These books are a rarity in middle grade: science fiction based in science fact.
They’re also a rarity because they’re on a high-interest topic -- Mars colonization -- but they aren’t dumbed-down for the middle grade audience / readership. They require readers to have a rather high vocabulary level and complex concept comprehension. At the same time, they’re digestibly short (Scratching the Surface is 58 pages; Air is 122 pages; Shelter is a bit longer at 219 pages) for readers who don’t or won't read a 369-page tome (Andy Weir's The Martian).
All of which I think are pluses in favor of the series. I loved it and I’m hooked, waiting for the next to publish.
The books follow the trials and travails of some of the (imaginary) first settlers on Mars – sisters Cas and Ori, the first kids born on Mars.
Scratching the Surface isn’t so much a “tale” as it is a scene setter. It’s one scene, really, of Cas, the universe’s first human born on Mars, now 8, and her first walk in a space suit on the surface of Mars. When she’s finished, she’ll challenge everything the adult colonists had assumed, simply by challenging the color of the sky. That’s right. Growing up on Mars, she rather logically points out the color of the painted sky in the colony’s recreation dome is blue, like the sky on Earth. But she’s not from Earth, nor are any of her classmates in the Dawn colony, and the future belongs to them – not their parents.
I really needed this to help me get into the right setting – Dawn, the Mars colony -- for the next book, Air, because I’ve read so much space opera and sci-fi that totally disregards most of the fundamentals of living on another planet, especially one inimical to human life the way Mars is.
While we may take air – the oxygen and nitrogen mix we breathe every day – for granted, Cas and her little sister, Ori, 6, don’t. They may seem like young protagonists for this, but the setup is realistic -- they would certainly have to be knowledgeable about their unique environment and how to maintain it or react in an emergency, especially on a Mars colony. So when an air leak becomes a gaping hole in the side of the Mars enclosure, losing all air pressure while the two girls are with their school class, even though the sisters are young, they’re trained and capable of doing what they must to survive. The emergency isn’t depicted in a fictional way and is a little intense. What happens is based in hard science and how the girls save themselves is, too.
In Shelter, Cas, Ori and their mom and dad go on an outing – to the surface of Mars. It’s a little bit like camping, except the “outside” can kill them if they setup something incorrectly. Even (especially) the toilet. They split into two pairs, Cas and her mom with the tent, Ori and her dad in a rover. Unfortunately, they’re only on the surface a short while before an unexpected solar flare and all its radiation heads their way. Each pair encounters obstacles that they must put their heads together to solve – and learn exactly what it takes to survive on Mars and how, by doing so, they’ve become truly Martian.
I loved these books and loved the fact that it shows young kids not just coping but thriving and adapting as the children of Mars’ first colonists. Both come with about 10-ish pages of hard science about Mars, its gravity and atmosphere, the make up of the air we breathe and how to recreate it (grow plants, split water molecules via electrolysis, etc.), radiation from the sun, and more.
And the illustrations by Luis Peres are just stellar! There’s even several in color inside the pages. They really capture the grandeur of the Mars landscape as well as the nitty gritty life of a colony.
Special Note: I hope you enjoy the following interview with the author, Douglas Meredith. It will be my last indie author interview, unfortunately, as I'll explain in a posting later this week. Essentially, I discoverd with Scratching the Surface that my library is no longer capable of purchasing books from Ingram or Ingram Spark, so I'm going to switch my focus to authors who've found small press homes for their works.
This interview is the last in a series of interviews with successful indie-published authors, hoping to shed some light on the indie publishing path to publication.
10 Question & Answer with Douglas D. Meredith, author of MG hard science fiction, Generation Mars: Scratching the Surface, Air and Shelter, illustrated by Luis Peres
1. What was your inspiration for writing the Generation Mars series?
I’m old enough to have a fleeting toddler memory of watching humans walk on the Moon on a black-and-white TV. We were supposed to be on Mars by now! But, somewhere along the way, we lost momentum. I want to help kids feel the sort of can-do optimism that came out of the Apollo era.
As I write this, the James Webb Space Telescope has just started giving us detailed images of the 93 billion light-years around us and the 13 billion years that precede our existence. In all that time and space, as far as we know, the human race is the only spark of self-awareness. I think we have a great responsibility to grow that spark and spread that awareness around.
With Generation Mars, I am trying to normalize the idea that we can live comfortably off this planet by presenting a realistic vision of what that would be like. My hope is that someone who reads these books ends up living on Mars someday. Or in the clouds of Venus. Or on the surface of Ganymede. Or in the subsurface ocean of Enceladus. Not because I think we should abandon Earth, but because there is value in humanity existing elsewhere as well.
That’s the soapbox inspiration. On a different level, I was motivated by my kids’ reading habits. They were both advanced readers at a young age, and we had a difficult time finding material for them to read. Books for their age tended to be too easy for them and had silly plots they did not find engaging. More advanced books often had plots that were too complex or covered topics that were not age appropriate. With Scratching the Surface, I set out to write a simple but serious story in a more complex way that would engage such advanced readers. I temper this with a genial and wise narrative voice that helps the reader understand what is happening. My original vision for the series was to write several such books, all around the same length. I had trouble staying in that lane (see next question).
2. What were your most significant challenges when writing Air and Shelter?
I want to say time. I hold a full-time job as a software developer. Outside of work, I try to spend as much time with my family as I can. Carving out time for researching and writing is challenging. But that just sounds like whining, so forget I brought it up.
Maybe the biggest challenge has been writing for age level. I started the series as an introduction to hard science fiction for young readers. With the introduction, Scratching the Surface, I wanted to create a picture book with enough maturity to engage advanced readers or that parents would enjoy reading to their kids. I had intended to write several such stories: compact little illustrated scifi vignettes for the same demographic. But once I got going, things started to grow.
The best science fiction examines our modern society through the lens of an imagined alternative, and I just couldn’t leave that alone. Mars is a weird place to raise kids. Mars is a weird place to be a kid. Martian parents will worry about this, but kids take the life they start with and run with it. This is their childhood. This is their world. And while the parents worry and fret, as parents do everywhere, the kids will go about the business of growing into their world, as kids do everywhere.
For any parent, the crux of the job is balancing protection with preparation. We all want our kids to be safe. But we also know we need to help them prepare for their future, and that often means letting them not be as safe as we'd like. The first families on Mars would face this dilemma multiplied by several orders of magnitude.
There’s a lot of thematic material there to work with. I find the stories I want to tell are getting bigger with each book. Air explores the relationship between sisters in a life-or-death situation and is a bigger story than Scratching the Surface. Shelter explores the nature of family in this strange world by putting one in a common situation—a family camping trip—and then inverting who takes care of whom, outgrowing Air in the process. My preliminary work on Water and Food shows no sign of attenuating this trend.
I think this is ok: the increasing sophistication of the books reflects the protagonists’ growing awareness of their world, something that happens rapidly in this age range. But I worry about leaving younger through-readers behind. For that, I’m relying on parents to step in to read and interpret the later books to them. Do you hear that, parents? Help me out here.
3. Did you pursue a traditional publishing route for Generation Mars at any point? Querying agents, etc.? Why or why not?
I’ve always been a do-it-yourselfer. It bothers me to not know how to do something, and it bothers me more when someone exploits that lack of knowledge (I’m looking at you, contractor who did the electric in my kitchen).
I’d toyed with writing for years, but only for myself or the entertainment of family and friends. The drudgery of traditional publishing never appealed to me: so much time, so much rejection, so many gatekeepers. I don’t like gates. With Generation Mars I wanted to try out the whole self-publishing pipeline. I write, I edit (with a lot of help from friends and family), I manage art direction, I do layout, I manage advertising. The goal was to learn the entire process and just see where it leads.
4. Can you discuss, briefly, some of the challenges of the indie-publishing process? What was most difficult and why?
Ha, this is an easy one: advertising. But I’ll come back to that.
There are so many voices telling you the one and only right way to do things. But the whole point of indie is that there is no one and only. We’re gate-busters here, remember? You have to ask advice, of course, but you don’t have to take all of it. Separating the wheat from the chaff can be difficult. Listening to someone’s adamant opinion that completely misses the point of what you are trying to do can be difficult. But living on Mars will be difficult, so who am I to complain?
Instead, I go about doing what I want, evaluating advice I get and ignoring much of it. I write omniscient, recklessly hop heads, often tell instead of show, and sometimes directly address the reader. Is that good style? I don’t know, but it’s mine.
Which brings me back to advertising. There are endless videos and courses that tell you that you have to be a salesman if you are a writer. I am not going to deny that. I’m just not interested in it. I spent one summer during college working as a salesman in a stereo store, and that was enough for me to realize I have absolutely no interest in actively selling anything. Like, ever.
Still, DIY’er here, so I have to do some selling. What to do? Ask for advice then ignore most of it, of course. I try not to do things that would irritate me should someone else do them. I don’t like sharing my email address, so why would I ask someone to join my email list? (I have a signup form on my website, but I don’t actively tout it.) I loathe ads in my social media feeds, so why would I bother someone with ads of my own? (I run some Amazon ads, because people there are actively shopping.) Is this good marketing? I don’t know, let’s find out.
What all this means is that I am lucky to not rely on my writing for income at this point.
5. What have been some of your best or most memorable successes with the Generation Mars series?
As I develop each book, I communicate with scientists, astronauts, and science communicators to make sure my plot elements are realistic. These are busy people, but they love to talk about their work, and it’s wonderful to interact with them. I consider it a success every time I meet a new person in this context.
Contrary to most advice, I do not spend much time pursuing Amazon reviews. Thus, every Amazon review is a surprise and a triumph. In addition, Shelter recently received a Five Star review from Readers’ Favorite.
I recently optioned the TV and streaming rights to Marble Media for development of Generation Mars as a live-action family series. They have hired Robert Cooper (co-creator of the Stargate franchise) as showrunner and contracted with the Explore Mars organization for technical consulting and promotion. It’s a long and perilous journey from options to production. But, so far, they appear to be making the right moves.
6. My blog features books that kids and teens can get through their public library. Air and Shelter were approved for library for purchase, as you can see from the photograph with the library barcode. However, your Generation Mars prologue book, Scratching the Surface, was not. Many indie-published works, unfortunately, are not approved for library purchase and don’t make it onto library shelves. Did you make any publishing decisions to consciously ensure Generation Mars could be bought by libraries and read by library patrons? If so, what were they? And how successful have they been with libraries, so far?
As I mentioned, one of my goals was to learn the current state of indie publishing and associated technology. Getting into libraries, as well as brick-and-mortar store shelves, is a weak point in the current pipeline. I chose to print through IngramSpark because their distribution is broad and includes libraries. I’m not sure why a local library would accept Air and Shelter but not Scratching the Surface. There is nothing different about their listings with IngramSpark.
Note: I'll explore this more in a posting later this week, explaining what happened at my local library to put a stop to all indie published titles being purchased for the next 3-5 years.
7. What MG books and/or authors inspired your writing?
I’d have to say I’m drawn to authors that write books for kids that aren’t just for kids. Louis Sachar and Neil Gaiman come to mind. But Generation Mars hails from a more adult lineage: hard scifi writers like Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov, Neal Stephenson, and Andy Weir, along with hopepunk writers like Becky Chambers, Hank Green, and James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). I’m trying to bring that sort of thing to a younger audience.
8. What do you hope readers will take away or learn from how Cas and Ori tackle the challenges of living on Mars?
Optimism is a superpower. Kindness is strength. Society is something you create with those around you; what do you want it to be?
In the confines of Martian habitation, tolerance is a key virtue. Care for others, as well. No one can exist without the help of others and nowhere is this more evident than in a colony on a distant planet. I postulate that harshness of the environment leads to a softness in the people. Not weakness; compassion. In a tight living situation in which everyone is dependent on each other, two fundamental precepts develop: 1) an acute sense of responsibility to the community; and 2) a respect for the privacy and uniqueness of the individual. The culture of Dawn demonstrates that these two attitudes are not mutually exclusive.
The adults of the colony try to live by these ideals, but they carry the baggage of Earth, and it takes effort. The kids have no baggage. For them, these truths are, in the fullest sense of the phrase, self-evident. It’s only beginning to manifest in the books so far, but I imagine the kids develop a unique culture that appears somewhat strange to the adults: calm, coolly intelligent, uncannily inventive, close knit, with a level of independence and maturity that is surprising. These are traits that would serve the next generation well, here on Earth or wherever they call home.
9. How important are book reviews?
Extremely. Unfortunately, I’m terrible at courting them. Many authors go to great lengths to accumulate Amazon reviews. I prefer to let them accumulate organically. This goes back to my antipathy for salesmanship. Still, it means that every review my books get is from someone who genuinely felt strongly enough about the books to contribute their thoughts. That’s a good feeling.
If you like a book, be that person for the writer. We all need those little nudges to keep going.
10. I have to admit, I’m hooked. When can we look forward to Water? And what can you tell us about it, if anything?
My creative process is a bit haphazard. Between books, I read a lot: other science fiction, philosophy, technical literature on topics related to the books. Eventually, something will act as a seed crystal, and a story begins to coalesce. At that point, I start enforcing a write every day regimen. Much of this writing is me talking to myself in loose Socratic dialogue, working out my thoughts on the story. Eventually, these get to a point where I can start writing scenes. Eventually, these scenes begin to relate to each other. As you can imagine, it’s a slow process. For Water and Food, I am trying something new: I want to write them at the same time, with a more solid arc between than the previous books contained. I’m still in the Socratic phase, but there are glimmers of plot developing. I can say that there will be more backstory on the colony and its relationship with Earth. There will very likely be new characters, possibly from the Moon, allowing me to explore cultural differences that have developed. I’m hoping to get Water out sometime in 2023, with Food following soon after.
11. How can young readers help indie authors like you, especially if they can't buy/purchase your books?
If our books sound interesting, but you don’t have access to them, ask your school librarian to order them. If you read them and like them, tell your friends. Ask your parents if they’ll help you write a review for Amazon or Goodreads.
12. If you have any words of wisdom for new/budding authors out there...please share.
Read. Read a lot. Grammar is important, but it’s tough to learn cold. The more you read, the more you unconsciously pick up the rules of language. Then, when you study grammar, it’s more like you’re learning why stuff you already know is the way it is. Also, every author has a unique style. The more you read, the more styles you absorb, and all these will influence how you put words together yourself: your style.