Behind the Scenes: Randy Ingermanson and Mars

Oxygen Randy IngermansonToday I have the privilege of interviewing award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, author of “Genius in Jeopardy” books and creator of the Snowflake method. He’s taking us behind the scenes on his fast-paced science fiction novel Oxygen (co-written with John Olson).

An explosion on the first mission to Mars leaves four astronauts with only enough oxygen for one to live. The evidence points to one of the four being a saboteur. One’s unconscious. One’s unstable. And the other two are falling in love.

(If you buy the ebook edition of Oxygen, you also get two helpful appendices. The first takes apart the motivation-reaction units—à la Dwight Swain—in the first two chapters. The second explains how they sold Oxygen to a respected publisher in less than seven weeks without an agent.)

Welcome, Randy :)

In your Authors’ Notes of the Kindle edition, you write that neither technology nor money are actually an issue and that “humans could walk on Mars within a dozen years.” Why do you think we should send a mission to Mars? What would make it worth the money and manpower investment?

If you believe that space exploration is a good thing, then it needs a goal. Nobody achieves diddley unless they have a goal. Putting humans on Mars is a powerful goal that anybody can visualize and understand. It’s the one goal that would move us forward fastest.

The space race in the 1960s created numerous technological advances that nobody expected. These have paid off massively over the last fifty years. The computer I’m typing on right now and the internet I’m sending you this document over are partly due to the space race. Partly.

A Mars mission would very likely have the same unpredictable side effects. I can’t tell you what they would be, because “unpredictable” means that you can’t know in advance what they are.

The usual scientific reasons given for a Mars mission are that it’ll contribute to our understanding of the history of the solar system (unfortunately, most people don’t give a fig about our understanding of the history of the solar system) and that it could possibly provide evidence of past life on Mars which would shed light on the evolution of life on earth (unfortunately, many of the people in positions to vote for a Mars mission believe that “evolution” is a four-letter word).

So let’s just leave it with this—a Mars mission will astound us with an amazing array of technological advances that we can’t predict, for a total price tag much less than the cost of running a foreign war for one month. A Mars mission would give us a vision of greatness and adventure. If that sounds like something our country desperately needs, then a Mars mission would be a good thing.

What’s the one thing you think is key to making a manned mission to Mars possible? How did you work this into Oxygen?

Political willpower. Going to Mars is not that hard, technically or financially. If you fund the project at a few billion dollars per year (this is well within NASA’s current Spartan budget) and you commit to a ten or twelve year program, you can get there. It’s harder than going to the moon, but not much harder, and we have better technology than we did fifty years ago when John Kennedy committed to putting Americans on the moon.

The key thing missing is a political champion (like Kennedy) who can look beyond the next two years. Several presidents over the last couple of decades have given lip service to Mars, but they typically backed off when something more urgent came up.

A Mars mission needs steady commitment for longer than that.

In Oxygen, we simply postulated that NASA formed a small independent unit, a “NASA within NASA” that had one guy who had absolute control and a reasonable budget. This was the only way we could see to get the continuity needed. No international collaborations. No sprawling bureaucracy. Just a small team of dedicated people.

The problem came when the budget cutters came around with their axes, looking to save a few bucks. This is very plausible, but it’s also the best way to wreck the mission. You cannot run a Mars mission that doesn’t have dependable funding. You can’t.

A lot of people see science and faith as incompatible, yet your two main characters (Valkerie and Bob) are both people of faith. How would you answer the people who say you can’t be both a scientist and a person of faith?

Roughly 40% of all working scientists are people of faith. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are conservative Christians or orthodox Jews (although some are). But it means that the death of faith among scientists has been greatly exaggerated. Likewise, a surprising number of philosophers are people of faith.

There is an odd philosophy known as “scientism” which has sprung up in the last few decades which says, roughly, that the only valid knowledge is scientific knowledge. The reason I say this is “odd” is because there is obviously no way to demonstrate this using scientific method. So scientism is self-refuting, and therefore false.

Of course I believe that science is one way to reach valid knowledge. But if it really is the only way, there’s no way for us to know that.

Given North America’s ongoing love affair with reality TV, one element I enjoyed was that you had a news station wanting to turn the Ares 10 mission into the “biggest, baddest reality show you ever saw, with a boatload of danger and packed to the gills with romance.” What aspects of a mission to Mars do you think would make for great reality TV?

In our novel, two good looking single men and two good looking single women, isolated for almost three years in a ship the size of typical Tokyo apartment was all the reality show the networks could dream of. Whenever you have that, there’s the immediate question of who’s going to hook up with whom, and when?

Throw in some jealousy and the ever-possible threat of instant death, and you really do have the best reality show ever. TV money might very well be the only way to fund a Mars mission.

Because this was a co-written novel, did you run into any “bloopers” where John wrote a character in a way that made you ask “what was he thinking?!”

Hmmmm, maybe the other way around, but we’re not going to go there. At one point, I wrote a scene that John just said no on. But neither he nor I will ever tell anyone what it was.

Early in the coauthoring, we discovered a much more insidious problem was maintaining the emotional continuity between scenes. It was just impossible for either of us to write a scene until we had read the preceding scene, because we had to pick up the emotive atmosphere in the same place.

Once we learned that, we put ourselves on a rigorous schedule where we mapped out who would write each scene and on what day at what time. As soon as a scene got written, whoever wrote it would email it to the other one, who was waiting for it.

This made writing the novel hard, but once we learned that we had to do it this way, it worked pretty well.

You’ve written a sequel to Oxygen. Will The Fifth Man also be released in a Kindle edition soon?

We’re working on final edits now. We’re shooting for a release in early April, but I can’t make any guarantees until the book is done, because life happens.

Randall IngermansonThanks, Randy, for taking us behind the scenes on Oxygen.

If you want to learn more about the craft and marketing of fiction, sign up for Randy’s Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine (with more than 29,000 readers). You can buy Oxygen in paperback from Marcher Lord Press, for Kindle at Amazon, or for your Nook at Barnes and Noble.

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