"Mars: A Traveler’s Guide" by Ruth Nestvold

image Ruth Nestvold, whose story “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide” appears in the January 2008 issue of F&SF, said in an interview that the story is about a tourist on Mars who is stranded alone after an accident caused by a major dust storm. "The tour guide [is] dead and the rover damaged," Nestvold said. "The only thing the tourist has that is working is the supposedly ‘intelligent’ computer system to try to help him or her figure out a way to survive."

Like most of her stories, this one was brewing for a long time before it came together. "I think the original seed was a lecture Michael Swanwick gave at a workshop I once attended that he called ‘How to Win a Hugo,’" Nestvold said. "The gist of it was to have a character stranded somewhere in the solar system in a desperate situation with next to no options. The character should then solve the problem using science–so base the story on a combination of a ton of research and whatever hand-waving you need to get past the bumps. Of course, this impressed me, especially given the promise Michael made, and it was in the back of my mind for quite a few years before it came together with the idea of telling a story in a series of database entries."

This story is told entirely through the Mars rover computer system’s responses to the protagonist’s queries. "I always tend to take a lot of notes for my research-heavy stories, but in this story, the ‘narrative’ itself was relatively straightforward–I simply had to take one option after another away from the ‘protagonist,’" Nestvold said. "Most of the work was in the research, getting all the details of possible near-future Mars expeditions right, deciding on a perfect site for a perfect accident,  that kind of thing. The actual writing went surprisingly fast once I had the plan and the research down. In real life, I translate and test computer programs and manuals, and I found it very easy to slip into the role."

The main challenge in writing the story was the research, Nestvold said. "I put my first couple of paragraphs aside for several months, sure that no one would want to read a short story without a protagonist. I guess at some point I convinced myself there wasn’t much to lose, since most stories don’t sell anyway, and I went back to all the materials on Mars and Mars explorations I had collected, read up on it again, and just started writing the damn thing. … I think part of what freed me to finally write the story was doing enough research to know the kinds of problems that could create the Catch-22 situation I needed."

In order to write the story, Nestvold had to imagine herself in the situation of the tourist battling the "help" system. "So I guess you could say I’m the gal who tells the computer ‘fuck you,’" she said. "It was really fun writing this story. Once I got past my own worries and had done enough research to get the protagonist in really deep shit, it flowed. Apparently the voice of a completely unhelpful help system is something I can relate to.

The January 2008 issue of F&SF is on sale now.