Well, into the National Space Centre, that is…
I may have been involved in science fiction for 25 years, but I’m relatively new to this “author” thing. I’ve done plenty of panels at conventions, but I’ve never given a reading, and I’ve certainly never spoken about something I’ve written to a bunch of complete strangers who may or may not have come to hear me talk or indeed have any clue who the hell I am.
But that’s what I did last Sunday.
The National Space Centre in Leicester had organised a two-week celebration of “Space Fiction”, beginning on 9 February and lasting until 24 February. I was asked if I’d like to contribute on one of those days as one of the clients of the John Jarrold Literary Agency. Since Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself are proper hardcore realistic space fiction books it struck me they’d be well-suited to a reading in the National Space Centre… And so it was arranged: Philip Palmer, Chris Beckett and myself would each give a 30-minute talk/reading on Sunday 17 February.
As you approach the National Space Centre, the first thing you see is a giant pupa pointing up into the sky above Leicester. That’s the Rocket Tower. The rest of the building looks more like something you’d find on a university campus or science park. I’m not sure what I was expecting – something like a museum, I suspect – but it’s far more resolutely modern than my dim memories of visits to museums as a child suggested. I was immediately taken with the Soyuz on display in the main foyer. And it really is a tiny spacecraft. I’d known that, of course – I’ve researched this stuff, after all. But you have to see it in the flesh, so to speak, to realise quite how small and makeshift and fragile it is. The Soyuz is apparently only one of two on permanent display in the West.
I was collected from the foyer by Charlie, who was wrangling the three of us that day. She did an excellent job of looking after us, so much thanks. The actual venue for the talk proved to be a small lecture area just off the main concourse, with rows of benches facing a small stage backed by a large screen. There was another screen above the stage. Most of the National Space Centre is one big open space, partitioned into display areas by walls no more than three metres high, so there was a lot of background noise. But we had microphones.
Phil Palmer’s talk began at 12:15. He talked about science fiction and extrapolation, and it was obviously something he had spoken about before. He then read from both Debatable Space and Hell Ship. The audience was mostly families with small children – about twelve to fifteen people in total. Chris Beckett arrived during Phil’s talk.
Afterwards, we had a thirty-minute gap before Chris’ session started at 13:15, so we went to get a bite to eat from Boosters Restaurant. It was sandwiches and soup, so my face fell when I saw it. I asked one of the staff if they had anything that was dairy-free. He told me they’d make me any sandwich I wanted in a dairy-free version. That level of service and helpfulness still impresses me – it shouldn’t do, not in the twenty-first century; but it’s still unusual enough in the UK to be a pleasant surprise.
Chris’s talk was not as well attended as Phil’s had been. He spoke about rogue planets and how they’d been scientifically proven about he’d written Dark Eden. He also described the inspiration for the novel, and then read one of the chapters.
There was then another thirty-minute gap until my talk at 14:15. Phil had booked a ticket for the planetarium show, so he shot off to that while Chris, his wife Maggie, and myself went for a wander round. We headed for the Rocket Tower, though I was a little worried about suffering from vertigo on the top deck. But I was fine as long as I didn’t get too close to the railing. The LM simulator looked more like a computer game than an actual copy, but the 1960s living-room was good. The three of us recognised several items in it from our own childhoods. There was a piece of moon rock in a globe of the Moon, and one wall gave an illustrated timeline of the Space Race. The next deck down celebrated Soviet achievements, though from what I could see the Soyuz simulator was just a little room with a plastic seat in it. I didn’t linger as I needed to get back to lecture area.
Then it was time for my talk. I’ve not done public speaking since I left school decades ago, and I knew this was going to be nothing like being on a panel at a convention. For one thing, my audience would be just walk-ins, who had likely wandered across to see what was going on. My name will have meant completely nothing to them. (In the event, beside Phil and Chris, at least two members of the audience knew me – Will Ellwood, who I know via Twitter, and Dave Caldwell, who was a member of an APA I was in back in the 1990s.)
As soon as I was ready to begin, I hit my first snag. I only had two hands. I was using a PowerPoint presentation, so I needed to hold the clicker to advance the slides. I also needed to hold a microphone. And then there was the script of my talk, which I hadn’t learned off by heart. Damn. I’d need three hands. Charlie happily lent me her hands-free mike. She then introduced me and I started babbling…
I thought it went quite well. I managed not to speak unintelligibly fast, and I clicked through the slides in mostly the right places. I spoke about realistic space travel and science fiction’s poor record in depicting it, using ocean liners as spaceships rather than actual real spacecraft (such as the Soyuz in the foyer), and how I came to write the Apollo Quartet. I cut down the excerpts from Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself I’d planned to read, and that proved to be a wise decision. I finished it pretty much exactly in thirty minutes. And the entire audience stayed throughout the entire talk. Afterwards, a couple of people came up and thanked me and said they had found it interesting.
Phil, Chris and myself then moved across to a table in the main concourse, where people could buy copies of our books and we would sign them. We were actually approached by more people asking for directions than we were people who wanted to purchase our books. But never mind.
It was a fun day. I’d liked to have taken the time to explore the National Space Centre more fully, and I certainly think it’s an interesting place to take children. Personally, perhaps, I’d have preferred more hardware and less science, but that’s what fascinates me. All the same, I could happily spend a day there.
Finally, the last two slides of my presentation were hints to the stories of the final two books of the Apollo Quartet. And here they are…