The Story Behind the Stories
For a Rich Man to Enter by Susan Forest
Some people are surprised that I find riding on the back of my husband's motorcycle a
relaxing, almost cocooning pastime. Because he and I have no means of communication, this
sensuous experience brings with it long hours of, essentially, silence--the silence of the motor and the
wind; the silence of uninterrupted thought. The thorough disconnect from the constant bombardment
of media, conversation, errands gives me time to commune with myself, and I find it a particularly
rich environment for incubating story. In the summer of 2016, my husband and I were exploring the
stark beauty of the landscapes north of the Grand Canyon when two ideas began to percolate together
in my mind.
My husband and I are both interested in the events of the two world wars. I am interested
because both my grandfather and my father fought in these conflicts; my husband is an aficionado of
military history, self-taught through wide reading and viewing. Together, we'd visited the beaches,
battlefields, cemeteries and museums of northern France, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg. So,
perhaps it was not surprising that, while riding down to the incredible Painted Desert, I began to
wonder why WWII allied soldiers held in Japanese POW camps were treated differently from those
held in European camps.
When we took a break from riding, my husband and I discussed a number of possible
explanations, but one factor that may or may not have played into this particular historical situation
resonated in my thoughts: people treat well what they value. For instance, if a soldier is valued for his
courage and skill, and he is expected, as an honorable man, to fight for his country, how are we to
view a soldier who "fails" in his duty? In other words, if he is captured--as by definition a POW
is--is this not evidence that he did not do everything possible to fulfill his obligations as a soldier?
That he has lost some of his honor? And if so, is he not worth less?
I have no idea whether this type of thinking played any part in the events of WWII, but the
idea held out for me the possibility of a rich literary vein to explore.
The second idea came from a consideration of near-future space exploration. I am drawn to
near-future stories because of the cool schism between the familiar, the new and creative, and
thoughtful explorations of how current conditions could play out--especially the unintended
consequences. However, there are many stories about Earth, Mars, the Moon, the asteroids and even
many of the outer moons. But--and maybe the desert heat and the barrenness of the landscape
spurred me to think of this--wouldn't it be awesome to have a near-future story set on an unlikely
planet, like Mercury?
For one thing, Mercury is full of constraints, and constraints are so incredibly stimulating! The
more I thought about--and later, researched--Mercury, the more restrictions I discovered. Mercury is
one of the solar system's harshest environments; the old view that one could build a colony on its
twilit lands between its dark and light sides has been dispelled by a new understanding of the planet's
slow rotation. Mercury has no valuable resources such as heavy metals to be mined, and if it did,
transporting them out of the sun's gravity well would make such cargo prohibitively expensive. Low
gravity, high radiation . . . you get the picture. It would be about the last place anyone would put an
So, what circumstances might lead to the establishment of a human colony on Mercury?
Intolerable conditions on Earth would be a start. We can see these developing today: an expanding
population overtaking Earth's resources, changing climate, refugees, resource wars, and pollution are a
few. Additionally, a colony on Mercury would only develop if colonies on more inviting worlds
refused, or were unable, to accept more immigrants.
Following the reasoning further, if I wanted to explore the idea of prisoners of war, I needed
to develop a sequence of events leading to war. It's not hard to come up with the politics that would
give rise to a war of independence, and--given the physical conditions on Mercury--how it would be
And if there are prisoners of war, what values, culture and historical differences would lead to
some prisoners of war--those on Earth--being treated differently from others? All of my ideas fell
together organically: Earth, with its billions, would have no need to value any individual; if one
person couldn't perform a function, the person next to them could. Why nurture a captured POW? But
on Mercury, the limited population would have to be cross trained in multiple skill sets and the
society would have to function cohesively; the loss of a productive individual would not only be an
economic blow, it would be a grief to the community. What better setting to explore these ideas than
in a POW exchange?
Next, why would Earth ever want to return Mercurian POWs? In the chaos of a disintegrating
world, Earth would have no single government able to determine cohesive policy. But a rogue group
of the wealthy might have the means to escape.
To become refugees . . .
The ideas kept blossoming and blossoming, resonating with interlocking themes that did not
necessarily resolve themselves into neat answers, just as the issues we face today about global
migrations do not resolve themselves with neat answers. Characters who would need to make
decisions and take actions sprang from the clash of beliefs, the need for survival, and the need to
build, or even maintain, a meaningful life.
It is winter as I write this, and snow is falling outside my window. But man, I do look forward
to summer and the stimulating solitude of riding on the back of the motorcycle.
And blooming, blossoming ideas.
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