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I remember while growing up back in the 20th century that SF was fun. Maybe fun isn't the right word, but stick with me -- sure, the stories were serious, there were real stakes (usually), not every ending was happy, and so on -- but there was an overall sense that the future would be okay, that space travel and aliens (at least the ones not trying to kill us/take over the world) were positives, and that there as something in humanity that made it all worthwhile. But more and more that went away, and the future became (when not downright dystopian) a grim place with people struggling to survive. By and large, who wants to live in the future depicted in SF now?
Sure, there are exceptions, but most of those are in the Douglas Adams' tradition (Scalzi and Clines would be good exceptions to this) -- "light" or humorous SF. I'm not saying that I want an end to those stories, or that I don't enjoy the darker SF. But I wouldn't mind more SF that makes me feel okay about the future, rather than wanting to return to the carefree days of the end of the Hoover administration instead of getting to 2040 and beyond.
Enter Carrie Vaughn and Martians Abroad -- an update of Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars (not unlike Scalzi's take on Little Fuzzy in Fuzzy Nation). Now, I've not read Podkayne, but I assume that it could use a little update and some tweaking. Not necessarily to improve it, but to make it "fit" the readers of today. Like a good cover song, such an update can revitalize an older work, showing different aspects of it, without having to replace it (see Parton and Houston's "I Will Always Love You"). Since I didn't read the original, I have no real idea how much of the plot of this book came from Heinlein and how much is straight from Vaughn herself -- and I really don't care outside of some vague curiosity. What I do know, is that Vaughn took some classic ideas and did something that only she could do with them. She gives us a vision of the future that's not perfect, but seems like an okay place to be. This doesn't make it better (or worse) than other SF works -- just a refreshing change of pace.
From Lowood Institution to Trinity High School to Welton Academy to Hogwarts (and many others), there's something about boarding school stories that just works. You get a little bit of a fish out of water story, usually an oppressive administration, some unofficial traditions shaping actions (frequently at least brushing up on bullying), and a heckuva story ensues. Sure, as a kid (and even now) I always wondered why anyone would attend/send their kids to one, but apparently it's a thing. Add the Galileo Academy to the list -- it's a school for the children of Earth's elites, as well as those of a few select space stations and colonies. Charles and Polly Newton are the first students from Mars to matriculate there -- by "from Mars" I mean that they're from the human colony on Mars, not some sort of fully alien life.
But really, in so many ways, they might as well be wholly alien -- ditto for the students form various space stations or the Moon, etc. Due to differences in gravity, having to breathe pumped-in air, etc., their muscle structure bone density -- and even digestive systems -- have adapted to their environments to the extent that it's easy to tell an offworlder by sight. How serious are these changes? Let's put it this way -- the non-Earth born kids can't eat bacon. I know, I said this wasn't a grim or dystopian view of the future, but that one fact makes me rethink that whole idea.
Now, the last thing Polly wants to do is come to Earth -- she has a plan for her future, and this isn't anywhere near it. It fits right in with her mother's plans (Polly just doesn't know how), Charles convinces his sister to go along with his mother's plan without much fuss -- it's not like they could stop things, anyway. The trip from Mars to Earth isn't as bad as she expects and she begins to have a little bit of hope - only to have that crushed as soon as she starts to meet students and administrators from the Academy. Basically offworlders are seen as lower-class/working-class, not as sophisticated or healthy as those born and raised on Earth. Polly, Charles and the other offworlders find themselves grouping together, and the target of harassment of varying degrees of seriousness and intensity from the rest. It's tough to tell how much of this is in their minds and how much this is real -- at times it feels like Polly's exaggerating how bad things are, but typically, her perceptions are substantiated.
Before long, some accidents or other dangerous situations start occurring that put Polly and her classmates in jeopardy --and it's not long before the students begin to wonder if there's something other than chance at work here. While Polly seeks to integrate herself better into her new community -- and she makes some pretty good strides at it (and some stumbles) -- she, Charles and her friends try to figure out just who is targeting their class and why.
Polly is a great character -- strong-willed, fallible, smart, impulsive, brave, socially awkward -- very real. Incidentally, you may have noticed that we share a last name -- I'm claiming Polly Newton as my great-great-ellipses-great-granddaughter right now, and welcome her to the family. The rest of her classmates are just as well-drawn. I could've used a little more on the adult front -- the teachers and administrators are largely absent, and are vaguely drawn. I do think that's a function of Vaughn's focus being on the students, not necessarily a flaw with the book -- I just would've liked a bit more of adult presence.
There is some real honest humor here -- some of it comes from the situations, some of it is from Polly's snark. But better than her attitude is the sheer awe she feels at Earth -- the colors, the life, the non-greenhouse plants, the sky, the air. Her initial impressions of Earth were great -- and they only got better from there -- each time she left the confines of school, she discovered something new about this planet and the way it was described was better than the last. Polly's a human, but from her perspective she's an alien to this planet, she's seeing it with fresh eyes.
There are some villains (of a sort), some real opponents to be faced, but really, there's no one evil. There's some misguided people, some . . . unthinking/wrong-thinking characters. But there's no Voldemort figure, no true evil. Just conflicting agendas, different priorities, unrepentant snobbery -- it feels real. Again, a refreshing change of pace.
Yes, this book is about teenagers, but it's not a YA book. It is, like the SF I talked about at the beginning, YA-friendly, though. A book that I can recommend to friends as well as my kids and their friends -- and, of course, you, whoever you are. The book was exciting, entertaining, filled with real situations in an appealing future. Vaughn's to be thanked for such a pleasant change of pace, a breath of fresh air -- and I hope we get to revisit this world (but if we don't, that's okay, this is a complete story as is).
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Tor Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post -- thanks to both for this. Also, thanks to Tor for the opportunity to take part in the Book Tour.