Katy: What’s your elevator speech for Seven Against Mars? Do you have a specific audience in mind for it?
Martin: The loneliness and heartbreak of being a teenager are that much more intense when you are running for your life in an unfamiliar world, as are the 15-year-old heroines of Seven Against Mars. Rachel Zilber, who is trapped on the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, and Katie Webb, who is fleeing from neo-Confederates in twenty-second-century Texas, find themselves in the pulp science fiction-style world of Rachel’s imagination, where it’s not only their own fate they have to worry about, but that of the planet Mars and perhaps the entire Solar System—not to mention their parents back in the “real” world.
Seven Against Mars has an evil villain it, and zap-guns, and space battles, and that dangerous mix of virgins and live volcanoes. Adults shouldn’t be deterred by the “young adult” label.
Katy:I really liked the interactive influence that the author and the reader had on the fictional world when they got into it. How did you come up with that idea?
Martin: It was natural given the way in which I created the novel: I’d write a few pages, then read them aloud to my younger son Daniel, who was then twelve. His ideas and reactions had a major influence. In recent years, lit-crit theory has gotten carried away with the idea that “the text” once created has nothing more to do with the writer, that any reader can read anything she wants into it. On the other hand, stories only come alive in the interplay between the writer and the reader, between the storyteller and the listener. I was very fortunate to have such a perceptive critical listener as I was writing Seven Against Mars.
Katy:When we meet our heroines, Rachel is in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 and Katie is in an independent Texas of the future. Tell me more about why you picked those particular settings and time periods. Why Warsaw as opposed to any other Nazi-occupied territory? Did you walk through an imaginary history of the US to get to the place where it would be collapsed enough for Katie’s storyline to work?
Martin: The Holocaust has been at the heart of my fiction since I first started writing many years ago. Both of my other published science fiction novels, The Severed Wing and 36, deal with this enormous eruption of evil into modern life. As to why I picked the Warsaw Ghetto setting specifically, the tragic fate of the Jews of Poland is surprisingly little known despite the enormous and ever-increasing awareness of this period of history. This is partly because there were so few survivors from Poland—there were 3.3 million Jews in the country in 1939, 90 percent of whom lost their lives—and also because the Jews of Eastern Europe who were caught up in the Holocaust seem more foreign to Americans than Western European victims like Anne Frank. I wanted to help remedy this imbalance, but I should add that this is an after-the-fact explanation for what was going through my mind when I created the character of Rachel—she and her setting popped into my mind fully formed.
Much the same is true for Katie, although the bleak future history of a collapsed United States has much in common with the world of my second published novel, 36, and with some unpublished stories and other projects I have been working on. The similarities and differences between Rachel’s situation and Katie’s drive much of the plot while creating an interesting pattern of empathy and tension between the two characters. That is, both girls are frantic to figure out a way to rescue their parents, but Katie realizes, as do we, that the prospects for Rachel’s parents at the hands of the Nazis are much bleaker than for Katie’s parents.
Katy: Why do Rachel’s discarded story ideas end up all in the same fictional world?
Martin: You could say it’s mostly for narrative convenience, though I conceived of Rachel as setting all of her stories in a single, consistent future world. It’s something a lot of science fiction writers do, and Rachel is definitely one of us!
Katy: Many of the surprises for Rachel in the fictional world involve her confronting Judaism and Polishness that she was trying to escape. How do you think Rachel’s relationship to her religion and her heritage evolve over the course of the journey? How much of this was deliberate on your part?
Martin: Rachel is forced to develop a much more nuanced approach to her identity over the course of the novel, without giving up the basic values she has been raised with. It’s a process many adolescents and adults go through, if we are open to learning from experience. This journey of Rachel’s is one of the emotional centerpieces of Seven Against Mars, and I put a lot of thought into it. It probably won’t come as a surprise that some of the changes in her worldview parallel my own mental evolution.
For example, like Rachel, I was raised to reject Orthodox Judaism as backward and superstitious. But Rachel comes to have a grudging respect for the adaptability of the Hasidim she meets on Mars, and the validity of their culture. I haven’t had to journey quite so far for a similar insight. It is a great irony that people who think of themselves as the most progressive and the most tolerant often have very little tolerance indeed for the more traditional forms of religious practice. As Tom Lehrer once put it, “I know there are people who do not love their fellow man, and I HATE people like that!”
Katy: My experience reading early science fiction is pretty much limited to reading my great-uncle John W. Campbell’s books. I was only able to make it through a couple because of the grating sexism and WASPiness of them (the book where three-breasted alien women happily stuffed themselves into tight body suits to make themselves look like human women for their human husbands springs to mind), but I still enjoyed finding traces of that kind of writing in Rachel’s fictional world. What’s your history with classic pulpy sci-fi? Do you have favorite authors or a favorite period?
Martin: Seven years ago I came into possession of several decades’ worth of back issues of Analog magazine. It’s really striking how, immediately after Campbell died in 1971 and Ben Bova took over the editorship, the square jaws and bosomy blondes on the magazine covers were suddenly shouldered aside by Afros. There goes the neighborhood!
The outlook of Campbell and those like him carried the seeds of its own destruction. On the one hand, they envisioned a future that would belong to Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, with his best girl by his side. Any “ethnic” types that couldn’t conform to this ideal had to serve as comic relief. On the other hand, even if those “three-breasted alien women” were stuffing themselves into human body suits, all the latex in the universe couldn’t contain their essential alienness forever—even if it took rude feminists like Alice Sheldon (“James Tiptree, Jr.”) and Joanna Russ to point that out.
But we shouldn’t underestimate the appeal of melting-pot Americanism in the first half of twentieth century, which the American science fiction of that era reflected. If you were a refugee like Rachel (and she is one in her imagination), wouldn’t you be thrilled at the chance for acceptance, even at the price of your old-world identity? Many of them didn’t even see it as a sacrifice, but as a welcome chance to throw off stifling prejudices and superstitions. Of course, Rachel too is full of self-conflict, because she’s also a Zionist like her parents—one who stands for the right of the Jewish people to have its own homeland in Israel, which in many respects is the opposite of the American ideal. This accounts for the shock and embarrassment she feels at many of the aspects of her fictional world once it assumes three-dimensional form: she is being forced to confront the contradictions of her own identity.
My own early encounter with science fiction focused on a slightly later period than the pulp era, and was shaped by authors who had an ironical, yet affectionate attitude toward it that I picked up from them. I’m thinking of authors who came to prominence in the 1940s and 50s, like Robert Sheckley, William Tenn, and Alfred Bester. All Jews, you’ll notice—the overrepresentation of Jews in this genre is striking—and all masters of the short, sharply satirical science fiction tale. Tenn’s short story “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi” treats with many of the same themes about Jewish identity and fate that are in my novels.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another huge influence: Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series. To her I owe the tremendously powerful vision of the universe as the stage for an epic battle between good and evil, in which scared, flawed teenagers and even younger children have their part to play; and my Rachel and Katie must save their parents, just as L’Engle’s Meg and Charles Wallace must save their father.
Katy: Seven Against Mars ends with one of the characters being kidnapped. Can you tell us anything about the next book? What else is on your plate right now?
Martin: When evil goons from the planet Venus kidnap an innocent, harmless-looking little Polish Jewish girl called Sonya, you know it’s the goons you have to feel sorry for. Rachel and Katie are going to have their hands full between rescuing her, breaking a pattern of events with a certain ominous resemblance to the plot of a notorious Shakespeare play, and surviving a crucial battle in the Israeli War of Independence and the unfathomable evil of mean gym teachers.
I’m also working on a ghost story/love story/mystery set in the vanished nineteenth-century village of Green Run on Assateague Island, Maryland, home of the famous wild “Chincoteague Ponies.” It’s got forbidden love, the Civil War, and the threat of global warming in it, too. If I can just work in a few diet recipes and some celebrity gossip, I figure I’ll have all the bases covered for a best-seller!
Also in the hopper are two complete young adult novels now undergoing revision for publication: one set in an alternate history in which Israel lost its War of Independence (an expansion of my short story “Palestina,” which appeared in Interzone’s May/June 2006 issue), and the other featuring an enchanted used bookstore (but aren’t they all?) that is a gateway between our world and one where the British Empire has its capital in exile in Philadelphia… and the endangered Draco americanus makes its home on Assateague Island.
Katy: Thank you very much, Martin, and best of luck with your future projects!
[Edited 5/12/13 to add] Also check out Martin’s guest post at SFSignal, and a conversation with Rachel and Katie at John Scalzi’s blog.