Storytelling school

Award-winning science fiction author shares his storytelling tips

Eric Choi is a longtime science fiction writer who specializes in “hard” science fiction and drawing true stories in space exploration.

Choi, is the winner of Aurora Awards in 2011 and 2015, twice receiving one of Canada’s top science fiction awards. Choi spoke with Space.com about the release of his recent collection, “Just Like Being There (opens in a new tab)(Springer Press, May 2022).

The 15 short stories are a collection of Choi’s work over the past 25 years, with each story ending with an afterword explaining the real-life inspiration behind the characters, plot, and other details.

Space.com recently caught up with Choi to discuss his new book and everything from “Star Trek” to Mars to how to use space as inspiration for compelling storytelling. Read on to see what he said.

headshot Eric Choi

Eric Choi is a Chartered Professional Engineer (P.Eng) with a BASc in Engineering Science and MASc in Aerospace Engineering, both from the University of Toronto, and an MBA from York University. In 2009, he was one of 40 finalists (out of 5,351 applicants) in the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut recruitment campaign.

Space.com: How did you start telling stories?

Eric Choi: Throughout my life, science and science fiction have almost been like two sides of the same coin. Some of my earliest memories were of course early shuttle flights, including the first space shuttle mission, STS-1. Along with that was a longstanding interest in drawing inspiration from science fiction, including, of course, “Star Trek.” I was from that generation that wasn’t around when the original series aired in the 1960s. But when I was a kid, I remembered watching it in reruns.

I think my earliest memory of this show was this very unfortunate person in the red shirt, who was about to be consumed by an acid-secreting creature. I later learned that it was the classic “The Original Series” episode “The Devil in the Dark”, which really freaked me out. I progressed in my career as an engineer. I never gave up on the sci-fi aspects either.

The big breakthrough happened during my undergraduate studies in engineering science at the University of Toronto, where I entered a writing contest. It was then called the Isaac Asimov Prize; it’s now the Dell Magazines Award. To my surprise, I actually won first place in this contest the first year it was offered. It really shook things up for me.

array of star trek characters in different color shirts

Eric Choi says he was inspired by a classic “Star Trek” episode, during which he was terrified by the death of a “Red Shirt”. Traditionally, members of “Star Trek” crews in red shirts are more prone to death and disappearance. But not always. (Image credit: Paramount Plus)

Space.com: Let’s go story by story. We’ll start with Aurora Prize-winning “Crimson Sky” first. Can you talk about the scientific inspiration behind this?

Choi: The impetus behind this story dates back to my graduate studies at the Institute for Aerospace Studies at the University of Toronto. It has come to my attention that there are people out there thinking about what it would take to operate or fly a heavier than local atmospheric air vehicle in a harsh environment like Mars. [Editor’s note: The NASA Ingenuity mission is testing out drone flights on Mars right now.]

I took these concepts from academic publications and thought about what it would take to operate a raw version of these vehicles in the harsh Martian environment, and what the story is really about is a research mission and rescue on Mars.

Then I started thinking, we have things like paramedics on Earth, or people who have to administer first aid. How would this work in space or in a harsh planetary environment like Mars? If someone, for example, has injured their neck, how do you prepare it? You obviously can’t ask that person to take off their helmet, for example. How would you handle these things? How would you administer the medications? You can’t just stick a needle in someone’s arm very easily, when they’re wearing a spacesuit.

I was also interested in talking about the nature of exploration and pushing boundaries. In some ways, it was prescient and reflected some of the discussion and perhaps controversy surrounding some of the affluent people interested in spaceflight these days. I’m very happy that the story was well received.

On the 198th day of its mission, NASA's Perseverance Mars rover took this selfie.

NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover is a very capable machine, but like all distant explorers, it’s subject to delays. Eric Choi explains how to get around deadlines in his short story, “Just Like Being There.” (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Space.com: What was your inspiration for your short story, “Just Like Being There”, from which the anthology takes its name?

Choi: This was written for a previous anthology composed by [Canadian science fiction writer] Julie Czerneda. She is actually a biologist by training and was very interested in using science fiction to advance science awareness, education and literacy. She collected a series of books aimed at young readers that touched on or illustrated aspects of the science curriculum in colleges. [junior high] in Ontario. I wrote this story for this collection with the intention of exploring this eternal question of humans versus robots. What are the advantages and disadvantages?

The context is that it takes place in the near future where, due to a series of tragedies involving human exploration, it has been decided not to send people into space anymore. There’s a bit of a hands-on technology called Ansible, which is a communication device that comes from Ursula Le Guin. With this technology, we are able to eliminate one of the most serious obstacles in robotic exploration, namely the [communications] delay. When trying to operate a robotic system remotely, for example, on Mars or further out in the solar system, if you could somehow operate without delay in real time, regardless of location where you are in the solar system, it would be like being there, wouldn’t it?

It turns out that the story’s protagonist, his father, was one of the last people to explore Mars in person. So there is a little crisis. There is a small interpersonal conflict between the father and the son. I hope what I’ve done with the story is not just to illustrate some of the fascinating science behind planetary exploration, but perhaps to stimulate an interesting discussion of the relative pros and cons of human or robotic space exploration.

astronauts in space suits holding moon rocks on the moon

Eric Choi says he tries to write for the “near future”, meaning the exploration that might be possible in a human lifetime or more. These two depicted astronauts could arrive for real, for example, when the Artemis program sends people to the moon as early as the 2020s. (Image credit: NASA)

Space.com: The last story we’d like to talk about is “Heaven and Heaven.”

Choi: The context for this story comes from two places. In 2003, I had the opportunity to go down to Kennedy Space Center to witness the landing of STS-107, Columbia, which unfortunately and tragically did not happen. That experience has lingered and lingered with me all these years. A little more recently, in 2016, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel at the International Space University. One of the special events of this session was that the late widow of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut killed on Columbia, was part of a distinguished panel. It moved me deeply too. I was impressed by the persistence, legacy and strength with which the memory of Ilan Ramon was kept alive in Israel.

I was thinking about how to combine these elements in an alternate history. What has been on my mind for many years, as I am sure in many people’s minds, could anything have been done to save the crew of STS 107? The answer to this question is yes, as it was actually well documented in the Columbia accident investigation report. A flight options assessment detailed two scenarios. One was a rescue scenario involving another shuttle, and the other was an attempt to repair damage in orbit with an EVA [extra-vehicular activity, or spacewalk.]

Thus, these two scenarios were sketched out in the Columbia investigation report. Really, these things were the genesis of the story. It’s in the kind of what they call an alternate history, or counterfactual. It took a lot of research to write this, but it was a very personal story. At the risk of being immodest, I’m quite proud of it. I’m glad this is the last story in my collection.

group of astronauts floating together in shirt sleeves

Eric Choi was inspired for one of his short stories by the deceased STS-107 crew aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in February 2003. (Image credit: NASA)

Space.com: If you’re writing science fiction for the first time, how do you approach a good story while respecting science and engineering as much as possible without sacrificing plot and all those storytelling devices?

Choi: If people are interested in writing, just do it. It’s not an easy thing. The first rule of writing by Robert A. Heinlein, American science fiction writer and space enthusiast (opens in a new tab) was if you want to be a writer, you have to write, and you have to finish what you write. If you can muster the courage to do it, put it out there for people to read and enjoy.

I tend to write in a subgenre known as hard science fiction. It’s the kind of story where if you took out the science element, there would be virtually no story. The prototypical example of this is “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley. The other aspect is that the science or engineering being described is either based on current understanding or a reasonable extrapolation from it.

Obviously, the genre of science fiction is much broader and more diverse than that. The alternate history I’ve written about in several of the stories in this book is arguably another subgenre of that, for example. I encompass these aspects of hard science fiction as well as alternate history, fantasy, or horror.

These stories truly become, to quote American science fiction writer Larry Niven, playgrounds of the mind. (opens in a new tab). It’s a bit of a mind’s playground to think about what might be possible in the near future. I like it because in the near future I hope people like you and me and many more will spend more time. It’s kind of nice to get a little preview of things that might be coming in the not too distant future.

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