Risk, Reward, and Narrative in the Great Outdoors

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

Drowning… broken bones… dehydration… exposure… heatstroke… frostbite… nature has many ways to make you suffer and, possibly, die.

But I can’t keep away from the great outdoors. The sense of being away from all civilization, the isolation of being miles from a road, the lack of ability to communicate with humanity—I thrive on these experiences.

Most of my friends don’t consider me a risk-taker. Neither do I. But when I go backpacking or SCUBA diving or mountain biking, I am taking risks. I mitigate them as much as possible. I’m a Meyers-Briggs INTJ—an incorrigible planner—and I’m an engineer. I try to account for the most likely disaster scenarios, I use technology to maximal advantage, but nature loves to surprise us, and I enjoy the challenge that presents.

Let’s start with drowning. Humans can’t breathe water but we have the technology (SCUBA) to let us take air underwater. Diving is amazing. Looking out and seeing dolphins undulating in the big blue, or having giant manta rays drift over my head like benign star destroyers, or being surrounded by a school of brilliant, colored fish effectively chanting, “One of us. One of us.”—these experiences make my life worth living… and worth risking.

My husband and I rode in the Idabel, a deep sea submersible that took us over 1000 feet down the Cayman Trench wall. High risk? Definitely, but also high technology. We weren’t the first or the last to take a ride in that cramped hodgepodge of spheres. I trusted that the odds were in our favor to make it back to the surface alive, but I also figured it was the closest I might get to a truly alien environment (and it is weird and dark and still down in the deeps). I would risk death to go to another planet. Why not do the same to visit one of the strangest places on Earth?

Next up: broken bones. Quite a few outdoor activities carry this risk, but in my case it’s mountain biking. (Rock climbing was on my list in college, but I never got around to it.) I’m a conservative rider so the number of bones I’ve broken is zero, but I lived with a steady stream of scrapes, bumps, and bruises for a few years. Mostly I love where biking takes me: far, far away from roads and other human structures. In as little as an hour of riding, I can find myself surrounded by sagebrush and sycamore trees, dust settling behind my tires, and no sound but the trill of a hidden quail.

In certain locations, however, you risk the next three items: dehydration, exposure, and heatstroke. Have I come close to any of those? Sure! Living in Southern California, most of my local and drivable excursions involve the desert, which is one of the least forgiving climates for being outdoors. My husband and I did a memorable trip to Moab, a mountain biking mecca, where we brushed against dehydration (forgot to refill our water before heading out), and exposure (couldn’t find our intended trail… in the rain). Both of these rides led to astounding vistas, though, the first to the otherworldly towers of the Klondike Bluffs, and the second to the wonderfully named Monitor and Merrimack rock formations.

My backpacking trips have been less fraught, though they can carry many of the same risks. Thus far, we’ve been lazy backpackers, staying to routes that have water sources along the way, which usually means trees and shade as well. In another life, I’d be a regular mountain climber, but the toughest summit I’ve done is Half Dome via the cables—challenging but doable for anyone in good health. From the top of Half Dome, you truly can see forever (on a clear day) in every direction you look.

Last but not least, we have frostbite. You’re welcome to throw hypothermia on the list, too. These are courtesy of skiing and snowboarding. I first tried to ski at age 17 after being talked into a (terrible) night-skiing experience in the local SoCal mountains. Later, after a couple more failed attempts at two-planking, I fell in love with snowboarding. Is frostbite a real risk for either of these sports? Not so much for regular resort riding. Concussions (PSA: wear a helmet!) and broken bones are a much bigger danger at resort levels, but if you go into the backcountry, you could be dealing with getting stuck, lost, or even buried by an avalanche. But there’s no feeling quite like standing at the top of a mountain with a turquoise sky above and a pristine bowl of snow below, waiting for your first tracks.

How does any of this relate to science fiction? For starters, every time I take risks and something unexpected happens, I get a story. Plenty of science fiction and fantasy is set in harsh, unpredictable environments where characters (The Martian) or societies (Dune, Earthsea) have to adapt and innovate their way to survival. Anything that takes place in outer space—arguably the most hostile environment to humankind—is instantly ripe for adventure. So many things could go wrong, and so much is at stake.

Every situation that puts a person, real or imaginary, in peril is the foundation for a compelling tale. Sometimes we risk only small things—abrasions, a sprained ankle, a bad sunburn—and other times we may put our very lives in danger. Throw in a hefty dose of natural beauty—towering mountains, endless dunes, white-capped waves, the chiaroscuro nature of a spinning asteroid—and the tale has a vivid setting as well. Now all you need is a good character, and you have all the ingredients for a story.

As an author, I find myself drawing on my experiences with nature for inspiration. As a human being, getting outside and away from city life creates a space in my mind that nurtures who I am. Maybe it’s the child within, or maybe all of us have a need that we’re used to ignoring until we forget that it exists.

I hope you make time in your life to explore the wilderness, to challenge nature and embrace its vicissitudes, to experience new stories of your own. What will you risk?

Top image: The Martian (2015)

S.B. Divya is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. When she isn’t designing high-speed communications systems, raising her daughter, scratching the cats, or enjoying dinner with her husband, she writes. She also enjoys subverting expectations and breaking stereotypes whenever she can. In her past, she’s used a telescope to find Orion’s nebula, scuba dived with manta rays, and climbed to the top of a thousand-year-old stupa. She holds degrees in Computational Neuroscience and Signal Processing. Her stories have appeared inDaily Science Fiction and Nature, and her near-future science fiction novella Runtime is available from Tor.com Publishing.

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