Looking back at the calendar, I discover that for all but five of the past twenty years I've been earning my living as a writer. However, I've only been a full-time novelist for five of those fifteen years; the rest of the time I've been doing other stuff as well. "Writing" covers a multitude of sins — in my case, it ranges from being a technical author in a software multinational to freelance computer journalism (which doesn't bear much resemblance to traditional newspaper journalism, but that's another essay).
And in addition to writing novels, I've written non-fiction books. Well, I wrote a couple of manuals that were distributed with scarily powerful (for 1990-91 values of "powerful") graphics processors, bits of UNIX documentation for the Corporate Patent Zombie (in its earlier, productive phase as a real software company), and finally one that was published in 1996 under my own name (and obsolete before it hit the shelves).
But I did a couple of other non-fiction proposals that never made it out the door. One, "Take the Money and Run", I described in Halting State Variations. And then there's the other non-fic book, which really needs to be written (but not by me) ...
The working title for this project was "To Boldly Blow: A History of Bodily Fluids in Orbit". (And if Mary Roach wants to grab it and run, I'll be cheering from the bleachers.)
The history of the American and Russian manned space programs (and, for all I know, the Chinese manned space program) is all about packing primates into flimsy aluminium cans and throwing them, very hard indeed, into an environment that would kill said primates dead in thirty seconds flat if the can springs a leak. And sometimes they not only leak: they catch fire, the toilet backs up, and the walls sprout mold. That, I should add, was one of the most successful missions of the 20th century. Skylab, in comparison to Mir, was an embarrassment. First, the solar panels didn't open; then the highly experimental toilet ("correct me if I'm wrong here, but in this design — the shit is meant to hit the fan and get flung off in all directions?"), and finally the fart-ridden atmosphere at the end of the marathon 84-day Skylab 4 mission that was so loaded with methane that the crew were concerned about the risk of an explosion; keeping canned monkeys alive in outer space is hard.
That's with a decade or more of experience. Back in the early sixties, when men were real men and chimpanzees were astronauts too, nobody really knew what they were doing: which led to such embarrassments as Alan Shepard completing the first US spaceflight lying in a puddle of cold urine, and the marathon 13-day Gemini 7 mission in which Jim Lovell lost his toothbrush and ended up sharing with crew-mate Frank Borman (and storing the products of their bowel movements in plastic bags under the seats).
It wasn't until the second generation of manned space craft (loosely, Apollo and Soyuz) that the designers began to pay attention to the fact that human bodies are not unitary structures. We carry within us a couple of kilograms of commensal microorganisms in our gut; these range from being vital to our wellbeing (breaking down food and making it easier to absorb) to outright pathogens. Along the way, our gut bacteria metabolize their own food and emit methane and other inconvenient gaseous oddities in surprisingly large quantities. Our skin is constantly replenished, and we shed millions of near-microscopic flakes of dead epidermis every day; dander and dust that can build up in corners and gum up seals and pumps. We need food and water, and crumbs and drops get away from us. When we defecate, we don't always produce well-packed solid lumps that are convenient to handle; the space shuttle waste collection system malfunctioned regularly in the early days, forcing crew to hunt down solid floaters with a dust-buster (lest someone asphyxiate in their sleep on a fragment of inhaled faecal matter), eventually necessitating a major redesign.
And then there's space sickness. Microgravity does odd things to our bodies. In particular, when we're walking around on Earth, our hearts are constantly working to pump fluid up from our lower extremities. In zero gee, astronauts complain of fluid redistribution — puffy faces, congested sinuses, loss of appetite, odd vestibular symptoms and vertigo. About one in four space travellers becomes nauseous and, in extremis, may experience simultaneous diarrhoea and vomiting. Zero gee isn't an environment we've evolved for, and the long-term consequences of exposure can be harmful. Bones lose mass, muscles waste unless astronauts exercise strenuously, the immune system is impaired. Other aspects of human life in zero gee haven't yet been evaluated, but if insects and rats are anything to go by it's a bad place to gestate.
Putting it all together, "To Boldly Blow" was going to be a comprehensive look at the history of shit, piss, and vomit in orbit (not to mention the other medical aspects of spaceflight), from the early days to the prospects for long-duration spaceflight. Not so much a look at the engineering nuts and bolts, or Tom Wolfe's "right stuff", but at the messy, squishy medical aspects of the whole improbable, glorious process that has led to human beings having episodes of projectile vomiting at 25,000 km/hour and surviving.
So why don't I write it?
Well, for starters I don't speak or read Russian. And as the Soviets had a clear lead in manned spaceflight until 1990, that's a massive handicap — like trying to write a history of the origins of the second world war in Europe without any German.
For seconds, and more prosaically, it's a big research project. Months of reading of NASA technical reports and the Soviet equivalents. Trips to Moscow, and possibly Baikonur, and to Cape Canaveral and other NASA sites. And it probably wouldn't pay very much; unless there's some guarantee of a bestseller slot on publication, non-fiction books don't net large advances. (I've had to dump two computer-related projects for precisely that reason, over the years.)
But thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, it's a book I'd like to read. That's not the same thing as a book I'd like to write; not at all. Writing it would be a monumental, royal, pain in the ass.