Unfeeling swine or decent fellow?

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Justin Swanton

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In my MS the protagonist, part of the first manned mission to Mars, is on the surface and about to make contact with an alien vessel that has gone into orbit around the planet and dropped a space elevator to the ground. The protagonist must see if the aliens can in any way help Earth with a rogue asteroid that threatens to wipe out human civilisation. He has no certitude he will survive the encounter.

He is writing to his wife on Earth, having learned that her terminal illness has entered its final stage. Theirs has been a fairly cool marriage of convenience (husband and wife astronaut teams get on the Mars shortlist). Here is the message he sends her. What does it tell you about him?


I stayed at the console and wrote another message for Sylvia. This was a much more difficult task than my previous missive to Mission. We had had a cool marriage, and had been apart for a year, and now she was at death’s door. I found it nearly impossible to write without appearing false or unfeeling, but the truth was I had had enough of the topic of death.

An hour later I leaned back in my chair, as dissatisfied with my effort as when I began. I was wavering between the choice of sending an unsatisfactory message or no message at all when the thought came to me: Just tell the truth. You love her or you wouldn’t be taking so much trouble over her. Start from that.

Armed with the thought I deleted the text I had written and started over.

Dear Sylvie,

This has been a difficult message to write. The fact is that I have had death on my mind constantly lately. Two of my crew are dead, murdered by a third crewmember who is with me now. That is why I am writing this message rather than making an audiovisual.

I learned the truth about your condition only recently. We have very little time so what I say must count.

The truth is we have not been close. I almost have the feeling ours was a marriage of convenience, something which was the proper thing to do. We accepted the situation and lived our lives accordingly. It seemed to work and we seemed happy.

I realise now that it is not enough. Life is too precious just to be content with getting by. There is—I don’t know—a significance to things, even trivial things. There must be something important—‘deep’ perhaps is the right word—behind them. Being married to you is a deep thing, I realise that only now.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I love you and wish with every particle of my being that I was with you now. That sounds strange coming from me, but it is the truth. I don’t want you to be alone at a time like this. Tessa was not alone. Domingo was with her, and carried her through. I think it had a big effect on me, seeing his faith in action. I am not like him but the least I can do is let you know that I am with you in heart even if I’m two hundred million kilometres away from you. Hope that helps.

Jason

Not perfect but the best I could do. As I sent it I prayed that the idiots at NASA would have enough sense to pass it on to her. There was nothing in it the whole world did not already know or would soon know, and with civilisation about to end what did it matter anyway? I wished Trinny would contact me. That at least would be proof NASA had overcome its bureaucratic paranoia.​
 

Brian G Turner

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I find the idea of writing a letter on a space station to be somewhat anachronistic.

Victorian novels had letter writing as a feature because that was the main way many people communicated and therefore familiar. But in the 21st century? IMO this information should be present within the narrative itself.

Sorry if I come across as harsh, but in a science fiction I would find it far more believable if he were to telepathically send a message to his wife, than compose a formal letter. Especially as most of this information - if not all of it - should already be known to the reader through your plot and character development anyway, thus making this redundant.

That's what exposition's for - to fill in the gaps for the reader.

That's simply my opinionated opinion, though. :D
 

VinceK

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It tells me he's giving his dying wife a mission update, followed by a cold appraisal of their marriage and finally a plea for atonement. I wouldn't imagine anyone has ever said he was empathic. One thing that did strike me as odd, was his use of EN dashes.
 

Gonk the Insane

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Is this Jason's first appearance in the manuscript? I'm assuming this is further in than the start of the story, so...
Here is the message he sends her. What does it tell you about him?
Sorry, but I didn't come away with an opinion one way or the other about being decent or a swine. If this is a fair way into the story, then you might already have established that, but early on I'd really struggle coming upon something like this. My first impression was that it wasn't the character talking to me at all - and I apologise if this sounds harsh - but that it was a narrative vehicle for the author's voice. If I can explain why...
That is why I am writing this message rather than making an audiovisual.
Perhaps that's how he speaks, but it seems very stilted and formal language between husband and wife (even if a marriage of convenience)
The truth is we have not been close.
She probably knows that though, right? There are a few lines like this where it's heavy telling that the character probably wouldn't need to share, but the author can use.

I quite like letters and/or book extracts as narrative devices, they can be really useful. But I think they also work best when used sparingly and to a specific purpose. I - and I'm sure others may think differently - like them best as a reader when they add contrast or humour to everything else, or tease out a story (e.g. a diary of lone survivor - will he survive the woods, orcs, and badgers, etc?). If your heart's set on keeping it, I'd suggest adding some flourishes that tell us more about him - preferably something we can't find out elsewhere - like innermost thoughts, or an obsession with badgers he only talks to his wife about. If you can capture his personality in his speech patterns (yeah, I know it's written, but the same applies), choice of language, or turns of phrase then I think that could bring it to life more. Give us something we can't get elsewhere in the story!:)

Have you ever read The Martian by Andy Weir? If you haven't then try having a look at the opening page or two in a bookstore or kindle preview (they're great for this - and free!). Watney - the MC - has a clear, strong voice and pretty much straight away you get a feel for his dark humour and who he is that a conversation just wouldn't tell you (though I reckon it's damned hard to do).
part of the first manned mission to Mars, is on the surface and about to make contact with an alien vessel that has gone into orbit around the planet and dropped a space elevator to the ground.
That sounds great! To me that's where the story is.:D
 

J Riff

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I would set this further away... Jupiter, Saturn or even Alpha Centauri. Mars is overdone, and there's potato farms there tat you have to account for.
 

Justin Swanton

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I find the idea of writing a letter on a space station to be somewhat anachronistic.

Victorian novels had letter writing as a feature because that was the main way many people communicated and therefore familiar. But in the 21st century? IMO this information should be present within the narrative itself.

Sorry if I come across as harsh, but in a science fiction I would find it far more believable if he were to telepathically send a message to his wife, than compose a formal letter. Especially as most of this information - if not all of it - should already be known to the reader through your plot and character development anyway, thus making this redundant.

That's what exposition's for - to fill in the gaps for the reader.

That's simply my opinionated opinion, though. :D

Thanks for this Brian. To put it in context, this is 2029. Jason - the protagonist - is in the Mars Habitat as part of the first manned mission to the planet that has gone horribly wrong. On learning of the asteroid headed for Earth (1036 Ganymed) one of his crew starts killing off the others to prolong their time in space making it possible to return to Earth later and land intact. Dieter, the murderer, has been found out and was in restraints whilst Jason did a full burn to drop into regular Mars orbit rather than using aerobraking in order to save fuel - Dieter's idea - to make a later return to Earth possible. So now Dieter has no reason to kill anyone else and Jason frees him and brings him down to Mars with him to keep an eye on him (there is one other surviving crewmember on the mothership). The only reason they land on Mars rather than abort the mission is because the alien craft (which looks like a dark asteroid, craters and all) has landed a space elevator near the Mars Habitat, so that's where first introductions will have to be made.

Earlier in the novel the reader learns that Jason and his wife were together in college and married with the same inevitability as getting a degree. He discovers after they've married that they have very different mental outlooks once they get past their professional interests. They adjust by giving each other space whilst staying friendly, but with the space comes distance. They don't talk to each other about important personal issues. He is struggling to overcome this in his message (I'm guessing emails are as popular in 2029 as they are today) but, yeah, he does come across as a little too formal.
 

Justin Swanton

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I quite like letters and/or book extracts as narrative devices, they can be really useful. But I think they also work best when used sparingly and to a specific purpose. I - and I'm sure others may think differently - like them best as a reader when they add contrast or humour to everything else, or tease out a story (e.g. a diary of lone survivor - will he survive the woods, orcs, and badgers, etc?). If your heart's set on keeping it, I'd suggest adding some flourishes that tell us more about him - preferably something we can't find out elsewhere - like innermost thoughts, or an obsession with badgers he only talks to his wife about. If you can capture his personality in his speech patterns (yeah, I know it's written, but the same applies), choice of language, or turns of phrase then I think that could bring it to life more. Give us something we can't get elsewhere in the story!:)

Great. Let me think this over.
 
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