A pioneer of science fiction writing, Mary Turzillo has been winning awards for her writing for almost twenty years. She has been writing about science fiction academically for most of her career, having published a number of critiques and guides over the years. This background has led to some wildly popular fiction.
Her latest book, Mars Girls, came out this month. It tells the story of two teenage girls born and raised on Mars. When one of them finds her home ransacked and her parents missing, they are both dragged into a conspiracy that could leave them frozen in the unexplored regions of space. It explores the future of space exploration and human colonization on other planets, along with how religion could continue to impact our species. It is a thrilling tale of conspiracy in the furthest reaches of space, told from the perspective of two determined young women who refuse to let others dictate their future.
I got the opportunity to ask Mary about her new book, how it fits into her other science fiction and what she thinks the future holds for humanity.
What inspired you to write Mars Girls?
It’s a long story, but it begins when I was a little girl myself, about Kapera’s age, walking on a dirt path, staring at the ground looking for trilobite fossils and arrowheads. I chanced to look up and was dumbstruck by shimmering curtains of light. The world suddenly seemed infinitely more wonderful and mysterious than it had before. My grandmother soon after bought me an outdated set of encyclopedias we found on our way to buy soft-serve icecream. She paid only a dollar for the whole set, and yet those volumes — called The Book of Knowledge–changed my life.
I became fascinated with nature and particularly the sky and stars (I know the Aurora Borealis is an atmospheric phenomenon, but at the time it was just a wonderful magic trick of the sky). As I grew up, I studied science and particularly astronomy. A real estate agent, trying to curry favor with my parents, gave me a kitten, and when my mother got rid of the kitten, he followed up with old issues of Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine. I learned that people wanted to travel to the moon and planets, and I wanted to join them.
In the flesh, I will probably spend all my days on Earth, but in spirit I follow the imaginary explorers of the moon, Mars, Venus and exoplanets — the characters of Robert Heinlein, Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, C.L. Moore, Roger Zelazny, Anne McCaffrey and all the others. With Ray Bradbury, I believe that humanity is destined to send explorers and colonists to other solar systems. (By the way, I acknowledge that Heinlein was not exactly a liberal, but I read him and I won’t deny it.)
Another influence is marrying a husband with similar beliefs and interests. My husband, Dr. Geoffrey Landis, is a NASA scientist who has send experiments on rovers to Mars. He had an experiment on the Sojourner rover, which is part of Kapera’s background. Together, we joined the Mars Society, and work toward spreading knowledge of Mars and interest in colonizing it.
Your work offers representation to women and other minority communities that are often neglected in science fiction. How do you feel more positive representation impacts a new generation of readers?
Mars Girls is about two strong, very young women, one little more than a girl, products of their harsh Mars environment, who fight to avoid becoming slaves to a paternalistic religious movement, regardless of its merit. I hope I made the book strong in its affirmation of the strength of young women, including young women of color. I identify with both of them; in later books maybe I can do even more.
I aspire to creating heroines with the ideals of Wonder Woman, although I create mortal, vulnerable women and girls with character flaws that the reader can identify with.
Who are your favourite authors creating progressive science fiction at the moment?
The common wisdom is that science fiction is by nature progressive, and fantasy is conservative. Science fiction shows people working to change bad things. Fantasy shows people trying to keep the status quo in place. This is an over-simplification, in my view, but I do believe that most science fiction is by nature progressive.
My current favorites are: Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, China Mieville, Ian Watson, Ann Leckie, Richard Chwedyk (his saurs are victims of a capitalistic dystopia), Brenda Cooper, Octavia Butler and Iain Banks, the last two now alas no longer with us.
The scientific aspects of Mars Girls are very believable and even feel familiar at times. How much research went into creating your Martian technology?
I never stop researching. I go to Mars Society conferences, read books and journals, attend lectures, subscribe to physical and on-line magazines – you name it.
What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned about the future of technology in your research?
I went with my husband to a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Symposium, and one presentation was about using Rapid Prototyping (AKA desktop printed) to robotically build space habitats. Also, if a spacecraft had a broken part, mission control could send up a program so rapid prototyping could manufacture another part. I love rapid prototyping. It is definitively the next pop-tech revolution. If your ancient washing machine breaks and the part is no longer available, just download a program to re-manufacture it. This was just one idea. Starship design and innovative space drives are very interesting to me.
Mars Girls explores the future of pseudoscience, religion, and superstition as much as it does science and technology. What made you want to include these aspects of society in Mars Girls?
I had to have villains, and corporate greed was one motive, but ignorance and pseudoscience worked very well as complementary plot driver.
Do you feel like typical science fiction sidesteps these parts of humanity to focus on the science-based stuff?
No. I think science fiction is about how technology and scientific discoveries will change the world, maybe for the better, maybe for the worse. It’s ultimately about the impact of technology on the lives of people of all races, genders, religions, and allegiances. Maybe it warns, maybe it plays the cheerleader to the innovator and explorer. But it’s always about how people are affected and how they react.
True, some science fiction is just one battle scene after another. This is bad science fiction.
Pseudoscience, religion, and superstition are part of our world. They represent people’s fears of the unknown and their yearning to defeat death. They are also a way for narcissists and sociopaths to control other people and take advantage of them. Science can gently pry away the blinders and bring people to an understanding of the world the way it is, not the way they are misled or the way they wish it could be.
Science applies to all aspects of reality. It isn’t something separate from the “soft stuff.” Through science, we discovered that homosexuality was genetically based, and that other animals had it, and that in many cultures gay people are acknowledged as totally equal to cisgendered people. This was through science. And I was born early enough to see how this changed society for the better. So, science is linked intimately to culture, law, social progress, and values.
I do not know if we will ever have scientific evidence of life after death, although many people think they have proof. If you have ever lost a dearly loved one, as I have, you know how strong this desire can be. Mediums and fortune-tellers take advantage of the bereaved in ways that to me are disgraceful.
My Facers have different motives. I am not sure if Dr. Sphynxeye is a sociopath or a true believer. The Facers want to deny not just individual death, but the death of the human race, by finding a short-cut to life on other planets where terrestrial plagues and disasters can’t snuff out human life.
Do you think humanity will ever be free of superstition? Do you think it needs to be?
I’m not even sure how to define superstition. Is Christianity superstition? Are unproven medical treatments (and there are some such in use despite not being tested) superstition? If a belief is false, we call it superstition, but how are we to know it’s false? Yes, once science tests a belief, we can make this judgment. But some beliefs have never been tested, and some cannot be tested. The Face on Mars was shown to be an optical illusion by other photographs of it, pareidolia, it is termed. Yet people on earth still hold that it’s an artificial image of a face. That’s superstition.
This isn’t the first time you’ve written about Mars. What appeals to you about the red planet?
Mars and the moon are the most habitable objects in the solar system. They seem a logical next step for human exploration and colonization. When we get to Mars, we will make thousands of useful discoveries which will prolong human life and prevent human suffering. I allude briefly to this type of research in Mars Girls, and I’m working on two other novels where it’s more explicit. A safe sterile working area for biologic experiments, an environment where the effects of low gravity can be explored as for bone metabolism, better astronomical viewing, exoskeletons for people with compromised movement — and maybe even the discovery of a new form of life with untold possibilities for applications in medicine. It’s not just human curiosity, it’s human survival and progress.
How does Mars Girls fit into the inter-planetary world you’ve created in your other work?
I’m thinking of writing something about Venus colonization, but my husband, Geoffrey Landis, got there first. His novella “The Sultan of the Clouds” is highly original and I’m not venturing into that territory. But I will eventually expand to the rest of the solar system. I have some ideas! Nanoannie and Kapera do visit an exoplanet eventually, in my story “Seeds”Trajectories, ed. David Creek, 2016.
And I have a story about people trying to colonize a rogue gas giant (not attached to a solar system), “Space Gypsies and the Ronin Planet” Launchpad, ed Jody Lynn Nye & Mike Brotherton.
I also write poetry – the poetry is sometimes science-based. My collection Lovers & Killers won the Elgin Award.
Plus last year I published a short story collection, mostly horror, but with some science fiction, especially one about a far-future woman who eventually eats a planet: Bonsai Babies, Omnium Gatherum, 2016.
(See my Amazon Author page for details.)
What are your plans for the future of Mars in your work?
Mars Cats, and a novel about a prison on Mars.
Will we see Nanoannie and Kapera again?
If people managed to reach Mars within our lifetime, would you want to go and see what it’s really like?
I would, but I suspect that will not be in my lifetime. Of course, I can hope!
Do you have any advice for aspiring scifi writers?
Subscribe to and read at least one science magazine. My current favorite is Science News, but Discover and Scientific American are also good choices. Read extensively in the zines from which Nebula- and Hugo-winning stories emerge. Join a science fiction writing workshop. Go to Clarion, if you can afford the time and money. Keep writing. Think about how science and technology can make our lives better. Always think of ways that discoveries and inventions will impact you and people you see around you. That’s what it’s about!