The best stories about near-future, near-space

Who am I?

I always wanted to work with space systems, and my first assignment in the US Air Force exceeded my expectations in that regard. As chief of bioenvironmental engineering at the AF Rocket Propulsion Laboratory, I kept test programs safe for everything from small satellite thrusters to huge solid rocket motors, and eventually found myself on the support team for Space Shuttle landings, the flight readiness review committee for the first launch of a Pegasus rocket, and monitoring Titan rocket launches. During that assignment, I first thought of writing a story about environmental engineers working to keep a lunar colony alive: the genesis of Walking on the Sea of Clouds.

I wrote...

Walking on the Sea of Clouds

By Gray Rinehart,

Book cover of Walking on the Sea of Clouds

What is my book about?

Survival and Sacrifice on the Lunar Frontier!

Before permanent lunar encampments can ever be built, the first settlers have to set up shop and eke out an existence on the Moon. Walking on the Sea of Clouds is the story of such pioneers: two couples determined not just to survive, but to thrive, in this near-future technological drama about the risks people will take, the emergencies they’ll face, and the sacrifices they’ll make as members of the first commercial lunar colony. In the end, one will leave, one will stay, one will hesitate… and one will die so another can live.

The books I picked & why

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The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

By Robert A. Heinlein,

Book cover of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Why this book?

Robert A. Heinlein's masterpiece The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was, if I recall, one of the first books I bought with my own money. In it, Luna City is a bustling colony—of inmates—about to declare its independence. 

Heinlein envisioned a colony that, by necessity, developed new societal rules to cope with the realities of scarce resources and skewed demographics—ideas that expanded my young mind perhaps more than my parents would have liked! The main characters foment a revolution to liberate the Moon from Earth's governance, with the assistance of a newly sentient computer. And in this novel Heinlein introduced an acronym I never forgot—the libertarian watchword, TANSTAAFL: "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."

2001: A Space Odyssey

By Arthur C. Clarke,

Book cover of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Why this book?

Obviously we have passed 2001 chronologically, but unfortunately we haven't reached the levels of technology depicted in this novel. Part of 2001: A Space Odyssey takes place on the Moon, where it introduces a large, well-established lunar base at Tycho (that I alluded to in my own novel). The mysterious alien monolith nearby pushes the action beyond Luna and toward the outer planets aboard the spaceship Discovery, which I consider still to be one of the best-designed spacecraft ever. Clarke wrote the novel while Stanley Kubrick was making the 1968 film, but expanded the story to take the action beyond Jupiter all the way to Saturn; however, much of the basic plot remains the same, including the sinister malfunction of the HAL-9000 computer. 

The Martian

By Andy Weir,

Book cover of The Martian

Why this book?

Jumping from the moon to another target of significant interest, we have The Martian. Personally, I was thrilled that reviewers compared my novel to this one, but they're quite different stories: mine explores social interactions as people work together to develop the lunar colony, while The Martian is a study in the psychology of loneliness and the solitary determination to survive. 

Having a little experience with rocket propellant and space systems, I think Weir did a marvelous job putting science in a very prominent place in the story. We watch Mark Watney make water from propellants, cultivate potatoes in Martian soil, and communicate using outdated technology, making The Martian one of the best stories in which ingenuity, focused action, and sheer grit are needed for the character to survive.

Red Mars

By Kim Stanley Robinson,

Book cover of Red Mars

Why this book?

Staying on Mars for the moment, it was tempting to go back to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom books, or include another Heinlein story, but I'm choosing Red Mars for the sheer technical brilliance Robinson brings to bear. The story meanders a bit for my taste, but Robinson does an amazing job explaining the varieties of technology that would—and maybe one day will?—be necessary to make Mars livable. Everything about it rings true, and the enormous scale of the undertaking is obvious and breathtaking. 

Robinson's Mars trilogy also inspired the board game Terraforming Mars, which is possibly my favorite game—so it deserves to be on this list for that reason, too!

Inherit the Stars

By James P. Hogan,

Book cover of Inherit the Stars

Why this book?

Another book I read when I was young and never forgot, James P. Hogan's debut novel takes us once again to the Moon. Inspired by Clarke's 2001, it tells a much different story in which Earth's Moon originally orbited another planet entirely. When its first planet was destroyed, the debris became the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and the Moon was captured by Earth's gravity. And how did we figure this out? Because our own astronauts exploring the Moon find a long-dead, spacesuited astronaut who is very human but has technology beyond ours. Reverse-engineering that technology puts us closer to exploring beyond our solar system, and it turns out the captured Moon also had an impact on our ancient history. I love this book for its grand, compelling ideas.

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