A rule of thumb for writing science fiction is to start with the world outside our window, change one thing, and then see how that affects the world. Often the thing that’s changed is a technological breakthrough — faster-than-light travel, or nanomachines — and sometimes it’s a societal shift, like talking animals. In Portland author David D. Levine’s Arabella of Mars, the one new thing is a physical law: there is no vacuum of space. Instead, the planets of the solar system are separated by oceans of air that can be navigated by, basically, boats.
Levine doesn’t get too far into the nitty-gritty science of it, instead cleverly hinting at the alternative laws of physics with a clever analogy: rather than (the apocryphal story of) an apple falling on his head, Isaac Newton observed a bubble rising from his bath. And we get some hand-wavey suggestions that there are a wider array of physical laws in place:
…it was the Marsmen — the ships themselves — their masts swaying as they bobbed on the tide, that drew Arabella’s attention. Smaller than the seagoing ships they resembled, they differentiated themselves by being constructed of honey-blond khoresh-wood, which gleamed like gold in the early morning sun.
Without khoresh-wood, or “Marswood” as the English styled it, Marsmen would be tiny ships like the fragile little Mars Adventure in which the brave Captain Kidd had been the first Englishman to reach Mars. Kidd had been very lucky to survive his arrival on Mars, and if not for his discovery of the khoresh-tree he would not have returned. Stronger than oak but lighter than wicker, khoresh-wood was now both the major item of Martian export and the material that made interplanetary travel practical.
That passage is 65 pages into Arabella of Mars, and it more or less marks the end of the explanatory segment of the book. Too much investigation of the idea of ships traversing the celestial skyways would surely tear the idea into so many shreds of tissue paper. It’s not a book that is interested in “how,” it’s about “who.”
“For years now,” Arabella Ashby’s mother moans in the opening pages of Arabella of Mars, “I have struggled to bring Arabella up properly, despite the primitive conditions on this horrible planet, and now I find that she is risking her life traipsing around the trackless desert by night, wearing leather trousers no less!”
It’s true. In the first few pages, Arabella sneaks out to the desert in traditional Martian clothing and gets injured. Her mother sends her to Earth, where the low gravity and high-strung morals peck stubbornly at her spirit. Life on the Martian frontier is freer, more permissive than 18th century Earth, and more fitting for an adventurous young woman like Arabella.
But the book doesn’t spend very long on the mundanity of Earth. Soon, Arabella learns that her brother, back on Mars, is in mortal danger. And so, disguised as a young man named Ashby, she takes a cabin boy position on the Diana, a ship of the Mars Trading Company under the command of the dashing Captain Singh, and she’s heading back to the red planet again.
Arabella of Mars is a swashbuckling space-travel novel, complete with French space-privateers and automatons who serve as “clockwork navigators” and a bold young woman who fights to keep her gender a secret in close quarters with a ship full of men. Levine parcels out the Diana's challenges in clever little installments, lending the book a cheerful air of a Saturday morning serial.
Arabella makes for a winning heroine: she’s optimistic, resourceful, intelligent, and aware of her own shortcomings. She doesn’t have the physical capacity to win a fistfight with a man twice her size, but she has the grit to believe she can think her way out of it. She has the kind of admirable strength and determination that can charm a reader all the way through a story before they fully realize it.
While Arabella of Mars clearly sets up the potential for future outings, Levine should also be praised for his willingness to draw his debut novel to a close, rather than dangling the reader on a cliffhanger overlooking a never-ending series of books. (As anyone who’s spent time looking for a stand-alone novel in the sci-fi section can attest, the genre is all about the franchise these days.) That said, Arabella of Mars does deflate a bit once Arabella gets off the ship and finds herself caught up in Martian intrigue. The plot, so fastidiously laid out in the Diana scenes, feels at once rushed and sketchy, and the portrait of Mars feels unfinished after the specificity of the shipbound sequences.
As an author, Levine is a gifted DJ, sampling all the best riffs from beloved anthems and obscure rarities into a new song with its own unique rhythms.. It’s impossible to read Arabella of Mars without thinking of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s flawed-but-entertaining John Carter of Mars series (which was most recently adapted into Disney’s flawed-but-entertaining flop, John Carter). It calls back, too, to the seafaring novels of Robert Louis Stevenson and Herman Melville, but it also incorporates modern trends like steampunk and space fantasy. There’s nothing particularly new to any of this, but it is a smart arrangement of many interesting ideas, braided together into a compelling yarn. With a good month of sunshine and beaches ahead of us, Arabella of Mars is exactly the kind of book you’d want tucked into your tote bag when you decide to go relax in the shade.
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