Sidewise Award-winning author (and my college classmate) Martin Berman-Gorvine likes playing with time, space and narrative forms, all of which combine not only in his latest novel, Seven Against Mars, but also in this very Big Idea, in which the heroines of his novel, shall we say, have their opinions on the book, reading and several other topics.
I sighed and took my fingers off the keyboard. “Girls, how can I finish this essay for John Scalzi’s blog if you keep interrupting me?” I said.
“But part of the point you’re making is that characters gain a life of their own and take over your story,” 15-year-old Rachel Zilber said in her lilting Polish accent. “So we’re not interrupting, we’re helping you!”
“Yeah, you writers think you’re all that,” Katie Webb said, her Texas Panhandle twang thicker than… I’d better not complete that simile, she’s pretty sensitive to any perceived slights to her country, and in the 22nd century, whence she comes, the Republic of Texas is one powerful piece of the former USA. “But without readers, your stories just lie there on the page like cow flops on my Daddy’s back forty. Ain’t that right, Rachel?”
Rachel’s red curls jiggled as she nodded agreement. “That’s what I found out, Katie. I mean, I sure was surprised when the silly stories I wrote on my typewriter to keep my mind off things…”
“…like the fact the Nazis had you and your parents trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto along with thousands of other Jewish people who hadn’t never done them no harm…”
“…somehow came to life, and I woke up on the jungle planet Venus, where my very surprised hero Zap-Gun Jack Flash practically tripped over me, and then you practically tripped over both of us! But even more surprising was…”
“The fact that your heroine, the beautiful Martian Princess Anya Olympulska, looked just like you and spoke Polish, only she thought she was speaking Martian?”
“She does not look like me—” Rachel said, as Katie snorted— “and stop interrupting, Katie.”
I put my head in my hands and groaned. “I wish you’d both quit interrupting and let me get back to work!” Why did I have to make them teenagers, anyway? I have two teenage sons, you’d think I’d have had my fill of annoying adolescents. But I’ll get my revenge on Rachel and Katie in the sequel, where they’ll have to rescue an even younger, much brattier girl from the tyrant of Venus.
“As I was saying,” Rachel said, “it was even more surprising that once I was there, in my own ‘fictional’ world, I couldn’t make any further changes to it just by writing about them.”
“Less’n you showed them to me first,” Katie put in. I eyed her warily. She was the same age as Rachel, a little shorter even, but with muscles solid from farm work in a country that had gone back to a pre-industrial age. But was her accent always this strong, or was she laying it on a little thick now for some reason? Testing me, maybe, to see if I was apt to confuse a rural diction with low intelligence? I hoped not, partly because I was the one who’d created her but mostly because I didn’t want to wind up with a black eye.
“Oh, and by the way, you can have these back,” Rachel said, handing me books by Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. “Neither of us could make head or tail of them.”
“But some people might say that Seven Against Mars is postmodernist science fiction, in the same vein as Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books or the Zoe Kazan movie ‘Ruby Sparks,’” I said, carefully reshelving the books in the special section of my room I reserve for books I swear I’m going to get around to reading but never do.
“It’s a lot of hogwash, you ask me,” Katie said. “And I’ve washed a lot of hogs in my time, and let me tell you, when I’m done that water don’t half stink. I ain’t surprised I ain’t never heard of Monsieur Bar-thees and Monsieur Derriere in the universe Rachel and I live in, ’cause their stuff must come from some parallel universe where people find French literary theory interesting!”
I wasn’t surprised she felt that way. Postmodern theory never held much appeal for me, even when I had to study it as an English major at the University of Chicago, and in recent decades many of the novels written in this mode seem to have devolved into a game for readers, albeit a game with all the fun drained out of it.
“It’s not a game for us,” Rachel put in, as if reading my mind. “We only wanted to use our ‘powers’ to rescue our parents from the real world—mine from the Nazis and Katie’s from a bunch of marauding Alabamans.”
“Don’t give away the whole story, Rachel,” Katie said. “We still want people to read the book. It’s got an evil villain it, and laser guns, and space battles, and that dangerous mix of virgins and live volcanoes. What’s the matter? What did I say?”
Rachel was turning redder than the planet Mars.