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Interview: William Ledbetter on “The Long Fall Up”

Tell us a bit about “The Long Fall Up.”

In this version of our future, we have already built a huge Bernal type space habitat called “The Golden Mountain” that houses twenty-seven thousand people in space. Also being an economic powerhouse it not only physically controls access to space, but even most space related politics. We also have robust medical nano-technology and very advanced computer software that borders on being artificially intelligent. These three technologies come together when a young woman decides to personally break the space station’s monopoly on human expansion and the Mountain sends a man to stop her. Their ensuing conflict snapshots an event that will have far reaching implications for humans living in and expanding through our solar system.

 

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I’ve long been interested in issues like human reproduction in micro gravity. Barring some unexpected technological breakthrough, humanity will settle the solar system long before we colonize other star systems and that will require us to “relearn” how to make babies. Not so much their conception–I trust the participants will manage that just fine–but growing healthy fetuses in high radiation environments and null gravity will be difficult. It brings up many interesting questions. How much gravity will be enough? Will spin gravity be a suitable substitute? Or will space born humans evolve into something new? I knew I had the beginnings of an interesting story when I realized that controlling access to the only artificial gravity in space might also give control over of all reproductive rights in space.

 

What kind of research, if any, did you do for “The Long Fall Up?”

Since I’d been batting the idea around for a long time, I actually read a lot on this topic. Though I tried to mostly find articles and papers written at a laymen’s level I did a fair amount of head scratching over medical and biology terminology. What I found is that with our current levels of technology, tying to grow human babies in zero or micro-gravity is a really bad idea. As far as we know, no studies have been made using human embryos or fetuses, but there have been quite a few attempts to grow animal fetuses; including frogs, salamanders, sea urchins and even mice in both space and altered gravity induced by clinostats. Not only is there evidence of skeletal, nerve, muscular and organ malformation, but there are some indications that even the shape of cells can be affected. To date, none of the animal fetuses were able to develop fully. That said, studies also indicate that centrifugal induced gravity at as little as one third Earth normal might be enough to prevent most zero gravity problems, so at this point that sounds like the only viable way to reproduce in space.

 

How has your career in the aerospace industry shaped you as a writer?

I’ve been fascinated by aircraft and spacecraft since I was a kid, so I don’t think it surprised anyone that I ended up in this line of work. And of course many of the stories I write reflect that love of all things space. Oddly enough, I also approach writing projects like I do engineering projects. I get a good understanding of the main elements needed to make it work and then try to pull them all together into a well-functioning, tightly packaged whole. And like most engineering projects, there are a lot of dead ends, head scratching, false starts, adjustments, testing and sometimes even flat out total redesigns.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

For the last ten years I’ve run a contest for Baen Books and the National Space Society that publishes and gives an award for stories like this one, that show humanity’s exciting near future in space.  For details about the rest of my writing or this contest please visit my website at www.williamledbetter.com

 

“The Long Fall Up” appears in the May/June 2016 issue of F&SF.

You can buy that issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1605.htm

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