I put myself into the position of an incredibly knowledgeable but increasingly deranged scientist and gave myself the problem of getting someone from an orbiting spaceship to the surface of Io, given only the equipment available to them, and no cheating. It is, I think, the ‘no cheating’ bit which is the consistent theme here. No one is going to pull a rabbit out of a hat in my stories, unless I’ve already implied that this hat contains a rabbit—I’m a great fan of Chekov’s gun as a narrative device. In this instance, the crew of the Aphrodite have this particular problem, they have these particular skills, they have this particular set of equipment. I think, at one point, I lampshade Apollo 13, because it’s very much the ur-example of this, but also very relevant to the history of space flight. The crew would know it, and use it as inspiration. Their solution to the problem wasn’t elegant, but it was plausible. I wanted them to be satisfied with it.

Forsyth, the ‘incredibly knowledgeable but increasingly deranged scientist’ you mention, is very unlikeable, in many ways, but also very fascinating, and an important catalyst, in a way. Was he fun to write?

One piece of advice I took on board very early on in my writing career is that everyone thinks of themselves as the hero of their own story. Even, and especially, those characters who might be classified as villains. For certain, some people just want to watch the world burn, and these are agents of chaos—but they’re incredibly rare. Most people want, whether they have the ability to achieve it or not, to reorder their corner of the world for a specific purpose. Inevitably, that contains the seeds of tragedy, which is great for writers because that means conflict between internal desires and external actions. Forsyth wants his scientifically ordered world mirrored in social structures. He finds relationships irresolvable, so he rejects them. He has workable solutions for climate change and resource scarcity and human conflict, but he wants to impose those solutions autocratically and forcibly. As the literal smartest-person-in-the-room, he assumes that everyone will do what he says, because doing otherwise is unthinkable.

He has, like all of the crew, slipped down the sanity slope, and the unthinkable gradually becomes reasonable. He continues, though, all the way to the end, to believe in the rightness of his cause. In his own mind, he’s using the best available data and making the best decisions that will get him to his goals. It would be far too easy to paint him as a monster: objectively, yes, but in context there’s a whole lot of nuance to his motivation, and his mistakes. He’s an almost classically tragic figure: his hubris is brought low by his nemesis.

But also, yes: the most rewarding characters to write are the complex, challenging ones, the ones with flaws and foibles, and I honestly think Forsyth is one of my best. If it’s still possible to read with your eyes screwed shut because it’s just all too much, then I’ve succeeded.

In The Flight of the Aphrodite there is a tension between scientific knowledge and subjective belief. A discovery is made that seems almost impossible and we watch as the crew deal with this, emotionally and philosophically. Meanwhile, the members of the crew manifest symptoms of psychological and psychiatric disease, the cause (or causes) of their maladies unclear. That is a lot to keep up in the air. Was there a eureka moment when you saw how these elements would align to make a book?

I wanted that feeling of corrosion, and for the crew to be aware of it. They know, they absolutely know, but the forces acting on them—or think are acting on them—from both inside and out are incredibly powerful, because they are their own hopes and dreams, their pasts and their futures.

Simon Morden

It was, for better or worse, baked in from the start. The plot of The Flight of the Aphrodite is deeply and profoundly influenced by three films: Kubrick’s 2001, Tarkovsky’s Solaris (Soderbergh’s version is worthy, but I find it lacks the heft of the Tarkovsky: it’s a pocket New Testament compared with a big old King James church bible), and Anderson’s Event Horizon. No, bear with me. While the first two are clearly stone-cold classics, Event Horizon is an over-ripe fruit bowl of tropey goodness that you either love or hate. I happen to love it. If you’ve not seen it, I won’t spoil it, but the psychodrama that may or may not be supernatural in origin is very much of the boiled frog type: it slowly erodes the crew of the salvage ship from the outside in, subtly at first, but by the time they realise that capacity for decision-making has become so damaged it’s dangerous, they’re elbow-deep in a grand guignol bloodfest.

I wanted that feeling of corrosion, and for the crew to be aware of it. They know, they absolutely know, but the forces acting on them—or think are acting on them—from both inside and out are incredibly powerful, because they are their own hopes and dreams, their pasts and their futures. It’s properly gothic—the ship itself is as much a character as the crew—and there’s always Jupiter just outside the hull, magnificent and brooding. I had no idea if I could pull it off. I still have no idea if I’ve succeeded. All I know is that I’ve done it to the best of my ability.

Although there are low-gravity hangings, and although dead bodies are lashed to the Aphrodite’s hull, there is also a lightness to the dialogue. The relationships feel very believable. There is humour, too. Sometimes it is very black humour, sometimes physical comedy. The situation onboard the ship becomes increasingly absurd, and tragic. I think those shifts in tone are in a lot of your writing. Do you have any favourite scenes from this book?

There will be one scene that will probably mean that some readers will simply close the book at that point and go ‘nope’. All I ask is that folk push through… That was not may favourite scene: necessary, but definitely not favourite.

But look, here we are, discussing a diamond-hard science fiction book, and what we’re both talking about are the relationships between the characters. This has to be progress, right?

Simon Morden

I found the way Mariucci and Kattenbeck interacted to be very touching. They are incredibly respectful of each other. They want to be the best versions of themselves that they can be around each other. It’s not eros, but it’s definitely philia. There’s a scene near the end, where it’s just them in an airlock, and it makes me cry every time I read it.

But there are definitely others, and asking me to choose favourites is like asking me which are my favourite children. Admittedly, the scenes where Forsyth is at a disadvantage are incredibly satisfying. When Aasen tells him about the ‘squeaky wheel’ (let the reader understand), and leaves Forsyth completely disarmed—it’s a moment of odd victory. But look, here we are, discussing a diamond-hard science fiction book, and what we’re both talking about are the relationships between the characters. This has to be progress, right?

The changes Mariucci goes through are very powerful. He was my favourite character in Gallowglass, so I knew I would enjoy reading about him, but I was surprised by how much. The scenes with Velter towards the end are fantastic—they dramatise his illness humanely and poignantly. I cared for Mariucci very deeply by the end and his journey is sublime: ‘Go up. Travel well.’ How did he grow or change as a character through the writing of The Flight of the Aphrodite? Did he surprise you, too?

I wanted [Mariucci] to be incredibly human, to embody everything that is complex and contradictory about us, and yet still remain pure. There’s more than a touch of the Holy Fool about him: his illness eventually absolves him of his sins and sanctifies him.

Simon Morden

Luca Mariucci is the bleeding heart of the story, the gloriously damaged hero whose fall from the pedestal where he was placed between events in Gallowglass and Aphrodite is lovingly and forensically documented. Arguably, he never bought into his own mythology, but it’s quite clear that everyone else on board has, to some degree—and it makes his character arc especially bittersweet. We get to see a different side to him after he’s suffered betrayal, and he feels he has no further use, but even in that state, he still manages to represent the best of us. I wanted him to be incredibly human, to embody everything that is complex and contradictory about us, and yet still remain pure. There’s more than a touch of the Holy Fool about him: his illness eventually absolves him of his sins and sanctifies him.

Is he a better person at the beginning, with all his skills and competencies intact, or at the end, when all he is able to do is precisely one task? I think about that a lot.

Kattenbeck is ultimately responsible for informing Earth of Aphrodite’s fate. She is also the most resilient character in the story. What was your inspiration for her?

Of all the crew of the Aphrodite, Petra Kattenbeck is the most damaged at the start. But she leans into the damage and lets it hold her. I read the testimonies, and watched videos of the work of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), most recently in Syria, but wherever there is a need, and thought someone like that is probably what the Aphrodite needs the most—not the best surgeon but, as you say, the most resilient. She’s seen, and done, terrible things. She’s operated by torchlight. She’s triaged patients who, in a well-equipped hospital, would have lived. She’s learned to make decisions on clinical practicalities, not out of sentimentality. She could even be described as brutal.

We can talk about altruism, empathy, messiah complexes, white saviours, whatever. But I feel you can’t judge unless you’ve been half way through a procedure in a hospital that’s being bombed, and the lights go out.

Simon Morden

There are hundreds of MSF doctors serving in truly challenging conditions this day and every day, conditions that would break an average person (and there are also local nurses, porters, technicians, security guards for whom there is usually no easy way out). These are people who deliberately put themselves in harm’s way, when they could quite reasonably be living significantly safer lives elsewhere, and they’re doing it because … honestly, who cares why they’re doing it. What’s important is that it’s done. We can talk about altruism, empathy, messiah complexes, white saviours, whatever. But I feel you can’t judge unless you’ve been half way through a procedure in a hospital that’s being bombed, and the lights go out.

That’s Petra Kattenbeck.

Earth is only seen from afar in The Flight of the Aphrodite. We know that there is turmoil, both social and environmental, and we can infer that the existential threat of Gallowglass didn’t exactly bring everyone together. The knowledge of the Aphrodite’s discovery is broadcast to all humanity. Do you have any immediate plans to write about the implications of that?

I do have a synopsis for another book, ready to go. I’d very much like to write it—that does depend on getting a contract for it, because paid work always comes first.

The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars was published last year This is your first published work of non-fiction. How did reaching that milestone feel?

I’m used to doing research for books, but this was the first time I could allow myself to show my working […]

Simon Morden

For me, it was a huge deal (emotionally, not monetarily!) to be asked to do that. I’m used to doing research for books, but this was the first time I could allow myself to show my working—normally, when you’re researching for a fiction book, you have to junk almost everything you find out, and the little that does end up going in is in the blink-and-you-miss-it details. Or at least should do. I once spent happy hours looking up WWII-era Soviet sniper rifles, so that I’d know how a character would feel holding one, but I didn’t so much as mention the rifle’s make, nor describe it at all. I just needed to know its heft.

For The Red Planet, I have, what? 10, 11 pages of citations. I read and read and read, cross-checking and re-checking, and obviously some of it was contradictory because Mars research is a continually evolving body of knowledge which allows for multiple hypotheses, which at our current level of understanding, may all be possible. Certainly, everything in the book could be true—I’m keeping up with the latest discoveries, and nothing that’s been published in the last year appears to have invalidated anything. Yet. It will do. That’s science for you.

One of the gratifying things is that, yes, it’s written as a popular science book for the interested layperson—my editors kept on hammering at the manuscript until I found a form of words that would explain to them the concepts I was writing about—but it’s also highly accessible overview of planetary formation (what my PhD was in) and areology. I know for certain it’s on at least one undergraduate reading list.

If you had the opportunity to write non-fiction about other planetary bodies, which would be on the list? A more technical tour of the Jovian moons, perhaps? Pole to pole along Mercury’s terminator?

I very much doubt that anything else in the non-fiction line will ever happen. The Red Planet was literally the stars aligning, just this once, with everyone in the right place, at the right time, to make it happen. It was brilliant, and I’m going to walk away happy.

The last time we spoke, you recommended The Salvation Sequence by Peter F. Hamilton. Which books have made a big impact on you recently?

[Premee Mohamed’s Beneath the Rising] has hard science and tentacles, and it makes several bold narrative plays that I enjoyed enormously as they worked their way out.

Simon Morden

I should make more time to read regularly—but I was laid up recently after an operation, so whittled down the TBR pile a bit. Two stand-outs: first, Premee Mohamed’s Beneath the Rising. It’s not perfect, but I can forgive a lot if I’m being entertained and intrigued, and this book did both. It has hard science and tentacles, and it makes several bold narrative plays that I enjoyed enormously as they worked their way out. She’s followed it up with A Broken Darkness (and recently announced a third in the series, The Void Ascendant) and I have book tokens, so will be spending them wisely.

Secondly, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s The Doors of Eden. Yes, he’s a mate, but he’s also at the absolute top of his game at the moment. The ending is probably the most audacious use of multiple realities that I, and most other readers, have ever witnessed in print—I wouldn’t even attempt something like that. But he’s the very best at writing non-human intelligences we have, and this book is stacked full of them. There’s fresh joy on every page.

Finally, what is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Honestly? I would love to be asked to help fix this—this everything. I don’t have the capacity to be a politician, because despite the mild-mannered exterior I’m actually very sweary and would just end up shouting at people who are desperately trying to justify their current levels of greed and privilege. But policy? I could do policy. I’ll probably just end up writing about it instead, but the offer’s open to any progressive left democratic party, wherever they are in the world.

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