"The Golden Record" by Ian Creasey — story background

With a grimace of distaste, Andrew unwrapped another granola bar.  Back on Earth, it had seemed a good idea to stock his ship with extremely dull food.  Otherwise, spending months in space — with nothing to do but write up his thesis — would just make him balloon in weight.  Yet now he had the opposite problem.  The ship kept telling him he needed to eat, but the "no added sugar" cereal bars looked as appetising as beige polystyrene.  Andrew gazed longingly at the single red packet behind the healthy rations, but he was saving that until —

A chime rang through the tiny cabin.  "Object detected," said the ship.  The wallscreen displayed a starscape, highlighting one infinitesimal speck.

I was born in 1969 and by the time I grew old enough to become interested in space, the moon landings were already history.  Throughout my childhood, the big story in space exploration was the Voyager mission to the outer solar system — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.  There's a special romance about the first close-up pictures of a new world, each with its own moons and rings and quirks.  I bought books featuring the photos, and I tuned into The Sky At Night for the latest on each planetary fly-by.

Archaeology is another of my interests, and it occurred to me that today's cutting-edge gadgets are tomorrow's relics.  Some day in the future, collectors and archaeologists would seek to salvage the early space probes.  I had this idea floating around for a long time, but it took me a while to figure out the angle that made it worthy of a story.

I imagined that 200 years in the future, the Earth will be governed by a World Polity, while the relict United States of America in Exile — from its base in Hawaii — agitates for a restoration of sovereign nation-states.  In this scenario the importance of Voyager is that it symbolises a vanished era of discovery and exploration.  At the time of the story, the solar system has been fully explored, but no progress has been made toward star travel.  The Americans resent the World Polity's museums for exhibiting space probes which they view as their property, and they say, "When we had our nation-state, we explored the furthest reaches of space, but the World Polity has stopped doing that."  The Polity counters by saying that in the old days, for which the Americans are so nostalgic, money was squandered on space travel while the vast majority of the Earth's population lived in wretched poverty.

I originally viewed the story as a simple conflict over Voyager between the Americans and the World Polity.  However, when I discussed the project in Codex (my online writing group), Eric James Stone suggested a conspiracy theory about a supposed "hidden track" on the Golden Record.  This raised the stakes of the importance of Voyager, made the motives of the characters potentially ambiguous, and introduced conspiracy theorists as a third party to the conflict.  I incorporated this element into the story and felt that it made a significant improvement.

In these notes about the genesis of my stories, I've generally refrained from describing how the text evolved to reflect feedback and critiques, since I figure the details are of limited interest to the wider public.  However, stories rarely emerge fully formed like Athena from the forehead of Zeus.  I sometimes ask for comments on an idea before I develop it, and the majority of my early drafts get critiqued by one or more of my writing groups.  I pay careful attention to feedback when refining a story for eventual submission.

I've name-checked Eric for this story because his contribution was particularly significant, but I'm not only grateful to him, I'm grateful to everyone who takes the time to comment on my work.  My thanks to you all.

Page last updated: 22 May 2015