I wrote it during one of the most challenging years of my life. Not long after I started the first draft, I lost my job. A few months later, my wife and I separated. I was in a bad place emotionally and financially. But this isn’t a sob story. That information is context.
Despite those things, I persevered. I didn’t let anything stop me from writing.
Kinda like the characters in SIGNAL: they’re stuck in awful circumstances, they argue with each other, they sometimes doubt their sanity—but they do what needs to be done.
The idea began as a serialized piece I thought about posting to my website in 500-1,000 word installments. End every scene on a cliffhanger, try to keep the reader interested, and make the suspense relentless. I never wrote the serial but the idea transformed into what became SIGNAL. The original title was ADRIFT, which was changed by the publisher after it was discovered that another sci-fi book, with the same title, was being released around the same time. But I’m happier with the final title. SIGNAL fits perfectly.
I knew from the onset that I wanted more technical details in the story. More ‘Hard SF’ as it were. I researched space medicine, the experiences of astronauts in our own time, and tried to imagine where that field might be 150 years from now. I tried to keep the technology realistic without going gonzo like I have in my previous space opera work. I paid more attention to how variations in gravity and radiation affect the human body. It’s strange, but attempting to be more factual made me enjoy the work more.
Maybe I’ve finally found my niche at last.
Next I wanted a diverse cast of characters. If humanity is still going to be in space, much less exist as a species, in 150 years, then we need to get our shit together and get along. But humans aren’t perfect and I find future utopias unrealistic (I love Star Trek, but hey.) So I ventured into new literary territory once again: I made race (or the idea of race, since we are all one human species) and bigotry something the main character has to deal with. We might make technological leaps in the next century, but I have no doubt that racism and sexism will still, unfortunately, exist. Some will think I did this just to ‘cash in’ on current politics, but since that same nonsense still plagues our society, I’m vindicated in using such elements in my plot. People still write stories about greed and jealousy, two of humanity’s most undesirable traits, and no one blinks an eye. Mention bigotry, and all of a sudden you’re being ‘too political’. I call bullshit. If we’re ever going to progress as a species, we need to overcome such prejudices and hatreds.
I won’t spoil the plot, but I will say that the ending isn’t resolved by the death of a villain.
Lots of influences went into SIGNAL, like they do for any artistic endeavor. Some conscious, some subconscious. Examples:
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – I love this classic. I wanted a narrative where humans encounter something larger than themselves, and I kept thinking back to Rama. I didn’t initially set out to write a story in that vein, but after completion, I realized the similarities. Clarke is one of my favorite authors after all, so guilty as charged.
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson – Stanley’s portrayal of a generation ship made me rethink how I would present the story’s technical information. I liked how he did that without spending too long in doing so. He kept the narrative going while ensuring the technical aspects remained integral to it.
Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward – Though not a fictional work, this book helped me to place myself in someone else’s shoes. The writing exercises were a real eye-opener in regards to how I tell stories about characters who are different than myself—different as in gender, ethnicity, religious beliefs, and so on.
The Third Planet from Altair by Edward Packard – A Choose Your Own Adventure book I read in my grade school years. I always liked the idea of things going awry while trying to explore a strange, mysterious planet. I also included an ode to this in SIGNAL: the module Aloha is named after the ship from this book; module Vivaldi is named after one of the characters in the story. There’s also nods to other CYOA titles: modules Seeker and Maray are named after vessels from Journey Under the Sea; module Luzinia is named after a character from Prisoner of the Ant People.
Musically, I listened to Com Truise’s album Iteration, Siddhartha Barnhoorn’s soundtrack to Out There; Brian Eno’s Apollo; and Goldfrapp’s Silver Eye. There were other artists, but these in particular provided the aural background while I wrote.
The art of James White, NeoWave Series (https://www.signalnoise.com/neowave-series) was a visual inspiration. Look and you’ll see why.
I rewatched The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Gravity, and of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey. And, yes, I rewatched John Carpenter’s The Thing.
I want to thank my agent, Ethan Ellenberg; my editor, Steven Farber; the cast of the audiobook (Natasha Soudek, Allyson Johnson, Raphael Corkhill, and Fred Berman); cover artist Chris McGrath; beta readers Meredith Morgenstern Lopez, Ian Welke, and Juliette Wade; and anyone else who helped make this possible.