To some people, humans living on Mars is inevitable. Which means a reality TV show about humans living on Mars is inevitable as well. But maybe they’ll be swayed when they read David Ebenbach’s new comedic sci-fi novel How To Mars (paperback, Kindle), in which everything goes perfect and great and nothing bad happens, not at all. And if you believe that, I’ve got a plot of land on Mars you might be interested in, cheap. For the rest of us, though, there’s the following email interview, in which Ebenbach explains what inspired and influenced this story, and why it has no Kardashians.
Photo Credit: Rachel Gartner
I always like to start with a plot overview. So, what is How To Mars about, and when does it take place?
On one level, How To Mars is the story of six people who — and this takes place probably twenty or thirty years from now — volunteer to go on a questionable one-way mission to Mars, driven by various personal reasons. The mission is run by a really eccentric organization, Destination Mars!, and funded by a reality show that the organization is making about the mission.Destination Mars! has left them with a lot of odd advice and guidance and one ironclad rule: NO SEX ON MARS. Well, skip ahead a bit: humans are humans, and now there’s the first-ever pregnancy on another planet. Given the hostile environment of Mars, this would be dangerous enough regardless, but there are also hints of an alien presence that might not be entirely friendly, and an engineer with a somewhat violent streak is starting to behave pretty erratically.
So that’s what How To Mars is about on one level. On another, though, it’s about all of us here on Earth — after all, we’re thrown onto this planet without a decent instruction manual and we’ve got to make our way through life. So how do we do that? How do we live, as individuals and together?
Where did you get the idea for How To Mars, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote this story?
You may remember, from a couple of years ago, the Mars One Project showing up in the news for a while. This was a real-life eccentric organization that put out a call for volunteers to go on a one-way mission to Mars — and apparently people applied. Like, a lot of people. Maybe not quite as many as the organization claimed, and maybe the organization never really intended to send anyone to another planet, but the idea was so crazy that it got me thinking: Who would sign up for a mission like that? That’s where the story started, and it developed from there, as the characters grew and as I explored the things that drove them to leave Earth forever.
Unlike the Mars One Project, however, I got to play the scenario all the way out to see what would happen to these Marsonauts. Would they really be able to leave behind the things they meant to leave behind? Would Mars turn out to be what they needed?
You kind of just answered this, but is there a reason you made it about Mars as opposed to the moon or Pluto or some other planet in our solar system?
The Mars One Project was the first thing that focused me on the red planet. And Mars is really perfect for a thought experiment about humans creating an off-planet colony. At its closest, it’s the nearest planet to Earth (aside from the hellscape that is Venus), and lots of people — I’m thinking of Robert Zubrin above all — have already thought through the logistics of how we might settle there. Plus, there’s some chance of finding evidence of life on Mars. I think most of us (at least judging from the science and the science-fiction communities) think of Mars as our next likely destination in the solar system. The Moon, meanwhile, is just too close; I wanted this to be set somewhere far enough away that a person couldn’t just pop home for a weekend. I needed them to be stuck where they were, long term, accompanied by only the other people on the mission.
And is there a reason you have the reality show aspect as opposed to just having it be a scientific exploration?
This also came from Mars One; they claimed that they were going to fund their efforts through a reality show. For me, that turned a ridiculous idea — a one-way mission to Mars — into an absurd one. I mean, science is serious business.
That said, I don’t think science fiction should always be serious. If you’re imagining an experience on another planet, why not have some fun with it? So I kept the reality TV idea. And of course, fun can end up being pretty serious. I think it says some significant and discomfiting things about our sensation-fueled capitalist present if it’s plausible that a private sector mission to Mars would try to pay its way through something like this.
Once you added the reality show aspect, did you ever consider having the participants be housewives or Kardashians or some musician instead of scientists? Because I could see Kendall Jenner rock a space suit.
Well, the Mars One Project apparently attracted a pretty big range of applicants. Not just the scientists you’d expect but also hairdressers and sci-fi nuts and hikers and so on. I don’t think that anybody really famous applied; surely Mars One would have made a lot of noise about a celebrity applicant. For my part, I wanted to keep things human-sized. (Down to Earth, if you’ll forgive the expression.) Basically, I went to Mars not to study Mars but instead to study people. To put folks in a situation where they would have to show who they really are. Now, I’m not saying the Kardashians aren’t people — but they aren’t regular people, and regular people are what interest me most.
How To Mars is obviously a science fiction story. But is there more to it? Is it hard sci-fi, a sci-fi space opera story…?
Aside from the very general labels of science fiction and speculative fiction, I think this book would sit comfortably under labels like “literary fiction” (because of the emphasis on character) and “comedic fiction” (because of the emphasis on, well, humor). Also my own personal label of “elevator fiction.” For me, “elevator fiction” is any story that puts people in a situation together and doesn’t allow them to get away from each other, however much they might want to. Elevators have a lot of dramatic potential.
The book is definitely intended to be comedic — a blend of comedy and down-to-earth (ahem again) psychological drama. Writers who occupy the same kind of comedy / drama space I was going for include Charles Yu, George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Jonathan Lethem, Emily Mitchell, and Seth Fried. Of course, it’ll be up to readers to decide whether the book is actually funny or not.
Speaking of The Martian, How To Mars sound like it might be a little similar, though only a little. What makes them different?
Well, there is the fact that they both take place on Mars, but otherwise I’d say the books are pretty different. The Martian is, in my view, very heavily focused on the science of the situation, whereas How To Mars is much more focused on the human experience of being thrown together on this far-off planet. The obstacles and dangers on my Mars are at least as much psychological as they are physical. Well, there are plenty of both, I guess.
I’m guessing that The Martian was not a big influence on How To Mars then.
Not in any specific way, but of course I’m sure everything I read swirls around in there somewhere while I’m writing.
So are there any writers that had a big influence on How To Mars but not on anything else you’ve written?
I’m pretty ravenous when it comes to fiction, and I hope that everything I read has some kind of impact across everything I write. But there are a couple novels-in-stories that had a special influence on How To Mars (itself a novel-in-stories): Welcome To The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (which also helped me think through different formats for prose) as well as the gold standard of novels-in-stories, Allegra Goodman’s The Family Markowitz.
And what about non-literary influences; was How To Mars influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I can’t think of any specific influences, but I love the movies The World’s End, Hot Fuzz, and Shaun Of The Dead, and they combined genre frameworks with more everyday human concerns, which is something I was trying to do in my book. Meanwhile, I think The Good Place is one of the funniest, deepest, best sitcoms of all time — and like How To Mars they’re really focused on how people are supposed to live their lives.
Now, when not writing novels, you teach creative writing and literature at Georgetown University. How, if at all, do you think your academic career influenced what you wrote in How To Mars or how you wrote it?
You know, you learn a lot from your students. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. What I mean is that students taking their first steps into writing tend to get themselves into surprising and sticky situations, and you can learn a lot as a writer by helping them move forward. You can also learn a lot by putting yourself in a position where you regularly have to explain how different elements of a piece of literature are contributing to the work’s overall effects. So in that sense my teaching has been crucial to my development as a writer in general.
As you know, sci-fi books are sometimes stand-alone novels, and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is How To Mars?
I didn’t write How To Mars with the intention of making it the first book in a series, and I don’t have any specific plans right now, but I’ll tell you that I really enjoyed spending time with these characters and in this situation, and I can definitely imagine circling back to do some more exploring.
Earlier I asked if How To Mars was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. Has there been any interest in turning How To Mars into a movie, show, or game?
I love the idea of How To Mars being a movie or TV show. So far there aren’t any concrete plans to take this to the big or little screen, but who knows? If we did go that way, it’s a somewhat episodic novel, so TV might make the most sense, but I think you could do it as a movie, too.
If someone wanted to adapt How To Mars into a TV show, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?
I would love to see [Thor: Ragnarok‘s] Tessa Thompson — if she’s not too busy — in the role of brainiac American astrophysicist Jenny. As for Josh, the mission’s resident psychologist from the United States, [Ant-Man‘s] Paul Rudd is probably a little too old for the role, but I don’t care; I want Paul Rudd (he can play young). And let’s say either Viggo Mortenson [The Lord Of The Rings] or (if you want to go darker) Mads Mikkelson [Rogue One: A Star Wars Story] as Stefan, the antisocial Danish engineer. [Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet‘s] Charlotte Nicdao, meanwhile, would be great as Trixie, the mission’s high-energy biologist from Australia. And Roger, the gentle Canadian geologist / botanist, could be played by Don McKellar, while for Nicole — a tough U.S. Air Force doctor and pilot — I’m thinking Kellita Smith [The Bernie Mac Show]. With maybe Wes Anderson as director?
Finally, if someone enjoys How To Mars, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Well, I only have one other novel: Miss Portland. It’s not science fiction, but readers who liked How to Mars‘ attempts to blend humor and poignancy might like Miss Portland, too. Or, if folks like the off-beat quality of How To Mars, and / or its emphasis on group dynamics, they might enjoy my short fiction collection The Guy We Didn’t Invite To The Orgy And Other Stories.