Arabella of Mars: Why A Girl?

David D. Levine, by Janna Silverstein

David D. Levine, by Janna Silverstein

David D. Levine is the author of novel Arabella of Mars (Tor 2016) (reviewed by Tadiana) and over fifty SF and fantasy stories. His story “Tk’Tk’Tk” won the Hugo, and he has been shortlisted for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, and Sturgeon. Stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Tor.com, multiple Year’s Best anthologies, and his award-winning collection Space Magic (reviewed by Kat).

One commenter wins a copy of Arabella of Mars!

 One question that I have been asked several times in discussing Arabella of Mars simply baffles me: why did I decide to make the main character of my Regency interplanetary airship adventure novel a girl? The answer relates to a different question, one I never get asked at all.

The simple and obvious answer to the question “why a girl?” is “why not?” I really don’t see any reason why she shouldn’t be, which is why I was so surprised to be asked this question at all, never mind more than once. But let’s look into the question in a little more detail.

I decided to make my main character young and female very early in the writing process. My rationale was straightforward: young people, women, and especially young women have less power in society, and therefore have more problems to overcome. People with lots of problems to overcome tend to be sympathetic characters and thus make good protagonists. (This is why the hero in most operas is a tenor, while the villain is a bass — the younger, higher-voiced man must overcome the older, more powerful, lower-voiced man.)

Arabella of Mars Blog Tour BannerOf course, the design of a main character is more complicated than that. Arabella is not just a girl but a specific type of girl: a plucky young woman who dresses as a boy and goes on an adventure in order to save her family fortune. She is smart, capable, and not afraid of adversity. All of these things go along with being a young adult protagonist, but she also has some characteristics that are specific to this character and this world: she is a tomboy and a frontier girl who doesn’t fit in with the polite society of her day; she shares her father’s interests in automata and astronomy; and she sympathizes far more than most English people with the indigenous inhabitants of her colonial homeland, to the extent of speaking their language and adopting some of their philosophies. (In her case those indigenous inhabitants are crablike Martians…)

So if Arabella is such a tomboy, and in fact one who dresses as a boy for much of the book, why did I choose to make her a girl at all? Why have a plucky girl YA hero instead of the more typical plucky boy YA hero? Part of the answer goes back to “give the protagonist lots of problems to overcome” — cross-dressing gives her the problem of hiding her gender on top of everything else. But having her be a girl dressed as a boy also serves as a tool to interrogate and to some extent disassemble the deeply rooted sexism of the Regency era. As she is a person who stands outside of her society’s traditional gender roles, I can use her to point out the hypocrisy and arbitrariness of those roles and to inject a more modern viewpoint into my alternate history. Coming from outside polite society, she will notice things about that society that few Regency ladies of the gentry would have noticed, and will be willing to take actions that very few of them would have dared. The tension between her priorities and actions and the expectations of her society provides a source of conflict — over and above the privateers, mutineers, and insurrectionists she also faces along the way.

All of which points to the question I have never been asked: what’s it like being a male author, and how has being male influenced your career? Female writers get the equivalent question all the time; men never do. If I were to be asked this question, I would respond that being male has made everything easier for me. I have almost never gotten pushback or been smacked down for stating an opinion in public, or being persistent in submitting stories, or publicizing myself and my work. No one has ever even mentioned, never mind criticized, my clothing or appearance when writing about me. My choices of topic and tone in my fiction have rarely been questioned. Has being male made it easier for me to sell my work to publishers, get reviews and publicity once it’s published, and appear on programming at conventions? It’s hard to say… but it certainly is true that my female writer friends often complain that they have had difficulties in those areas because of their gender, and I almost never have. That’s the thing about privilege — when you have it, it is generally invisible to you.

I am a white guy — there’s no changing that. (Well, gender is changeable, but I have no interest in doing so.) But I consider myself a feminist, and I do what I can to promote “the radical idea that women are people.” Arabella is part of that. If reading a smart, courageous, persistent heroine in my book helps even one girl or woman feel better and more confident, then my job here is done.

Arabella Ashby is a Patrick O’Brian girl in a Jane Austen world — born and raised on Mars, she was hauled back home by her mother, where she’s stifled by England’s gravity, climate, and attitudes toward women. When she learns that her evil cousin plans to kill her brother and inherit the family fortune, she joins the crew of an interplanetary clipper ship in order to beat him to Mars. But privateers, mutiny, and insurrection stand in her way. Will she arrive in time?

Arabella of Mars will appeal to fans of Naomi Novik’s TEMERAIRE books, Scott Westerfeld’s LEVIATHON trilogy, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s GLAMOURIST HISTORIES, all of which are fast-paced adventures combining a historical setting with a fantasy/SF twist. A novelette in the same universe, “The Wreck of the Mars Adventure,” appeared in Locus Award winning anthology Old Mars, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois; another related novelette, “The End of the Silk Road,” appeared in F&SF.

Readers, what is your favorite girl-dresses-as-a-boy (or vice versa) plot? One commenter, limited to the US and Canada, will win a free copy of Arabella of Mars


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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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17 comments

  1. I can’t wait to read this. It’s totally my type of story and I love Levine’s short stories.
    I’m hoping for an audio version!

    • I think it’s going to end up being a book that a few of us on the site read, because it just sounds so good!

  2. April /

    I’ve had this on my TBR for a long time based on the synopsis. Now I want to check out the author’s other stuff.

  3. Since I just read and reviewed this book, I found this interview particularly interesting. Great job, Kate!

  4. M. Robinson /

    Hmm, It sounds like Huckleberry Finn.

  5. Sarah /

    I added this book to my list as soon as I found out about it. So glad to see more fun adventure titles coming out. I wasn’t aware of the novelettes. I shall have to track them down.

  6. This sounds like a really interesting and I love tomboys! :)

  7. My favorite cross-dressing hero is Viola. Ha! Just kidding. I liked Deryn in the Scott Westerfield trilogy a lot.

    I love this essay! David, I appreciate your observation that when you have privilege it’s invisible to you — and I love that the main character is a young outsider female, perplexed by the strange customs of society that “just *are,” because “that’s how it’s done.”

    Thank you for sharing a little bit about your personal process and your writing process.

  8. Sharon Anderson /

    Looks good, and I applaud your choice of a female lead character!

  9. I would love to get a chance to read it.
    Thank you.

  10. Liat vd /

    This book sounds very interesting. and girl-dresses-as-a-boy is one of my favorite book tropes…some of my favorite girl-disguised-as-boy plots are Eon by Alison Goodman, and Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett.

  11. Misti P /

    Oh, I want to read this. I’ve loved girls dressing as boys ever since I read Alanna: The First Adventure as a kid.

  12. Lisa /

    The Alanna books by Tamora Pierce were my favorites to read when I was growing up. I recently discovered she wrote more in the same world about Alanna’s daughter, so now my tbr list is longer!

    • Lisa, I love those two books about Alanna’s daughter, Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen. In fact, I think they’re my favorite Tamora Pierce books. I highly recommend them!

  13. Lisa Taylor, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of ARABELLA OF MARS!
    Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!

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