Some years ago, I was privileged to attend a talk by former space shuttle astronaut, Dave Hilmers. I had to admire a man who retired from NASA in his fifties, went to medical school and embarked on a new career in global health, but of course it was the description of his shuttle flights that inspired my fictional imagination. He gave a powerful sense of what it was like to strap himself on top of the semi-controlled explosion that happens when a solid fuel booster is lit.
The image stayed with me for some time, but I had no story to use it in. I was painfully aware that the sort of people likely to read a story involving space shuttles were the sort of people who would read stories by authors like Stephen Baxter and Greg Benford, whose sweeping knowledge of the reality of spaceflight informs their fiction. Anything I could write would look like a pale imitation.
Not for the first time, I found the idea I needed in New Scientist. Specifically in an article on how science and engineering might have progressed in Nazi Germany if it hadn’t come to an abrupt halt in 1945. Werner von Braun famously said of the first V2 strike on London that the rocket worked perfectly but landed on the wrong planet. Had it not been for certain disastrous decisions about the conduct of the Second World War, Germany could have become a global superpower in the second half of the 20th century. The human cost would have been immense, and von Braun would have followed his dream of spaceflight in his native country rather than the USA.
As I developed the story, I realised how naive I’d been in not noticing that the problems of taking on one of the most frequently used alternate histories were very similar to the problems of trespassing in the domain of well-documented spaceflight. Instead of following Baxter and Benford, I was following in the well-trodden footsteps of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Robert Harris’s Fatherland. By the time I woke up to my hubris, I had gone so far I felt I may as well finish.
As the echoes of the humanitarian disaster that was Nazi Germany are still far from silent, I could only really tell the story through the viewpoint of someone opposed to the regime. I still wanted to incorporate my original idea of describing spaceflight. How could I have a dissident, but who would be considered to have the right stuff by the relevant authorities? The obvious answer was that he would be a spy. Once I realised I was writing about espionage, everything else fell into place.
Looking back, I hope that if I wrote the story today, I’d find a less cumbersome way of handling the divergence between the alternate timeline I invented and real history. Apart from that, I’m still reasonably happy with the story, though I don’t think I’ll return to that world.
Under the Hooked Cross was first published by Lillibridge Press, April 2010. It is now available as a Kindle edition.
Cover by Manda Benson.