This review of Life on Mars edited by Jonathan Strahan first appeared in Bull Spec 5, Spring 2011.
It doesn’t specifically say so on the cover, but this is a YA collection. This is a category that simply did not exist when I was of an age to be the target audience, now it seems to be all pervasive. But what exactly is it? The authors aren’t exactly talking down to their audience, or, at least, I have seen works that are as complex in language, ideas and structure that are ostensively aimed at an adult audience. But the stories do seem to address their audience by the simple expedient of having a protagonist of the same age (the one exception to this rule is ‘Discovering Life’ by Kim Stanley Robinson, which also happens to be the only story that is not original to this anthology. Its presence here tends to suggest that, other than the age of the protagonist, there is no real difference between adult and young adult fiction.)
But there is one restriction imposed by the age of the protagonist, which Nancy Kress puts her finger on in the note that accompanies her story: ‘in the real world, teens do not do much unsupervised exploration or discovery’. Actually, in the fiction I remember from my youth, teens and younger had all sorts of exciting and unsupervised adventures, but that seems to be the purview of children’s fiction. By the time one qualifies for YA status, one is assumed to be that much older, that much closer to proper adulthood, and therefore one must be inculcated in the ways of the adult world. Practically all of the stories here are about children preparing to be adults, they are stories of education or, perhaps more accurately, of work experience.
What we learn from so many of these stories is that adulthood is narrower, duller, more dangerous than childhood, which may be true, but reading this perception in story after story is hardly inspiring. Typical is ‘Digging’ by Ian McDonald in which the Martian colonists are engaged in the monumental task of digging a huge depression in the Martian surface in the belief that the thin atmosphere will pool here and make it habitable. McDonald’s protagonist, Tash, (overwhelmingly, the protagonists of these stories are girls rather than boys, which may say something though I’m not exactly sure what) is a restless teen who gets the chance to go out on one of the big digging machines with an older woman she reveres. It turns out to be far less interesting than she had ever imagined, until there is an accident and Tash has to get the pair of them back to safety. What has she learned from this experience? That work is tedious, that adulthood is boredom punctuated with flashes of pure terror. It’s not a bad story (there is little in the collection that is really bad), but when you’ve read something similar in ‘Attlee and the Long Walk’ by Kage Baker and ‘First Principle’ by Nancy Kress and ‘Martian Heart’ by John Barnes, you do begin to wonder if there couldn’t be a little more to Mars.
And all too often when the teenagers do cut loose they get smacked down for it. Both ‘The Old Man and the Martian Sea’ by Alastair Reynolds and ‘The Taste of Promise’ by Rachel Swirsky feature kids who run away, and then find it’s a big, bad world out there and wish they’d remained where it’s safe. While ‘On Chryse Plain’ by Stephen Baxter features kids having fun, until there’s an accident and suddenly they’re struggling to stay alive in the inhospitable Martian desert. The overt message of all of these stories is that Mars is a frontier, rough, hard, a place where you must do your growing up quickly; the covert message is that growing up isn’t much fun.
Many of the stories allow the protagonists to react quickly to danger, save the day by taking on the role of an adult: their growing up is done. Only a couple, which are, I am sure not coincidentally, the best stories here, allow their protagonists to act rather than react, to take charge of a situation, to complete the move into adulthood without having to abandon who they were in childhood. ‘Martian Chronicles’ by Cory Doctorow follows a group of young colonists on the long flight to Mars as they discover that the interactive game they all play is actually the perfect model for survival in their new world. Doctorow’s story, like just about everything else here, is fairly conventional science fiction; all but one of the authors have taken the ‘Life On Mars’ remit as an excuse to write safe, traditional, middle-of-the-road sf. Only one of the contributors has taken the opportunity to try something different. ‘Wahala’ by Nnedi Okorafor is set in the Sahara, where two young people, both in their way runaways and distrustful of each other, are first on the scene when a craft from Mars crashes nearby. Strange things have happened both on Earth and to the human colonists on Mars, and these returnees have brought an unwelcome visitor with them. But here it is the very youth of the protagonists, the ability to negotiate the new and the strange, that allows them to come to terms with what is happening better than any adult. It is the only story here that feels like a celebration of youth, that sees it as anything more than a preparation for the grind of growing older.