Today I’m excited to welcome Carrie Vaughn to the blog to share why she wrote her new novel Martians Abroad, out today!
I’ve been telling people my new novel Martians Abroad is old school. I intentionally wrote it to be old school, harkening back to the gee-whiz adventures of the so-called Golden Age of science fiction of the 1940s and 50s, when we hadn’t quite gotten into space yet and we still thought Mars might have water and we were sure we’d be able to visit the Moon on Pan Space Airlines in just a couple of decades. When we really thought colonizing the solar system was going to be a whole lot easier than it turned out to be. (Living and working in space is really hard. One of the things NASA is grappling with right now is how spending a long time in microgravity damages astronauts’ vision when they return to Earth. The orbital environment seems to be physically mooshing their eyeballs and optic nerves. That’s definitely a problem that’s going to have be addressed before we get our asteroid colonies.)
I wanted to write a book that had that same kind of optimism, that imagines what a colonized solar system might be like, with capable characters solving problems and having adventures in a space-faring future. Moreover, I wanted to update the concept with all the scientific and technological discoveries that have been made over the last fifty years about astronomy, space travel, and planetary science. (We have detailed maps of the surface of Pluto now! How cool is that?!) And I wanted to modernize the general sensibilities of such a story. For example: I wanted the main character to be a girl. A teen girl who wants to be a starship pilot, and who has adventures, where such a thing is entirely normal and no one needs to comment on it. You know, the kind of book I really would have loved when I was a teenager.
One of the most famous science fiction short stories from the 1950s is “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin. It’s a classic hard SF story about real physics and real problem solving: a ship delivering much-needed medicine to a plague-ridden colony carries exactly enough fuel calculated for the weight of that specific cargo. So when a stowaway is discovered on board, all the weight-based fuel calculations are thrown off, and the ship won’t have enough fuel to deliver its desperately needed medicine. The lives of the many outweigh the lives of the few, and the stowaway is jettisoned into the cold darkness of space. That the stowaway is a teenage girl makes the scenario even more tragic, right? Well, no, because there’s a not-so-subtle implication that she got into this mess because she’s a girl and just didn’t know any better. She’s wearing sandals and a dress. She has no concept of things like fuel calculations. This story made me so angry the first time I read it — as a teenager girl — and even more angry on subsequent readings, when I remind myself that yes, it really is as bad as I remembered. It seemed like such a failure of characterization: if she grew up on a space station, or in a space colony, she would know about things like fuel calculations and safety rules of spaceships. I asked myself, what would this story look like if it was a boy who stowed away? And I get the impression the author never considered that a boy might have stowed away because he didn’t know better. For all the brilliant optimistic future many of these golden age SF writers imagined, they couldn’t imagine a place for women outside their traditional roles.
The hero of Martians Abroad, Polly, knows all about space ships. She wants to be a starship pilot. She learns everything she can about traveling in space. She knows all about fuel calculations.
So was it hard, writing an old-school SF adventure starring a teenage girl with poor impulse control? Not at all.
There’s kind of this secret that isn’t really a secret: If you want to write an adventure story with a woman as the main character. . .you just make the main character a woman. Or a teen girl, in the case of Martians Abroad. That’s it. It’s not really any more complicated than that. I’ve been asked by a lot of new writers who want to write good, inclusive fiction: How do I write strong women characters? You write people, I tell them. You write a human being. You ought to be able to list ten traits that character has before you even get to sex or gender. Are they funny, nervous, impulsive, kind, athletic, careful, angry, manipulative, optimistic? And so on. Those are the traits that will drive a story. A kid who grew up in space would know about space.
Polly is ambitious, impulsive, a fighter, and a good friend, and I hope you all like her as much as I do.
© 2017, Anya. All rights reserved.