Interview with "Red Soil Through Our Fingers" Author N.A. Ratnayake

SciFi Policy: Tell us about your new novel, Red Soil Through Our Fingers.

N.A. Ratnayake: I would describe the novel as a political thriller in space. We’re in a future, maybe a not so distant future, in which massive corporations have established colonies and settlements across the solar system. Our hero, Mahela, is a farmer on a Mars mining colony owned by one of these large corporations. He starts to realize that life as a tenant farmer on a Mars colony, millions of miles away from anyone’s jurisdiction, may not be quite as great as the brochure promised. He starts uncovering clues that lead him to some alarming conclusions, and as a result makes some powerful enemies. Mahela decides to make a stand for what’s right anyway... and you’ll have to read it to find out what happens.

On Building Economies for Space Civilizations:

SFP: In the book, you place Mars as a central hub for exchanging mining and agricultural goods that are then transferred throughout the solar system. Given the difficulty and mass penalties involved in taking goods into and out of a gravity well, to what extent do you think this will be a challenge? If humanity did grow throughout the solar system, to what extent is it likely that humans would grow crops on planets and not in zero gravity?

Ratnayake: This is more speculative than futurist, but I think that, like Chicago was for Western expansion in the United States, Mars will become not just a stop on the way to somewhere, but also a large center of population in its own right. In that sense, it's not a "waste" to send goods down the gravity well, because if you have millions or even hundreds of millions of people living on Mars, the goods will actually be consumed there too.

Yes, launch out of a gravity well is expensive, but so is structural volume. If you're growing food for tens of millions of people, the total space station volume you'd need is enormous. Why not build into the ground, where much of the food will be consumed anyway, you at least have some gravity, and can produce/recycle a lot of your resources in situ?

And to milk the Chicago analogy a little further, consider that historically, it would have been faster for trains going through the Midwest to go point to point, bypassing Chicago. Why would they stop? Because Chicago was a hub. A large population lived there, hungry for more refined goods from further up the civilization line. They also had goods to sell that the big cities on the East Coast couldn’t get on their own. It was also a manufacturing, refining, and integration center for raw materials farmed and mined in the west and midwest.

It’s also because point to point is not always the most efficient model -- what about massive supply haulers coming from Earth to Mars, that then distribute their cargo to smaller freighters on runs to outer colonies? They could stop for refuel, resupply, dropping off and picking up new passengers, and any number of other activities. The bulk of this activity will surely be done in orbit, on stations high in the gravity well, but much of it will come down to the surface too. Especially if orbital access becomes more efficient with space elevators or what have you, I don't think this is a big leap.

SFP: In the world of Red Soil, corporations led the drive to settle the planets, with the RBX corporation owning the Mars colony in which the main character, Mahela, settles. As you know, there are strong debates today about whether future exploration should be government-led or led by the private sector. It is difficult to know for sure whether there will be enough profit to enable the private sector to take initial exploration steps altogether. Do you think proft alone will incentivize the push to explore the outer solar system? Or will we need some combination of government and private funding?

Ratnayake: I think the initial exploration and setup of infrastructure will likely be government, or at the very least a government-industry collaboration. That's been the case for most of history. A government will see the strategic importance of investing in certain infrastructure to open up new areas of settlement, transportation, resources, or discovery, and then commercial enterprise will grow into it. That investment could come through direct construction of infrastructure and systems, guaranteed contracts from civil government or the military, or through other economic and social incentives. So I think it will be a mix.

Strong public space policy shouldn't squash commercial spaceflight, but it does need to keep pace with corporate expansion into space to make sure we keep things balanced. Beyond simply keeping up with commercial enterprise, I think that public policy needs to go further and lead with a strong vision of what our future in space should look like, so as to guide the forces of enterprise and innovation towards a positive future.

The United States Congress has recently passed The Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015. This is a domestic law which guarantees property rights to US citizens who extract resources from space or celestial bodies. While this sounds great, I believe the specific nature of this act violates the spirit of a long-standing international agreement called the Outer Space Treaty, which sought to make sure that the riches of our solar system would be always open to science and used for the betterment of all people. So we are not on a balanced path already.

My personal opinion is that we should put all human and human-directed activity outer space that is for commercial purposes under international jurisdiction, with a regulatory structure that makes sure a portion of all wealth generated goes toward lifting the whole world up. This would allow private companies to stake claims and conduct private commerce, but also make sure that humanity’s expansion into space is an achievement that our whole species can share.

On Using Engineering and Policy to Build a Better World:

SFP: At a meta-level, to what extent did you intend to have a policy message in the book? What would be your main message to policy makers?

Ratnayake: I think the overall policy message is that we need to be proactive and responsible about actively shaping an equitable and just future for all people in space, starting right now. As more nations and private corporations join the fold of space-faring entities, huge public policy challenges will come along with that expansion. I don’t think most citizens of the world want unregulated, for-profit corporations to take the lead on defining what that future looks like.

As for inserting policy messages into the book, I think for Red Soil it came out unintentionally. I always start with a premise and characters, and the story kind of grows around those aspects. I certainly saw a messages emerge in early drafts, and I did intentionally try to hone them and bring them out through the major themes of the novel.

SFP: To what extent did you try to use your engineering background in the book?

Ratnayake: I think my engineering background comes through indirectly in the novel. Certainly, I spent some time researching Mars colonization, basic infrastructure, and so forth. I also did a fair amount of systems analysis at a conceptual level, via simple spreadsheets for things like populations, resources, etc. And I spent a lot of hours nerding out on Google Mars!

To make the research process even more exciting, the two years during which I was writing this novel overlapped with some amazing discoveries about Mars, such as liquid water on the surface under certain conditions, the structural instability of Phobos, and many others. So I found myself trying to season in these new findings whenever I could, even in later drafts.

My goal was to ground the word of the novel in a believable, technically consistent setting. I hope that the well-researched setting will appeal to seasoned Hard-SF fans, while still being accessible enough to draw lay-readers into the wonder of the Martian landscape, the details of daily life on the red planet, and the cities we might one day inhabit on other worlds.

All that said, I definitely think a good story is ultimately about people, not technology or settings. I tried to use my engineering background only where it was useful and avoid making the novel an engineering manual. Red Soil Through Our Fingers is not a comprehensive vision of how we could someday colonize Mars. It is, instead, a human-level exploration of where our current trajectory will take us if we project our present socio-political systems forward into an era of Mars settlement.

SFP: We enjoyed the character of Ashok, the systems engineer who, despite his academic pedigree, ended up being woefully unprepared when it came to practical, applied work on the farm. Why did you include this?

Ratnayake: With specific regards to the character Ashok, I think it's useful for us engineers to remember that our skillsets are useful for certain limited number of things. I think sometimes we like to think that we have a more logical or efficient solution to many social or political problems, but in reality I think we would find our default approach hopelessly naive in the face of many social and political challenges.

For example, people are not rational, efficient, linear, or particularly good at making decisions based on long-term group consequences. These uncertainties make human systems difficult to model, especially for engineers who like to linearize everything. (There’s the old joke about an aeronautical engineer being perfectly willing to assume a horse is a sphere of equivalent drag coefficient, because it makes the aerodynamics easier… fortunately or unfortunately, humans cannot be similarly reduced.)

Engineering is critical to building our future, but engineers are not the solution to everything. In fact, I believe that the largest challenges we will face as we expand into space will be social and political, not technical. In that sense, the character of Ashok is a bit of a reality check. He definitely has his redeeming qualities, but they are at a human level, not tied to his technical credentials.

SFP: The book ends on a cliffhanger, with Sun Hee being left in charge of the RBX company on Mars. What chance do you think she has of changing the economic system for the better? With such a dystopian premise, what prospects would any one individual have of changing her world for the better?

I don't want to give away too much of the plan for the rest of the series yet, but generally speaking, Sun-Hee will attempt take the colony in a new, more positive direction. It's going to be hell for her to try and do so, and she’s going to have to rely on many other people in positions of power to see their way to something more just, but she's going to try.

If I had to generally characterize each of the novels I have planned at the moment, then I would say something like:

  • Book 1 (Red Soil Through Our Fingers): Define the problem.
  • Book 2 (untitled so far): Depict the ugly transition that has to happen because we waited too long to get this right, and show the sustained moral courage required to change entrenched, corrupt social systems.
  • Book 3 (untitled so far): Show how we build something better with our hard-won freedom.

I personally don't like the fact that many dystopian, post-apocalyptic, or speculative social justice stories leave us hanging in a dark place. It's certainly important to address the darker aspects of society and the negative consequences of our collective choices, but I think it's also important to contribute something in the way of how to make it better. Stories that are focused purely on pointing out what’s wrong with society play on our fears and point fingers, often without offering any real solutions.

My aim is that the Red Soil trilogy as a whole will not be seen as a dystopia at all, even though the first book is pretty dark. Like social progress in real life, the world will end better than it started, but it’s going to require a lot of bitter sacrifice from a lot of good people in order to get there.

We need to be idealistic with our goals and realistic with our tactics at the same time. I think we can do that.

On Public vs Private Control of Space:

SFP: We’ve seen and enjoyed fiction that espouses a variety of political visions, each of which has some, debatable, chance of becoming a reality. In Red Soil Through Our Fingers, you show a space future in which corporations like Rekos-Breland Xenomaterials (RBX) dominate. To what extent do you think this fictional setting is likely to play out in our actual future?

Ratnayake: I think it's great that private entities, including corporations, are making inroads into space. I'm a human spaceflight nut, and I'm among those cheering on SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and all the others. The more the better. If, as a species, we are going to live in space permanently and make the best use of the resources available to us in our solar system, then private commercial enterprise needs to become involved.

I think that the perils of a government-dominated future in space are just as dire as a corporate-dominated one. But the fictional world of Red Soil Through Our Fingers depicts what I think is our mostly likely course out of those two extremes.

If you look at the balance of power in our society today, public policy is mired in partisanship and beholden to big money. Hundreds of millions of people around the world are in poverty, underemployed, or trapped in exploitative systems, while pan-global corporations are pulling in record profits. One of the core functions of government, the military, is driven largely by private lobbying and defense contracts. Even an agency like NASA, whose global public image is overwhelmingly positive, cannot develop spaceflight architectures and research portfolios at their discretion. NASA is constrained by congressional requirements to use contractors, suppliers, and even whole systems that maintain jobs in key districts where lobbyists have power.

Corporations and private industry are not inherently evil, and we are not living in a corporate oligarchy, but there is a balance between private enterprise and social control of production and resources that needs to be met in order for a society to be equitable. I think, globally, we are far from that balance point.

If we extrapolate our current socio-economic state forward into the future of commercial spaceflight, then in the extreme we end up with the world of Red Soil.

I don't think science fiction has to "predict" the future in order to be useful. In Red Soil Through Our Fingers, I'm not trying to show the future as I think it will actually happen. I'm using a future setting to show a forward projection of the way we live now. In that sense, the story is really about where we are today, rather than where I think we will be later in any concrete sense.

My plan is that the sequels to Red Soil Through Our Fingers will explore alternatives to this future, and attempt to show the difficult transition between a world we have but don’t want to a world which may not be perfect, but is at least better.

SFP: The book depicts a return to economic domination in models similar to those that exist today. Why would a Mars-active company engage in slimeball tactics similar to what has happened on Earth?

Ratnayake: Why slimeball tactics by corporations? The short answer is because a) they work to generate profit, and b) no one is stopping them. What RBX does in the novel is almost literally what large agricultural corporations are doing right now, and not just in far-off third-world countries. Many farmers and ranchers even in an advanced democracy like the United States find themselves in situations that are uncomfortably similar to those of Mahela, Taliyah, and Raquel in my fictional Hellas-Dao Colony.

Cattle, milk, poultry, coffee, diamonds, chocolate, raw metal, produce, oil and almost any other commodities you can think of are generated for the global market at the lowest cost through strong-arm tactics that favor corporate distributors and large suppliers over small producers and workers -- many of whom live in indentured servitude and, in many cases, de facto slavery.

Considering a relatively near-future setting, such as that of Red Soil, and assuming government check on corporate power gets worse rather than better, then I see no reason why any corporation would give up clearly profitable tactics. After all, that is their legal mandate. A free-market corporation is the ideal social structure to maximize profit at the expense of people, while conveniently avoiding direct guilt or blame for anyone involved. A corporation, or a government for that matter, can be full of well-intentioned, generally ethical individuals -- whose aggregated actions result in an exploitative system just because how we have chosen to structure our society and economy.

In the novel, Yoo Sun-Hee is a corporate executive for RBX. A large part of her character arc is realizing the personal consequences of looking behind that curtain of willful ignorance, and coming to terms with what she has been a part of over the course of her whole career.

SFP: The fact that you refer so directly to present-day corporate tactics raises a meta-question: to what extent do the policy conclusions of Red Soil Through Our Fingers require a science fictional setting at all?

Ratnayake: I don't think the plot itself requires a science fictional setting. But I think the setting is useful, because it projects our current trajectory forward, and depicts what the future could look like for us if we don't make some course corrections.

They say art should hold a mirror up to society. I think science fiction has a powerful role to play in that the mirror can be a time portal as well. Science fictional settings can help us explore the effect of our actions and attitudes on our future selves, and what we are setting up for future generations. A corporate espionage thriller set in the present day wouldn't do that, even if the plot were similar.

SFP: In the time of the novel, Earth, via the United Nations, is threatening to impose regulation and taxation on off-Earth entities, which have been developing for some time. Do you think it is plausible that Earth governments will wait many decades to change outer space laws about corporate domination? Why wouldn’t this regulation void get filled earlier?

Ratnayake: I think the question assumes that governments have more control over corporations than I think they do. Consider what just happened with the recent financial meltdown. Thirty years of deregulation and so-called "free trade" (championed by both major political parties, by the way), and at each incremental step it gets harder to reverse the tide of greater corporate control of resources and production. Then in 2008 we have one of the largest financial meltdowns in modern history, with hundreds of millions of people affected globally, and no one in government can manage to even prosecute anyone, let alone make any meaningful reparations, because these large corporations are just too embedded in the fabric of our global economy.

For an an analogous situation, consider Mexico's drug cartels. Over time, these cartels to grew into an entrenched system of corruption and violence, with tentacles all over the country -- embedded in government, backed by many citizens for filling societal vacuums, and sprawled across international borders. When Mexican President Calderón decided that something finally needed to be done, the cancer was so pervasive that it required a de facto civil war to begin dislodging it. Tens of thousands of people were killed, and the violence hasn’t fully subsided even today.

This is how human affairs go. We look the other way until we don't have another choice, and by then something really big has to break in order to make a change. I think the world of Red Soil could plausibly arise in much the same way, if we choose to let it.

Final Thoughts:

SFP: What have been your favorite science fiction stories that inform policy?

Ratnayake: Of the science fiction novels I've read, I think four stand out: * The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, which is of course a classic. Showing the progressive alienation of a war veteran from society as he deploys and redeploys in a pointless, multi-generational, relativistic war really brings home the human cost of conflicts that are initiated and sustained by people who do not have to suffer the consequences of their decisions. I would hope that this novel could help humanize strategic military decisions, and help us all consider the total cost of war beyond the simple price tag of mobilization.

  • Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. Though lean on interesting character arcs, I think Anathem makes up for it through sheer force of ideas. The novel is full of thought experiments that bend the mind. More importantly, the novel also asks us to consider the relationship between science and society, a relationship which I think we take for granted, if we even acknowledge it explicitly exists at all.
  • The Quiet War, by Paul McAuley. For all the advances that are happening right now in genetics and neuroscience, biological hard science fiction is agonizingly hard to come by. McAuley fills the void by asking us to consider what it even means to be human in an era of genetic self-modification. Also, why terraform planets when the technology to change ourselves is much closer to reality and orders of magnitude cheaper to implement? And how do people react to that sort of existential threat to what it even means to be a person? (Sometimes violently, it turns out...) The social and political issues raised in this novel are imminently upon us as a species.
  • Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie. I think Book 2 of the wonderful Imperial Radch trilogy stands out to me in several ways. It artfully shows how the privileged can be blind to their own privilege, even when directly confronted with it, thus propagating social inequities from generation to generation. It shows a wide range of social and political structures adapted to many different worlds and off-world environments. It explores the relationship between security, privacy, and ethics in an environment of ubiquitous invasive information about citizens. And it shows how cultural norms can effectively mask brutal oppression with the veneer of civilization, order, and justice.
  • Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed makes it absolutely clear that everything about the way we structure society, from politics to economy to the arrangement of families, is a choice. There is nothing special about how we do any of these things now, except that they have precedent and at some point they worked well enough for the purposes of whoever was in power at the time. I think the novel implicitly asks us: If we could truly choose what kind of society we would have, what would we build?

I’ve got my eye on a few more that have come out somewhat recently and seem policy-relevant, but I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, John Scalzi’s Lock In, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 are on my to-read list.

SFP: Now that you have completed your first novel, what’s next for your writing? Do you expect your future writing to have policy-relevant themes?

Ratnayake: So many projects on the to-do list! As I mentioned earlier, I’m already in the process of laying out ideas for the two sequels to Red Soil Through Our Fingers. However, I have no specific timeline for these novels yet.

Actually, to be honest, I’m a little novel’ed out after going through the whole writing, revision, and publication process. I think I’d like to get back to writing a short story or two, and spend some time returning the many peer-critique favors to my writer's group before I delve too deeply into another big project.

I’m interested in doing more of the near-term Hard-SF stuff like Red Soil, but I’ve also got an itch to do something more fantastical, such as a far-future space opera or even a straight up fantasy novel.

No matter what I end up writing next, I think there is a good chance something about it will be policy related. I love exploring the intersection between ideas and people. In that intersection is where I find the most interesting science fiction, and where I think the heart of what policy is.

About N.A. Ratnayake N.A. Ratnayake is a former aerospace engineer turned science teacher and science fiction writer. He lives in Boston. His short stories have appeared in Crossed Genres Magazine, and the postcolonial anthology We See a Different Frontier. His story “Remembering Turinam” received an honorable mention in Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Thirty-First Edition.

His debut novel, Red Soil Through Our Fingers, is the result of a longstanding passion for human spaceflight, combined with a desire to see humanity move towards a more positive future for all people. You learn more about the novel and N.A. Ratnayake at his website: www.naratnayake.com.