Nature Future Conditional

The story behind the story: Cold comforts

This week’s Futures story Cold comforts comes from Graham Robert Scott, an English professor based at Texas Woman’s University. Here, Graham talks about how his tale came about — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Cold comforts

When the Indian Space Research Organization, operating on a shoestring budget and tight timetable, put a probe into orbit around Mars in 2014, it took roughly a dozen minutes for the signal of success to reach Earth. Light speed is cruel that way.

As we aim farther and farther from Earth, those lags in conversation between Earth and ship become more and more of an obstacle to success. Putting people on board to make snap decisions can help, but people are expensive, requiring food, water and support systems — all of which adds to the weight of the launch. People also require company. They’re more emotionally stable if they have companions, and they think better, too. A lone wolf with no one to bounce ideas off of is always, ironically, in danger of groupthink. Yet future explorations may, like India’s, be planned on shoestring budgets and unable to send large teams.

The advent of increasingly customizable pseudo-intelligent voice assistants like Siri and Alexa suggests a possible solution: What if explorers were launched in small numbers, but each carried a hard drive full of personalities? A single personality engine might have multiple profiles or roles it could play, based on actual people.

I was mulling this possibility recently when I sat down for what sci-fi screenwriter Jane Espenson calls a “writing sprint”, and what emerged was an early version of Cold comforts, which attempts to take the next step: Okay, given that solution, how might things go badly?

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