Tag Archives: David D. Levine

Arabella of Mars – Regency Steampunk at Its Best!

An interview with David D. Levine.

David D. Levine’s debut novel ARABELLA OF MARS is a delightful novel set in the Regency Era with a science fiction/steampunk twist.  It’s an adventure filled with airship battles in the solar system, romance, drama, broken hearts and bones, automata, forests on asteroids, and settlement on a life sustaining Mars replete with its own culture. The novel’s heroine is passionate, crafty, and above all engaging. ARABELLA OF MARS left me yearning for more time in this poignant world. In this interview, I asked David about his creation of Arabella’s world.

DDLevine-Arabella-Cover-LargeI liked that Arabella wasn’t a man in a woman’s body. Her sensibilities and problem solving for a woman of her status respected the conventions of the time period. But she wasn’t a Mary Sue either or a Miss Marple trying to solve a problem. She was smart, deceitful, worked alongside her male counterparts, yet in her private moments we saw the personal effect of her daring choices. She feels like you wrote about someone you admire. Can you tell us who Arabella is to you.

I know a lot of writers who refer to their projects by the main character’s name — for example, “I’m working on Alfreda all this month” — but I’m usually not one of those; I usually start with the worldbuilding and come up with a character who exists in that world second (or third, after the plot). Also, the main character’s name is usually subject to change right up to the last minute. But Arabella is different. She has been Arabella from the beginning and this project, which has grown from a standalone novel to a three-book series and might grow further, has always been called Arabella. She’s someone who fights her society’s strictures and lets nothing stand in her way, but is still vulnerable and somewhat naïve. I admire her and I feel protective of her, and this is something that’s never happened to me with any of my own creations before.

Mars is a new and exotic settlement where European colonization and commerce abound. Arabella’s father is a successful business man. Arabella loves growing up on Mars and she takes great interest in this world which includes romping around with her brother, learning the culture from her Martian nanny, and taking an interest in mechanical gadgets. Despite her aptitudes, her father decides to send her home back to conventional England. Can you tell us about her father, what motivates him and why, despite his pioneering attitude, he decides to send Arabella home?

Arabella’s father is much more conventional than his daughter. Although he loves all his children, Michael is his firstborn, his heir, and his only son, and as a man of his era he is more strongly attached to Michael than to Arabella. But he does love and support her, and — as someone who left his own home planet to seek his fortune — he admires her adventurous nature more than her mother’s conservative one. When Arabella’s mother puts her foot down and demands to take the children “home” to Earth — a planet they have never even visited — he would like to keep both Michael and Arabella with him, but feels compelled to compromise. This doesn’t appear on the page, but he never really reconciled himself to this decision, and the question of whether or not he did the right thing nagged him until he died.

Your world building is persuasive, yet deft in its execution. You pay homage to early steampunk while touching upon colonization, xenophobia, but you set it the Regency Era rather than in the traditional Victorian Era. What is it about this time period that excited you?

You can blame Patrick O’Brian, whose Napoleonic War novels combine historical accuracy, adventure, and wit. I’m a great fan of those novels and when I had the idea of an interplanetary adventure in a world where the solar system is full of air it wasn’t a hard decision to set it in that period. It was a time of exploration and adventure, when the wider world was known but not well-known, and when a talented man (and why not a woman as well?) could be a warrior, a scientist, an inventor, an artist, and a diplomat all at once. Also, Mary Robinette Kowal and Naomi Novik showed that there was demand within the SF&F field for stories set in that era.

I appreciated the restraint in your approach on the issues of colonization and xenophobia – they became elements in good story telling and steampunk world building. Arabella’s reactions show, rather than simply tell, the issues. Why was it important to address these issues?

We live in interesting times, and questions of what is right and wrong when dealing with other genders, races, and cultures — and, indeed, how these distinctions are defined or if they even exist — seem more contentious now than ever before. These questions apply with equal force to history. Knowing what we know now, should we consider Columbus a hero or a villain? I felt that it would be dishonest, even immoral, to write a novel that ignored these questions… but, at the same time, it had to be a rip-roaring adventure. I hope that I’ve succeeded with both those aspects.

Tall, dark and handsome, Captain Singh, captain of the airship Diana, has a commanding and professional presence despite being the strong, silent type. Can you tell us more about him, who he represents, and what inspired his character?

Captain Singh, like Arabella, is an outsider who has nonetheless achieved a degree of success within his society — but, because of his outsider status, may see what he has achieved taken away at any time. I wanted someone Arabella could look up to and be inspired by, yet also someone who might be a little intimidating until you get to know him. He’s also someone who, because of his unique perspective, is willing to take a chance on another outsider. I knew early on that he would be Indian, to amplify the echoes of India in my version of Mars, but his background and personal history changed frequently as the book developed.

Aadim, the clockwork navigator – I can’t let end this interview without knowing your inspiration for Aadim. Despite being silent (except for the sounds he makes when he receives information to calculate navigations), he feels like a very real, yet mysterious character and he’s almost creepy because his movements feel like human reactions. When I think about it, we attribute a lot to our devices and machines. Was your treatment of Aadim in this manner a comment on our relationship with our devices or was it about the possibilities the steampunk writers saw in this world?

He is, of course, inspired by the Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing automaton of the 1700s (which was, alas, a fraud with a person inside). Originally I thought that most ships in this world would have these automaton navigators, necessitated by the difficulties of navigating in three dimensions, but as the story grew I decided to make him unique. He also provides a bond between Arabella and Captain Singh, due to their shared interest in complex automata. I had a lot of fun making his actions and reactions ambiguous, right on the edge of the Uncanny Valley. Is he completely plausible, given the technology of the early 19th century? No, not really, but this is a fictional world after all.

Thank you very much for this opportunity! I’m glad you liked the book and I hope many more people do.

Thank you for a great interview David! ARABELLA OF MARS is now a favorite! If the interview wasn’t enough to convince you to get the book, dear reader, perhaps this blurb will: Arabella Ashby is a Patrick O’Brian girl in a Jane Austen world — born and raised on Mars, she was hauled back home by her mother, where she’s stifled by England’s gravity, climate, and attitudes toward women. When she learns that her evil cousin plans to kill her brother and inherit the family fortune, she joins the crew of an interplanetary clipper ship in order to beat him to Mars. But privateers, mutiny, and insurrection stand in her way. Will she arrive in time?

DDLevine-Portrait-LargeDavid D. Levine is the author of novel ARABELLA OF MARS (Tor 2016) and over fifty SF and fantasy stories. His story “Tk’Tk’Tk” won the Hugo Award, and he has been shortlisted for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, and Sturgeon. Stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Tor.com, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies as well as award-winning collection Space Magic from Wheatland Press. David is a contributor to George R. R. Martin’s bestselling shared-world series Wild Cards. He is also a member of publishing cooperative Book View Cafe and of nonprofit organization Oregon Science Fiction Conventions Inc. He has narrated podcasts for Escape Pod, PodCastle, and StarShipSofa, and his video Dr. Talon’s Letter to the Editor was a finalist for the Parsec Award. In 2010 he spent two weeks at a simulated Mars base in the Utah desert. David lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife Kate Yule. His web site is www.daviddlevine.com.

The Wonder of Fantasy

Gust Post by David D. Levine

David D. Levine Fantasy is, of course, an enormous genre. Definitions of fantasy vary, but the key concept that distinguishes fantasy from all other forms of fiction is the presence of at least one element that does not exist in the real world. By this broad definition, all of science fiction is a subset of fantasy, and indeed many stories usually described as horror, thriller, mystery, and even literature can be classified as fantasies of one sort or another, because they contain references to supernatural phenomena, nonexistent technologies, or impossible materials. But if you’re trying to write and sell fiction under the rubric of “fantasy,” the mere presence of a fantastic element is not enough; it needs to be integral to the story.

If you took the fantastic element away from your story, could it still take place in fundamentally the same way? Would the characters be the same people, would they do the same things, would they have the same priorities? If so, then many fantasy readers would say that the story is not really a fantasy. You need to think through the implications of the fantastic element and consider how its presence would affect every person, thing, and event in the story.

Even a well-integrated fantastic element is still not sufficient, though: the story also must have a fantasy “flavor” — by which I mean its vocabulary, diction, tone, pace, and conventions of character and plot.  However, because fantasy is such a large genre, it contains many distinct subgenres, each of which has a flavor of its own. Epic fantasies, for example, are painted on a large canvas; they typically have a large number of point-of-view characters and very high stakes. The setting is often medieval or pseudo-medieval and the prose, both dialogue and description, may be somewhat archaic and flowery.  Urban fantasy, on the other hand, is gritty and personal. The setting and language are typically contemporary and, even if the fate of the world is at stake, the characters’ personal issues take center stage. (These descriptions are crude and exaggerated, of course; a successful epic or urban fantasy is far more sophisticated than this sort of two-sentence sketch can convey.)

The various subgenres of fantasy do share a few characteristics.  All fantasy readers, I would say, expect and desire the extraordinary in their fiction. They want not only the well-drawn characters, coherent plots, strong emotions, vivid descriptions, and insight into the human condition they could get from non-fantastic literature, they also want a “sense of wonder” — an experience of something outside the mundane world. This is often provided by highly evocative descriptions of the story’s fantastic elements, whether they are settings, characters, or ideas. But “evocative” need not mean “overblown” — a few carefully-chosen but commonplace words can provide as much of a sense of magic and mystery as a paragraph of purple prose.

One common tool in the fantasy writer’s toolbox is “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”  If, early in the story, you describe the character’s world (whether fantastic or mundane) with sufficient carefully-chosen telling details that the reader can easily and thoroughly envision it, you create a sense of trust in the reader that will then pay off when you later introduce a fantastic element. The reader must believe in the laboratory before she will believe in the monster that emerges from it.

Fantasy readers today generally expect fairly tight control of point of view (PoV), with a limited number of PoV characters and crisply demarcated PoV shifts. The more fluid PoV used in many romance stories will be derided by fantasy readers as “head-hopping.”  Also, though some non-fantasy readers sneer at cliché fantasy’s apostrophe-laden names and other invented words, the fact is that fantasy readers expect the story’s voice and vocabulary to convey some of its otherworldly feeling.

Of course, genres can be mixed. Bookstores have shelf after shelf of fantastic mystery, science-fictional horror, and romantic fantasy. But very few stories are equally successful in more than one genre at a time. There’s a difference between a romance story with fantastic elements and a fantasy story with romantic elements; a story that tries to be both at once will probably not completely satisfy habitual readers of either.

So what’s the difference? The key, in my opinion, lies in the story’s climax. What matters most to the characters? What is the most important problem that they have to solve?  What is the event which brings the story to a resolution? The answers to these questions determine the story’s core genre. Even if the characters realize their love for each other at the very same moment they save the world, one of these will matter much more than the other to the characters and the reader, and that fact determines whether the story is a fantasy or a romance.

It may seem that I’m being flip here, but I’m not. A successful climax is the culmination of every other element of the story. Every event, description, and character decision in the story contributes to it directly or indirectly; even a completely separate subplot helps to lead up to the main plot’s climax by reinforcing, echoing, or contrasting with the main plot. If the relative importance of the romantic and fantastic elements of the climax is unclear or muddled, or if that relative importance doesn’t match the relative importance of the romantic and fantastic elements in the rest of the story, the reader will likely be dissatisfied with the story as a whole. (If the story lacks a distinct climax at all, it is probably experimental, literary, or magical realism rather than fantasy. Is magical realism fantasy? Better critics than I are still arguing that one.)

To write and sell a fantasy, you need to be familiar with the fantasy subgenre in which you are working. Read widely and deeply in your field, so that you can be aware of the trends and tropes your editors and readers are already familiar with. You don’t want to repeat an already-too-common formula, but you also don’t want to stray too far from the reader’s expectations without meaning to. Truly unique stories, which defy conventions and expectations, can become breakout smash hits, but they often fail to sell or find an audience. If you’re going to break the mold, you need to understand exactly what you are breaking and why.


David D. Levine 2 David D. Levine is the author of over fifty published science fiction and fantasy stories. His work has David D. Levine-SpaceMagic_600x900appeared in markets including Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, and Realms of Fantasy and has won or been nominated for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Campbell. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife Kate Yule, with whom he co-edits the fanzine Bento. His award-winning short story collection Space Magic is now available as an ebook from all the major ebook stores, and his web page can be found at http://www.daviddlevine.com.