September 2022

Astrophysicist Moiya McTier is the oracle of the Milky Way

Behind the Book by
How did an ancient galaxy pen its own autobiography? The Milky Way explains in this Behind the Book essay, as dictated to Dr. McTier.
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I knew you’d want more of me after you heard my story! How could you not once you learned that you live in a galaxy as utterly charming as myself? But I’ll admit that I didn’t expect you to crave more of my wit so soon. I am still getting used to human time scales, operating in months and years instead of millennia. Moiya, on the other hand, has been chomping at the bit to share my book, The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy, with the world. Her mortality makes her impatient, her youth even more so.

Anyway, I have been asked to give you a peek into my process for creating my autobiography. Apparently you still have questions about how a galaxy could “land a book deal,” as you say.

The truth is that navigating your human publishing system is nowhere near as difficult as some of your writers make it seem—at least, not if you’re a celebrity. And if you’ve read the book, you know that, historically speaking, I’m humanity’s biggest superstar. For a VIG (very important galaxy) like me, publishing a book was just a matter of finding the right human to do all the stuff I didn’t want to do. You know, all the tedious typing and fact-checking, the fretting over money and legal deals across your ephemeral borders . . . the disgusting human busywork. That’s where Moiya came in. I was much more excited to solve the puzzle of how to sculpt my story into a shape that your fleshy brains could comprehend.

Read our starred review of ‘The Milky Way’ by Moiya McTier.

Talking about myself was the easy part. I’ve been regaling my peers with tales of my fabulous achievements and galactarian good deeds for longer than your puny planet has existed. (How do you think Draco, the Leos and all my other dwarf galaxy neighbors learned to make stars? They don’t have the gas to spare on trial and error, so I taught them what I knew.) But I didn’t expect it to be so difficult to limit myself to your human level of knowledge and understanding of the universe. Every time I got into the groove of telling my story, I ran bulge-first into a dead end of human ignorance. I promised myself I wouldn’t tell you anything your scientists didn’t already know, but that rules out all of the most exciting stuff! Instead, I was confined to the simplest concepts, like one of your preschool teachers trying to explain the color purple to a creature who only knows about red and blue. I had to use small words and speak slowly.

It was especially onerous to hold back on the parts about dark matter and particle physics, but in the end, I kept my promise. And I still managed to deliver a work that is as entertaining as it is enlightening. Larry never should have doubted me, but that just means I’ll get to brag more when the time comes.

Speaking of Larry, whom you might know by its formal galaxy name, Large Magellanic Cloud—one tough decision I faced while penning my autobiography was how much to tell you about galactic society. I wanted to tell you enough that you’d understand my place in the large-scale structure, but I didn’t want to betray my fellow galaxies’ trust by giving away too much of our business—especially Andromeda, who is too proud to forgive such revealing offenses. And so you are left with scrappy tidbits about galactic gossipmongering, eons-old grievances and vague social norms. The book contains next to none of our language! Not that I’d possibly be able to convey it in a writing system you’d recognize. Oh well, the story was supposed to be about me anyway, and I gave you plenty of that.

“Historically speaking, I’m humanity’s biggest superstar.”

The Milky Way
Astrophotography of the Milky Way galaxy. Silhouette of mountains. Stars, nebula and stardust at night.

I also gave you plenty of you in the book, via anecdotes plucked from your short human history. It was Moiya’s idea to let you be a part of the story. She said you had earned it with your scientific victories, but I think it’s also because your fleeting human attention spans perk up whenever you hear about yourself. Vanity has always been something we have in common, your kind and I.

Moiya was more helpful in this whole process than I expected of a human. She added a valuable . . . empathetic perspective, let’s say, and softened some of the sharper edges of my judgment of humanity by explaining your more frustrating quirks. (What do you mean you have to shut your body down for a third of each day?) So I was lucky to find a human like Moiya who met all of my transcriber criteria.

Whoever channeled my story had to be one of those precious few astronomers who had dedicated their lives to studying me, someone who already knew the basics so I could skip to the good parts. But they also had to be open to the possibility of accepting my narrative without making too many changes. And then I found her! Your Dr. Moiya McTier, who knew me by way of both math and myth, is an insatiably curious scientist who had been waiting most of her life for the sky to talk back. And she just happened to be well positioned—honing her communication skills in that Big Sleepless Apple of yours—to break into the publishing industry.

“Vanity has always been something we have in common, your kind and I.”

A literary agent found her after one of her public talks. He seemed to both of us like a nice and smart enough fellow, and together they crafted a proposal to write the Milky Way’s autobiography. Editors, of course, couldn’t resist such a juicy project, and we had our choice of publishing companies. I told Moiya to pick her favorite since she would be the one dealing with them. And the rest, as you humans say, is history.

The book is static like history can be, too. The stories we galaxies share across the cosmic web are remolded whenever there’s something to change or add. Your human books are crude physical objects, stuck in the time that they were written. That’s normally fine, but your science progresses so quickly that there have already been breakthroughs announced since Moiya turned in the final draft of the book.

For example, you finally snapped a picture with your Earth-size telescope of the event horizon of Sarge, my supermassive black hole, a full five years after the data were collected. Typical stubborn Sarge. Besides that, your astronomers recently discovered their 5,000th exoplanet, saw the first eye-opening images from the James Webb Space Telescope, found a new type of star with odd pulsing patterns and learned a whole lot about the planets in your stellar backyard. Keep up the pace, humans. I don’t want to get bored again.

You know, the Fornax galaxy thought humans were too simple to relate to my story. It thought you would shun what I said because you couldn’t understand it. That’s an insult to you and to my storytelling abilities! Thank you, dear readers, for the (small) part you played in helping me prove it wrong.

Author photo of Moiya McTier by Mindy Tucker

Moiya McTier

Get the Book

The Milky Way

The Milky Way

By Moiya McTier
Grand Central
ISBN 9781538754153

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