Space…the final frontier. But what if it’s like the frontier that became the United States, one that had already been discovered by the time we got there. This is the premise behind Patrick Chiles’ hard sci-fi space exploration novel Frozen Orbit, which has just been released in mass market paperback (and is also available as a trade paperback and on Kindle). In the following email interview, Chiles discusses what originally inspired and influenced this story.
To begin, what is Frozen Orbit about, and when and where is it set?
It’s about NASA’s first crewed mission to the outer Solar System, prompted by the discovery of a derelict Russian spacecraft left in orbit around Pluto. It’s set in the near future, maybe ten to fifteen years from now. I intentionally keep my timeframes vague because otherwise they’re eventually going to become dated. In this case that might be unavoidable, as it has to happen within the lifetime of characters who would’ve been around for the fall of the Soviet Union.
Where did you get the idea for this novel, and how, if at all, did the idea evolve as you wrote it?
The idea had been rolling around in my head since around 2015, which is when the New Horizons probe was approaching Pluto. I’m an astronomy nerd and was anxious to see what they’d find. It was the only planet that we hadn’t observed up close, and I was fascinated by the mystery of this tiny world waiting for us out at the edge of the Solar System. What kinds of surprises might be lurking out there? What if they found something nobody expected, something that wasn’t natural?
Space aliens would’ve been too obvious, and I’m not really into that kind of fiction anyway. And it couldn’t be just another space probe; it had to be manned because otherwise where’s the fun in that? The ridiculous distances involved further dictated what kind of spacecraft they could find, which in the end left me with only one practical solution: the old Soviet Union. Finding a Mir-type spacecraft with “CCCP” emblazoned on it in orbit around Pluto would be pretty freaky and created a lot of potential mysteries. First of all, why didn’t they come back? What would’ve caused the Russians to keep it secret for forty years?
Another mystery that evolved along the way was the question of where we come from. It’s thought that primordial Earth might have been seeded with water and organic materials by comets from the outer Solar System, and since Pluto’s in that neighborhood it evolved into something more than just a Cold War mystery.
And yes, I’m still calling Pluto a planet.
It sounds like Frozen Orbit is a hard science fiction story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Absolutely it’s hard. It took forever to research the technicalities so they’d be feasible enough to not get me laughed at. At least not in polite company.
It also has some elements of Cold War technothrillers, which I was a sucker for back in the day. My fictional Russian spaceship was built with ’80s technology, which dictated the kind of drive system they’d have used. Long-duration spaceflight is really limited by life support and logistics more than anything else, so I started with the assumption that they’d have needed to make the round-trip mission in a year’s time. The only way to do it in a reasonable timeframe involves using nuclear bombs for propellant, which they had a lot of. We seriously studied this in the ’60s under Project Orion, and they determined you could push a fairly large craft up to a measurable percentage of light speed this way. It seemed reasonable to me that Soviet Russia would’ve been the only country crazy enough to actually build one, though I could see present-day China trying it.
Frozen Orbit is your third novel after 2012’s Perigee and 2015’s Farside. Are there any writers, or perhaps specific stories, that had a big influence on Frozen Orbit but not on anything else you’ve written?
Tom Clancy was a science fiction fan, and you can see how he danced around the edges of it in a few instances. A couple other big names in the technothriller genre eventually dove right in to sci-fi, like Dale Brown and Stephen Coonts. And I loved Michael Crichton. My approach to writing science fiction is “What Would Clancy Do?” but with a bit less technical exposition. It has to be there out of necessity, but there are ways to unpack that stuff without it reading like a user’s manual.
Technothrillers for me are the kind of science fiction that could become fact very soon if someone would only commit the resources to it. Farside has been compared to a mashup of Apollo 13 and The Hunt For Red October, while another reviewer described Perigee as “Airport for the 21st century.” Dale Brown was kind enough to read the first few chapters of that one while I was still polishing it and was a tremendous help when I was a newbie.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those have a big influence on Frozen Orbit?
Well, the images and spectral data that came back from Pluto drove a lot of my ideas for how surface exploration might go, but music has the biggest influence on my writing process. Like Larry Correia, I write to movie soundtracks, so Hans Zimmer and Michael Giacchino are big on my Spotify list.
The whole “mystery spacecraft at Pluto” idea was marinating in the back of my mind for a long time before the important “why” finally came together on my way home from work one night. The climax of the story hit me out of nowhere, the thing I was looking for that tied all the threads together while leaving it open for more to happen. Zimmer’s Man Of Steel soundtrack popped into my head and that’s what I wrote much of the first draft to. The second draft was to Interstellar, appropriately enough, but I came back around to Man Of Steel at the end.
And this is my last question about influences. You are a Marine Corps veteran and a licensed pilot. So what had a bigger influence on Frozen Orbit: your two lethargic dachshunds or your bovine cat?
The dachshunds, definitely. One in particular seems to find his way into my lap every time I sit down at my desk to write. I’m eventually going to have to give him co-author credit.
To be fair, my wife and sons helped with this too, which is one reason I dedicated it to them. I’m always bouncing ideas off of my family. My wife is great at helping me find the female characters’ voices and tells me when I’m hitting those notes right. Oddly enough, I often find them to be my favorites to write. And our sons are both nerds and contribute in different ways. The oldest is an aerospace engineering major, so I naturally work through a lot of technical concepts with him. Our youngest is more into superheroes and gaming and is great at the big-picture stuff. I warned him that he has a writer’s brain and that it’s best to just accept that now and get on with it.
Also, what the heck is a bovine cat? Is it a cat that’s white with black spots or a cat that’s the size of a cow and moves really slowly while looking at you like it could totally kick your butt, you know it, he knows it, no need to prove it?
Well, you can milk pretty much anything with nipples… (maybe I should give a free copy to whoever names that reference first).
Unfortunately, we recently had to say goodbye to our cat after having her in our family for thirteen years. She was a Maine Coon, which is either a large lazy feline or a small furry cow, but she was a good girl and we miss her.
Sorry to hear that. Oh, and it was Meet The Parents. Anyway, Frozen Orbit originally came out in trade paperback this past January; this interview is for the mass market paperback. Aside from being smaller and thus easier to carry on a plane, is there anything different about this version?
I just read the first-pass proofs, and love how they distilled one of the early “big reveal” scenes into a front-page teaser. I had a lot of fun writing that one, not least because it gave me an excuse to quote a pretty well-known line from Star Wars. Really, there was no other way to end that scene, it just came naturally.
Now, as you know, some sci-fi novels are stand-alone stories, while others are part of larger sagas. What is Frozen Orbit?
I’m working through the outline for a sequel right now, but it’s a self-contained story that occurs in the same world as Perigee and Farside. That wasn’t intentional at first, but about three-quarters of the way into it I was writing some subplot scenes with the NASA administrator and it became the perfect opportunity to write in one of my favorite characters from those books. It’s the kind of thing that makes you giddy when it falls into place and I laughed out loud when I typed in her name at the end of that scene.
Earlier I asked if Frozen Orbit had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But has there been any interest in adapting Frozen Orbit into a movie, show, or game?
There is a major studio evaluating Frozen Orbit right now. It’s exciting to consider but I’m trying to not get my hopes up too much. Even if they option it, it can be a long process which demands patience and a certain level of detachment. Talking with my publisher and other writers who have been down that road, you can drive yourself nuts thinking you’re about to hit the lottery. But I do believe the story would grab a viewer’s attention. Realistic space adventures like Gravity and The Martian are proof these kinds of stories can be very successful in the right hands. For that matter, look at The Expanse. We’re on the verge of turning futuristic fiction into real-world adventures and I think there’s a big audience for that.
If Frozen Orbit does get made into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?
[Ant-Man‘s] Paul Rudd would be a perfect Jack Templeton. He needs to be self-effacingly funny but supremely confident in his areas of expertise. Otherwise he’s unsure of himself, especially when it comes to his crewmate Traci Keene. Kate Mara would be a good choice for her. Though she’s already done The Martian, hopefully she wouldn’t mind being typecast as an astronaut.
Ewan McGregor [Birds Of Prey] would be a good pick for Owen Harriman, the NASA mission manager, and Christopher Plummer [Knives Out] would fit the role of Anatoly Rhyzov nicely. Werner Herzog [The Mandalorian] is another possibility, but I always saw Rhyzov as being more grandfatherly, and he can come off as pretty frightening (“Bounty hunting is a complicated profession” and all).
To round out the cast I like Michael Shannon [The Shape Of Water] for mission commander Roy Hoover and Marion Cotillard [The Dark Knight Rises] as his wife Noelle, the mission scientist.
I’ll be patiently waiting for my nominations from the Academy…
Finally, if someone enjoys Frozen Orbit, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one and not the other one?
Might as well start at the beginning with Perigee. That’s where all the characters in my larger universe got started and the groundwork is laid for Farside at the end.