It’s March! We like Mars! It’s March on Mars! To celebrate the popularity of Mars in speculative fiction (it seems the red planet is back in style), we are thrilled to have SFF author Sophia McDougall over for a chat about her new book. We are huge fans of Sophia’s writing, and her book, young adult science fiction novel Mars Evacuees, is one of our most highly anticipated reads of the month.
Please give a warm welcome to Sophia, folks!
The Book Smugglers: We couldn’t be more excited about Mars Evacuees! It has “Book Smugglers” written all over it: YA science fiction featuring a female narrator, plus characters that you have compared to Sherlock Holmes and Captain Kirk. Plus, it’s set ON MARS. With ROBOTS. What else can you tell us about the book?
Sophia McDougall: Earth has been at war with invading, invisible aliens called Morrors for the past fifteen years! It isn’t going very well. There’s an Emergency Earth Coalition government which sends three hundred children to Mars out of the fighting, to train as the next generation of soldiers. That doesn’t go very well either.
TBS: Mars Evacuees sounds immensely fun (for all the reasons mentioned above) – but beyond the awesomeness of Girls + Robots On Mars, this novel is also kind of an apocalyptic tale. Tell us a bit more about your take on the apocalypse. Were there any books (or comics, films, or tv shows) that inspired the apocalyptic setting?
SM: It’s not quite the apocalypse yet – and but Earth is certainly hanging on by the skin of its teeth! The Morrors are drastically altering the climate, freezing the planet from the poles outwards. This is to create a biome they can live in comfortably; from their point of view, they’re engineering a rebirth, not an apocalypse.
The book was fairly directly inspired when I was nine years old by Back Home and Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian. Which obviously are about WWII, not the apocalypse. But I asked myself “what next? If you could evacuate kids to the countryside or to America, where is even further? Obviously Mars.” And clearly, if you’ve got to send anyone to Mars, things back on Earth have to be pretty bad.
It’s a novel with a VERY different tone, but I wonder if The Road had some bearing on the way I approached this story as an adult? Because I was fascinated by the way McCarthy treated the generational difference between an adult who remembers the way the world used to be and who suffers the trauma of its loss, and a child for whom “the apocalypse” is normal. Alice can’t remember a world that isn’t being invaded by aliens. It’s not that she doesn’t find the war frightening, but the existence of aliens and the radical changes that are happening to Earth don’t strike her as a violation of the way things are supposed to be. And she, and her whole generation, feel this sense of disconnection with the adults, because the adults are fighting to put things back to a status-quo that the children have no familiarity with or real investment in.
TBS: Last year, you wrote a fantastic piece discussing why you hate strong female characters over at The New Statesman. Bearing in mind your thoughts allowing for the complexity of female characters, how did you approach writing Mars Evacuees’ female protagonist?
SM: Thank you!
Alice’s voice – this slightly tired, stoical, deadpan voice, came to me very early on, and so did a sense of the person that voice would spend a lot of time worrying over; someone brilliant and reckless and a bit scatter-brained – Josephine Jerome.
In many ways I didn’t mean Alice to be the protagonist, though she is the narrator. I meant it to be an ensemble piece, and it was important to me that there be a range of female characters both within the main team and among the secondary cast. So whether you see Alice as the protagonist or not, I think that’s the most important thing – that she simply isn’t alone. Josephine is an equally important character – she’s the Holmes to Alice’s Watson; she’s the wild, mercurial genius who leads Alice haring off on adventures when Alice’s first instinct is for everyone to sit down, have a cup of tea and be sensible. Josephine’s the one who rescues Alice when she’s stuck in a very bad situation and leads the charge out into the Martian wilderness. Alice needs her to bring out her well-hidden rebellious streak and Josephine needs someone loyal to follow her around and remind her to eat lunch and carry oxygen canisters.
I didn’t want “interesting and female” to be traits confined to the child characters, either. There are a number of slightly unhinged adult characters, plenty of whom are women. There’s Alice’s mum, Stephanie Dare, who’s almost a parody of a Strong Female Character. She’s a flying ace war hero who’s zooming around the planet shooting aliens and she’s amazing and Alice loves her, but she’s kind of so amazing it’s exhausting and she’s not the main character. (A lot of characters have the sense of being overshadowed by a famous parent and I thought it would be nice if that was a mother, for a change). There’s Dr Valerie Muldoon who’s the brains behind terraforming Mars; she has a strong sense of fun and a slightly weaker sense of ethics and she concocts all kinds of ungodly creations such as swimming gerbils with furry fishtails and goop that vibrates in the key of B flat in her lab.
It’s not just the women who are kind of strange and larger than life, of course. There’s also Colonel Dirk Cleaver, who is 75, wears very short shorts, and didn’t want to be stuck on Mars teaching snotty kids, but since he is, “…By God, you will become the finest fighting force of seven-to-sixteen-year-olds in the Galaxy.” There are also unpleasant girl characters, and interesting boys.
That’s all it comes down to, really. Don’t ask one character to carry the whole burden of representing half the human race, and write the girls about the same as you’d write the boys.
That said, I also wanted one of the girls (but only one) to have some fairly stereotypically “girly” traits. Alice likes pink and glitter. She’s also tough as nails, completely resigned to being a child soldier and in her own words “does a good glare.” Because I liked those things as a kid and it always seemed to me that the only characters in adventure books who liked florals were the useless drips the heroine despised. Like your taste in decor or favourite colour has some bearing on whether you’re capable or incompetent, brave or cowardly, tough or feeble.
TBS: And a bit of fun, since this is our March on Mars month, after all: In your opinion, what’s so fascinating about Mars?
SM: It’s so near but yet so far – it’s millions of miles out of reach but tantalisingly close. You can see it with the naked eye. People have been looking at its surface and speculating on what the structures they could see might mean for centuries. It’s always been a focus of thinking about alternative worlds and alternative forms of life. Now that the hope there might be life there is pretty much gone, it’s still the natural first step on any expansion of the human race beyond Earth.
Also the gravity is really low, so you could jump three times as high as you can on Earth. I do not understand how that is not a greater focus of sci-fi writing about Mars, because that’s superpowers right there.
TBS: You’re forced to immediately evacuate Earth for Mars and you can only bring five books. QUICK – what are they?!
SM: Aaargh! That’s not fair! Josephine takes a whole library of books on her tablet! Erm, okay. Do I get the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Bible, like on Desert Island Discs? If so, then maybe The Waves by Virginia Woolf. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff and The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery (both of those for comfort reading, which I expect I’ll need on Mars) The Complete Works of John Donne. And Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. I’ll swap Tolkien out for Shakespeare if I have to, though.
TBS: Finally, a question we ask during all of our interviews: We Book Smugglers are faced with constant threats and criticisms from our significant others concerning the sheer volume of books we purchase and read – hence, we have resorted to ‘smuggling books’ home to escape scrutinizing eyes. Have you ever had to smuggle books?
SM: I know as a child I used to secretly read books in the back of the car even though I knew perfectly well this would make me travel sick (I rememberMidnight is a Place by Joan Aiken being one culprit) … and, er, I still do that on car journeys sometimes. Even though it still makes me sick. The Owl Service by Alan Garner was one. Also when The Amber Spyglass came out I bought it in the first week and just kind of carried it with me everywhere and dipped into it if there was even a lull in conversation. I don’t know if that’s smuggling so much as just … being really rude, but if “breaking social norms for books” counts, there you have it.
TBS: Thank you, Sophia!
About the Author:
Sophia McDougall (born 1979) is a British novelist, playwright, and poet, who studied at Oxford University in England. She is best known as the author of the series of books: Romanitas in which she creates an alternative history, one where the Roman Empire still exists in contemporary times.
About the Book:
The fact that someone had decided I would be safer on Mars, where you could still only SORT OF breathe the air and SORT OF not get sunburned to death, was a sign that the war with the aliens was not going fantastically well.
I’d been worried I was about to be told that my mother’s spacefighter had been shot down, so when I found out that I was being evacuated to Mars, I was pretty calm.
And despite everything that happened to me and my friends afterwards, I’d do it all again. because until you’ve been shot at, pursued by terrifying aliens, taught maths by a laser-shooting robot goldfish and tried to save the galaxy, I don’t think you can say that you’ve really lived.
If the same thing happens to you, this is my advice: ALWAYS CARRY DUCT TAPE.
We’ve got one copy of Mars Evacuees to give away. This giveaway is INTERNATIONAL, open to ALL and will run until Sunday, March 30 at 12:01am EST. To enter, use the form below! Good luck!