'The Last Astronaut' Imagines Humanity's First Alien Encounter. Are We Ready?
Are we prepared for a possible encounter with alien life? That's the central question in author David Wellington's new science fictoin novel "The Last Astronaut," sci-fi horror tale thattakes readers on a futuristic ride filled with suspense and drama.
Set in the year 2055, "The Last Astronaut" paints a not-so-distant future of a space industry dominated by private entities as national programs received less and less funding over the years. When faced with the possibility of alien life entering Earth's orbit, NASA turns to retired astronaut Sally Jansen who, 20 years earlier, led a failed expedition to Mars.
The novel delves deep into the mechanics of space travel, as well as the minds of the astronauts, to paint a realistic picture of a possible future scenario that lurks in the minds of many poeple.
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Author David Wellington has written over 20 books, mainly in horror fiction. He has explored the worlds of vampires, zombies and monsters in his previous books but Wellington relied on consultations with real-life astronauts for his latest release in order to make the novel as accurate as possible.
Wellington spoke to Space.com about his experience in exploring this unanswered question regarding alien life, and blending accuracy with fiction.
Space.com: What first inspired the story behind the book?
David Wellington: The biggest inspiration was I1/'Oumuamua. Your readers are probably familiar with it — a rock from another star that passed through our solar system in 2017. For the very first time we saw an object that was undeniably alien. Naturally a lot of people thought it had to be an alien spaceship, and attempts were made to contact it via radio, but to no avail. It got me thinking — if an alien craft did enter the solar system, right now, would we be ready to respond? Would we even know how? I wanted to do a sort of realistic take at first contact with an alien intelligence that might not even recognize humanity as something like itself.
Space.com: What made you want to transition into sci-fi horror?
Wellington: Growing up I was always a space fan — and a science fiction fan. When I published my first novel, "Monster Island" (2005), I was actually naive enough to think it was a science fiction novel--there's actually quite a bit of science in it. But it's about zombies, so that meant I was a horror writer. I love both genres, and it's great to finally get to write something that combines these two great flavors. Like peanut butter and chocolate, maybe. Except here it's the sense of wonder and the sense that you're about to get eaten by a monster.
Space.com: What were the main differences between writing about zombies and vampires, and writing about aliens?
Wellington: Zombies and vampires — all monsters — are distorted versions of humanity. They may have unusual appetites or appearances, but they either started out as human or reflect some basic human drive. Aliens are completely different.
It was the author Seanan McGuire who taught me this. I asked her what she thought aliens might be like and her answer was they could be right in front of us and we might not even know they were there, or that they were alive, or intelligent. That they would be as different from us as we are from microbes. When writing about aliens, it's crucial to maintain that distance. That unknowable quality. Otherwise they're just people, on one level or another. Which is not to say that aliens can't be used as a metaphor for who we are. Certainly there are times when other people feel completely unknowable. But the strangeness, the distance, has to be central to any conception of a creature from another world.
Space.com: What was the research process like?
Wellington: I did a ton of research into rockets and space suits and orbital mechanics — the usual stuff. I knew I wanted this book to be about existing space hardware; in fact, the Orion spacecraft that will be used to take us back to the moon is central to the book, as well as the Space Launch System and other present day spacecraft. I wanted to get as much of that stuff accurate as I could. Then my publicist had a brilliant idea, that I should talk to some retired astronauts. When I did, it changed everything.
Before, the book had been a kind of techno-thriller, very much like Andy Weir's great book "The Martian." After I interviewed the astronauts I had to rewrite almost the entire manuscript. Not because it was bad but because I knew suddenly that I wanted to make this book something different. I wanted to focus on the human experience--and the human cost--of spaceflight. What it really feels like to live and work in space, as experienced by real human beings. What astronauts are actually afraid of, and why they have to take such incredible precautions in everything they do in space. It changed literally everything about the book, for the better.
Space.com: How did you balance writing science fiction while still maintaining some accuracy about space travel?
Wellington: By making the characters as human and real as possible. Giving their experience as much if not more weight than the mysterious things they see on board the alien craft. I really wanted my characters to feel like real people, doing real jobs. There's a great side benefit to that, which is that when they get thrown into peril--and don't forget, this is also a horror novel, so there's plenty of peril--the reader has already identified with them, they're already relatable, so the reader experiences their fear and their struggle that much more.
Space.com: People's fascination with extraterrestrial life never dies down, what do you think drives that curiosity?
Wellington: It's the ultimate question, isn't it? Not just, are we alone? I think at this point pretty much everyone agrees that there must be some kind of life out there. I wrote a previous trilogy of novels (starting with "Forsaken Skies") about the Fermi paradox, about why we haven't met aliens yet. But even in those books there was a sense that there had to be something, that life couldn't exist on just one planet out of an infinite or functionally infinite cosmos. I couldn't give up that belief. And if we assume there is life out there the next question has to be, what do they look like?
It's a deeper question than it sounds, at first. Alexander Pope said that the proper study of mankind is man. I think we are, at heart, fascinated by ourselves, by who we are, and what place we have in the universe. Aliens would serve as a perfect mirror for that pursuit. A way to measure ourselves, and maybe to understand ourselves on a whole new level.