Carrie Vaughn’s 2017 Martians Abroad is a standalone young-adult SF novel, written in the manner of a very famous series of juvenile SF novels. In fact, it seems to be a response to a specific juvenile SF novel, about which more anon.
Young Polly Newton has a bold plan for her life, one that involves pilot school and helming humanity’s first starship. Polly’s mother also has bold plans for Polly and her brother Charles. Those plans involve an unwanted sojourn at the prestigious Galileo Academy on Earth. Polly’s plans are irrelevant. Mother knows best.
Martha Newton didn’t become Director of the Mars Colony by being easy to out-manoeuvre. By the time Polly learns what her mother has planned, it is too late for either Polly or her brother to do anything about it except pack their bags and give in to the inevitable.
Mars is home to a handful of colonists. Earth is home to billions; it is the repository of humanity’s wealth and culture. The Galileo Academy is home to the children of Earth’s elites. To most of the students at the Academy, the handful of off-world students are a collection of amusing hicks.
Both Charles and Polly are bright, but only Charles understands the viper’s nest into which their mother has dumped them. Charles plays a quiet, cautious game, subtly convincing the teens from Earth that it is not worth the trouble to harass him. Polly lacks Charles’ cold intellect; she becomes an easy target for the school’s bullies.
Any hope that Dean of Students Stanton would act to curtail bullying is misplaced. If anything, Stanton seems as hostile to the off-world students as the rich kids. He is not in the least bit interested in helping strangers deal with a strange land. It does not help that Polly treats the school rules as a challenge. She considers them impediments to be avoided, not obeyed.
Complicating things: all is not as it should be at Galileo Academy. Someone is orchestrating events to satisfy their own, quite unauthorized, agenda. Add in Polly’s talent for off-book excursions and you have a recipe for death in space.
I firmly believe the best remakes are those that take flawed originals and try to improve them, not those that try to recapitulate someone else’s success. Martians Abroad is not a remake, but I think it has a very specific inspiration. It still serves as an example of why, if you’re setting out to create the New (insert name of well-known work here), you’re well advised to consider as your inspiration something whose original is deeply flawed .
Over the years, a number of authors have turned their hands to writing modern takes on Robert Heinlein’s venerable juvenile series. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, these authors are almost always men and the results are almost always disappointing. At least to me, although they must sell to someone or publishers would stop printing them.
It seems clear that Vaughn’s inspiration is not just the Heinlein juveniles in general, but Podkayne of Mars in particular. Podkayne is a terrible book, whose protagonist is badly injured or killed (depending on the edition) to provide her brother with a moment of moral clarity. It is a book that believes
building bridges and space stations and such gadgets is all very well … but that a woman has more important work to do.
said work being bearing and raising kids.
Polly isn’t Podkayne. She wants a boyfriend, but she’s not going to let any mere guy get in the way of her ambition to serve on a starship. At no point does the text suggest that her ambition is wrong or inappropriate for a girl. I am going to go way out on a limb here and suggest this is because the author isn’t a fifty-something-year-old childless man.
Vaughn borrows a lot of the stock props from the Heinlein juveniles: the mysteriously effective propulsion system , the colonies that are firmly convinced that their way of life is better than Earth’s , an interplanetary economy that makes me scratch my head —but the contrivance that really stands out is her use of one of Heinlein’s solutions to parents vs. drama in juvenile fiction. Books will be boring if there’s always the possibility that the parents will interrupt and fix everything . A very common solution is to remove the parents: kill them off, or just arrange things so that the kid is isolated.
Martians Abroad removes the parents in another way, one that Heinlein used in his later juveniles: the parent is the problem. You can’t ask your parents for help if you know that they will just make things worse. Martha Newton has very clear ideas about what’s best for her family, her kids, and her planet. Whether they are actually good ideas is open to question. One wonders if part of Polly’s desire to embark on a starship is to put a few light-years and some relativistic time-dilation between her and her overbearing mother.
Polly is an engaging character. Her brother is less so (although he is not a sociopathic monster like his analog in Podkayne) … but then, he’s not the protagonist. The novel itself is a straightforward young adult novel, one that shows what the earlier novel could have been if Heinlein had been less a man of his time.
Martians Abroad is available here.
1: Unless that original is Farnham’s Freehold , because really, no amount of reworking can salvage that piece of crap.
2: Half a gravity for a long period of time. How long is not clear, but a sub-light trip to Alpha Centauri within a human lifespan seems to be doable. Whatever the power source is, it has to be better than fusion.
3: Mind you, if the colonists didn’t believe that, why would they put up with living in an environment that will kill them the moment they make a mistake? Aside from the rich, snotty kids, Earth isn’t a Heinleinian hell-hole. There is a social pecking order, but nobody starves and everyone can have an education if they want it. There’s no looming Malthusian doom. In fact, the terrestrial birthrate is sub-replacement.
4: Space travel is expensive, but there seems to be trade in raw materials.
5: As I recall, that was one of my issues with Charles Sheffield’s Jupiter books; the kids were allowed to handle small problems, but the big stuff was handled by other people. Not unrealistic, but anticlimactic.