Methane, methane, everywhere...
Robinson was periodically convinced that he could smell the stuff getting in. He knew methane was an odourless gas, but traces of many other chemicals showed up as faint dark lines on the spectrometer. He wouldn't know what they smelled like until with a crack or a hiss the bubble broke, and... what? Would it sink down into the depths, where increasing pressure liquefied the methane into an ocean, and further down to the layer of metallic hydrogen encasing the rocky core? Or would it rise like an air bubble in water, to pop at the edge of the planet's atmosphere, explosive decompression flinging him into infinity? These nightmares alternated, to the point where it seemed that even worse than the prospect of imminent death was that he didn't know how he would die.
"Successful Delegation" was my first published story, in 1999. However, its roots go back much further than that.
In 1990, I graduated from university and began the first of several low-paid temp jobs. I had to work to pay off my student debts, but I wasn't aiming for a conventional career. I was much more interested in pursuing my creative ambitions, which at that point amounted to a few juvenile scribblings and a few recently-learned guitar chords.
It swiftly became clear to me that if I wanted to get anywhere creatively, I needed to make the best use of my limited free time by focusing on a specific goal. I could try to do two things half-heartedly, or one of them well. I had to decide between writing and music.
The choice was simple. Music is a very ageist profession: most rock stars make it young, or not at all. On the other hand, writers can be any age. At 21, I figured I'd give music my best shot, and if that didn't work out, I could always try my hand at writing.
And so I began to practise guitar seriously, learning some more chords and attempting to write songs. I met other musicians, tried to put bands together, and bought what equipment my tiny budget would allow. In a modest way, I started to make progress.
In early 1991, I returned from a night out to find that my bedsit had been burgled. Almost everything I owned had disappeared. This put music on hold, as all my gear had been stolen. I had no money to replace anything until the insurance cheque arrived.
One of the few remaining items in my room was an old manual typewriter. With little else to do, I sat down and bashed out the first draft of what later became "Successful Delegation".
The story is about a human diplomat sent to negotiate with aliens who, because they live deep inside a gas-giant planet, have never seen the stars. The aliens find it hard to believe that a vast universe, containing other intelligent life, exists beyond their cloud-shrouded world. But in the encounter between human and alien, not everything is as it seems....
At this distance in time, I no longer remember exactly what inspired the story. However, the narrative hinges on a "reality twist" that's clearly influenced by Philip K. Dick.
Nowadays, Philip K. Dick is recognised as one of the major figures in twentieth century SF. It's hard to credit that he used to be relatively obscure. But when I discovered him as a teenager, almost everything he wrote was out of print. I haunted second-hand bookshops (this being long before the Internet made it easy to find old books), and it took me several years to complete my collection of his published SF.
Meanwhile, my insurance money eventually came through. I put the rough draft of "Successful Delegation" in my bottom drawer, and forgot about it while I went back to music.
I won't go into great length about my adventures in the Leeds music scene, save to say that I never achieved any particular success, or even got close. The years passed, and I realised that the older I became, the less likely I was to become a rock & roll star. In 1997, at the age of 28, I decided to quit music and see if I could make it as a writer.
I tinkered with various projects, initially planning to write a fantasy blockbuster, but after a while I decided it made more sense to start with short stories and work up to a novel. When I cast around for story ideas, I remembered the old typescript and dug it out of my bottom drawer. By this time I had a computer, so I retyped the text, polished it up, and started submitting.
After a couple of rejections, I sent the story to a small new British magazine called Noesis. They accepted it for their June 1999 issue, where it appeared as the lead story (along with an illustration that flagrantly contradicted the text). This was my first fiction sale.
Naturally I was delighted. It constituted validation after what at the time felt like a lot of hard work. Now, I look back and see that the acceptance came after I'd been submitting for less than a year, and had racked up a mere 18 rejections in total (on maybe half a dozen stories). Back then, I had no conception of what hard work really meant — not in the writing context, anyway. (The 'about the author' note at the end of the story said: "Ian Creasey ... read Mathematics at Leeds University, and has since held numerous loathsome office jobs." When I sent in my bio, I was sick of my day job. Several of my early stories featured protagonists with crappy jobs and deep festering resentments.)
As I soon realised, I had only sold a story so quickly because I submitted to a minor magazine. The standard procedure is to try all the top markets first, and when the inevitable rejections arrive, work down to the smaller venues — a time-consuming process. But I was impatient for a sale, any sale. Few things feel worse than being a wannabe writer without a single published credit. If you have one sale, at least that's something you can point to and tell your friends about. It's a positive sign.
The problem with prematurely dropping to the small magazines is that you then wonder whether you sold yourself short. Was the story in fact good enough to sell to a better market? Some years later, I did sell "Successful Delegation" to a magazine who paid me considerably more for reprint rights than I had received for initial publication. After that outing, the story received an Honourable Mention in Year's Best SF edited by Gardner Dozois, who presumably hadn't seen it in its original obscure venue. Since he admired the story enough to give it a mention, might he have bought the story for Asimov's if I'd submitted it to him? I'll never know.
I've described the publication background of my first story to illustrate, for the benefit of any would-be writers reading this, that it really is important to try the top markets first, even if you don't believe (as I didn't at the time) that they actually make much effort to read submissions from unknown authors. You can't win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket.
After "Successful Delegation" was published, I made more effort to submit my stories on a top-down basis. However, this meant that I had to wait nearly two years for my second sale.