In our February 2007 issue, Kristine Kathryn Rusch revisited the Apollo 8 mission of 1968 and imagined a catastrophic development that never happened in our own timeline. Staying close to our own history, she crewed the space ship with the same astronauts. As we know, our astronauts survived this flight and are still alive today. In Kris’s work of fiction, though, the outcome is different. Apollo 8 and its brave crew are lost. The story celebrates the courage of the early space explorers. It also imagines a way in which this tragedy changes and revitalizes the space program.
Reader reaction to this story was mostly enthusiastic. Jack McDevitt wrote to say, “Kris Rusch’s novella in the February issue is one of the two or three best pieces of short fiction I’ve seen this year. Magnificent.” Others described it as science fiction at its finest.
Not every reader agreed, however. Richard Wallace, MD, poignantly described his own feelings about the story.
I am upset and concerned after listening to/reading Kristine Kath-ryn Rusch’s novella, “Recovering Apollo 8.” Suddenly, I must imagine a hero from my youth in a story where his major accomplishment is his untimely death. Why use such a macabre plot device to drive a story of one man’s obsession. Was the crew of Apollo 8 or their families contacted by the author or your editorial staff before publishing this “speculative fiction”? The odd feeling in my gut came when my fourteen-year-old who listens to these tapes with me asked if I remembered when these men died. I have read and enjoyed the standard alternate history tales before, but I never remember using subjects who are still alive and remarkable.
This letter seems to bring up several questions. Is it all right to use living people in a work of fiction? Is it okay to kill them off? Will spinning tales about real people affect how they are remembered and is that memory or false reputation something writers and editors should be held accountable for? I’m not going to make an attempt here to offer universal answers to this question. I’m just offering my own thoughts on them as they pertain to Kris’s story.
Legally, of course, there’s no issue. The event was a public one, the astronauts are public figures. In addition, “Recovering Apollo 8” is clearly a work of fiction. It doesn’t claim to tell the true story. Professional writers do their best to get as many facts right as possible, but they are also professional liars. It’s their job to tangle us up in the webs that they weave. The departure from the truth is often the beginning of the story. Kris Rusch was not writing a documentary about what happened to Apollo 8. She was writing a story about what didn’t happen.
Is it wrong to imagine that the crew died? Their death is an inevitable result of the events in the story. Kris could have come up with a new crew. That might have been hard to do convincingly, though, in a story that otherwise stays so close to the historical record. But, should she have considered the feelings of the real people and their families? Kris handles the situation tactfully. The astronauts are not shown. Their behavior is a matter of conjecture, but their actions are as brave as I’m sure they would have been if they’d been placed in this situation. These actions seem to be in agreement with the fortitude and training that it takes to be an astronaut. The real crew has been back on terra firma for a long time now. Surely the worst time for their families must have been the anticipation beforehand and the wait for them to arrive home. It’s hard to imagine that any anxiety engendered by reading “Recovering Apollo 8” could compete with the real thing.
Dr. Wallace’s letter obviously gave me a lot to think about. It also instigated an interesting dinner discussion with my own thirteen-year-old. I brought up my day at work and the letter writer’s concerns. My daughter had never before heard of the Apollo 8. Before that night’s dinner conversation, the only astronaut she could name was Neil Armstrong. She still might not be able to name the crew, but at least she knows about the mission. If she reads the story, I’m sure that the names Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders will stick with her longer than if she came upon them in a history book. I imagine that Dr. Wallace set his child straight about the fate of the Apollo 8’s crew. I hope they had a terrific conversation about the mission and the heroes of his youth. Perhaps it was a conversation that might never have occurred if they hadn’t read the story.
Should Asimov’s editors and authors be worried about spreading disinformation? We all know our heads are filled with false facts, Johnny Appleseed didn’t walk around with a saucepan on his head, George Washington didn’t chop down his father’s cherry tree, and Bill Gates never claimed that “640K ought to be enough for anybody. . . .” I don’t believe that it is the fiction writers’ responsibility to untangle all the facts from the tall tale. The writer’s job is to entertain us, and possibly to make us think about what is and what isn’t, what was and what could be. Thankfully for Asimov’s, this is a job that Kristine Kathryn Rusch, like so many of our other authors, is very good at, indeed.