Steampunk has taken to the stars. In David D. Levine’s debut novel Arabella of Mars, airships ply the interplanetary skies between Earth and Mars, and the ships of the Mars Trading Company make fortunes for their investors.
When the novel opens, the year is 1812, Britain is still at war with Napoleon, and Mars is home to a thriving British colony. Sixteen-year-old Arabella Ashby has grown up in the company of her elder brother Michael, under the tutelage of their Martian nanny Khema, learning about automata from her father. But this is no suitable upbringing for a young gentlewoman, and Arabella’s mother insists on removing her and Arabella’s younger sisters back “home” to England. Arabella does not like England, or the pursuits of young gentlewomen. But worse is yet to come. Word of Arabella’s father’s death sets in motion a chain of events that leads to her disguising herself as a man and signing on as cabin boy on the Mars Trading Company ship Diana, to try to reach her brother on Mars in time to save his life…
Mild spoilers ahead.
I had an enormous amount of fun reading Arabella of Mars. Arabella is a hell of a lot of fun as a protagonist, sharp but not particularly self-aware; determined and completely aware of the double-standard applied to her as a woman. Her adventures aboard the Diana as the very least of the crew—scrubbing decks, hauling on lines, dealing with the culture of the crew and the problems of close quarters—are immensely engaging, and that’s before the pitched battle with a French privateer that leaves the Diana‘s unconventional captain seriously wounded, and the mutiny that Arabella contributes to foiling. And when she arrives back on Mars, in the face of a Martian native uprising—the Martians are rather like giant crabs, whose warriors are primarily female—she talks and fights and acts as cultural go-between until she regains her brother’s side and deals with the villain who threatened his life in the first place. Arabella of Mars is a romp, and an accomplished one—no surprise, considering that Levine has already won awards for his short fiction.
But. (There’s always a but, isn’t there?) One of steampunk’s major problems, as a subgenre, as an aesthetic, is its valourisation of, or uncritical reproduction of, the norms and standards of a period of history in which white European colonialism and imperialism—and all the class, religious, and racial prejudices that went along with that—was accepted as the way things were and the way things ought to be.
It’s fairly obvious how much of a problem this is when steampunk-aesthetic stories visit the further reaches of the earthbound British empire. It is less clear when that’s transposed onto an imaginary place… but still has the power to make me very uncomfortable.
Arabella of Mars is very clearly in dialogue with the historical context of the East India Company and the British rule in India: Arabella’s Martian context parallels that of the children of the Raj who were raised by Indian nannies and then taken “home” to an England they’d never before visited, where they expected to conform to the ideals of their “homeland.” (An aside: in Arabella of Mars, what the hell is a respected Martian warrior doing taking employment as a nanny for English children? Some of the Martian social worldbuilding is insufficiently well explained…) I have complicated feelings about this, especially as the captain of the Diana is the disinherited son of a maharaja himself. (In addition, the least enjoyable, and least believable, part of Arabella of Mars for me is the bit where Arabella falls in love with Captain Singh.)
Because Arabella and all the English colonists on Mars are invading imperialists, right? This is implied by the context. You can’t get away from that. And while Arabella respects Martian culture and individual Martians, she doesn’t see anything wrong with her family—with the English in general—having plantations on Mars, and exploiting its resources. The narrative utterly fails to note this as something that is maybe not okay.
It’s possible to like—even love—a lot of problematic things. And I really enjoyed Arabella of Mars. But I feel obliged to point out that colonialist shit doesn’t miraculously stop stinking just because it’s been relocated to Mars. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet… but there’s bone ash in that there fertiliser, you know.
I hope Levine can address some of the problems I have with Arabella of Mars if he writes a sequel, because what was fun here was really very fun. And regardless, I’ll be looking out for his future work.