It seems that nearly every page of Seattle author Kevin Emerson’s young adult science fiction novel Last Day on Mars has a blinking light on it. Since the book takes place on a Mars colony in the far-flung year of 2213, most of the lights are on console panels or spacefaring equipment. There are some signal lights, too, and a few twinkling stars. But the book is really about one giant blinking light: the sun, billions of years ahead of schedule, is about to go supernova and then collapse, rendering our solar system inhospitable.
The young man at the heart of Mars, Liam, observes that the sun…
…had darkened from a warm yellow to a fiery orange, a color like you’d only ever see in pictures of the sunsets back on Earth. The star seemed heavy and unsteady, like it might tumble down on them at any moment, but Liam knew the opposite was true: in about three years, Mars would lose its orbit and fall into the sun.
The theme of the book is clear: no light is eternal. But in Mars, humanity is not ready to be snuffed out. Already forced by our angry sun to vacate Earth for Mars, our species is preparing to launch itself into the void to settle an earthlike planet many light years away.
Mars chugs along quickly thanks to its boy-vs.-nature plot, as Liam must save his family in the confusion of a species-wide space exodus. But the book really shines when Emerson takes a breath to pause and consider the situation. Liam’s mother worries that “There’s only one place humans were meant to live, but that place is gone,” leaving everyone with “the biggest question humans have ever faced: can we survive without this sun, outside of this solar system?”
And then Emerson imagines the generational difficulties that might emerge when humanity leaves its ancestral planet behind:
Grown-ups never called Mars “home.” Earth was home, humanity’s home, the ol’ green and blue. Liam had sat through hours of class time learning about its oceans and cities, about the wars, its pyramids, and its first missions to the moon…All of it was interesting, but only to a point.
Liam is not just post-racial, he’s post-geographical: his grandmother “had listed off Liam’s ethnicities and nationalities one time: Thai, Irish, Nigerian, Texan, and like ten more that he couldn’t remember. To Liam, they were just words for bits of land on a planet he’d never known.”
This is a book that is intended for a young audience, and so the extinction talk doesn’t get too dire. Emerson introduces a robotic panda butler named JEFF to lighten the mood with its inability to quite grasp the concept of humor — an old, but still effective, sci-fi trope.
Last Day on Mars is clearly marked as Book 1 of the Chronicle of the Dark Star series, and it must be said that it does suffer from a case of first-bookism; though there’s a complete story in Mars, Emerson teases an array of concepts that remain unexplored for the sake of future installments in the series. These are bigger sci-fi avenues — time travel, aliens — whose brief mentions in Mars threaten to render some of Liam’s adventures almost too pedestrian. The book opens with a prelude that introduces a multidimensional being who can travel through the multiverse the way you or I walk to the grocery store, but then it stuffs those ideas back in the box for a couple hundred pages in exchange for more familiar astronaut-in-trouble thrills.
These complaints have more to do with the current series-obsessed state of sci-fi in general than with Mars in specific. Emerson clearly loves the genre, and he puts his influences on display throughout: Bradbury, Vonnegut, Le Guin. The story opens with a passage that wouldn’t be out of place introducing a classic Ace paperback from the 1950s:
The great ships streaked away from the red planet like shooting stars. One, ten, hundreds they went, their fusion rockets burning, solar sails unfurling, their hulls vibrating with millions of sighs of relief.
You can think of Mars as the plucky kid brother to Seattle novelist Neal Stephenson’s Earth-in-exile space epic Seveneves. The books share a common belief that when faced with the ultimate extinction threat, humanity will rise to the occasion, set aside our greater difficulties, and work to save our future. Perhaps these two books together herald the launch of a new Northwestern strain of optimistic science fiction. Now more than ever, we need stories like these, blinking like beacons, showing us the path ahead.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant