When we write we fill our fictional world with things we know, whether obtained from our own experience or through research. I know that I get many of my ideas from my day job as a space lawyer. I was at the Federal Aviation Administration for many years. Prizes were really big in the space sector–and still are. SpaceShipOne snagged the ten million dollar prize offered by the Ansari X Prize. The Google Lunar X Prize offers $30M to the first privately funded team to land a spacecraft on the Moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit high definition video and images back to Earth. Prizes, by the way, go all the way back to the Longitude Prize offered in the 18th century for navigation. Surrounded constantly by prize talk I came up with my own idea for a prize, $50M to the first to de-orbit a large piece of space junk. I have a short story awaiting rejection at a magazine that comes from wondering whether alien visitors would need an FAA reentry license. It’s not like they’d left Earth, so how could they reenter? Hey, I thought it was funny. Fortunately, that story morphed into something beyond just the joke.
I used to think that if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to get a job at the FAA doing space work, I would have liked to work in the power wheeling world. As a space junkie (which is different from space junk), I’ve long thought that any day now we’d be getting space based solar power beamed to the ground from orbit. If I’d worked on Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issues I figured I’d have been ready to work for a solar powersat operator. Also, electricity is cool.
But I may have been thinking too small for a writer. If I’d been an environmental lawyer, I might have known everything. I say this because I check the table of contents of the Federal Register every day for the legal side of my work. (If you are interested in space law, I blog at GroundBasedSpaceMatters.com). The Federal Register is where the government publishes all its notices. I pay close attention to the space regulators, of course, but glance over others. I’ve got to say, the Environmental Protection Agency has real breadth to its jurisdiction. Just the other day it was getting into the coastal waters of New England, the cement kilns of Maryland, and natural gas compression stations somewhere, maybe everywhere. If you worked there or for a firm, you’d know all about everything.
One of the good things about being a lawyer is you learn a lot about whatever industry you work on. I’m a philosophy major who learned a whole lot about blowing up rockets. (In America, which is a great country, you achieve launch safety through explosion.) I learned how they string the ordnance, how the vehicle tells the ground based element that it’s off course and heading for a city (which is bad), and how they send the destruct signal through all the little components. I even remember the exploding bridge wires and command receiver decoders. I used the check tone requirements of 14 C.F.R. part 417 for my fictional powersats in a novel.
When I read fantasy or historical fiction set in the distant past, I love all the “stuff” in the background, the rye in the fields, the geese in the streets, the balance to a sword, and the rifling of the Baker. If I’d been an environmental lawyer I’d know more stuff. Oh, well, it’s too late now for me, but for those of you in law school who want to know everything, think about it. Or, just read the Federal Register.