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Interview: William Ledbetter on “In A Wide Sky, Hidden”

William LedbetterTell us a bit about “In A Wide Sky, Hidden.”

In this future, mankind has spread throughout our galactic arm, but the job of exploring and cataloging new star systems has long ago been handed over to machines. Our protagonist grows up wanting to become a famous explorer, but eventually folds under pressure to do something creatively human and let the machines do the “machine work.” But it’s hard to be brilliantly creative after growing up in the shadow of a sister who is famous on hundreds of planets because of her huge, flamboyant artworks. When that sister disappears, leaving only a cryptic note asking their non-explorer sibling to come find her, on a world that will be her artistic “masterpiece,” they have no choice but to start looking. Of course with most life-long journeys of exploration, one seldom finds what one expects.


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

Most of my stories don’t really gel into something interesting until I combine two or more “what ifs” and this one was no different. I’ve been a space geek for a very long time and thought I had a good feel for just how big space is, but after I attended the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop in 2014 I gained an entirely new, and to be honest rather depressing, understanding of these vast these distances. For a brief time I even believed we will “never” be able to spread through the galaxy. Then I had an epiphany or sorts. Those distances are only insurmountable on a human scale because we have such short life spans. If we lived forever, or our bodies could be infinitely renewed, then suddenly the time required to cross those spaces didn’t mean as much. When I combined that with the idea of searching for someone who wanted to disappear in the cosmos, then it all came together.


Was “In A Wide Sky, Hidden” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

Two aspects of this story are rather personal to me. First off, I’ve been an advocate for human space exploration and settlement since I was a kid. I firmly believe that colonizing our solar system and beyond is the single most important thing our civilization can and should do. So knowing the vast majority of the world’s population cares far more about tomorrow’s pro soccer game or last night’s reality show episode leaves me bewildered and frustrated. (Except for the Expanse TV series, that is entirely different.) In this story I show the extrapolation of, and somewhat detrimental effect of, that apathy and boredom with discovering the wonders of the galaxy. The second, somewhat related point, is that I hate all shapes and forms of bullying, but there are forms like peer pressure and public shunning that continue to be socially acceptable. I tend to cheer for people who push back or ignore those bullies, when their behavior is just different and not hurtful to others. Following examples left by their long missing sister, this protagonist eventually comes to realize that following their heart is far more important than trying to become what others want them to be.


Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for this story?

This story takes place much deeper in the future and isn’t quite the “hard” science fiction that I usually try to write, so oddly enough there wasn’t as much research needed. I did discuss the utility fog or nano-swarm cloud with a couple of nano-tech experts and found that a good amount of thought has been put into the idea and it’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. And over many years I’ve also managed a fair bit of immersive research into Kentucky bourbon as well.


How does it feel to win a Nebula, and is there anything that you want to say about your work or the field in light of receiving this award?

I have to admit, winning a Nebula is pretty awesome. Since I don’t yet write full time, approval from readers and peers is by far my biggest reward, and in science fiction it’s hard to find better peer recognition than a Nebula Award. Even being nominated was a huge honor, but winning, especially from a field of such excellent novelettes was simply amazing. Being added to that long list of Nebula winners that includes the top names in our field is like a dream come true. And I personally think my winning story is a good indicator that nobody is being pushed out of our genre. There is still plenty of room for everyone, even hard science fiction space stories.


What are you working on now?

Mostly longer works. I’m about half finished with a hard science fiction first contact novel tentatively titled “Changing Horses” and will probably soon be editing a previously finished novel called “The Lion Makers.” Of course short fiction is my first true love, so I also have several short stories in the various stages of completion. Hopefully some that will soon come to F&SF!


“In A Wide Sky, Hidden” appears in the July/August 2017 issue of F&SF.

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Clicking on Mr. Ledbetter’s photo will take you to his website:


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