The Big Idea: David D. Levine

When Hugo-winning writer David D. Levine went looking for inspiration for his debut novel Arabella of Mars, he chose from some eclectic sources, from a Grand Master of fantasy to one of the most acclaimed nautical novelists of all time. How does it all fit together? Levine is here to tell you.


My first published novel, Arabella of Mars, has been incubating for a long, long time. I started writing it in 2011, finished it in 2013, sold it in 2014, and now it’s finally coming out in 2016… but the Big Idea for it came even earlier. It started with a throwaway line in Gene Wolfe’s The Urth of the New Sun, in which the narrator Severian voyages on a spaceship which is described as having masts and sails. To go out on deck one must don a “cloak of air” against the vacuum, and one sailor cannot hear anything said by another unless the two come so close that their cloaks touch. “I have heard it said,” Severian writes, “that if it were not thus, the roaring of the suns would deafen the universe.”

I probably read Urth of the New Sun when it first came out (1987), and that line just stuck in my head. When I started writing short stories in 1999, after a long hiatus from writing fiction, that line was one of the ones I put in my idea file, where it simmered at the back of my mind’s stove for another ten years or so. The main worldbuilding implication of that idea was plain from the beginning: if the sky were full of air, one could travel to other planets by sailing ship. Space travel without modern technology is an idea I love (I explored it in my short story “Ukaliq and the Great Hunt”) and I was sure I could build a great world on it. But how to turn that idea into a story?

The first approach I had to the idea was to ask: if the sky were full of air, how would humanity have discovered this? After some thought — and, again, considering that Gene Wolfe quote — I figured that it would likely have been discovered during the Age of Enlightenment, with Franklin or Newton noticing an inexplicable, pervasive vibration spoiling his experiments and this leading to the discovery of the “roaring of the suns.” But this wasn’t much of a story in itself — it was backstory at best.

Having begun with the idea of the Age of Enlightenment, I kept thinking about this story as an alternate history. If space travel by sail were possible, it would have become commonplace in the age of sail, and of course humanity would have colonized the planets — which would, of course, be inhabited. Pretty soon I came up with the idea of a troupe of players in the 1700s, traveling to Mars and Venus to entertain the troops in the wars of the era. But, again, this wasn’t quite a story.

While I searched for a story, I was also noodling about the science and technology of this alternate world. At first I thought that I would be able to make just one change — filling the solar system with air — and have the rest be hard SF, with real physics. Well, that turned out not to be possible. For one thing, air isn’t really that transparent; consider how red the sun looks when viewed through only a few miles of the stuff (at the horizon, as opposed to overhead). If there were eight light-minutes of air between here and the Sun, you wouldn’t see more than a dull red glow in that direction. For another thing, there’s the pesky problem of the distances involved being too vast to travel in any reasonable amount of time at sailing-ship speeds. So I fudged: the “interplanetary atmosphere” is something that’s breathable but far more transparent than air, and the size of the solar system is considerably smaller. I also had to tweak the value of G and some other basic physical constants. Wherever possible, though, I used real physics and real technology, and I worked out how to launch and navigate in three dimensions and zero gravity in way too much detail.

During the years when all this was going on in my head, I fell in love with the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian and decided that the Napoleonic Wars were just the thing for drama, excitement, and high stakes. Furthermore, I decided that the main character had to be a girl who dressed as a boy to join the crew of an interplanetary clipper ship. Why a girl? Because women have more problems to overcome than men, which makes them more interesting protagonists. Why dressed as a boy? To interrogate the sexism that means women have more problems to overcome than men! I knew from the start that Arabella — unusually for me, her name was Arabella from the beginning and I never considered changing it — would be a Patrick O’Brian girl fighting against a Jane Austen world.

Eventually, with the help of many friends (thanks especially to Sara Mueller) I figured out why someone in this world would do something that crazy, and then I wrote it all down, and then with more help I made it better and got it accepted for publication. And now, after all that work, you can finally read it for yourself. This is only the first of Arabella’s adventures, and beyond that there’s two hundred years of alternate history in this world to explore. I hope you like it!


Arabella of Mars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

13 Comments on “The Big Idea: David D. Levine”

  1. Hmmm. Space-faring windjammers. I’m reminded of an Arthur C. Clarke short story, “The Wind From the Sun” where an interplanetary regatta of spacecraft using solar sails would race through the Solar System. I wonder if the “roaring of the suns” would cause the winds in Mr. Levine’s stories…..

  2. I just read the story of how this novel was sold in “The Usual Path to Publication”– which I also found via the Big Idea series! And now I see that you’re a fan of Patrick O’Brian, one of my very favourite authors, too… Most intriguing. I’ve got to see this book.

  3. Interesting!

    I just ordered this — Patrick O’Brian is one of my favorite authors.

  4. I think there is no way for this to work physically, without changing the laws of physics to such an extent that human bodies would not work Better to think of it as fantasy.

  5. That sounds like a bang-up idea. I’d classify it as fantasty because of the physics, but that is not a bad thing. Love the idea of “a Patrick O’Brian girl fighting a Jane Austen world.” Way back in the Stone Age, when I was but a lowly, naive freshman English major, we read excerpts from some of the early 18th century utopian fantasies / earliest science fiction. Stories written in the 1700’s by philosopher types, traveling through the celestial aether to some cloud-filled utopia or other, finding the humans and alien creatures and going on at some length about some ideal or other. But these were quite charming in their way. Great sailing ships making their way through the aether, brave commanders and crews? Pirates and brigands and merchant princes and foreign kings’ fleets and such? Excellent! — In fact, I seem to recall Star Trek was sold as both “Horatio Hornblower in Space” and “Wagon Train to the Stars.” Not bad, either idea. Surplus budget is blown for the month, but oh, I want to get this book later. Sounds awesome.

  6. Levine has created a wonderful alternate 19th century, with interplanetary airships, space pirates, automatons, Martians, and a young woman determined to save her family. This book reminded me how much fun reading can be, and makes me want to take an airship to Mars.

  7. The main worldbuilding implication of that idea was plain from the beginning: if the sky were full of air, one could travel to other planets by sailing ship.

    Not really – the reason ships work is that they sit at the interface between two different fluids, moving at different speeds, and they use this to steer, by having some control surfaces sticking into the air (the sails) and some sticking into the water (the keel and rudder). A ship that’s simply floating in airspace in free fall will just be blown downwind. At best, it would be able to change the speed at which it travelled by changing its sail area. But it wouldn’t be able to tack or reach or steer, any more than a hot air balloon can.

    That’s assuming there are winds in airspace at all. In general, I would not think there would be any, except in the wakes of planets, where you would see exceptionally violent turbulent airflows (because there is something the size of a planet pushing through the air at hypersonic speed). Flying through the wake of a planet-sized hypersonic aircraft in a boat made of wood would be an interesting experience.Flying through the bow shock, where the air is heated to hundreds of degrees, would kill you and incinerate your ship.

  8. I’m really jazzed to read this. I finished a re-read of the Aubrey-Maturin series a few months back, and I’ve been in withdrawal since then. This is just what I need.