Mars Evacuees takes place in the wake of a more conventional fix-it SF novel gone wrong. An alien species, the Morrors, has moved into our mostly uninhabited, unneeded polar regions and reversed global warming! So far, so environmentally-conscious can't-we-all-just-get-along Pertwee-era Doctor Who story. But oh no, the aliens turn out to want way more space than they said, and to be able to reverse global warming too effectively, creating a creeping ice-age! It's every gumtree/craigslist roommate drama ever, on a global scale.
Our protagonist Alice Dare can't remember life before the protracted alien conflict, and can't really imagine a world without the Morrors in it. Her mother, Stephanie Dare, is a fighter pilot, war hero, and poster-girl for the human defense forces. No one would ever look at the triumphant poster of Stephanie Dare the same way again if her daughter got killed by Morror forces. Thus Alice is packed off to a brand-new, unfinished Martian colony with a mixed bag of other children—the sons and daughters of important politicians and industrialists, top scorers on intelligence tests, and children picked by lottery.
This mixture of selection methods reflects the way different countries have chosen to handle the global directive to evacuate a given number of children. The conflicting motives in play here, and the different approaches to the problem, feel realistic and produce an interesting cast. Mars Evacuees devotes subtle, persistent attention to the psychological consequences of its world-building. The way the war is differently experienced by first and second generation combatants, the children's different attitudes towards the knowledge that they will all eventually be soldiers, the adults' different forms of commingled sympathy and resignation about what the children will have to go through, and the attitudes towards grief in a world where most young people have all lost a close family member all add a background richness that makes the world of the novel feel solid, and its consequences feel like they matter. I wish that we'd seen more of this, because it's a strength of the book, but I can see how it also might have bogged down the tight YA adventure format McDougall is working in.
The interplay of psychology and worldbuilding is particularly interesting in the first section of the book, which takes place in an English school that is closing down because of the slow advance of a massive ice field. There's a Malory-Towers-in-wartime feel to the place, and the novel at this point seems to be playing in and with the school story genre, to interesting effect. I chose to read this novel on the strength of the school-story opening (available on McDougall's website), and was somewhat surprised at how thoroughly the novel dropped not just this setting, but the tone and genre it had been operating within after this initial section.
The novel jumps between different genres easily—perhaps too easily? We begin at Muckling Abbot School for Girls, then we go into a surprisingly long journey to Mars section. It's not the length of the journey itself that surprised me, just the length of this sequence. It does some good character work, but retrospectively it also feels a bit crammed with incidents for the sake of it. Then the kids are in training on Mars, and it's a bit like a softcore Ender's Game. Then the adults are called away and we're briefly in Lord of the Flies. Then we're in for a long quest narrative that changes tone significantly a few times, with the destruction of a major resource and the addition of another party member. Then we're in for a two-stage climax, then a quite different epilogue.
I'm not simply saying "a lot of plot happens," that the setting shifts several times, or "behold! the picaresque!" I'm saying this book can feel like a lot of books stitched together. If the absence of a harmonious whole gives you whiplash, this element of the novel's construction will bug you. It was a bit jumpy for me. I'd have preferred to explore some of these concepts and moments in greater depth. Despite these misgivings, the novel is competent at the many things it turns its hand to.
Several passages in the book are simply "laugh out loud awkwardly on public transit" funny, the sort of thing you want to read out to a friend.
But I think something had gone wrong with the design for the robot for the smallest kids, or maybe it had got a bit broken on the way to Mars. It was a six foot tall teddy bear that lumbered forward and said, "HELLO LITTLE CHILDREN" in a deep and awful voice and four seven-year-olds burst into tears on the spot. (p. 62)
I did find the Teddy, which was clumping awfully down the path between the runner beans singing "OLD MACDONALD HAD A FARM," in an extremely menacing way.
"HALLO ALICE," it said when it saw me.
"Uh… hi," I replied, looking up at it. The Teddy was mostly blue with a pattern of pink hearts on its tummy. Its face was fixed with a sinister grin. It freaked me out even more close up and I gained a new respect for the seven-year-olds that hadn’t lost their minds completely since we'd arrived. "You haven't seen Josephine Jerome, have you?"
"YES. JOSEPHINE JEROME IS CRYING IN THE MARROW PATCH," said the Teddy. "I SANG HER A SONG. IT DIDN'T HELP."
"Right. No. I can see how that might have happened. I'll have a go instead, then, shall I?"
The Teddy tried to come with me but I managed to get rid of it. (p. 109)
I do slightly wonder who some of these jokes and references are for, though. The creepiness of some of the things adults try to present children with is something I think adults might actually pick up on more than younger readers. Is this school story parody going to be a hit with kids who haven't read Enid Blyton, or who aren't primed to laugh at a deconstruction of the genre? There's a good Daily Mail joke towards the end, for all those budding media analysts. Not trying to undersell kids' ability to grapple with these concepts, just wondering about the audience this book is seeking, and how it wants to interact with them.
Teddy aside, the novel boasts some interesting tech and nods to classic SFnal questions about the personhood of its AI. McDougall is careful to mention that the robots also communicate in a variety of languages. It's terribly handy, though, that all the children who turn out to be even slightly relevant to the plot speak English. At points like this I feel like perhaps the novel's been competently edited, and issues such as the children's language use have been pretty successfully patched over with small textual changes. These don’t necessarily feel organic to the story or quite complete enough (a better edit would have made language barriers an issue at some point—even if an easily surmounted one, rather than reserving plot importance for Anglophonic characters), but they get the job done, and I sure appreciate that this book gives due craps about its coherence and my reader-experience.
The novel suffers from a major construction issue in that you have to buy that, for no real reason, the Morrors choose to violate their agreed-upon treaties and never reveal their somewhat sympathetic reasons for doing so. In fact this isn't an oversight, they've made some massive decision not to say anything . . because. Er. Okay? This needs some justification it doesn't get. Also, somewhat sympathetic reason or no, the Morrors still broke a treaty and caused massive loss of life and property damage, giving no explanation for their insufficiently-motivated bad behavior. It's not like demanding massive reparations payments after a conflict has worked out well historically, but while the political situation reached at the novel's end is obviously the sanest choice, I'm not left in the kumbaya spirit I think the novel intends, so much as left giving the Morrors a justified side-eye.
This qualm aside, perhaps Mars Evacuees's best feature is that it veers away from the looming bullshit, too-easy ending. Its political victories are won over the course of some time. It's not some "Let's hug out the war! Goodness if only it had occurred to people before us spunky children to just talk and be sensible!" insult to our intelligence and the realities of conflict. There are traces of that, but the ending's victory is won more due to a looming mutual threat. The epilogue does race over a lot of this reconciliation, and the last page is an after-school special eye-roller, seemingly born of a scramble to end with a nice cheerful tableaux. This aside, overall I was satisfied, if not left panting for more stories set in this world.
Erin Horáková (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a southern American writer. She lives in London with her partner, and is working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary. Erin blogs, cooks, and is active in fandom.