David D. Levine has won awards and acclaim for his insightful and inspiring SF short stories. Now, with his debut novel, Arabella of Mars, Levine gives readers a steampunk alt-history in which sailing ships traverse the solar system during the Napoleonic wars, and scientifically-minded Arabella must disguise herself as a boy in order to sail to Mars and save her brother.
We caught up with Levine on a beautiful day in Seattle's University District and talked about books, nautical technology, and what's next for the bold and resourceful Arabella.
Amazon Book Review: How would you describe Arabella of Mars to a prospective reader?
David D. Levine: I describe it as a Regency-set interplanetary airship adventure. It is a historical drama. It is an adventure story. It takes place in space. It's not rocket ships—it's flying sailing ships. I've taken the Regency era and made one teensy change of filling the solar system with air, so that you can get to Mars and Venus by sailing ship. Everything else is very much historical. I tried to write it in keeping with real technology and the real physics of the world as much as possible.
What sparked this idea in the first place?
The spark was a line from a book by Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun. In this book, the main character, Severian, takes a trip to another planet in a ship that is described as having sails and masts, and at one point he mentions that there's no air around the ship and it's a good thing because if this was not the case, the roaring of the suns would deafen the universe. And that line about the roaring of the suns deafening the universe stuck in my head for a couple of decades. I thought, What if space were full of air? What things might be possible?
I often start my ideas with the world building instead of the character, and with this story I started with the idea of space filled with air.
Arabella of Mars includes a great deal of nautical terminology. How much research did you have to do to get the details right?
I picked up a lot of the terminology and technology by being a fan of Patrick O'Brian. And the benefits of being a fan of Patrick O'Brian meant I'd been doing that research before I even began writing this book. But when I started in on writing Arabella of Mars, I did a lot more research. There's an ebook sold directly by the author called The Patrick O'Brian Codebook that's an encyclopedia of Patrick O'Brian works. That's a great reference for all that nautical technology.
Can you give me a non-spoilery sneak peek ahead at the next two books in the trilogy?
Book two has the working title of Arabella and the Battle of Venus. Just as Arabella had to travel from Earth to Mars to save a member of her family, now she has to travel from Mars to Venus. Most of book two takes place on Venus. One thing about book one…It's Napoleonic wars in space, but we never meet Napoleon. In book two, Napoleon does appear as an on-stage character. I like to say that book one takes place on Mars and is where Arabella becomes a man—by which I mean a person with agency. Book two takes place mostly on Venus and is where Arabella learns to become a woman, by which I mean a person with empathy who can work with other people. Book three takes place largely on Earth, and this is where Arabella learns to become a leader. Also, by book three, the alternate history of my books will have diverged far more from actual history than it does in the course of book one.
Arabella's home is Mars, and you have a lot of interest in Mars. Can you tell me more about that interest?
I've been a Mars fiend since I was a kid. The thing about Mars is that it's close enough to be plausibly reachable and far enough away that you could project just about anything on it. People have been imagining aliens and Earth colonies on Mars since the 1600s or 1700s. Mars is the one [planet] that’s most like Earth. It has a rocky core like Earth does. It has an atmosphere—not much of an atmosphere, but some. It has not a lot of water but some. It is not ridiculously cold like Pluto or Neptune; it's not ridiculously hot like Mercury or Venus. It's very nearly habitable. Mars is inherently interesting because it's almost within reach. Everyone was convinced after we landed on the moon that the moon was the first step and then we'd go straight to Mars. Science fiction in the sixties assumed that we'd have a colony on Mars by the end of the seventies. And it didn't happen, but it was plausible. It's that plausibility that makes it so fascinating.
Do you have any predictions on when we humans will actually go there?
At the moment my guess is that Elon Musk is going to push us there. He's going to land a robotic probe on Mars probably before 2030, and that will be a nudge to get a government—maybe not the U.S. government but another government like India or China—to send something there. And that [second mission] might conceivably be the goad for the U.S. government to send its own crewed mission to Mars. I think sending people to another planet is so expensive that that will require the U.S. government to take action, although it might take the form of government participation in a mission put together by someone like Elon Musk. It's got a lot of appeal to a certain segment of the population (including me) but it is frighteningly expensive, and the payoff is intangible. I can make up a bunch of compelling reasons for why we should send people to Mars, but those aren't compelling reasons for those who are signing the checks…which is everyone one of us who send a check on April 15 [tax day].
You spent time in a simulated Mars base, didn't you?
Yes! I heard about this simulated Mars base in Utah and wrote on my blog that I had to do it. A friend of mine knew someone who was involved with the simulation and put us in touch with each other. This person said, "Well, we've picked everyone for this season, but go ahead and put in an application because sometimes someone has to back out at the last minute." A couple of weeks later, I was told, "Hey, someone did back out at the last minute, so can you get yourself to Mars in two weeks?" As it happened, I could. I packed all my stuff into a big duffle bag, and two weeks later I was living in a big tube in the middle of the Utah desert with five people I'd never met. It was a transformative experience. The most important thing I learned is that when you are on the frontier, everything is improv. It's a constant battle with limited resources. That was what Apollo 13 was about, and what The Martian was about, and what my two weeks in Utah was about. Even though we weren't on Mars, we were a long way away from civilization.
What's next for you in addition to Arabella's adventures?
I have a new story in the next Wild Cards universe, and I hope I get the chance to write more short stories, because I do love short stories. Novels are so absorbing and much more lucrative, and they get you more attention as an author than a short story does, so the attraction [to writing novels] is very great. But I do love the form of the short story. I love that you can toss off a really bizarre idea in a comparatively short amount of time, and you cannot do that with a novel. Or at least I can't do that.
What have you read lately that you have been recommending to other readers?
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