Heading into this week, I set myself to the task of finally getting back to my work-in-progress. Now, looking back on the week, I feel I succeeded in that, and I couldn’t be happier.
The story that ultimately evolved into Pathfinder wasn’t even one I was sure I’d write. Originally, the first novel of the series I’ve come to call When We Left Earth was to be The Colony: a story following the exploits of the first extrasolar colonists. One member of that colony expedition was my protagonist, Randall Holmes, who by that point was middle-aged and had a reputation that had build him into something of a folk hero. Of course, every folktale has to start somewhere, so to write about Randall Holmes I needed to understand where his legend began.
My original notes on this installment, simply entitled The Explorers, were rough, intended more as background for further writing than the foundation for a full novel. Indeed, in retrospect much of it didn’t seem to work with the rest of the series. The original story involved Randall Holmes serving as navigator aboard a survey craft, which was forced to land on an Earth-like planet in the Vega system. There, Holmes and a single surviving crew member would struggle to stay alive on a harsh alien world while waiting for rescue. In the end, a rescue ship arrived only after Holmes’s surviving companion had perished, five years later.
The funny thing about When We Left Earth is the way it has emerged organically over time, but backwards. Each time I sat down to write background notes, I found the backstory I was writing more intriguing than what I was writing background for. That continued for a while, until at last I arrived at Pathfinder, and therein found my starting point: 2094.
The story has evolved significantly since I completed Wide Horizon, and set myself to writing Pathfinder in earnest. I began to really like the setting and tone of the story: a time when hope has returned to Earth decades after a cataclysmic war and pandemic, but an era in which mankind is still rebuilding. I also liked the idea that, while subsequent installments in the series will take place far from Earth, this story will deal, at least in the beginning, with Earth itself, set in Earth’s orbit, showing what life is like for humanity in this formative period.
Still, the real meat of the story will be the eponymous Pathfinder 7 mission itself. The story as it stands now sees a crew of astronauts stranded on an alien planet, far from home, forced to learn to survive while desperately searching for a means to contact Earth. Ultimately, the crew locates a rover that’s sat unused for years in a sun-drenched desert, at the middle of a distant island. And that, I’ve come to realize, will form the bulk of the story.
Upon finding this rover, which will allow them to contact Earth, the crew sets themselves to the task of building a makeshift sailing craft to reach it. Given the need for endurance and their sparse resources, the crew decides to model their craft after the voyaging canoes once used the the Polynesian peoples to sail across the Pacific. As such, they name their ship after one of those canoes, the Hokule’a.
As it currently stands, the voyage of the Hokule’a will serve as the climax of the story, and while this will be quite a challenge to write, I’m excited. After chapters of interactions between the crew, planning and devising and trouble-shooting, interspersed with interludes showing the politics of Earth, at this point everything changes. From that point on, the story is about two men, on a pontoon boat, sailing across an alien ocean and trudging across a parched desert. While Holmes will obviously be one of the two characters making the journey, as the other I chose Devon Blaine. While for story purposes he’s the crew’s robotics expert (making him the obvious choice to modify the rover), from the literary perspective he’s the perfect foil for Holmes: while Holmes is a seasoned outdoorsman and survivalist, Blaine has, to this point, spent his entire life on space stations and spacecraft, and is thus woefully unprepared for the natural challenges that await them.
At its core, Pathfinder is a story of human resilience: our inherent will to persevere, to push ourselves beyond our assumed limits. It’s about our will as a species to excel, and our collective unwillingness to give up. It will, at times, be grueling, gut-wrenching, but in the end I hope it will leave the reader both proud of what our species can achieve, and wondering what they themselves might be capable of.
After all, in my experience, most everyone is both smarter than they give themselves credit for, and stronger than they realize. We humans are resilient creatures. We adapt, we explore, and we survive. – MK