July 12, 2017

Icebreaker: Travis S. Taylor and Jody Lynn Nye

Real science for a really big adventure

Travis S. Taylor and Jody Lynn Nye, co-authors of sci-fi adventure Moon Beam, talk with Deputy Editor Cat Acree. Sponsored by Baen.

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BookPage IcebreakerThis BookPage Icebreaker is sponsored by Baen.


Set nearly 100 years in the future, Moon Beam finds a group of brilliant kids called the Bright Sparks on an adventure of a lifetime. They have been handpicked by celebrity scientist Dr. Keenan Bright to join him on the moon and undertake their own scientific projects—while being watched by an earthbound audience. Sixteen-year-old farm girl Barbara Winton is the newest Bright Spark, and when she and her new friends are sent to build a radar telescope using an entire crater on the far side of the moon, the threat of coronal mass ejections will force the Bright Sparks to use all their smarts to survive.

Along with being the author of many sci-fi novels like the Tau Ceti Agenda series and Warp Speed series, Dr. Travis S. Taylor has worked on various programs for the Department of Defense and NASA, and he’s also the co-creator and star of National Geographic Channel’s series “Rocket City Rednecks.” Jody Lynn Nye is a prolific author of sci-fi and fantasy as well, such as An Unexpected Apprentice, Applied Mythology and much more. This is the first time Taylor and Nye have collaborated on a book, and their individual talents combine for a real-life science-laden adventure fit for readers ages 10 and up.

Cat: I’m a bit of a science and space nerd, but a casual one. I wanted to become an astronomer as a kid, but reading sci-fi is the closest I can get. And if this casual science nerd can retain a tiny fragment of what can be learned from Moon Beam, I’ll be happy.

Jody: Terrific!

Travis: I hope you enjoyed it.

Cat: I genuinely did. And I kept picturing myself in a classroom while reading it. I could see myself reading the book alongside a science textbook.

J: That’s not a bad idea.

C: It checks so many STEM boxes, and you could pull out different scenes to teach it along with a science lesson. Did you have classrooms in mind when you started writing this book?

J: We wanted this book to be in school libraries. I’d love it if someone taught the book. That would be cool.

T: When I’m writing hard science fiction, I always want there to be—I don’t want to be preachy, but I like to add stuff in there that’s real hard science that most people don’t get to be exposed to. Because I’m exposed to it on a daily basis, I like to let people feel the experience that I get from getting to see it all the time, and let them see how interesting and fun and exciting it can be.

J: And how applicable it is to their own world! We want kids to be encouraged to think of science as a normal part of their lives.

T: Because it is, whether they know it or not.

C: Tell me about the science in your non-writing lives. Travis, I know a little about yours. But both of you: How are you involved in scientific fields?

J: In a way, it’s all through my family. I come from a family with a hard science background: My mom’s a psych nurse; my uncle’s a psychiatrist; my brother was a biomedical researcher; and one of my uncles worked for the GTL jet propulsion lab. So it’s been around me all my life.

T: And I am a scientist. I wanted to be a scientist since third grade. My dad—while I was being conceived, I reckon—my dad was working on the Apollo rocket. He was a machinist on the Saturn V. I was born in that same timeframe.

J: So Travis is a second-generation rocket scientist and influenced obviously in utero.

“We want kids to be encouraged to think of science as a normal part of their lives.”

C: And then you’re both really prolific authors. I’m just astonished by how much you have both published on your own and with other co-authors. But this is the first time you’ve worked together. How did you two get connected?

T: Jody and I have been trying to put a project together for almost three years now, I think. Because of our scheduling, and because we started on one project that was going to be based on one of my previous TV shows, and then that show got cancelled and we stopped that project. For a while, we’ve had the interest and finally found the right project.

J: Our publisher is one of the few that encourages their authors to work together. Baen Books is extraordinary for its innovation. They have been at the forefront of eBooks and many other projects, but they don’t mind having more than one person working on an idea, and they’ve had some terrific things come out of that. Of which, I count us as one of them!

T: I hope so, Jody! [laughs] I’d like to think so. Jim Baen told me before he died that he wanted to consider that all his authors were going to the Jim Baen School of Famous Authors for Famous Authors. And then he said the process of that was cross-pollinating the authors, together in collaboration so they can learn each other’s Famous Author tricks. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing with Jody, and certainly every time I get the manuscript back from her and it’s my turn to write, I learn something—a different technique, new technique, or she does things different than I do. It gives me a new perspective on how I write. I think I’ve improved through the experience.

J: And so have I.

C: It’s like having a built-in writer’s workshop.

J: Oh, it is. On-the-job training, the kind that no one else has ever really been able to have, and that I feel privileged to have.

C: Let’s talk about the specifics of the science in Moon Beam. It all felt very real to me, but again—casual science fan, not nitpicky. Is it all theoretically possible?

J: Technically, yes. That’s our intention—not to have any black boxes or magic wands to solve problems. These kids have to take into account real science, real chemistry. This is where Travis’ education and experience comes in, as he is able to present things that we can actually say, “If you know the science, you might have an inkling as to how to work out the solution.”

T: I have two Ph.D.s in technical fields, and the last Ph.D. I got was about using lunar craters and craters on other moons in our solar system as a radial telescope or a communications antenna dish. I studied it in great detail—even picked out various craters on the moon that were potential candidates for the experiment—and so I thought, how great would it be if the first time it was actually done it was some kids, the first kids living on the moon?

C: That is so cool. And then there are the sensory details about the moon, which are very sharp and vivid in the book. Are all those realistic as well? Are any of those more subjective?

J: I think we know enough about how space travel affects people that we can actually bring forward those details of the experiences of people living in space and on the space station, and who have had experiences in shuttlecraft. I think we’re pretty close.

T: I spent a good bit of time over the years studying the environment of the lunar surface, from the Apollo missions and various lunar reconnaissance orbiters that we’ve done. I’ve worked on projects where we talked about landing particular experiments on the moon, and studied in great detail what the environment would do the equipment and what it did to the astronauts’ suits and so on. I think we got really close, as close as anyone can get. I’m not saying we nailed it, because no one’s going to get it exactly right until you go do it.

J: Space medicine is one of my interests, and reading on what kind of effects [space travel] would have [on the body]. Travis brought out the CO2 problem [when the Bright Sparks are trying to survive the coronal mass ejections], and the kids go through hallucinations, they start to get drowsy. . . . It’s not the lack of oxygen, it’s the buildup of carbon dioxide that prevents oxygen from affecting the lungs and starts to slowly suffocate neural processes. And [it builds more] tension in the story: Having done everything right, could they still die?

T: That’s what a lot of people think, that you’re going to run out of air. Air, of course, is very important, but even worse than that, you’re going to build up too much carbon dioxide wherever you are. It’s sort of a silent killer—it’s going to get you before you realize. You’ll start getting loopy and groggy and lethargic, and if you don’t catch it before it’s too late, you’ll be too lethargic to even do anything about it. It was a big problem on Apollo 13, actually. Their CO2 scrubber died on them, and they had to rebuild it from stuff they could find inside the cockpit of the lunar command module. One of the astronauts had to take his sock off and stick it in it as part of the fix.

J: It’s that kind of innovation—on the spot—that we wanted to bring out, to show how kids could innovate at the spur of the moment to save their lives.

T: These are the kind of kids that will be smart enough to do that innovation. They’ve had training, they’re really smart, and hopefully they’ve got a level head in a bad situation.

J: And this is where our prime character comes in, Barbara, because she does have a level head. She’s a farm girl, grew up in a rural setting. Everything on a farm, in a way, is life and death because you’re growing crops, you’re going to feed people with it, but it’s also running close to being low on budget frequently. And she’s got natural leadership qualities, which I don’t think that she knew about until she was in this situation.

C: I really appreciated the comparison you drew between the farm technology and space technology. Obviously the farm tech is futuristic, but I thought it was nice to bring it back home, literally.

J: It also means that she’s not afraid of technology. A lot of people are afraid to touch the innards of things because they’re afraid that if they touch it, it will fail or it will break. She knows that things have a little bit more strength and stability than that. NASA builds things with tolerance and so that it has double and triple and sextuple redundancies. Dr. Geoff Landis said when they were working on the Mars lander mission, the Sojourner project, nobody wanted their part of the project to fail first. I thought that was an interesting mindset. Everyone wants things to work in the best possible fashion, but you still have to leave room for people to say, if this goes wrong, what do we need to do? And it brings out the best in people.

C: And that’s the making of the “self-rescuing princesses” idea, which is how the Bright Sparks describe themselves. It requires a lot of them to consider themselves that, but they’re so admirable and inspiring for their individual abilities.

T: The one thing missing is a Great Dane that can travel around with them on the moon.

J: [laughs] Ruh-roh!

T: We just couldn’t figure out how to get one up there and keep him fed and keep him out of trouble.

C: You know, I really love the idea of these kid scientists as celebrity figures. We’ve got a couple celebrity scientists—the big ones obviously being Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson—but this Moon Beam world is obsessed with science. Everyone’s logging on and everyone cares so much about the Bright Sparks. Sure, we’ve got reality TV, but Dr. Keegan Sparks’ show is so positive, so inspiring. Is there any way our world could ever be like that? Obsessed with scientists on this level?

T: The thing about the reality scientists that we’ve had for kids in the past is they’ve all taken the path of being goofy. Really, really young kids may get a kick out of that. But most kids have a little bit of a serious nature themselves, as long as it’s fun seriousness. You go to space camp, and that’s a serious endeavor, and the kids eat it up. It’s my opinion that we just haven’t had the right Dr. Bright show yet. It would be something that kids and grown-ups would watch, because it’s not pandering to anybody. It’s just doing the cool thing.

J: We want them to feel like the sciences are for them, that kids could do what the Sparks are doing. That’s one of the reasons we took a positive approach instead of the dystopian. I hate the cynical attitude of a lot of media. It’s as if people are saying, yes, we know you’re interested in this, ha-ha, you’re such nerds. But kids like to be challenged in such a way that really matters. That’s why books like The Hunger Games are popular. But you don’t have to have a dystopia in order to have real challenges. The trouble with today is, things are a little easy. Teens don’t feel as if anyone needs them or their talent, and that’s wrong. We need them. They are the future. And if Travis and I can encourage them to think about the sciences as something they could do, then I think we’ve done a lot of our job.

T: Let me give a perfect example of that. I just came back from Serbia. Last week I filming a new TV show that I’ve been working on. The kids there, by the time they’re 4, they start teaching them English. By the time they’re teenagers, they speak at least three languages, and that’s about 75 to 80 percent [of the population]. My kids are bright kids, but by the time they were 4 years old, we were excited they could read The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham by themselves. Look at the extreme dichotomy between our first-world country and then pretty much a third-world country in their education processes. It is possible, no matter what your background is, that you can do these things. If 4-year-olds in Serbia can learn a foreign language, it’s not hard to believe that a 15-year-old in Iowa could learn how to be an astronaut.

J: We want them to see it as possible. One of the reasons that we made our protagonist a girl is that girls are influenced by what they see, what already exists in a situation—the same goes for any child from any background, any nationality. Most scientists are men; girls may not see themselves in that role, or might not feel welcome there because they don’t see as many women [scientists]. We present girls and women in science as a given, with no apology or neon sign saying, “Look! Look! Females in science!” They are there, accepted as a vital part of the team.

T: The best athlete starts in the game. We never talk about—unless it was the first woman on Mars, or something like that—but it’s not a big agenda or anything. It’s just accepted—that’s the way things are. Nobody doesn’t accept that these people are the best athletes for the job.

“If 4-year-olds in Serbia can learn a foreign language, it’s not hard to believe that a 15-year-old in Iowa could learn how to be an astronaut.”

C: Even on social media, no one following the Bright Sparks is downplaying the fact that Barbara is a girl. It’s so positive. It’s certainly something to hope for.

T: Part of what we do with [science fiction] isn’t just to hope for a better future—it’s an intent to create a better future. If we display what the future could be like, and more and more people say, I want that future—

J: It’s a model for an ideal future.

T: Yeah, and hopefully, people see that it’s possible—even if it’s an unconscious, subconscious or conscious effort—to build the world that way.

Get the Book

Moon Beam

Moon Beam

By Jody Lynn Nye & Travis S. Taylor
Baen
ISBN 9781481482523

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