Science

‘Like I’m There’: Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer Eric Choi Talks Star Trek, Storytelling And More

Eric Choi is a longtime science fiction writer specializing in hard science fiction and drawing real stories about space exploration.

Choi, an Aurora Prize winner in 2011 and 2015, who has twice received one of Canada’s top science fiction awards. Choi spoke to Space.com about the publication of his recent “Like You’re There” collection. (will open in a new tab)(Springer Press, May 2022).

The 15 stories are a compilation of Choi’s work over the past 25 years, with each story ending with an afterword explaining the real inspiration behind the characters, plot, and other details.

Space.com recently caught up with Choi to discuss his new book and everything from Star Trek to Mars to using space as inspiration for compelling storytelling. Read on to see what he said.

headshot by Eric Choi

Eric Choi is a Licensed Professional Engineer (P.Eng) with a Bachelor of Engineering and Master of Aerospace Engineering from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of York. In 2009, he was one of the 40 finalists (out of 5,351 candidates) in the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut recruitment campaign.

Space.com: How did you get started telling stories?

Eric Choi: Throughout my life, science fiction and science fiction have been almost like two sides of the same coin. Some of my earliest memories were, of course, the earliest shuttle flights, including the first flight of the space shuttle STS-1. Coinciding with this was a longstanding desire to draw inspiration from science fiction, including, of course, Star Trek. I belonged to a generation that didn’t exist when the original series aired in the 1960s. But as a kid, I remember watching it in reruns.

I think my first memory of that show was of a very unhappy man in a red shirt about to be devoured by some kind of acid-producing creature. I later found out that it was the classic Original Series episode “Devil in the Dark” which actually scared me a lot. I advanced in my engineering career. I have never given up on the sci-fi aspects of it.

The big breakthrough came during my bachelor’s degree in engineering at the University of Toronto, where I entered a writing competition. At the time it was called the Isaac Asimov Prize; now it’s a Dell magazine award. To my great shock, I actually took first place in this competition the very first year it was offered. It really helped me.

many Star Trek characters in colorful shirts

Eric Choi says he was inspired by a classic Star Trek episode during which he was horrified by the death of a Red Shirt. Traditionally, redshirted Star Trek crew members are more prone to death and disappearance. But not always. (Image credit: Paramount Plus)

Space.com: Let’s look at story by story. We’ll start first with the Aurora-winning Crimson Sky. Can you talk about the scientific inspiration behind this?

Choi: The impetus for this story goes back to my postgraduate studies at the Institute for Aerospace Studies at the University of Toronto. It dawned on me that some people were thinking about what it would take to operate or fly a heavier-than-local atmospheric air vehicle in difficult environments 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 use a crude version of these vehicles in difficult Martian environments, and what this story is really about is a search and rescue mission on Mars.

Then I thought about the fact that we have things like paramedics on Earth or people in need of first aid. How would this work in space or in a complex planetary environment like Mars? If someone, for example, had a neck injury, how do you deal with it? For example, you obviously can’t ask this person to remove their helmet. How would you deal with these things? How would you administer medication? You can’t just stick a needle in someone’s arm when they’re in a space suit.

I was also interested in talking about the nature of research and pushing boundaries. In a way, this was a foresight and a reflection of some discussion and perhaps controversy from the point of view of some wealthy people who are currently interested in space flight. I am very glad that the story was well received.

This selfie was taken by the NASA Perseverance rover on the 198th day of its mission.

NASA’s Perseverance rover is a very powerful machine, but like all long-distance explorers, it is subject to time delays. Eric Choi discusses how to get around time delays in his short story “Like You Are There”. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Space.com: What was the inspiration for your short story “How to be there” that the anthology is named after?

Choi: This was written for a previous anthology compiled by [Canadian science fiction writer] Julia Cherneda. She is actually a biologist by birth and was very interested in using science fiction to promote outreach, education and science literacy. She compiled a series of books intended for younger readers that dealt with or illustrated aspects of the science curriculum in high schools. [junior high] in Ontario. I wrote this story for this collection with the intention of exploring the age-old question of human versus robot. What are the pros and cons?

The context is that the action takes place in the near future, when, due to a series of tragedies associated with human research, it was decided not to send people into space anymore. There is something like a hand-waving technology called Ansible which is a communication device created by Ursula Le Guin. With this technology, we can remove one of the biggest obstacles to robotic research, namely [communications] temporary delay. When you’re trying to remotely control a robotic system, say on Mars or further out in the solar system, if you could somehow control without time delay in real time, no matter where you are in the solar system, it would be just like being there, right?

It turns out that the protagonist of the story, his father, was one of the last people who personally explored Mars. So, a little crisis. There is a small interpersonal conflict between father and son. I hope that what I have done with this story should not only illustrate some of the fascinating science behind planetary exploration, but perhaps spark an interesting discussion about the relative pros and cons of human versus robotic space exploration.

Astronauts in spacesuits hold moon rocks on the moon

Eric Choi says he is trying to write for the “near future”, referring to research that might be possible in a human lifetime or so. These two astronauts pictured could actually happen, for example, when the Artemis program sends humans to the moon as early as the 2020s. (Image credit: NASA)

Space.com: The last story we’d like to talk about is Heaven and Heaven.

Choi: The background to this story comes from two places. In 2003, I had the opportunity to go down to the Kennedy Space Center to watch the landing of STS-107, Columbia, which, unfortunately, did not take place. This experience has not left me all these years. A little later, in 2016, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel at the International Space University. One of the highlights of this session was that the late widow of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut to die in Colombia, was part of a distinguished group. It also touched me deeply. I was impressed by the enduring legacy and strength with which the memory of Ilan Ramon is preserved in Israel.

I was thinking about how to combine these elements into an alternate history. What has been on my mind for many, many years, as I’m sure many people have, was there anything that could be done to save the STS 107 crew? The answer to this question is yes, because it was well documented in the Columbia University Accident Investigation Report. The flight options assessment detailed two scenarios. One was a rescue scenario involving another shuttle, and the other was an attempt to repair damage in orbit with a spacewalk. [extra-vehicular activity, or spacewalk.]

So these two scenarios were sketched out in the Columbia investigation report. In fact, these things were the genesis of history. It’s in the genre of what they call alternative history or counterfactual history. It took a lot of research to write this, but it was a very personal story. At the risk of sounding immodest, I am very proud of it. I am glad that this is the final story of my collection.

a group of astronauts floating together in sleeved shirts

Eric Choi drew inspiration for one of his stories from the crew of STS-107 who died aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in February 2003. (Image credit: NASA)

Space.com: If you’re writing science fiction for the first time, how can you tell a good story while maintaining the utmost respect for science and technology without sacrificing plot and all these storytelling techniques?

Choi: If people are interested in writing, just do it. It is not simple. First Rule of Writing by the late American science fiction writer and space enthusiast Robert A. Heinlein (will open in a new tab) was, if you want to be a writer, you must write, and you must finish what you write. If you can muster the courage to do so, post it for people to read and enjoy.

I prefer to write in the sub-genre known as science fiction. This is the type of story where, if you take away the scientific element, there is basically no story. A typical example of this is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Another aspect is that the science or engineering depicted is based on either current understanding or a reasonable extrapolation of it.

Obviously, the genre of science fiction is much broader and more varied than this. The alternative history that I have written about in several of the stories in this book is perhaps another sub-genre of it, for example. I cover these aspects of science fiction as well as alternate history, fantasy or horror.

These stories really become, in the words of the American science fiction writer Larry Niven, playgrounds for the mind. (will open in a new tab). It is a kind of playground for the mind to think about what might be possible in the near future. I like it because I hope that in the near future people like you, me and many others will spend more time. It’s pretty good to get a little preview of what might happen in the not-too-distant future.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace (will open in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (will open in a new tab) or on facebook (will open in a new tab).

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