Martians Abroad

by Carrie Vaughn

Reviewed by Adam Armstrong


Being a teenager is hard. Well, 'hard' is too nice--it all around kind of sucks. Sure, from a physical standpoint most are never healthier than at this stage in your life, though the rapid changes in the body typically makes many unsure of how to use or express their bodies with a healthy does of clumsiness. The real problem is that one enters the purgatory between heaven, enjoying childhood, and hell, the terror that is adulthood. On top of that, teenagers are all shepherded together, hormones raging, with no one knowing what to do--so they just take it all out on the weaker ones. 

If that seems bad, imagine if you had to go through the whole thing on another planet surrounded by strangers.

Polly Newton is a Martian (a human child that was born and raised on Mars). She has a near solitary vision of becoming a starship pilot, allowing her to escape the confines of her home planet that, though it has been colonized for some time, is mostly still Spartan. Polly's mother is the director of the Mars colony that should help aide Polly in achieving her aim. However, her mother, like most parents, wants more for her child and intends to ship Polly and her twin brother, Charles, off to Earth where one of the most prestigious schools in the galaxy resides, the Galileo Academy.

No matter how much Polly protests, her mother doesn't have the faintest notion of giving into her. Charles is the calmer, colder, and more calculating of the two twins. He sees the trip to the school as some sort of game to master. The siblings embark on a slow journey toward Earth that allows them to begin to adjust to the gravity differences while they are introduced to several other children from other extraterrestrial places such as the Moon and various space stations. One of their fellow travelers is Ethan Achebe, an heir to a fortune and someone Polly finds herself attracted to.

On Earth the off-worlders are less than welcomed by their peers or the teaching staff. Not only do they have to deal with kids their own age that are mean to any and everything that has the slightest bit of difference, the crew has to deal with things such a higher gravity and a lack of customs the other kids grew up with. As Polly, Charles, and the rest of the gang attempt to deal with fitting in on a strange new world, odd things begin to happen. First, they start as small failures on assignments that force them to come up with new ways to solve the issues, but these oddities quickly snowball into near fatal struggles where the children must band together and figure out what is happening before one of them dies.

I'm not familiar with any of Vaughn's earlier work so I got to look this over with a fresh set of eyes. With obvious homages to Heinlein abounding everywhere, Martians Abroad is one part coming of age, one part mystery, and one part positive science fiction. The intended readers are young adults and I think it has more than enough appeal for young women and even some young men. The mystery aspect felt a little too "Nancy Drew-ish" at times and there were a few red herrings that were obvious red herrings. It is not going to keep many people guessing but it does help advance the plot and build the coming of age story quite a bit.

The science part was a fresh relief. With a mild Star Trek feel to it, the book takes a positive look at technology and where it can bring us. I feel that the overwhelming majority of recent sci-fi, for both young adults and full-blown adults, tends to lean too much toward dystopia. Sure, utopic thinking and writing make most of sit back and point out how flimsy those houses of cards usually are, but it doesn't mean we have to be all doom and gloom. Vaughn kept the science pretty tight as well and didn't allow any type of technology that it is so advanced it seems like magic sneak in. Instead, the characters had to do things such as spend months adjusting to gravitational differences; space ships didn't fly much faster than they do now; and so forth. There was also a rather touching moment on the flight to Earth where the pilot allowed Polly up on the bridge, something that adults with an eye on mentoring can learn from.

For its target audience, I think the book is pretty much a perfect fit. Adults who aren't finely attuned to YA may see some of the lesson learning a bit heavy handed but get a nice kick out of the Heinlein homages. With mankind's exploration of Mars right around the corner, Martians Abroad is a great book to get younger generations thinking more about it.