The Story Behind “Polaris in the Dark”

My story “Polaris in the Dark” was published in the 2018 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, an anthology of middle grade adventure stories featuring diverse characters—girls, kids of color, and kids with disabilities.  The anthology came out in December, 2017.  “Polaris in the Dark” is the second story I’ve written featuring a blind protagonist.  It is also the first science fiction story I’ve ever written.  This page is about where I got the idea for the story and some of the choices I made.  There will be spoilers here.  If you haven’t read “Polaris in the Dark,” and you don’t want to be spoiled, go get your hands on the anthology—it’s a great anthology and totally worth buying it.  If you choose to read on without reading the story, you have been warned.


I came up with the idea for the story about two years ago.  At the time, I was volunteering for the New Hampshire Disabilities Rights Center and waiting to hear back from law schools.  I had recently seen The Force Awakens, and recently read The Lunar Chronicles series, and I was thinking it might be fun to try to write a science fiction story.  I had only scattered ideas, however.  I wanted my main character to be a cook (this was largely abandoned later, though there is still cooking in the opening scene).  I was also intrigued by the mystery of Rae’s parents and her slavery in The Force Awakens (who wasn’t?), and I thought I might want to write a story about an indentured servant who likes to cook.  I also remembered a description in The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, by Catherynne Valente: Fairyland has rings, and the rings are actually train tracks.  Plus, I had recently seen that movie about everyone living on the train that goes around the world.  So I came up with the idea for a train that goes around Saturn’s Rings.  So this is what I had: indentured servant, likes to cook, on a train going around Saturn.  Obviously a really gripping story.  I set these ingredients on my brain’s back burner and hoped they would simmer into something a bit more promising.


Then, just a few days after new years, I woke up and couldn’t see.  It was like there was a dark film over my left eye, all shifting and shimmery.  A day at Mass Eye and Ear and my doctor’s office, and we don’t know what happened.  It was not, as we feared, my retina detaching.  I had been experiencing some pain, and the best guess was that one of the drops we were trying for the pain had caused my eye pressure to drop dramatically.  Over the next few days, my vision came back to normal, and I wrote this post on how I didn’t want to be afraid of losing my vision.  It was a brave thing for me to say—that I wouldn’t be afraid of going totally blind—but it wasn’t entirely true.  I didn’t want to be afraid—logically I knew that I could handle being totally blind if it came to that—but I was still pretty darn terrified.


For those who are just jumping on board, here’s some context.  I was born with Aniridia Glaucoma.  Basically this means that I don’t have irises, so I have trouble seeing at night and find bright light painful.  I read Braille, and I travel with a Seeing Eye dog, so I’m pretty blind, and I prefer “blind” to “visually impaired” (but that’s something I won’t get into here).  I do have some usable vision.  I can see light and color and shadows—the higher contrast the better.  I can read print if it’s about 76 point font and my nose is pressed to my computer screen or page.  My vision was stable up until I was a senior in college, when the pressure in my right eye skyrocketed and my retina detached.  I was in excruciating pain for about two months, I lost most of the vision in that eye, and in the end I had to have that eye removed.  And even though I had already lost most of my vision in that eye, when I opened my eye after the surgery to complete darkness, it was really scary.  And it was an adjustment.  When I do things visually now, like reaching for something I can see, I use my left hand.  If I’m watching TV in a group or at a movie theater, I prefer to sit to the far right, so the black hole on the right side of my vision won’t get in the way.  These are small prices to pay to not be in all that pain, but I still viscerally hate that black hole in my vision, and so you can see why, when I woke up two years ago to find my vision in my left eye to be all dark and shimmery, I was so scared and upset.


Luckily, my vision returned to normal after a few days.  But this left me with a question: what would I do to save the vision I have? And this is how Amélie and her story were really born.


As you can no doubt guess, this very quickly became a very personal story for me.  Not only was it something I had just faced, but there was no telling if I would have to face it again, and no telling if I would be lucky again.  Because this was such a personal story, it took me forever to actually write it.


When I finally did start writing, I ran into some complications.  At the 2016 National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind, the NFB president Mark Riccobono gave a wonderful keynote address about the general public’s fear of blindness.  It came up again with the Foundation Fighting Blindness’s #HowEyeSeeIt campaign, which I wrote about here.  And I realized that I was writing this story that was fundamentally about fear of going blind, and maybe that wasn’t the message I wanted to send.  At the same time, I wanted the story to feel real.  So I changed the story from Amélie searching for a cure to Amélie searching for a cure and facing a choice about whether to go through with it.


Along the way, I had a ton of fun inventing gadgets that Amélie could use to help her see (I gained a love of fun science fiction gadgets from Dangerous by Shannon Hale).  I made her a resourceful inventor because I wanted to highlight the rational, logical part of the choice she faced—that she would be able to adapt to losing her vision.  I further highlighted this by giving her RP—a degenerative eye disease—so that her sudden loss of vision, while sooner than expected, is not entirely a surprise.  Finally, I didn’t want Amélie’s choice to come down to a choice between certain cure and working as Dr.  Song’s assistant or else total blindness and continuing to work for her current master.  Because this seemed like a no-brainer.  Since I was setting this story in a science fiction world, and I’d already established a cure—that’s why Amélie ran away from her master—but I decided that the cure wasn’t perfect and would likely be unsuccessful for Amélie.


Basically, while I wanted readers to understand and sympathize with Amélie’s desire to save her vision, I also wanted her decision to take her freedom instead of a cure to make sense and even to seem like the right choice.  What I intended, and what I hope I accomplished, is a story that captured Amélie’s fear of blindness and yet her awareness of her own strengths and abilities.  I have to say that I don’t know if I would make the same choice as Amélie.  Last fall, just two months before the anthology with this story was published, the lens in my left eye detached.  It turned out to not be a problem, but for a while it looked like my retina had detached and the possibility of successfully reattaching it was uncertain, and would require me to have at least two surgeries and take at least a semester off from school.  Again, I didn’t have to make that decision, because my retina is doing fine.  But in the two weeks while we tried to figure out what was going on, I was looking total blindness full in the face, and I was ready to do just about anything to stop that from happening.


Despite grappling with some pretty intense issues in this story, I have to say I had so much fun writing it, and I was absolutely thrilled when it was accepted for the 2018 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide.  I had so much fun with this short story, in fact, that I have since started writing a novel which continues Amélie’s and Zoe’s stories, as they take Zoe’s space ship and head off into the solar system to rescue other indentured kids.  It’s currently called Amélie and the Space Pirates Steal the Moon, and I wrote about four chapters during NaNoWriMo last November (I did not reach 50 thousand words because law school). So with any luck, you’ll be seeing more of Amélie, Zoe, and Jupiter at some point in the future.  In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed reading “Polaris in the Dark” as much as I enjoyed writing it.


Other fun facts:

In my Seeing Eye class when I trained with Neutron last summer, there was actually a yellow lab named Jupiter who was matched with another student.  Jupiter the robodog came first.

Jupiter the robodog’s personality is heavily based on my parents’ black lab Rocket.  Physically his appearance is based on my aunt’s lab-shepherd (we think) mix.  I wanted a robotic dog in this story after encountering a robot cat in Marissa Meyer’s short story “Carswell’s Guide to Being Lucky.” But I did not want Jupiter to be a robotic guide dog.  I’ve actually heard of people trying to develop robotic guide dogs, which I’m not really interested in for various reasons (many of them that robots are not as snuggly). But a robotic guard dog is fun.

I kept the scene when Amélie is having an eye exam pretty close to my own experiences with eye exams.  Yes, they are that creepy.

I also gave Amélie roughly the same amount of vision that I have, but worsening.  From a writing perspective it was really interesting, and oddly difficult, to describe things as I see them. I’d like to take some time to think about why that is.

I spent most of this page talking about Amélie’s choice, but I spent just as much time developing Zoe’s character so that her decision to go with Amélie wouldn’t seem totally crazy.  I am currently working on a short story about Zoe, before she meets Amélie, dealing with her grief after her mother’s death and learning to fly her space ship (this is not a happy story, but I’m having fun with it, whatever that says about me).