Meg Howrey on the inner lives of astronauts

Space. It’s the backdrop for mythologies stretching back thousands of years, the brilliant dome of the night sky inspiring a nearly constant sense of wonder. But amongst the billions of stars that have guided us through generations and across oceans, one planet in particular has become our special obsession: Mars.

The Greeks, enthralled by the red planet, named it Ares, for their god of war. When the Romans bested them, they renamed the god and the planet. Today, Mars continues to suffuse popular culture and inspire space explorers. The Martian set box office records and Kim Stanley Robinson’s award-winning Mars trilogy extrapolates its future exploration, settlement, and terraforming. NASA has renewed plans to put a human on Martian soil and Elon Musk is pioneering a Mars colony that can act as a backup in case we exterminate ourselves here on Earth. We are building rockets, sending probes, and laying all sorts of plans. But in our quest to conquer Mars, we too often fail to ask what our celestial ambitions reveal about human nature.

In her new novel, The Wanderers, ballet dancer turned New York Times bestselling author Meg Howrey explores that precise question. The story follows three astronauts, Helen Kane, Yoshihiro Tanaka, and Sergei Kuznetsov, as they prepare for the first manned Mars mission. Before takeoff, the astronauts must endure a seventeen-month training exercise in an isolated facility overseen by the conglomerate Prime Space. Every detail of the simulation has been painstakingly honed to mirror the actual mission and the astronauts are under constant pressure to perform, lest they lose their coveted seat when launch day finally arrives. But as they near the end of a series of trials that push them to their technical and psychological limits, it becomes clear that their internal voyage is every bit as important as the interplanetary one they’ve dedicated their lives to.

The Wanderers is a moving and intimate novel that invites us into the hearts and minds of humanity’s top performers. Helen, Yoshihiro, and Sergei are heroes, but their celebrity puts them under the microscope of public scrutiny even as Prime Space psychologists dissect every moment of their lives aboard the simulated spacecraft. Weaving together adventure, speculation, and reflection, The Wanderers offers emotional and intellectual insights into how we all wrestle with isolation, alienation, and ambition. in a world transformed by technology where reality seems to become more and more virtual every day.

Anyone aspiring to one day set foot on Mars, or hoping to understand those that do, will find Meg a uniquely capable guide to outer and inner space. She was kind enough to answer a few questions about the cultural significance of space exploration, the promise and danger of virtual reality, what we can learn from extreme top performers, the importance of art and philosophy in engineering, and her own research and creative process.

The story, characters, and world you’ve built hints at an immense effort to consider and vet the smallest of details. How did you research the book? What counterintuitive things did you learn along the way?

I didn’t know enough about space exploration when I started working on the book to have much in the way of intuition. It was more of a straight climb up with a notebook. When I started writing I would scare myself with visions of Space Technology Judges hovering over my shoulder, saying things like, “Get off our lawn.”

Later I softened that to, “Use our hard-earned knowledge for a metaphor if you MUST, but please do try to understand the thing on its own merits first.”

I read a lot of books on the history of space exploration, and a lot of astronaut memoirs and interviews. So many people have written in depth about how we might get to Mars and back, so that was very helpful in coming up with a plausible mission architecture.

At one point I thought, “What I really need is a book about the psychology of space exploration” and I found a collection of studies titled “The Psychology of Space Exploration,” so that was a good day. I was lucky enough to attend the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, a kind of Berlitz course in space science run out of the University of Wyoming, which has the specific goal of helping writers not mess up the science too badly.

The goal for me was to let the research sink down to the bottom of the writing. I didn’t want to leave the people of the book in order to info-drop, even if the info was incredibly interesting. That took time, a lot of time, because things need weight to sink and I needed to push my knowledge past the superficial as much as possible.

In the end, I had to be satisfied with a good faith effort and then ask some incredibly smart and kind space scientists to look over the manuscript and flag for errors. All mistakes left in the book are entirely my own.

Every character in The Wanderers struggles to define and make good on the price they’re willing to pay to achieve their dreams. How does desire shape our lives? What sacrifices have you made for the sake of your aspirations?

I’m interested in how we define “desires” versus “ambitions,” and the rules we absorb on about what aspiration should look like. Aim high and follow your bliss, only don’t be a jerk about it, do it in a way that looks nice and not too selfish. These ambitions are unremarkable in one gender but open to criticism in another. These desires are acceptable under these conditions otherwise they are unnatural.

It seems generally understood that ambition has to do with work—hard work—while desire has a murkier reputation. Ambition has to do with goals while desire traffics in feelings. Ambitions are achieved. Desires are satisfied, or sated.

But typically our first idea after achievement or satisfaction is to want more. Desire is wrapped around our ambitions, and threaded through it.

I’m pretty sure everything I’ve foregone for the sake of my aspirations was either something I wasn’t ever terribly interested in, or didn’t quite believe the reality of, or wasn’t aware enough of to properly weigh. Can you make a sacrifice and not be aware of it? “The Unwitting Martyr.” It sounds like an Edward Gorey cartoon, no?

The astronaut protagonists show us how self-control is the flip side of ambition. How did you map the psychology of extreme high performers? What did you discover about the internal lives of the top .000001%?

It was great fun to have a character in The Wanderers tasked with that very job! I could shift over some of my bemusement to him. Astronauts spend their careers proving they are the very best person for the job and are consequently extremely good at it. At best, you hear a lot of, “Although there are challenges, I was able to quickly overcome them with the help of fellow crewmembers/ground support/my family.”

We all enjoy imagining astronauts as being incredibly brave, heroic, resourceful, and brilliant. Why would an astronaut want us to think anything else? There’s zero reward in that for them. Also, astronauts really are those things! Most of us have at least one or two good qualities but we don’t often possess that quality and its extreme opposite. Astronauts do incredibly well with being blasted off the Earth and they do equally well with boring and repetitive tasks. They can work alone, they can work in a diverse group, lead a team, or be a team member. They can follow orders exactly, or excel at working autonomously, as the situation requires.

The astronauts in The Wanderers certainly aren’t based on real astronauts, and I wasn’t interested in demystifying our view of these elite performers. What excited me was the idea of each of them coming into a self-knowledge that was new. I was interested in the ways they handle that, and where it takes them, and whether that self-knowledge was a thing they could live with. Are there certain connections, with other people or with themselves that these three very particular people would find too costly? What does a mission into interior space look like?

What does space mean to humanity, and how has its cultural significance changed over the years, decades, centuries? To the extent that technology has brought the stars within our reach, how has does the new proximity of the final frontier impact us as individuals and communities?

The answers here could easily comprise three separate dissertations, none of which I’m qualified to write. I like to imagine a history of humanity that is ALL a reaction to looking up at the sky and the sun and the stars and our moon and the visible planets, and thinking, “Huh?” And depending on your environment and how you are constituted, your reaction to the heart stopping “Huh?” might be tribal religion, or art, or submitting your observations and tests to peer review. This would be the “Huh? School of Human Culture” which I admit doesn’t track very deeply. I read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and I do see that human culture has a lot to do with, you know, wheat.

I expect that until the moment arrives when humans have to leave Earth, or when we’ve averted an asteroid collision, there will always be people questioning the value of space exploration. This, even though I’ve never seen a list of humankind’s greatest achievements that doesn’t have the moon landing in the top five. And in our fractured, distracted society we get handed these incredible gems of enlightenment about the nature of our cosmos, but we have to try to find a source of clean water, or we’re worried about our water bill, or we’re taking a really pretty picture of water to post on Instagram.

In The Wanderers, the character of Luke has a sense of urgency about humanity’s need to understand itself better and make a few improvements before it begins colonizing other planets. Historically, humans are impressive explorers but really terrible colonizers. We make great tools, but we’re irresponsible with them. This imbalance has not worked well on Earth. We need to be as thoughtful as we are handy.

Although the story focuses on characters preparing for a journey to Mars, you weave in themes as diverse as living under near-perfect surveillance, privatization of what were once public endeavors, the gap between utopia and reality, and the delicate balance between isolation and connection. As you worked on the novel, what current events or future trends were you thinking about? What caught your attention in the news? What does The Wanderers have to say about modern life?

Oculus Rift premiered while I was working on the book. Even just the language of its advertising was really striking to me: the promise of feeling like you are really there. Unpacking the depth of that statement is part of the point of The Wanderers, so I was trying to examine my own paranoia about VR. Do we want to feel like we are really there when we know that we aren’t? Does the knowing go away and is that a good thing? And then I kept finding all this fascinating research on the use of virtual reality in therapeutic situations: for connecting with autistic persons, for treating PTSD and depression. All of which seemed incredibly positive.

I can’t recall exactly how I fell into the loophole of robotics, but after watching a bunch of videos on the development of robotic caregivers, that got folded into the novel. Here too I was instinctively repelled at first. Humans, I thought, need to be touched by other humans. It’s important not just for the receiver but the giver. And then I’d watch lovely videos of patients with dementia happily petting robot animals.

Not being sure about things and having a lot of questions is the best way to enter a novel.

The Wanderers is set in a very near future or a slightly alternative present, so the novel doesn’t go too bananas with anything speculative. I did imagine that China was attempting to establish a base on our moon, with a view to drilling for resources, and so all the government space agencies had turned to their attention back to the moon, thus leaving a private space company to fill the void on a crewed Mars mission.

But yesterday I read about an asteroid-mining startup called Planetary Resources that is heavily funded by the nation of Luxembourg, of all places. Their stated mission is to “expand the economy into space.” So apparently I needed to be a little more bananas.

Also it seems we’ve advanced—if that’s the correct word—enough as a culture to confront the magnificent “Huh?” with, “There must be stuff up there we can sell.”

Life in 2018 seems to be teetering on the edge of the uncanny valley. Or it’s the valley itself that is eroding. So I feel certain that art and philosophy can’t be left out of this conversation. It’s nice to see the inclusion of “A” into STEM, but “P” needs to be there too, even if it makes for a clumsy acronym.

What did your creative process look like for the book? What was the darkest, hardest moment and how did you overcome it? In writing The Wanderers, what did you discover about yourself?

I wrote the book in the kitchen of an apartment I no longer live in. It faced an alley and an auto-collision center so I kept the curtains down. It was noisy, and often hot, but I gesticulate too much while writing to write outside my dwellings.

I was pretty happy, actually, because The Wanderers is my third novel and I know by now that the absolute best and most satisfying part of writing is the writing itself. I never cheat this anymore, or delay any kind of joy until I sell a book, or see a book published. My background is performance, and writing is a performing art for me. Publishing is a great honor, but it’s not a performing art, from the writer’s perspective anyway.

I read and researched for about two years while trying to feel the shape of the book. The research continued during the writing, and the whole process was much slower than on any other book I’ve worked on. But that felt right for this book, and for where I was trying to stretch as a writer. Also, I had seven major characters to fall in love with and they were wonderful company. Sometimes we were all lonely, but I was the least lonely.

The worst days were when I stepped outside the attempt and projected the result. I thought that even if I managed to write the thing the way I wanted to, and even if I managed to sell it, the book wasn’t going to fit neatly enough into any category to be successful in the crass sense of the word. But you can’t not write the thing you are most interested in simply because the marketing might be tricky, or your audience might be small.

On one of those “worst days” I picked up Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and that book moved me so much and was such a brilliant example of what is possible to do when you aren’t concerned with genre boxes. It pointed me back to what mattered.
Highlights amongst my personal discoveries might be learning that I need to alternate writing standing up with writing sitting down, that revising a chapter after knee surgery can give it a really fun edge, and that I do see that free will is a hallucination. (That last one just sort of crept up on me.)

What does reading mean to you? What does literature offer us? What books have you read, known or unknown, new or old, that have changed your life?

Everything.

Everything, but you still need to drink water and eat properly and take care of your body, if only so you can go on reading.

Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. I read these books around the same time, and I’m still not sure exactly what happened, but they caused some shift in the way that I read.

Until that point reading had been many things -- an addiction, an escape, a great solace -- but I think I read like a person in a dream, where all the characters were there as mirrors. I relished the words, but mostly I dressed myself up as the characters and strolled through their landscapes in a kind of solipsistic trance. But here was a series of books that opened up for me the deep pleasure of noticing ideas and the way they are crafted, of seeing the art and architecture of a piece of fiction.

Here was the writer, and the writer was doing these wonderful things in different ways and showing things that I needed to understand. (I had a very sketchy formal education and if I’d ever been taught to read in this way, I hadn’t been listening or it hadn’t landed.) Anyway I got off the stage, as it were, and moved to the audience and started paying attention. It’s why I’m never jealous of great writers or think, “I wish I had written that.” If I had written it, I wouldn’t be able to be in the audience, so surprised and delighted and absorbed.

Complement with Kim Stanley Robinson on lunar revolution, Eva Hagberg Fisher on the art of writing memoir, and my monthly reading recommendations.

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