Sophia McDougall set her first three novels, Romanitas, Roman Burning, and Savage City, in a world where the Roman empire had survived to the modern day. They’re genre-bending work, with the sweep of epic fantasy and the sensibility of science fiction, and I recommend you give them a shot. She’s also well known as the author of “The Rape of James Bond,” an incisive, biting article about “realism” and sexual violence in fiction.
Her most recent novel is Mars Evacuees: something of a change of pace from her earlier books, for Mars Evacuees is a bit of old-fashioned adventure science fiction, written for the nine-to-twelve age-group. I think you guys in the US would call it a middle-grade book. I enjoyed the hell out of it and I want to read the sequel as soon as humanly possible.
Sophia has graciously agreed to answer a handful of questions. Without further ado…
LB: Let me start with my standard opening question:
What’s your opinion of how women—as authors, as characters, or as fans and commenters—are received within the SFFgenre community? (Please feel free to interpret the question as broadly or as narrowly as you please.)
SMcD: I’m not going to lie, sometimes you just want to crawl out of the genre and die. I mean, practically every month there’s something, isn’t there? There’s Broads with Swords and people being called unpersons and 93% male reading lists and the latest grimdark tome, which, at this point, whatever potential it might have contained, now just seems to mean, “Written by a bloke, featuring All the Rape.”
That said, I don’t think I ever met so many feminists, male and female, until I was published as a Sci-Fi author. I don’t think I saw so many conversations between so many people honestly trying to work out make things better. Now, I worry about over-romanticising SFF’s willingness to debate, because sometimes it feels it’s a lot more willing to have the debate (over and over again) rather than actually change anything, but still, I think the chattiness of people in the genre, the fact that so many of us find it quite normal to thrash things out on the internet in minute detail and that readers and writers are in much closer contact than is common elsewhere, means that ideas move through the communities much more quickly.
On a good day, I think even if SFF’s problems with women are more glaring than other genres, it not only has greater potential to change than the mainstream, it also has the potential to lead change to the mainstream. On a bad day, though, all you’ll get from me is the sound of headdesking and broken moans.
LB: Second question. Your first trilogy was set in an alternate present where the Roman empire had endured and extended pretty much across the entire planet. What drew you to this idea? Would you do anything differently if you were to write it now?
SMcD: I’d loved Rome since I first visited it at seventeen. I also wanted to write a very large-scale story about a whole world that was both familiar and strange, a world in which the stakes were very high, a world in which (— I’m turning into the movie trailer guy!) I could say something about international and personal politics, and which wasn’t a generic supernatural Middle Ages ripoff. Rome, with its grandeur and cruelty, its distance and proximity, seemed the perfect seam to mine. Romans with maglev trains and high-tech crucifixion and superweapons—well, I felt it just worked. It’s not the whole planet, by the way—Rome is one of three major empires, the others being China and Japan, and there are still some independent nations in Africa.
It’s hard to answer accurately what I would do differently, because I am the product of having written those books. They consumed such a large part of my life. Changing them would create a recursive paradox! But still, assuming I had sufficient timey-wimey magic on my side, perhaps I wouldn’t handle the supernatural elements in the same way now, or maybe I wouldn’t even include them at all. And yet, while perhaps my reasons for writing about people who occasionally do impossible things were a younger writer’s reasons, I think they were still sound reasons. I wanted to write about very disadvantaged people and yet be able to tell an adventure story about them. They needed something on their side against forces that would otherwise crush them immediately. I think it’s crucial that the supernatural ONLY attaches to a few of the most marginalised characters. Even as it was, I noticed that people tend to read Marcus—heir to the Imperial throne—as “the lead,” when as far as I was concerned he was just one of several leads in an ensemble piece. But there’s a very good reason that people see him like that; he simply has the most agency, because he has the most privilege. The supernatural elements help balance that out, and are part of the reasons that though it looks as if it’s going to be a trilogy about a young white man coming of age and becoming the perfect benign ruler, ultimately it isn’t.
The main thing I would have done differently is write them faster, though that depends on achieving some kind of wizardry beyond mere time travel.
LB: Did you approach writing Mars Evacuees differently than your earlier books? Are there any particular challenges or rewards in writing a book aimed at the 9-12 age-group?
SMcD: I think a more important difference than the age of the audience is that Mars Evacuees is a comedy as well as an adventure story. Things get very scary for the characters, but there’s nearly always some humour, even when the kids are pretty sure they’re about to die. Romanitas is pretty straight-faced; the characters don’t see much of a funny side to world war and running around trying to avoid high-tech crucifixion. With Mars I felt conscious of a very different rhythm all the time—it’s not quite as schematic as three laughs a page, as they reputedly write sitcoms—but in the back of my mind there’s always the question, “great, but so where’s the next joke?” How can this be scary and serious but also absurd? Perhaps it sounds limiting but I’ve found that very rewarding. I enjoy the hell out of dead serious high angst, but I like to be funny too, and I wrote humorous fiction as a teenager and funny fanfic, but this is my first opportunity to be funny for pay.
I didn’t really worry much about pitching the tone right for kids. The narrator is a twelve-year-old and I just felt as long as I wrote her in character everything would be fine, or if I did go too complicated, someone would probably tell me but so far no one has. The one challenge specific to writing for kids has been swearing. There are situations where it would have been the realistic thing—I mean, when your spacehsip has crashed on the Martian tundra and you’re running out of oxygen there are words that are wholly appropriate—and I’m just not allowed to use them. I did have a fair few “bloody”s and “bastards” in the first draft; my editor wanted all of them out and I honestly tried but a few survived because I just couldn’t do without them.
LB: For Mars Evacuees, why Mars? Were you influenced at all by other books (or films, or television) involving Mars, or did you come to it fresh?
SMcD: I first had the idea when I was a kid, and I’d read Goodnight Mr Tom and Back Home and wondered, in the event of a third World War, where else you could send evacuees. I had a factual book about the planets at home. I can’t remember the title now but I absolutely loved it, so I think I must already have been aware that Mars was the closest thing to a second Earth in the solar system, that it is the logical first step for humans spreading beyond Earth into space. It once had an atmosphere and water; it’s not absolutely beyond the realms of feasibility it could have again. It’s probably easier to stay warm on Mars than not to melt in a puff of sulphuric acid on Venus. So, if you’re going to go somewhere, Mars just makes sense. And of course, it’s been fascinating humans for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptian astronomers recorded observations of it four thousand years ago. Speculation that it might be inhabited began in the 17th Century. And around the time we had to give up on that idea we began thinking about it as a second home. So, it beckons, it threatens, it’s out of reach, it might be within reach. It’s been providing a different reference point on human life for a long, long time.
I think the only thing I read or watched with a Martian element when I was growing up was Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. And actually—there’s a bit of Mysteron in my Morrors—(though the Morrors are not from Mars) they’re invisible, they communicate with Earth through unpredictable announcements. But in general, Mars was the setting of the sci-fi from a generation or two before me—the stuff of pulp novels and B-movies whose existence you sort of absorb through osmosis, whose tone feels familiar, without you ever actually reading or watching any of it. That was stuff written while people still thought there really might be aliens there. By the time I came along I think everyone was largely disillusioned with it. For the purposes of this book that gave Mars an oddly retro feel, which I liked and decided to embrace—it fit with the “evacuees” idea anyway, and I thought it would be fun to do.
I did read—or, to be horribly honest—try to read the Mars Trilogy when I decided to resurrect the idea. The science of it is impressively detailed and I wanted to read a hard SF, realistic take on terraforming before I decided how loose my own was going to be.
LB: Fifth and final question. What are you working on right now in terms of writing? Will there be more books in the same vein as Mars Evacuees, or have you plans to do other new things?
SMcD: I’m working on the sequel to Mars Evacuees, in which we see how Earth is adjusting to the new realities of everyday life with aliens, and Alice is restless and missing space. An attempt at space tourism goes very badly wrong, and the children find themselves held hostage by giant bejewelled angry romantic lobster people. (They romance each other. It’s not a Mars Needs Women scenario). There is also a conscious spaceship who is swooningly in love with her captain who’s equal parts Richard Branson and Zapp Brannigan. There may be more books in the series, we’ll see how things go, but I do also have plans to do other things. I’m hoping to write an adult novel in the vein of my short stories—something creepy and intimate, on a smaller canvas than Romanitas. I’d also like to write for screen and comics so once the sequel’s done I need to work on making that happen.
LB: Thank you.