[PHOTO CREDIT: Jim Hines]
Damaged characters and unrequited love feature prominently in Mercurio D. Rivera’s stories, and “In the Stillness Between the Stars” is no different. These common themes, an article about living on Mars, and the recent destruction of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria all had a hand in creating his newest tale in the current issue [on sale now]. Read on to discover exactly how it all came together.
Asimov’s Editor: How did “In the Stillness Between the Stars” germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
Mercurio D. Rivera: I had read an article that a significant percentage of Americans would volunteer to relocate to Mars, even if it meant they could never return to Earth. I was surprised at the large number. It made me wonder whether those people would experience any guilt about leaving behind everything and everyone they knew, including their loved ones. That led me to wonder about the scenario where a space traveler takes their loved ones with them, especially in the case of small children who don’t have the legal capacity to consent. Wouldn’t there be guilt associated with that? And in the case of a generation ship, would it be ethical to subject children—and their descendants—to the dangers of such a mission? The story came out of the simple idea of exploring that guilt.
AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
MR: At least initially I didn’t intend for it to be part of a larger universe, but the alien Library certainly lends itself to future stories. The company “EncelaCorp” has appeared in all my previous (and forthcoming) Asimov’s stories. It’s sort of my stand-in for the “big, evil corporation.” And while I didn’t intend for all of those stories to be in the same universe, EncelaCorp’s presence in all of them has made me start to think about various connections between the pieces. It may well be that I’m writing in the same universe and didn’t realize it. . . .
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
MR: Coming up with the right title can be difficult. And in the case of a short piece of fiction, it’s important. As editor John Joseph Adams has noted, short stories, unlike movies, don’t have a publicity department. They don’t get trailers or movie posters and rarely get artwork. As a result, the title is the author’s best opportunity to grab the reader. For this reason, I often agonize over them. Ideally, the title should evoke some feeling that draws the reader in. I try to use specific words that appear in the story, if possible. In this case, the danger that lurks in the stillness of the sleeping cityship lent itself to the title. “In the Stillness Between the Stars” evokes an eeriness that suits the story. I had initially come up with “In the Darkness Between the Stars,” but that one seemed a bit too common. As is often the case, I polled my writer’s group on a few different alternative titles before I settled on the final one.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
MR: It’s surprising how current events have a way of sneaking into my writing. The news, and particularly shocking events, infiltrate the subconscious and then find an outlet in an author’s fiction. “In the Stillness Between the Stars” was written after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico. The story features a damaged island-spaceship floating through interstellar space, battered by gravity waves—with a Puerto Rican protagonist. I didn’t sit down and plan that, but it’s funny how that worked out. Likewise, in a story I cowrote with Matthew Kressel (“The Walk to Distant Suns,” which appeared in Analog), our protag is trying to smuggle her family through a wormhole to a better life. It was only after we’d finished the first draft that we realized we’d written a story about immigration.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
MR: I often come back to the theme of unrequited love. There’s something so sad and universally relatable about having intense romantic feelings that aren’t reciprocated. I’ve written a series of stories about some truly strange aliens, the Wergens, who have a weird biochemical reaction after First Contact with humanity. They find that they’re fascinated—to the point of obsession—with everything about humanity and call that reaction “love.” Humanity, in turn, is repulsed by the Wergens, but interested in their superior technology, so they form an uneasy alliance with them. It’s all one giant metaphor for unrequited love. With that cosmic backdrop, I was able to tell a series of very personal sci-fi stories about tortured characters struggling with different types of love: romantic, maternal, fraternal, friendship, etc. I’ve collected these stories into a mosaic novel, titled The Love War, which I’m shopping around.
AE: It sounds like you enjoy writing about tortured characters.
MR: Definitely. My characters tend to be damaged loners. Or in deeply dysfunctional relationships. This was certainly the case with “In the Stillness Between the Stars.” The two main characters are both recovering from failed marriages: Angie had been cheating on her husband, and Emilio was in the midst of an ugly divorce and custody dispute when he left Earth. In one of my previous Asimov’s stories, “Unreeled,” the two main characters are in a deteriorating marriage; they blame each other for their son’s tragic medical condition. They don’t trust each other anymore. So much so, he’s convinced her mind has been hijacked by an alien presence. Damaged characters make for more interesting stories.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
MR: Downloading our consciousness sounds like a great antidote to mortality. Let’s do that! And I’m still waiting on those jet-packs. . . . The technology is there. We just need regulatory clearance.
AE: How do you deal with writer’s block?
MR: I’ll tell you how not to deal with it: sitting around, wringing your hands, and waiting for inspiration to strike you. The best cure for writer’s block is to sit down and write—anything! Even if what you’re writing is terrible, I’ve found that the very act of writing tends to generate ideas.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
MR: I’m incubating several short stories that are in various stages of development: a noir murder mystery with doppelgangers; an alien artifact, treasure-hunt story, which starts small and grows more and more cosmic; a post-apocalyptic Western with vampiric creatures. There are always four or five stories percolating at once. I tend to revise endlessly and have difficulty letting go.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
MR: Take fiction-writing classes. Learn all the rules about craft, backward and forward—before you start breaking them. And join a writer’s group. Find other authors who write what you write and have them critique your work and vice versa. Authors tend to be blind to the flaws in their own work, but the process of critiquing another writer’s fiction can help to lift that blindfold. You’ll find that you can see all the problems—shifts in point of view, undeveloped characters, inconsistencies in plot, protagonists who are too passive, etc., etc.—in another author’s stories. And in the same way, other writers can help spot the problems in your stories. It helps make you more self-aware, but to this day I still find it invaluable to get input from a third party who’s less invested in the story than I am.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
MR: You can follow me on Facebook (David Mercurio Rivera), Twitter (@MercurioRivera), and on my blog at mercuriorivera.com.