An Interview with Les Johnson: “We WILL get to the stars!”

Les Johnson, is a NASA scientist turned science writer–no, wait, science fiction writer–hold the press, I meant science and science fiction editor. Actually, Les Johnson is all that and he continues to work at NASA while pursuing his writing and editing goals. He’s back at Dragon*Con for another year, ready to share his insights and talk about his books.

Daily Dragon (DD): Les, you’ve co-authored Living Off the Land in Space, Solar Sails: A Novel Approach to Interplanetary Travel, and Paradise Regained: The Regreening of Earth. What prompted you to share your scientific knowledge and insights with the reading public?

Les Johnson (LJ): Science Fiction Conventions. No kidding! I’ve been attending cons since I was 17. After I earned my degrees and started working, I was asked to give science talks at a few local conventions. I then started getting feedback from those attending my talks that I should write a book. In 2006, with my good friend and frequent co-author, Greg Matloff, we submitted an unsolicited manuscript to Springer books and they bought it. That book became Living Off the Land in Space. The other books quickly followed. And yes, I use my appearances at conventions to ‘test market’ new ideas.

DD: It’s been two years since your first novel, Back to the Moon (co-authored with Travis Taylor) came out. Do you have any full-length novel projects in the works?

LJ: I have two novels in the works. The first is a sequel to Back to the Moon, which I will again co-author with Travis Taylor. It will continue where the first book left off and examine more closely one of the reasons we need to keep exploring space. The other novel is also collaboration and I am honored to say that it will be with Ben Bova.

DD: Have you tried your hand at short fiction? Are shorter length stories suitable for the type of hard science fiction a scientist like yourself might favor?

LJ: When Baen Books commissioned the Going Interstellar anthology, they specifically asked me to write a story for the collection. I’m glad they did. The story,” Choices,” deals with my personal favorite answer to the Fermi Paradox. (The Fermi Paradox describes the great silence we observe within a universe that ought to be teeming with other sentient beings-–but we appear to be alone…) Do I favor short stories? Not really. Some stories are better told with fewer words and some are simply too involved or complicated and need to be novel length.

DD: How about your science writing? Are there any works in progress you’d like to reveal?

LJ: I just submitted (this week!) the final manuscript for my next popular science book, Sky Alert: When Satellites Fail. I’m generally an optimist, but I fear we may have embraced and become too economically dependent on satellite technology, setting ourselves up for potential catastrophe from war in space, a runaway orbital debris problem or a massive solar flare. If you want to know how space impacts your life, mostly “behind the scenes,” then this book will be a must read. Sky Alert will be published by Springer Books sometime in 2013.

DD: You co-edited Going Interstellar with Jack McDevitt, a past Dragon*Con guest and the winner of both the Philip K. Dick award and a Nebula award for his fiction. What was it like to work with a literary star like Jack or Ben Bova, Louise Marley, and Mike Resnick, also Going Interstellar contributors?

LJ: It was an honor. I’d never met most of these award-winning authors yet they readily agreed to work with me on the anthology. It was almost like a domino effect–-once one agreed to participate, then the others agreed to sign on as well. Believe me, some of their stories will knock your socks off!

DD: You contributed and edited both science and science fiction segments for Going Interstellar. Do you find it difficult to switch between concepts you know will work and ones that might possibly work or are even improbable with our current level of technology?

LJ: Going Interstellar is all about what is possible within the known laws of physics. I fortunately didn’t have to switch between the possible and impossible, just between the possible but really hard and the possible but really, really, hard. While nature hasn’t ruled out interstellar travel, she certainly has made it difficult.

DD: In my copy of Going Interstellar, you inscribed, “We will get to the stars!” What do you see as our best bets for long-distance space travel and when do you think, political budgeting notwithstanding, we could reach the moon again? The other planets in our own solar system? The closest stars?

LJ: I’m definitely not speaking for NASA as I answer this question. Just as me, private citizen and space advocate: Going back to the Moon is inevitable. It just might not be Americans going this time. While we scoff at our politicians proposing ambitious space projects, the Russians, Indians, and Chinese are making steady progress toward exploring the Moon, visiting asteroids, and building space solar power stations in Earth orbit. This appears to be the classic story of the tortoise (the rest of the world) and the hare (the United States.) Going to another star certainly won’t happen in our lifetimes, but I believe it will happen. And if we don’t go, then someone else will, and they will be the ones to reap the rewards.

DD: Where can fans find you at Dragon*Con?

LJ: I’ll be in several Space Track panels and one Sci-Fi & Fantasy Literature panel. I also have a couple of book signings:

  • Fri 1:30PM (M) Marquis Ballroom (Larry Smith Book Sellers) Book Signing
  • Fri 4PM (Hil) 203 “What Happens If We Lose Our Satellites?”
  • Fri 10PM (Hil) 203 “It IS Rocket Science! A Lunar Base Workshop”
  • Fri 11PM (Hil) 203 Reading from Going Interstellar
  • Sat 4:30PM (M) Marquis Ballroom (Larry Smith Book Sellers) Book Signing
  • Sat 5:30PM (Hil) 203 “Advanced Space Propulsion 101”
  • Sat 8:30PM (Hy) Greenbriar “The Science in Science Fiction”
  • Sun 11:30AM (Hy) Regency V “Collaborations” (writing collaboratively)
  • Sun 4PM (Hy) Regency V “Asteroid Mining”
  • Sun 10PM (Hil) 203 “Space Geeks”
  • Mon 4PM (Hil) 203 “Fermi Paradox – Where Are Our Cosmic Neighbors?”

Visit Les Johnson’s website at LesJohnsonAuthor.com.

Author of the article

Amy Herring

Amy L. Herring (Louise Herring-Jones) writes speculative fiction, with a preference for historical fantasy and alternate mystery. Her stories, appearing in fourteen anthologies, include “The Poulterer’s Tale” in God Bless Us, Every One—Christmas Carols beyond Dickens (Voodoo Rumors Media, expected release 2019). Amy is a NaNoWriMo co-municipal liaison. She also coordinates the Huntsville (Alabama) Literary Association’s writers’ group. Visit her online at http://www.louiseherring-jones.com.

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