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Interview: Mary Robinette Kowal on “The Phobos Experience”

Tell us a bit about “The Phobos Experience.”

This is set in my Lady Astronaut universe after the events of Fated Sky, and is sort of my rollicking space adventure with pirates in a world where we settled Mars during the punchcard era.

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

It began when Charlie showed me a painting by Bob Eggleton — whose work I love — and said that he was looking for a story to go with it. I did this when once I was art director at Shimmer for the “art issue.” We commissioned writers to create stories to go with art that we loved. So when Charlie showed me the painting and passed along Bob’s thoughts on the painting. “When I painted it, I had in mind things like ROCKETSHIP X-M (which was made in 1949) and DESTINATION MOON. The theory being it was some secret mission early on to Mars. All covered up of course. I kind of miss those days of what people felt a mission like that would be like.”

I was so on board. That sense of the early days of space travel was exactly what had inspired me when I wrote Calculating Sky. We did so many amazing things when computers were in their infancy, and I wanted to catch that sense of adventure.  And then, of course, the fact that he had clearly set it on one of Mars’s moons…

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette KowalCan you tell us about any of the research you may have done for “The Phobos Experience?”

Let’s talk about Mars’s moons, shall we? I’m pretty sure that surface that the ship is on in Bob’s painting is Deimos, because that a) looks like Phobos in the sky and b) Deimos is farther from Mars. So my apologies for completely ignoring that. My problem was that while both moons are tiny, I had serious concerns about gravity on Deimos. The escape velocity is about 13 miles per hour, which could offer some interesting fiction possibilities since a running jump could, potentially, put you into orbit. I thought about it for about ten minutes until I learned about the Phobos April Fool’s Joke. 

See there was this Russian astrophysicist Iosif Samuilovich Shklovsky, who around 1958 said that Phobos was artificial with a “thin sheet metal” surface. Now, his data was way, way off, but in 1959, Walter Scott Houston, published an April Fool’s joke article by the fictional Dr. Arthur Hayall of the equally fictional University of the Sierras and said that Phobos was an artificial satellite. 

THEN I found out that Phobos actually does have caves so… all of that seemed like a really natural fit for “secret mission.” So, I ignored poor Deimos and went with the larger twin.

Why do you write?

Because I love to read and sometimes the story that I want to read isn’t there.

Who do you consider to be your influences?

There are the early career influences like Guy Gavriel Kay, Nancy Kress. These days, I’m inspired by authors like N.K. Jemisin, Rachel Swirsky, Zen Cho. The common thread is that when I read their work, I wish that I had written it or that I was capable of writing it.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on short fiction, including a moon story. At novel length, I’m working on a Hitchcockian suspense-thriller with dragons.

“The Phobos Experience” appears in the July/August 2018 issue of F&SF.

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Clicking on the image of Ms. Kowal’s latest book will take you to her website.


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