The story behind “Unrefined”

“Unrefined” is my Third Place story for Quarter 1 in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Volume 31. Here’s an audio sampler:

Thank you to Tung Chi “Jessica” Lee for the amazing illustration for my story, and to Scott R. Parkin for his powerful narration in this sampler.

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Where did this story come from? That’s a complicated question for most stories, but I remember the sources of this story pretty clearly.

It started as a story about an asteroid mining team that must deliver a payload under stressful circumstances. I had a vision of a miner having to ride the payload to its destination (that never made it into the story, but I’ll use it some day). I also had a vision of the mining team, a family (more or less) headed by a matriarch trying to hold her team together after her husband died in pursuit of this load.

But characters don’t exist in an economic and social background. Who is this payload for? Where are they shipping it? Where did they travel from, and where will they return to? I had an idea of a mining society based somewhere in the asteroid belt; but immediately I said, “I can’t write that. Jerry Pournelle would never forgive me.” Back in the 1970s, Dr. Pournelle wrote an essay “Those Pesky Belters and Their Torch Ships” (collected in A Step Farther Out). The essay explained that fundamentals of rocketry tell us that the SF classic “Belter” civilization (miners that live in some asteroid capitol and then travel through the belt, mining loads to ship to Earth) makes no economic sense. Even a large asteroid has almost no gravity, so it can’t help you to catch it. You have to burn fuel all the way there, and then burn more fuel to get back to your capitol. It turns out to take less fuel to set your base on Earth or Mars. A society that can live in the asteroid belt can live anywhere in the Solar System. So my belt society just wouldn’t work.

But! Dr. Pournelle’s essay ended with a workable alternative. Jupiter has gravity. Lots and lots of gravity. Enough to make it easy to catch with garden-variety rockets. And enough to catch millions, maybe billions of asteroids as little moonlets. Jupiter did the hard work of collecting them, all you have to do is harvest them.

So my asteroid mining ship became a small collection of mining ships and stations in Jupiter orbit (named the Pournelle Settlements in Dr. Pournelle’s honor). But if the rock is traveling all the way from Jupiter to Earth, the idea of riding the load in is untenable. The trip would take too long, and the miner would run out of food and air. I needed another method, and I settled on an old SF trope: the mass driver, a large linear accelerator that uses magnets to grab a load and launch it on a desired trajectory. But a big mass driver implied a big station, not a small family operation. Thus was born entrepreneur Wilson Gray and his Refinery Station.

Except for one problem: the original premise of the story was a problem with the delivery. After all that time designing my Refinery Station, I needed to disable it, maybe even destroy it.

And so begins “Unrefined”. Like many of my stories, it begins with a character hanging in an airlock, preparing to leap into space…

EDIT: Auston Habershaw shares the story behind “A Revolutionary’s Guide to Practical Conjuration”.