Arabella of Mars:
critique of the 2017 Norton winner through an intersectional lens

Romance—both upon the high (solar) seas, and Martian soil, in both the old and new senses of the word: what more could anyone ask for? Why automata, a female protagonist (disguised as a boy, a guilty pleasure of mine) and a nod to Jules Verne, of course.

This book is another in a line of regency era fantasies—what used to be called romances—starting with Verne himself[1] , which are enjoying a renaissance with successes such as Novik's Temeraire stories, or Westerfeld's delightful Leviathan trilogy, also featuring an airship & charming romance between the teenaged protagonists. The eponymous Arabella of Mars promises to follow in Deryn Sharpe's spunky footsteps, right down to the cross-dressing & service aboard an airship, the Diana.

Alas, I ran aground on the worldbuilding.

Or at the very least, the social-economic assumptions underpinning it, which at best undermined the esteem which modern readers could be reasonably expected to hold the protagonists, particularly Arabella, and at worst display an appalling racial insensitivity.

In this universe, breathable atmosphere envelopes not only the earth, but the solar system: ships use giant balloons to escape the gravity well of their planets, then add extra masts en route, probably around the perimeter of the hull,[2] to sail upon solar winds. Like the exact fate of Arabella's father, we're never told where the balloons attach during launch, nor see them stowed; nor are the masts’ positions precisely described. It makes visualizing the Diana rather confusing. (And, why, for example, do these intersteller ships dock in water, since they don't sail upon ocean at all? Beats me. Alas, the lack of precisely this sort of explanation will continue to be a weakness throughout the story.)

But it's on Mars that the worldbuilding strips its gears.

Mars is richly peopled with crab-like sophonts when the humans’ first voyage, led by the explorer James Cook lands; only the sturdier khoresh wood from their trees makes his return to Earth possible. One wonders why the exploration didn't go the other way. Not to mention that a century later, Arabella Ashby's family owns a khoresh plantation (not farm), complete with, I kid you not, “field hands” and “drying sheds”—as do many other colonialists. How any USian author (not to mention his editors and the judges who awarded the Andre Norton prize to this book) with the most passing knowledge of history, i.e. slavery could write those phrases with so little self-awareness in this day and age baffles me, especially when authors of color have been working so hard these past few years to raise awareness. I mean, I love steampunk, but one does have to deal with its problems, right? Not just pretend they don't exist, or worse, sweep them all under a rug of cringe-inducing Disneyesque Uncle Remus zippity-doo-dah cheer, yes? Oddly enough, the only person to point out how problematic Arabella's relationship with her native Nanny is a villain—and her spouse shows up Arabella almost as badly over the question of primogeniture, which has made her rich and him a have-not.

Never mind how these brits managed to end up owning huge chunks of Mars & employing the natives in menial jobs; I'd settle for knowing how Arabella managed to acquire enough of their culture and customs (though not language, which she evidently felt wasn't worth learning because some of the sounds were impossible for human throats) to understand the planet had multiple languages, cultures and polities—all the while being raised by a horribly racist mother, in a position of high privilege. I suppose it was the magical negro Martian nanny (who by the way seems entirely lacking in any kind of resentment whatsoever with rearing a bunch of human children, rather than her own).

By the time the Diana reaches Mars, they cannot land because of a “serious native uprising”. Written with care, this novel could have been a very interesting examination, or subversion of colonialism, foreign exploitation and the like. (Evidently the Martians are less technologically advanced, since they wield spears. Given that their planet is much drier, and perhaps has fewer mineral resources, this might make sense.) One would presume there would be various Martian factions aligned with the assorted Earth polities...um, evidently not.

Turns out, the villainous cousin has stolen some native egg or other, which has fomented a violent demonstration. OK, fine, why is this particular egg exciting so much interest? It's never identified as belonging to a head of state, or anything; and if it were, might rival clans actually be in support? If they're too noble to have those sorts of divisions, fine, but then why is Arabella saying at the beginning of the book that Martians are just ordinary folks like us? Le sigh.

And, oh yeah, the cousin is also evidently responsible for Arabella's beloved brother nearly getting killed, losing a leg, and becoming ill. Yet Arabella is willing to forgive the cousin for also saving her brother's life. Again, I could see her ultimately having a change of heart for some reason or other, but I need a few more clues, here.

The characters’ motivations and behavior simply aren't believable, and the plotting shows signs of being more sloppily executed than the voyage, which had begun to peter out anyway when Arabella's sex was revealed, exiling her from the crew, and the life she'd made with them.[3] Bear in mind that this book is set during 1812–13 and that though slave trade had been abolished in Britain, slavery remained legal in the (Honourable) East India Company's territories (on which the Honorable Mars Company is presumeably obviously based) until 1843. It's clear that the author wants to do the right thing, with vague allusions to the discrimination Singh faces for his race and Arabella's assertion that Martians ‘are just like we’. Unfortunately, the author doesn't extend these [good-hearted] asides logically; hence the horrible clash between his intentions and the careful reader's experience.

Thus, the entire time I was reading this book, the history of European dominance of North American natives, US chattel slavery, and Great Britain's subjugation of India were alternately ringing through my head. It was disorienting and horribly frustrating; and if I, as a mere ally, can perceive all these problems, I can only wonder what readers of colour would make of this book.

IOW, Levine's Arabella of Mars is another of those books I really wanted to enjoy but just couldn't. But let's continue with what worked, not least that I finished the book in one sitting: as I get older, that's getting to be a significant hurdle. Secondly, it's clear that the author did a lot of research on the clipper ships, as well as automata; according to his author page, he spent time in a Mars-like training facility as well.

For all this is the guy's first novel, he's not an unexperienced writer, with over 50 stories published and at least one hugo award[4] .

We start with a magical negro alien Wise Old Teacher (failing) to train her young human charges in a native game, since Arabella is distracted (despite her presumed wits and determination) by a ship flying overhead, scratching herself bloody. Beloved by a weak, indulgent father because of their shared interests in automata, her racist mother packs her girl children home to avoid their continued contamination by the natives, specifically the nanny primarily responsible for rearing them. (Arabella muses at one point whether her life would have been easier if her native nanny hadn't been so demanding. Given that it was the human teenagers who demanded the illicit nightime wargames, this victim-blaming was rather startling.)

Showing remarkably little backbone, Arabella acquiesces to going back to Earth. When I say the depiction of her character is mushy, this is what I mean: it would made perfect sense for Arabella to scream and dig her heels in and stay on Mars (after all, once her mother left, there was nothing to prevent her from sneaking back home, even if she were temporarily kicked out.) Or she could have evinced some interest in earth because she's accepted the necessity to marry well so as to fire off her younger sisters, seeing as there aren't many suitable men on mars, and then be disappointed that the earthmen English are vapid.

Given the game with her brother that introduces the story, and her apprenticeship as a captain's boy that forms the bulk of the book, I really expected her do a little less moping inbetween. Instead, she spends her time after everyone's gone to bed sneaking downstairs to fix the harpsichord automata her father shipped home as consolation—though she never gets up the gumption to play it publicly. Why? Presumeably her mother wouldn't be stupid enough to destroy it, as this is the one thing her father really cares about, and he does, after all, control the purse strings. Even if Mama did destroy or dispose of instrument, that would have set up a nice little conflict, perhaps illustrating how it is a woman with no money and much less status manages to run the household so completely, not to mention illustrating more deeply the relationship between Arabella and her mother, which evidently is not completely negative. But it's left vague, just like the father's cause of death.

Now actually having a reason to be sad and depressed, Arabella packs herself off to her cousin's house to grieve, abandoning the one link to her father (not to mention the one occupation she enjoys doing) without a second thought: literally, Arabella never thinks of the device again. The story does at least start to zip along once Arabella is jolted out of her apathetic grief by a plot to murder her only brother, isolated on Mars by the departure of his female relatives to Earth.

And this is where the book briefly shows some sophistication, at least on an economic level. Arabella weakly protests that primogeniture prevents the estate from being broken up, but it certainly didn't prevent her father (& then brother) from financially supporting his younger brother's son and family. It is the villainous cadet branch of the family that raise sharp questions about the relationship with her nanny, which Arabella weakly protests as a ‘more friendship’ than that of mistress and servant.

At last, I thought, the author is going to subvert, or at least address, the painfully obvious colonialism. Nope. Like the automata project, we get an interesting setup that ultimately goes nowhere. It's never a good sign when the characters obviously meant to be the baddies have the clearest understanding. Arabella, however, manages to escape and hotfoots it to London with practically no money, determined to catch her cousin. Why she didn't stop at her mother's house and gather up some reinforcements? —Or at least some more cash? (Perhaps because it was in opposite direction, but that's just one more unspecified detail...)

But let us move on to the actual journey, which is perhaps the most sharply drawn part of the story. Arabella narrowly escapes taking the king's shilling to work, instead, as a cabin boy on the Diana, a ship of the Honourable Mars Company. The Captain, Prakesh Singh (an obvious nod to Nemo) hires Arabella, despite her spindly frame and complete ignorance of sailing ships, to be a cabin boy, specifically to tend the complex automaton, Aadim, which Nemo has spent years building and refining, to generate flight plans.

As a love interest, the captain is so stiff the romance comes off more as a one-sided infatuation, not helped by the fact that she's half his age and a minor to boot[5] > ; and the sad thing is the slowly developing relationship between Arabella and Aadim, the ship's automaton (and possibly AI), demonstrates how the romance (or, more realistically, growing appreciation for each other's talents) ought to be done. Singh is supposed to be a brilliant, humane leader, but Arabella's duties, which appear to be based on that of the crews of real ships of the era, and mostly involve scrubbing, depictsuch an appalling subculture that it undermines the captain's perceived kindness—at least for modern readers. Ironically enough, they also make for the most vivid and compelling part of the novel.

In a perfect world, plot and character develop in tandem; thus, a mutiny might echo a protagonist's rebellion against her circumstances. Unfortunately, in this book, though the various set pieces keep the action moving along, they mostly serve to (inadvertently) illustrate various characters’ incompetence or callousness. (You'd expect Arabella to be so exhausted from her immediate problems to drive worries of her brother out of her head...and for every once in awhile for homesickness, worry, sorrow about her sisters to return with searing intensity. She does worry, but not convincingly: she never gets around, for example, to informing her beloved captain about the plot brewing against him. That a boy younger than the 17 year old Arabella should lead a revolt against a good captain is even more ludicrous.)

Thus, the issues in Arabella's character development reflects the problems inherent in the worldbuilding. Fix one, I suspect, and the other would likely follow.

[1]strictly speaking, Verne is Victorian...as are, I'm sorry to say, the morals of the characters: people tend to forget that the regency era wasn't quite as stifling.

[2]Well, I presume: if the masts are removed till the balloons are stowed, then why is one still in place? If they're all topside, then why wait till they're in solar space to mount the other two? Once again, a cool concept imperfectly described.

[3]Since her life ‘with the guys’ seemed to be the author's main interest, why did he prematurely end it? Women have been cross-dressing for centuries, yanno...

[4]Which basically means I feel he's got less excuse to falling into these traps.

[5]Though to be fair, girls married that young all the time—Lydia, frex is only 16 when she marries Wyckham in Pride & Prejudice