In Martians Abroad (2017), Carrie Vaughn re-envisions aspects of the “juvenile” novel Podkayne of Mars by Robert A. Heinlein, turning his classic spacefaring story into something refreshing and new while retaining the sense of limitless adventure. Kat has mentioned in her reviews of Heinlein’s juveniles that they were instrumental in forming her love of science fiction, and the same is true for me: books like Have Space Suit — Will Travel and Red Planet captured my imagination and made me dream of embarking upon my own interplanetary journeys. Vaughn was clearly inspired by Heinlein, too, but she wisely uses those influences as jumping-off points rather than strict blueprints, and turns what could have been a derivative rehash into her own exciting and entertaining novel.
Third-generation Martian Polly Newton has spent her whole life with her eyes on the stars, intent on becoming a pilot and cruising around the galaxy via starship as soon as she’s old enough to enroll in and graduate from a training program. Her twin brother, Charles, is as adept at manipulating people as he is at hacking into computer mainframes. Their plans for the future are derailed, however, when the director of the Martian colony — who happens to be their mother — announces that the pair has become the first Martians to be accepted at Earth’s Galileo Academy, a prestigious school for exceptional children. Despite Polly’s vehement protestations, she and Charles are sent to Earth, a boring old planet with inscrutable social customs and terrifyingly foreign foods (like bacon). As if all that wasn’t bad enough, their classmates’ lives are put in danger by unexpected and strange events, and it becomes obvious to Polly that there’s much more to Galileo Academy than she first imagined.
To my relief, Vaughn doesn’t follow Podkayne of Mars beat-by-beat; some character names are similar and there’s a shared element in that conspiracies drive the plot, but Vaughn is capable of writing her own story, and does so with aplomb. Martians Abroad meets and exceeds many requirements expected of an adventure story featuring adolescents: students come into conflict with one another, tentative friendships are formed and must strengthen or fall apart, authoritative and authoritarian adults enforce social and academic rules while young people either rebel or fall in line. Polly isn’t relentlessly cheerful, but her self-possession and determination to achieve her goals are admirable, and her interactions with Charles and friends like Angelyn and Ladhi are entertaining even when Polly’s stubbornness causes unnecessary trouble. While Vaughn’s vision of the future is undoubtedly optimistic, it’s also realistic: the basic needs of everyone on Earth may be met, but a rigid class system still exists, and there’s no denying that life is easier for the elites. Hard work and dedication might get Polly a long way, but having the right connections is a distinct advantage, too.
One of the best parts of any story in which a colonist visits the motherland is, as the reader, getting to see familiar settings through fresh eyes, and parts of Martians Abroad read like a love letter to Earth. While Polly and her classmates, some of whom come from colonies on the Moon or mining concerns on outer-system stations near Jupiter, slowly acclimate to Earth’s punishingly higher gravity, it’s hard not to share in their astonishment at the natural beauty of the Pacific Ocean or the seemingly endless number of trees in Yosemite National Park. Though Charles is content to sit back and observe (or steer) the actions of people around him, Polly is much less adept at interpersonal relations, and I was glad to see her come out of her shell and connect with classmates over time, even forming friendships which become essential to her character development.
Vaughn is a self-described “Air Force brat” who “grew up all over the U.S.,” and Martians Abroad’s fish-out-of-water story has more than a touch of verisimilitude. Everything about Polly’s struggle to connect with her classmates feels genuine; though she’s frequently impulsive and occasionally immature for a sixteen-year-old, her behavior and emotions are authentic and feel appropriate for a young woman who has spent the majority of her life among a group of far-flung colonists and their descendants, a much smaller population group than that of Earth, with its own customs, slang, and accent. Since Polly isn’t attending Galileo Academy with any degree of choice, her frustration and resentment result in risky behavior, the kind that’s easy to condemn as an adult but which seems so gratifying as a teenager. (I, like Polly, have gone on field trips to New York City, though I will neither confirm nor deny that I, too, snuck away from organized activities to wander through Central Park.) The moment when Polly and Charles learn the motivation behind the plots disrupting their school year was an interesting twist, and provided even more opportunity for the pair to grow.
If you know someone who laments the so-called sorry state of science-fiction today (i.e., “It just isn’t as good as it was in the Good Old Days,” or “It just isn’t fun like it used to be”) point them toward Martians Abroad. Vaughn evokes the same wide-eyed enthusiasm and sense of limitless possibilities contained in many Golden Age stories and novels, but with a modern eye toward inclusivity and a realistic vision of future technologies and cultural shifts (or lack thereof). I sincerely hope she has the opportunity to tell more stories about Polly Newton, because this is the kind of fun that can turn novice readers into lifelong fans of science fiction. Highly recommended.
Special note: On January 29, 2017, Carrie Vaughn will be at the Jean Cocteau Theater in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for a reading and signing event. Should you happen to be in the area on that day, I recommend stopping by and picking up a copy of Martians Abroad for yourself or anyone else who could use a dash of carefree adventure.