Exclusive Interview: “The Ross 248 Project” Co-Editors Les Johnson & Ken Roy
There are a lot of themes around which editors have constructed anthologies of science fiction short stories. Some are the best of a certain year or subgenre, some deal with a common idea, while still others are geographically- or identity based. But for The Ross 248 Project (paperback, Kindle), co-editors Les Johnson and Ken Roy not only chose a subgenre, and a thematic connection, but all of the stories also share a fictional world. In the following email interview, Les and Ken discuss how this anthology came together.
Les Johnson, Ken Roy
To start, what is the theme that connects the stories in The Ross 248 Project?
Ken Roy: Les and I received a contract from Baen to do a hard science fiction, shared-world anthology with a focus on terraforming. I’ve read several terraforming anthologies over the years and found them fairly dull, mainly because the stories were not connected. We wanted to connect the stories which fits in with the shared-world requirement. Thus we had to create a background for the story contributors to work with. We wanted it to be realistic and yet positive. So, we put together a future history, a bible if you like, for the authors to hang their stories on. This future includes sentient A.I.s, modified humans to survive in low gravity and high radiation environments, and of course normal humans. This future also includes something very similar to Heinlein’s Space Patrol, and there is an essay in the anthology on why such a thing is necessary. Long story but interesting.
Who came up with the idea for The Ross 248 Project?
Les Johnson: The Ross 248 Project was very much a joint effort. Like the other two science fiction / science fact anthologies I’ve coedited for Baen, Going Interstellar and Stellaris: People Of The Stars, The Ross 248 Project was inspired by the presentations and discussions at an Interstellar Symposium sponsored by the Interstellar Research Group (irg.space). Scientists and engineers at these meetings spend a lot of time thinking about the why and how of interstellar exploration and not nearly as much time considering what future explorers and settlers will do once they get to a planet circling another star. Given that finding another Earth is highly unlikely, what will they do to settle a planet that has to first be made livable? That was the “aha!” moment that led to us proposing the idea to Baen.
Ken put together the first draft of the bible and I reviewed it, made suggestions on how it could be improved, and then we brainstormed which authors to invite for both the stories and the non-fiction essays. The authors then used this outline to build their stories. The stories are entirely the product of the authors, though we did make suggestions, mainly along the lines of tying the stores together and getting some of the terraforming details more correct. And again, this is hard science fiction, so we had to work with the authors to eliminate non-plausible technologies. The is no magic in this anthology, though some of the assumed technologies could pass for it.
Right, as I remember from the interview we did about your novel The Spacetime War, I asked if it was scientifically accurate because you work for NASA, and you said, “I try to place story first, but always base my stories on real science.”
Les: Yeah, we tried to keep the stories set firmly in the realm of the possible. For this reason, we did not allow faster-than-light travel or communication or anything else that would clearly violate the known laws of physics. With regard to genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and the difficult business of terraforming, we tried to place realistic science and engineering into the category of, “what if?” Given these fairly loose constraints, the authors wrote entertaining and thoughtful stories in settings that are absolutely plausible.
I also wanted to ask: What does the name mean? Because it made me think this was a collection of the 248 times Ross on Friends complained that he and Rachel were on a break, which seemed like a weird idea for a sci-fi short story anthology…
Ken: Your confusion is understandable. We could have done a better job on the title, but The Ross 248 Project is kind of unique and mysterious. Ross 248 is an actual star system about 11 light years from Earth in the constellation Andromeda. It is a small red dwarf star, invisible to the naked eye, so don’t go out and try to see it. No planets have yet been detected there, so we created our own modeled on those observed around Trappist-1. The Ross 248 Project is the effort to build and send starships to this star. It is also the effort to colonize the star system, a system that has no Earth-like planets (well, except for one, but that’s discussed in the anthology).
The original title was going to be Under A Crimson Sun: The Ross 248 Project, but Baen felt that was too long.
As you alluded to earlier, The Ross 248 Project doesn’t just contain works of fiction, but non-fiction essays as well. But are they paired up? Like, did someone submit a story and you found a scientist to respond, or was it that a scientist would submit an essay and you’d ask a writer to pen a story on that subject?
Ken: The anthology contains two essays. One about the Space Patrol, an evolutionary descendant of the Space Force. The second is one on the art and science of terraforming, or at least how it might be done today. The anthology also has several appendices that go into more detail on the Ross 248 solar system, the projected timeline, and one on the Ross 248 starships. The essays were solicited by the editors for very specific purposes and fit into the anthology at an appropriate place and are not meant to correlate with specific stories. The appendices were prepared by the editors and were just fun.
So, aside from having to fit the theme, what other parameters did the stories have to fit? Did they have to be written for this collection, did they have to be above or below a certain word count…what?
Ken: Each author was given the “bible” we’d prepared. Each author was free to propose any story along the timeline. It had to be an original story written specifically for this anthology. When they submitted a story outline, the editors made sure to avoid duplicate ideas and events, and then provided the authors details on the setting and possible common characters that might be around at that time in which the story is set. Interestingly enough, there were no conflicts or duplications. We had a suggested word length of around 10,000 words. Most stories came in around that number.
You mentioned earlier that the stories in The Ross 248 Project are hard sci-fi, but are there other genres of science fiction as well?
Les: All are hard science fiction but that is a big net. Patrick Chiles’ story, “Garden Of Serpents,” could just as easily be categorized as military science fiction; Laura Montgomery’s “Somebody’s World” is a procedural legal drama; D.J. Butler’s “Dim Carcosa” is a hard-boiled noir detective story; and Monalisa Foster’s “One-Of-Antonia” contains elements of cyberpunk. The diverse range possible in good science fiction is why we love the genre.
Patrick Chiles, Laura Montgomery, D.J. Butler, Monalisa Foster
Did anyone come up with a story that really pushed the theme idea hard, almost to the point where you were like, “Does this fit? I think so. What do you think?”
Ken: None of them, in my opinion, pushed “the message” too hard. Certainly nothing that we had to address. The background contains “the message.” And hopefully, that will be fairly low key.
Now, Les, as you mentioned, you previously co-edited the anthologies Going Interstellar with Jack McDevitt and Stellaris: People Of The Stars with Robert Hampson. How do you think working on those, and with Jack and Robert respectfully, influenced what you did in The Ross 248 Project?
Les: Looking back on it, the three anthologies could have been proposed as a series, with Going Interstellar addressing the how do we go to the stars and why; Stellaris covering the voyage and challenges people will face in adapting to their new home world; and The Ross 248 Project implementing the longer-term vision, trials, and tribulations of what settlement of a new world might actually require and be like.
And Ken, with this being the first anthology you’ve edited, did you look at any others to get ideas of what to do, and what not to do?
Ken: I’ve been a sci-fi fan for over 50 years, and have read hundreds of anthologies and short story collections. I’ve seen countless panels where various pros talk about their experience on anthologies and how to do them. We talked to other pros who had done anthologies with Baen to get a few tips. Les has been through this before and helped resolve any open questions I had. First, we created the bible. Then we invited the authors. Finally, we edited the amazing stories that fill the volume.
Hollywood loves turning sci-fi stories into movies. Do you think any of the stories in The Ross 248 Project could work well as a movie?
Les: That is an interesting question. We think it would be difficult to do an individual story as an entire movie, but come to think of it, the setting of the stories would make an excellent backdrop for a streaming or television series, with individual stories being stand-alone episodes.
So, is there anything else people need to know about The Ross 248 Project?
Ken: At first, I wasn’t looking forward to working with professional writers. But it turned out to be a learning experience and a pleasure. They all made big contributions to the Ross 248 universe and made it so much more interesting and richer than the output from just a couple of caffeine riddled brains.
Les: Interstellar travel will be hard. Very hard. Even harder is the realization that after you go the trouble of reaching another star, it is likely you won’t find a readily habitable planet there and will have to invest additional generations, spanning hundreds of additional years, before any planet can be made livable. I think our authors conveyed this challenge in a realistic way and show us the most interesting part of the entire endeavor: the human element.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Ross 248 Project, what sci-fi anthology that someone else edited would you each suggest they check out?
Les: The Founder Effect , which was edited by Robert Hampson and Sandra L. Medlock, is at the top of my list of recent anthologies. Rob asked authors to weave history into narrative and legend, akin to our idealized notions of the Founding Fathers being larger than life when in reality they were very smart men, but also flawed human beings like the rest of us.
Ken: I’d also recommend The Founder Effect. For someone who has been to Libertycon (a science fiction convention held in Chattanooga in the summer) I would also recommend Give Me Libertycon.