The fact that someone had decided that I would be safer on Mars, where you could still only SORT OF breathe the air and SORT OF not get sunburned to death, was a sign that the war with the aliens was not going fantastically well.
I’d been worried that I was about to be told that my mother’s spacefighter had been shot down, so when I found out that I was being evacuated to Mars, I was pretty calm.
And, despite everything that happened to me and my friends afterwards, I’d do it all again. Because until you have been shot at, pursued by terrifying aliens, taught maths by laser-shooting robot goldfish and tried to save the galaxy, I don’t think you can say that you’ve really lived.
If the same thing happens to you, this is my advice: ALWAYS CARRY DUCT TAPE.
Mars Evacuees is a major departure from the Romanitas books Sophia McDougall debuted with; science fiction of a rather more straightforward kind (as opposed to her alternate-history/SF work) aimed at children or young adults (as opposed to the less-age-marketed trilogy of tomes). Some continuities remain however, including a strong, effective use of both male and female central characters and a very unique voice.
The characters of Mars Evacuees are by far its strongest aspect. Alice Dare (never Alisdair) is a fantastically well-written, well-created character, something not often seen in SF for any age group! She is our narrator and her impressions of the events of the narrative colour and affect our perceptions of events, sometimes in subtle ways; and her presence also, a significant amount of the time, acts as a catalyst for events through her ideas and personality, as much as through her actions. Her stubbornness, imagination, strength of character and humanity – including an extraordinary empathy – drive the plot powerfully, changing the course of some of the action; it’s an extraordinary portrait of a 12 year old child, sympathetic but not a Mary Sue by any means. The rest of the cast is just as fantastically portrayed; the prodigy Josephine Jerome, whose unemotional withdrawal conceals deep reserves of emotionality; Carl and Noel Dalisay, the brothers from Australia who have a brilliant sibling relationship; and the rest of the cast, including the spoilery ones. The cast are a racially, albeit not gender-based, diverse; McDougall, with a deft hand, portrays the various cultural heritages of the characters of Mars Evacuees beautifully.
The plot of Mars Evacuees is a less strong element of the book; it doesn’t seem able to decide quite what it wants to be. McDougall uses elements familiar from Lord of the Flies, E.T., Robert Heinlein and more, blending them together in a fashion that doesn’t quite work; the shifts from one part to the next don’t seem to really mesh and previous elements appear to simply vanish as they’re moved past. The evacuation from Earth to escape the Morrors, an invading force, quickly passes into the first acclimatation of the characters to the Mars base; turns into McDougall’s take on a world of children without adult authority; moves onto an escape/travelogue of those weaker; and so on. Each of these parts feels disconnected, with little consideration of prior parts; Alice doesn’t often seem to look backwards, in an odd narrative move that makes this feel like a more episodic plot than it actually is. However, it’s also an incredibly readable plot, and Mars Evacuees isn’t without humour (see the line about duct tape on the blurb); indeed, that humour and lightness of heart and spirit, even in the darkest parts of the novel, is a fantastic sleight of hand on the part of McDougall, not relieving the tension but leavening it, as it were.
In the end, this is a fun novel to breeze through, and for a 9-12 year old Mars Evacuees would be a great book and a fantastic replacement for the Heinlein juveniles as an introduction to SF; reading it as an adult though, it’s a bit dissatisfying, and whilst the characters are fantastic the plot doesn’t quite hit the spot for me, sadly.