Letter From The Editor - Issue 67 - February 2019

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The Story Behind the Stories
  IGMS Authors Share How Their Stories Came to Be
October 2018

Occultation of the Bright Aspects by Stephen Case

I teach astronomy to undergraduates at a university where I am also the planetarium director. This means that sometimes I feel I should be writing a lot more science fiction. I do write some in this genre, but what tends to get published more often is my fantasy, like this piece. "Occultation of the Bright Aspects," however, might be the first fantasy piece I've published based on an actual astronomical occurrence, and it was observing this event late one night at the campus observatory that inspired the story.

In March 2017 I witnessed my first lunar occultation of a star. As it travels in its monthly orbit, the Moon occasionally moves in front of, or occults, planets or certain bright stars. One of these is Aldebaran, the reddish eye of Taurus the Bull. On the night of the occultation I watched the Moon slide closer and closer to Aldebaran. This particular occultation was especially impressive as the Moon was in its early crescent phase, and it was the dark side of the Moon that reached the star first. Aldebaran suddenly winked out behind it, blinking out as though someone had flipped a switch. (The way stars disappear behind the Moon instantly during an occultation was an early argument that they were distant enough to be point-like objects with no apparent extension in our night sky and that the Moon had no atmosphere.)

The bulk of the Moon hid the star for about forty minutes before it reappeared on the far side. If we lived under a sky with more bright stars clustered along the Moon's path, we would have more frequent and dramatic occultations. (Incidentally, a solar eclipse is an occultation as well, when the Moon moves in front of the Sun.) As in my story's universe, the Moon's path in the sky is surprisingly complex and varies from month to month, which means it does not occult the same stars each revolution. In our own universe extensive calculations were needed to understand and predict the nuances of the Moon's motion. (This was needed for a different kind of magic--being able to navigate at sea.)

As I drove home from the observatory that night, the image of Aldabaran disappearing behind the dark side of the Moon stuck with me. I thought about the fact (perhaps insignificant in our reality) that during those forty minutes our planet had been without the light of that particular star. The basic premise of "Occultation of the Bright Aspects" fell into my head on that drive home. From that point on, it was just a matter of getting the narrator through the proper steps and figuring out what she would discover when she reached her objective. (The king's ultimate objective surprised me almost as much as it surprised the narrator.) I wanted to capture in the story some of the wonder of an actual lunar occultation--a sort of quiet miracle in the sky. Though nothing as dramatic happens on our Earth when the Moon blocks a star, it kind of feels like something should.

Stephen King (among others) has said that if you don't have time to read then don't bother writing. I would take this further: I would say that if you don't have time to witness interesting things, visit interesting places, or meet interesting people, then your writing will be the weaker for it. Or rather, the richness of your writing will reflect the richness of your experience. Occasionally, astronomical observations can provide some of this richness, and I hope this story is an example of that.

There was one other aspect of this story that fell into my head unbidden, that I didn't have to wrestle onto the page as I usually do most aspects of my story: the name of the queen. Sometimes when I'm biking to work names or phrases will just pop into my mind. With the name of the queen--Ta-nahrahsha'ba--the entire cadence bubbled up while I was waiting for the light to turn on Court Street near St. Rose in downtown Kankakee. I don't know if I had heard something similar or what, but I repeated it over and over again until I got to my office and could write it down. I hope I spelled it correctly, but I'm confident I'm pronouncing it right.

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