The Landscapes of Science Fiction by Lily Brooks-Dalton


Cover detail from Good Morning, Midnight

My novel, Good Morning, Midnight, contains a dual narrative in two of the loneliest, most far-flung places I could imagine. In the wake of a post-apocalyptic event, my characters inhabit the Arctic tundra and the vacuum of outer space. These settings are obviously rich with possibility for fiction, but they also border on the fantastic without any embellishment at all.

Both outer space and the Arctic are settings that come readymade for explorers – both the boots-on-the-ground and the head-in-the-clouds varieties. The poles of our planet have always represented the furthest terrestrial reaches of our species: humanity’s last gasp of unexplored vistas and unclaimed territory. And now, as the impact of climate change becomes more visible every year, our poles have also come to represent the ebb of our foothold in this planet’s protection. Our frail and precariously balanced civilization has upset the very atmosphere that shelters us. Soon the balance will be undone and the glaciers will be gone. And in that inevitability, an echo: Soon we too will be gone.

What lies beyond our planet holds a somewhat similar appeal – in outer space we also see the unknown, the unexplored, the unclaimed. The poles are old news compared to the mystery and majesty of space, a frontier that we can barely reach, let alone have the power to destroy. Where the poles’ tundras and glaciers are bearing the weight of mankind’s choices, outer space is not under our purview. Rather, we are under its gaze. We dream of exploring it, of laying claim not just to our tiny moon, but to other planets, other solar systems, other galaxies. And yet, these possibilities are still only science fiction.

As I wrote Good Morning, Midnight, I knew I wanted a substantial amount of weight to rest upon the science half of its science fiction designation – I wanted to let these landscapes speak for themselves. So as fantastical as it might seem to create a post-apocalyptic world, then throw in a spaceship and a trip to Jupiter, I wanted to stay alert to the realities of such a scenario. The spaceship, then, was modeled after a design NASA created but never built, called Nautilus-X. The experiences of the Aether’s crew were inspired by the nonfiction accounts of astronauts. And the depiction of the Arctic Archipelago had a foundation in the documents of explorers, researchers, and photographers.

I will always want to read books about other worlds – to imagine alien landscapes and far-flung planets. But I also want to explore that which surrounds us, and not just through a scientist’s keen observations or the lens of a talented photographer. I want to feel what it is to look back at Earth from way out there, or to see an enormous polar bear slip into the icy ocean. Sadly, most of us will never get to be astronauts, nor will we have the opportunity to travel to the farthest reaches of the Arctic tundra (although – fingers crossed for that one, maybe one day). Luckily, we get to read and/or write fiction that can take us there. Science fiction in particular is a genre that presses us beyond what is known. It is the explorer’s genre, whether that means the story takes place on another planet, or is merely set in a not-so-distant future.

The combination of the soon-to-be-lost beauty of the Arctic and the not-yet-attainable mystery of outer space were undoubtedly the fuel for my novel. Without these landscapes, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the story I wanted to tell. Inherent in these vistas are both the failures and the aspirations of humanity, both the transience of natural life and the infinitude of the universe surrounding us, housing us, nurturing us while also threatening us. In these landscapes we can see the loveliness in desolation, but also the terror, the emptiness, and the resounding truth that we as a species will one day come to an end. There are countless stories in the landscapes that surround us, just waiting for the next explorer to come along and unearth them.