Exclusive Interview: “The Moon And The Desert” Author Robert E. Hampson
Like a lot of writers, Robert E. Hampson’s influences don’t start and stop with books; they include TV shows as well. As he explains in the following email interview, his new hard sci-fi novel The Moon And The Desert (paperback, Kindle) wasn’t just influenced by his fellow writers, but also by a classic (and expensive) show from the ’70s.
To begin, what is The Moon And The Desert about, and when and where is it set?
The story is about astronaut / flight surgeon Glenn Sheppard. Glenn’s twin dreams were to be an astronaut, and to be a doctor. Now he’s both, and he’s set his sights on going to Mars as the medical officer of the next mission to build a permanent base on that planet. He’s on the Moon training, and is very badly injured, to the point of needing advanced prosthetics just to survive.
But serious injury won’t stop Glenn, he plans to go to Mars, even if his body has to be completely rebuilt to do it. He’ll also have to overcome prejudice and commanding officers who see him as just another cripple and remove him from the Mars mission.
Glenn intends to prove them all wrong…and when a crisis occurs with the Mars crew, he may just be the only person with the skills and knowledge to save them, not to mention being the only one strong enough to survive the attempt.
Despite the name, most of the first half of the book is on Earth, and we get to experience Glenn’s rehabilitation through his own eyes, and those of his closest friends. There’s even a few exotic tropical locations before moving on to a near-future moon base and ships traveling between Earth and Mars.
What inspired the plot of The Moon And The Desert?
I suppose the simplest answer is that The Moon And The Desert is my version of The Six Million Dollar Man TV show, which was in turn based on Martin Caidin’s book Cyborg. I grew up with the TV series, and yes, I read all 4 of Caidin’s books. I really wanted to go into bionics as a scientific / engineering field (circa 1979), but the field itself didn’t exist (then). I still studied neuroscience as the closest field that piqued my interest, and in the past 40 years have worked with many of the scientists, engineers, doctors, and volunteers who have made the science of “bionics” a reality.
Also, in the TV series, Steve Austin was trained as a spy. Moreover, he didn’t choose bionics, Oscar Goldman did it for him. In the books, Austin was even meant to be an assassin, and really wasn’t happy with his bionics. Having worked in the field, I knew that the first person to have such an extensive rebuild would definitely be a volunteer, and their day job would be more mundane than spy, but might be an astronaut or other type of professional.
So I wanted to update the bionics, make the capabilities — and the job — more realistic, while also getting into the character who would volunteer for such a “job.”
The Moon And The Desert sounds like a sci-fi story, but a rather grounded one (no pun intended). Is that how you’d describe it?
Oh, one should always intend their puns…I do, and frankly, the story is full of small jokes and Easter Eggs for science fiction (and science) fans.
Yes, I definitely describe The Moon And The Desert as sci-fi, in fact, it is hard-science sci-fi in the spirit of Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, etc. — and newer role models Bova, Benford, Travis S. Taylor, and Les Johnson, to name a few.
I do have other stories that fall under the sub-genre of military sci-fi, but this isn’t really that. This one is about the characters. From that point of view, we have a military officer who disobeys orders (even if he’s been forcibly retired), so he’s not really following a military tradition. He’s much more of the lone hero on a journey of (self) exploration.
That actually makes this story “space opera” in a way, but it doesn’t really have the vast canvas and rollicking adventure also associated with space opera. My publisher has called it a medical thriller, but that, too, is only part of the story…the second part, actually.
If I get the chance to take this story into sequels, I’d like to try for “technothriller,” but that also implies a tension that constantly ramps up until the final resolution, so that’s a pretty tall order and doesn’t really describe the current book.
So for now, “hard sci-fi” will do.
Now, when not writing stories, you’re a neuroscientist. And I’m sure that had a big influence on the scientific aspects of The Moon And The Desert. But what do you see as being the influences on the story, and how you tell it? And I don’t just mean literary influences, but non-literary ones as well, such as movies, TV shows, or games.
As I mentioned before, the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man and Martin Caiden’s books were a big influence. After all, it inspired me to become a scientist, but there’s even more to the scientific influence than that. My PhD degree is actually physiology and pharmacology, plus a prior MS in biology that is primarily aquatic biology. Add to that, teaching in college (biology & microbiology) and medical school (neuroscience); substitute teaching in elementary, middle, and high school for a year; pre-doctoral research in chemistry and biochemistry; and work with human patients and volunteers in my clinical research. Thus, there are many more scientific influences on the story than just neuroscience, from the rehab patient attitude and psychology, considerations for infection, and the medical emergency that only Glenn can solve.
As much as I like board, card, and video games, I’ve never really managed to spend the time to be proficient in more than a handful, so those aren’t really much of an influence. I read incessantly, though, and every sci-fi book I read, I also study for technique and example. I also have lots of friends who are authors, and many of them have helped guide my own writing.
Once less obvious influence, though, is that I like to travel. Hawaii is a favorite destination for my wife and me, so we see a number of my favorite sights and places in the book. In fact, a friend and fan who saw an early version of the book just returned from a trip to the islands where he retraced many of the steps of the “ExtremeIron” competition I created for the story…just to see if all of those places are really there. (Hint, they really are, and yes, I’ve been there.) In fact, with the exception of ones on the Moon and Mars, the places in the book are all real places.
We’ve talked about the influence The Six Million Dollar Man had had on The Moon And The Desert. What about more modern versions of bionics, like, say, the mechanical pants that Tony Stark makes for Rhodey at the end of Captain America: Civil War?
Well, in my story, I do include a hint about someone with a lower-extremity exoskeleton like Rhodey’s, but the influence for that actually goes way back, to The Ship Who Searched by Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey. In that book, a character who was paralyzed from the waist down received an exoskeleton and refers to himself as “doctor on the half-shell.” So, yes, another example of an influence of what I’ve read.
Also, I mentioned Easter Eggs. There are many, many quotations from books, movies and TV shows, and in particular, several key lines from the HBO miniseries From The Earth To The Moon. Fans of the Apollo missions and early spaceflight trivia will see some familiar quotations.
Speaking of TV shows, do you think The Moon And The Desert could be adapted into a TV show? Or would it work better as a movie or a game?
Hmm. TV, movie, or game. I’d say limited series on TV. I’m afraid that a movie would have to sacrifice too much story, though I suppose it could be done in two parts, one that takes us up to the first demonstration of Glenn’s bionics to the public, and the second that encapsulates the medical mystery of the second part of the book. Straight TV, though, requires episodic story, and I just don’t have that…yet. A sequel or two would certainly provide enough story, particularly how I have planned and I know that scriptwriters can create a bit of drama even when none exists in original story, so I think it possible.
A game? Frankly, I don’t know enough of the industry to wrap my head around how the story could be incorporated into a game, but I do know some folks in the industry, and like the issue with scriptwriters taking a bit of story and making it dramatic, it could potentially be possible to make a problem solving game with a bit of first-person-shooter embedded in it, just fighting off bad guys.
Though, I have to say that this question brought back a memory. In college, I was at the University of Texas at San Antonio right when the campus was first completed. Downstairs in the Life Sciences building was a small student center with bookstore, game room (mostly pinball) and snack bar. I spent many quarters in the Six Million Dollar Man pinball machine — so yes, I could see The Moon And The Desert as a pinball game.
Interesting. Now, if someone wanted to adapt The Moon And The Desert into a limited series on TV, who would you want them to cast as Glenn and the other main characters?
Here’s the thing: while I had Steve Austin in mind prior to writing the character, I didn’t really have a specific person in mind for Glenn Sheppard…at first. I sort of had a generic blend of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo astronauts in my head, but still, no face, no ethnicity, no actor in mind. Then I wrote Jen Butler. She wasn’t originally intended to be a love interest, but rather, a bit of an adversary. As a journalist, she was supposed to dig into Glenn’s story at a time that Glenn was trying to avoid notice. She wasn’t in my original outline, and I sent her section off to my “alpha readers” — the folks who read the first, and sometimes unfinished, drafts, and give me feedback. They liked her, wanted more, and they told me that her ethnicity came through loud and clear.
Huh, I had no idea, I just wrote her as if she was dictating her story to me. So, that led to the idea that Glenn was of mixed ethnicity, and the more muddled, the better. So, I came to see Glenn as looking a bit like Dwayne Johnson [Black Adam], who has a wonderfully diverse family tree, and can fit just about any role one could imagine. For Yvette? I’m thinking Emily Blunt [A Quiet Place]. Jen would be a cross between [John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum‘s] Halle Berry and [Guardian Of The Galaxy‘s] Zoe Saldana. Doctor Nik is the tough one, there’s a very real person who inspired the character, and I would have to think carefully; Rami Malek [Mr. Robot] might have the appearance, but Kevin Hart [Ride Along] would have the attitude.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Moon And The Desert?
The science is real. That’s what I’d say. The bionic capabilities are realistic, if extrapolated about 20 years into the future. I think I have more of these stories in me, so I’d love it if people turn out to like the book.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Moon And The Desert, which sci-fi novel of someone else’s, one that also deals with neuroscience, would you suggest someone read because its approach to neuroscience is rather accurate, and then which one that maybe isn’t accurate but a good read would you suggest they check out?
I’m frankly not sure if I can point to any books that are specifically good for the neuroscience, since I tend to read for adventure, and frankly, to keep my story ideas “clean” I’m reading in a totally different genre these days…but I certainly enjoyed Wired and its sequel Amped by Douglas E. Richards. They both involve boosting human IQ, and the science is not quite as accurate, but the stories were quite enjoyable. A Deepness In The Sky by Vernor Vinge explores mind control and interfacing. Also, Charles E. Gannon’s Riordan Caine universe (starting with Fire With Fire) incorporates some good neuroscience as the series progresses.
Now, what I can really recommend is books with really great science. My good friend (and co-editor) Les Johnson is one of those, and he has a number of good books out: Mission To Methone, is one, or Saving Proxima with Travis S Taylor, or, Rescue Mode with Ben Bova. For good science, overall, The Martian by Andy Weir [which you can read more about here], and the books behind The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey.
Finally, I always point readers back to my favorites in the classic hard sci-fi genre, Asimov, Clarke, and James P. Hogan, who actually wrote engineers rather than scientists, but did it extremely well. These are the stories that inspired me to write in the first place.