As the sci-fi loving son of a grade school science teacher, I’ve long lamented that our missions to the moon ended after only six trips. And no, not just because I’d love to eat a breakfast burrito while hopping along the surface of the moon (as cool as that may be). Well, at least I have fiction to feed my mind; fiction like Alan Smale’s new alt-history sci-fi novel Hot Moon (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Smale discusses what inspired and influenced this space story.
To begin, what is Hot Moon about, and when and where does it take place?
It’s 1979, in an alternate timeline where the Apollo Program kept going after Apollo 17, and went from strength to strength. The Soviets were also more successful with their moon program, and both superpowers are developing semi-permanent bases there, five hundred miles apart on the surface. In Earth orbit, the USAF has crewed surveillance stations (the Manned Orbiting Laboratories of our own timeline, actually developed and implemented), and the USSR has similar Almaz stations, based on Salyut. So, the Cold War is progressing rather differently, and is about to turn hot.
Enter Vivian Carter, commander of Apollo 32, in lunar orbit on her way to an expeditionary landing in the volcanic Marius Hills area, with her crew, Lunar Module Pilot Ellis Mayer and Command Module Pilot and maneuvering whizz, Dave Horn. En route, they dock with a space station in lunar orbit — which is essentially a Skylab, from our Apollo program, studying the Moon — to resupply it.
And then all hell breaks loose, when Columbia Station is attacked by Soviet Soyuz craft, in what’s essentially the first ever space battle, with clunky Apollo-era technology.
Vivian and her crew escape this attack, and she ends up on the lunar surface, but in a very different way than anticipated, and in a different place — the existing NASA Hadley Base. The eighteen astronauts at this base are not at all prepared for a Soviet military incursion, and Vivian and her new colleagues are forced into some serious ingenuity and improvisation in order to survive.
And that’s just the first part of the book.
As you can likely tell by now, Hot Moon takes place almost entirely on and around the Moon. It’s also told from both the U.S. and Soviet perspectives — Vivian Carter is our lead, but we get the points of view of a range of characters from both sides.
Where did you get the idea for Hot Moon? What inspired it?
Hot Moon is the book I’ve wanted to write since I was nine years old, watching the Apollo Moonshots in England, and dreaming about walking on the Moon myself.
After I finished Eagle And Empire, the third book in my Clash Of Eagles trilogy [which you can read more about here and here], I was ready to write something very different. I had two wildly different scenarios in mind: another series, a “big” alternate history epic drama set all across the Mediterranean in the fourth century AD; and a much tighter and more focused adventure thriller set in the late 1970s and early 1980s using entirely era-appropriate technology. I wrote both. The first hasn’t sold yet, and the second is Hot Moon.
And is there a reason you set it in 1979 as opposed to 1989 or 1999 or 2019? Or, for that matter, 2079 or 12079?
Hot Moon has to begin in 1979. There’s really no other year it could be set. It requires the very specific technologies that were available at the time: the Apollo and Skylab craft in the West, and the Soyuz and Almaz capabilities in the Soviet Union. Just a few years earlier, the events in the book wouldn’t have been feasible. Five years later, the technological landscape and capabilities might have progressed to look very different. The world of the late 1970s is embedded on every page and in every detail of Hot Moon. And — although there are no scenes set on Earth — some Earth events that were happening contemporaneously in the late seventies do have a bearing on the story’s background.
It sounds like Hot Moon is a sci-fi story, but an alternate history one. Is that how you see it?
Hot Moon is my alt-Apollo thriller, set entirely on and around the Moon in the late 1970s. It includes the world’s first space battle, with appropriately clunky technology.
It’s definitely alt-history, and definitely hard sci-fi.
As you mentioned, Hot Moon is a very different novel from your Clash Of Eagles series. Are there any writers who had a particularly big influence on Hot Moon but not on anything else you’ve written?
There’s a touch of Andy Weir about Hot Moon. In The Martian, Weir plunges deep into some pretty heavy technology, to the point of sometimes doing the math on the page justifying his hero’s options and actions. Similarly, everything in Hot Moon is as technologically accurate as I could make it. I even made sure the various rocket engines would indeed have enough fuel onboard to do the orbital mechanics and maneuvers that I put the various craft through. I obviously don’t slow down the action by getting into the weeds of those particular calculations. But I do have a particularly tense scene where Vivian is quickly doing math in real time and assessing the resources she has, in a semi-controlled panic, to figure out her chances of surviving the really dangerous situation she finds herself in. And I have other scenes where a group of unarmed astronauts are discussing how they can use their ingenuity to adapt the standard non-military Apollo tech and other materials around them into offensive weapons and defenses against the Soviet ground attack they know is inevitable. I think Weir made that kind of geekiness strong and sexy, or at least acceptable in a science fiction novel (it was always acceptable to readers, but sometimes less so to publishers…). Gregory Benford gets just as nuts-and-bolts-technological about the atomic bomb in his — very exciting! — World War II alternate history novel, The Berlin Project.
A number of ex-astronauts have written extremely evocative books about the Apollo program and their experiences. Two of the best are Carrying The Fire by Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, and Last Man On The Moon by Gene Cernan. I was consciously trying to write something just as detailed and evocative — fictional, in my case, but with all the wonder and excitement of the real Apollo program. I hope people finish Hot Moon thinking “Dang, we really should have kept going to the Moon after Apollo 17.”
How about non-literary influences; was Hot Moon influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Perhaps the movie, Apollo 13? And Gravity, which also has a female astronaut protagonist in dire straits in space? (Although the physics is not as well grounded in Gravity as it is in Hot Moon.)
Aside from those, I don’t think so. Not consciously, at least. There’s now a TV show called For All Mankind which shares the same initial premise as Hot Moon, but my book handles the idea very differently and the plot goes in a very different direction. (I haven’t actually seen the show, but I’ve read the Wikipedia articles describing the episodes, and other summaries and episode guides, so I have the general idea.) I found out about that show long after I’d developed my own Hot Moon outline, and publishing is a slow game: I’d already completed a polished draft of Hot Moon and sent it to my agent and beta readers before the first episode of the show aired.
Unless both the press materials and Amazon are wrong, Hot Moon is the first book in a series called Apollo Rising. What was it about this story that made you feel it couldn’t be told in just one book?
Well…to be perfectly honest, I originally intended Hot Moon to be a stand-alone. I had a trilogy I was trying to sell at the same time, and my first series, Clash Of Eagles, was pitched as three books from the start, but at I initially meant Hot Moon to be a single book.
And then the reviews and blurbs came in really strong, and my CAEZIK publisher, Shahid Mahmud, and I started talking about a sequel. And, you know? I didn’t jump at the idea straight away. I wanted to think about it. So I spent some time reviewing my copious notes, seeing what I’d already written and what I’d originally thought of writing but hadn’t, and where there might be hooks that I could develop further. And I quickly realized that this story has legs, that the basic scenario was wide open for additional storytelling. I found avenues, and characters, and ideas, that were ripe for further exploration.
Don’t get me wrong: Hot Moon is still complete in its own right. People can read it and be satisfied with the story. It has no cliffhangers, no loose ends, and if readers want to stop after the first book, they’ll certainly have had the full experience.
But the second book, Radiant Sky, does build on several of the themes from Hot Moon, and takes things in a direction that I think most readers won’t see coming. I took a couple of months to develop the plot and associated materials before sending my pitch in to Shahid, and I think that time was well spent. I’m now partway through writing Radiant Sky, and solidly convinced that it’ll be a worthy sequel to Hot Moon.
So, will this series be an ongoing thing or a set number of books, and why is it whatever it is?
If Hot Moon and Radiant Sky sell well, I can certainly see where a third book would go. I’ve even had preliminary discussions about that with my editor at CAEZIK, Lezli Robyn — though with no guarantees as yet that the third book will ever be written. But I think three books will be the limit, at least for my current lead, Vivian Carter. Her story and the broader arc will be complete after three books. And if there are only two books, I can guarantee that the second will also end in a completely satisfying place for the reader.
Upon hearing that Hot Moon is the first book of a duology, or maybe a trilogy, some people might decide to wait until all of the books are out before reading any of them. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait to read Hot Moon?
2019 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and there was a fabulous celebration on the Washington Mall to celebrate it. Other fiftieth anniversaries, for other aspects of the Apollo program, are still coming thick and fast. So this is a great time to read an Apollo-centric novel. And NASA now has the Artemis Program, where they’re working to put the first woman and the next man on the surface of the moon in the next few years. Space-inclined people can whet their appetites for that exciting future by reading about an Apollo past that never came about.
And, perhaps a little more darkly: some of the drama of Hot Moon comes from an armed conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Making the book perhaps slightly more…topical than I’d imagined when I was writing it.
I’ve already mentioned that Hot Moon is complete in itself. No cliffhanger ending: the reader won’t be left in limbo waiting for Radiant Moon. And as the more communicative readers of my Clash Of Eagles series know, I do write back to fans of my books who write to me. I’d really love people to read it just as soon as they can get their hands on it, so we can start those conversations.
Earlier I asked if Hot Moon had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around and ask if you think Hot Moon could work as a movie, show, or game?
I’m not sure how it would work as a game, though someone cleverer than me could likely figure that out. But it could certainly work well as a movie, or a TV miniseries. That would be my dream, my hope for it: a tight, exciting, slightly claustrophobic and very tense miniseries on a prestigious streaming network.
Now I’m thinking about it, six or eight hour-long episodes would work well with the action in the book. There would be decent break points, and allow enough time to do the characters and story elements justice, and pile on the tension.
Wow. Now I really want it to happen. Anyone have a cool producer on speed dial?
And if that cool producer on speed dial wanted to make a Hot Moon TV show, who would you want them to cast as Vivian and the other main characters and why them?
Honestly, I suck at that. For my Clash Of Eagles series there was this whole discussion on social media for a while. Who should play Gaius Marcellinus? Who should play Sintikala, war chief of the Eagle Clan? Who should be Great Sun Man, war chief of Cahokia? And all of the other major characters, too…it was a thing, for a while. And people kept asking me who I’d had in mind while I was writing it, and I honestly didn’t know. I don’t visualize my characters as movie stars. Popular sentiment seemed to be that Moon Bloodgood would make a great Sintikala, even though she’s Korean-American, and not native American. The guesses for Marcellinus were all over the place. I do have an image of him in my head, obviously, but haven’t matched that look with an actor.
Back to Hot Moon: I’m very much looking forward to hearing the audiobook, which will be narrated by Vivienne Leheny. She’s a terrific voice actress, and I think she’s going to do an awesome job. Her voice sounds very much like I imagine Vivian Carter’s voice. So at least I know that much. I visualize Vivian as not particularly tall, but not petite — her size matters, when it comes to whose spacesuits she can “borrow” at various points in the book, and how well she fits into them. She’s obviously super physically fit, so the actress would need to be convincingly athletic. And have a sardonic sense of humor.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Hot Moon?
I’ve emphasized the techie side a lot, so maybe I should say more about the characters, Soviet as well as American. Vivian is obviously my star, but we also get the viewpoints of Josh Rawlings (NASA astronaut, commander of Columbia Station), Peter Sandoval (USAF hotshot pilot and black ops dude), Nikolai Makarov (cosmonaut, second Soviet to walk the lunar surface), and Svetlana Belyakova (cosmonaut, first woman on the Moon), among others. Hot Moon is really more a people-story more than a tech-story, even though I’ve obviously done my homework.
And did I mention that it’s a fast-paced thriller?
Finally, if someone enjoys Hot Moon, what alt-history sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
In the alt.space arena, there’s some guy called Chris Hadfield — rumor has it that he was an astronaut, or something — who put out a novel called The Apollo Murders last year. The plot is way different from Hot Moon, but the technical background is solid (as you might imagine), and I think anyone who enjoys my book would like Hadfield’s, too.
And, of course, there’s Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series. Her alternate history setup is very divergent from our history — these aren’t really “Apollo stories” — but if you’re into space fiction, you might take to take a look.
In short fiction, Rosemary Claire Smith had a story called “The Next Frontier” in Analog Magazine in 2021 that’s also alt-Apollo. Rosie is a friend, and we had fun at Balticon recently discussing the similarities and differences in our perceptions of the Apollo program, and the ways we’ve reworked it for our own fictional purposes. Rumor has it that she may be writing more Apollo fiction in future.
And just to give Andy Weir another plug that he definitely doesn’t need: Andy doesn’t write alternate history (at least, not yet), but as I really enjoy science-heavy sci-fi, I’d certainly recommend The Martian and his later books to people who like Hot Moon.