"Finisterra" by David Moles

image David Moles, who makes his F&SF debut in the December 2007 issue said in an interview that his story "Finisterra" is about a would-be aeronautical engineer from a backward future Earth who finds her obscure skills unexpectedly in demand on a strange and distant planet.

"It’s a riff on an old theme — the skilled protagonist who’s called on to travel to a strange locale to do a job that only that protagonist can do, and who ends up changed by the experience," Moles said. "’Finisterra’ would mostly make sense, I think, to any SF reader back to the Golden Age — apart from the setting, it would probably make sense to Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain."

The first inspiration for "Finisterra" was an illustration called "The Engineer," Moles said. "[The illustration was] an homage to Vermeer’s ‘Geographer,’ by my good friend Lara Wells," he said. "[It’s of] a woman in early modern costume working at a window, in a room full of illustrations and models for airships and Da Vinci flying machines. A woman in Da Vinci’s time wouldn’t have had the opportunities Da Vinci had, and Lara wanted to capture that — her Engineer is trapped in that room, dreaming of flight but unable to fly. The character of Bianca Nazario came directly from that image, though I transplanted her to a different time and place, and gave her a means of — qualified — escape."

Both of Moles’s grandfathers were pilots, he said. "And I’ve always loved the sky, flying, stories about flying — Saint-Exupéry, Richard Bach, Hayao Miyazaki with his wonderful skyscapes. The second inspiration for ‘Finisterra’ was simply an extraordinary sky that I saw once from the window of a 757 somewhere over Montana or Idaho," Moles said. "You can always see farther from altitude, of course, but that day it really did look as if there was no ground and no horizon. I knew I had a setting then; the only question then was what story to tell there."

The story’s protagonist, Bianca Nazario, is a woman to whom life hasn’t given any good choices, Moles said. "She’s been born into a marginalized group (the Christian minority) in a marginal place (the hinterlands of North America) in a marginal society (a Muslim-dominated future Earth) that has chosen, or been made (opinions differ) to revert to a technological but pre-industrial existence, where machines are handcrafted and offworlders, or extrañados as Bianca was raised to call them, are both a source of wonders and a focus of mistrust."

Social groups under pressure tend to cling to, or revert to, old, conservative norms and cultural expectations, Moles said. "What’s expected of Bianca is that she’ll marry young and raise children," he said. "When that doesn’t happen, Bianca’s culture has no backup plan for her. Certainly, what she wants to do, which is make airplanes like her father, is out of the question. So when she gets the chance to escape the trap life has put her in, she jumps at it, even though on some level she knows there must be a razor blade hidden in the apple. But at the same time, even though her family and her culture have been more a source of grief to her than anything else, she never forgets who she is or where she comes from."

The most personal aspect of "Finisterra," for Moles, is the Bianca’s character, he said. "It’s true that a woman in the developed world today has many more opportunities than she would have had a hundred years ago, or even fifty, but I also think that in American society particularly, we — men and women both — lie to ourselves about how much freedom and opportunity we have," Moles said. "I know quite a few people who have found themselves trapped the way Bianca is, between what they want and what the people around want for them, between their dreams and the economic reality of life under 21st-century capitalism. Some are lucky enough to escape the trap — not always through radical lateral moves like Bianca’s, but often enough. Others are still stuck. And all of us, like Bianca, find ourselves having to make moral compromises to survive, whether we admit it or not."

As research for the story, Moles said he probably spent more time reading about Islam than anything else, even though that aspect of the plot ended up staying mostly in the background. "Of course, times being what they are, it’s a pretty topical subject in any case," he said. "Reza Aslan’s No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam is particularly good, for anyone trying to move beyond the Hollywood and cable news caricatures and get a sense of where Islam’s come from and what a modern, globalized, post-industrial Muslim society looks like. I also spent quite a while scribbling on graph paper, trying to remember high school trig, trying to figure out just how big Sky was and just what you’d be able to see from where."

Future projects for Moles include a novella from PS Publishing called Seven Cities of Gold, due out sometime in 2009, he said. "[It’s] a kind of alternate history Heart of Darkness about a Japanese woman doctor — not so very far removed from Bianca Nazario, in many ways — going up the Mississippi, in a North America at war between invading European Muslims and a mestizo Christian culture, with Japanese relief workers caught in the middle," Moles said.

He’s also currently working on a novel, tentatively titled Viola’s War, he said. "[It’s] a philosophical space opera / thriller set in the same universe as ‘Finisterra’ and ‘Planet of the Amazon Women‘; it’s closer to the latter than the former, but a major section does take place on Sky — mostly in the crowded world of the elevator stations and vacuum balloons, that ‘Finisterra’ alludes to but doesn’t really show," Moles said.

The December 2007 issue of F&SF is on sale now.