life on mars: a review of Zenn Scarlett

Though I’ve pondered this before, I always come back to the same question:  what is the human fascination with Mars?  Countless books and movies are set there, Earth receives their fictional visitors at least once a summer blockbuster, and real life missions are slated and scrapped, slated and scrapped–what is it about Mars that holds our imaginations more than Jupiter, Neptune, and Venus ever could?!

Well, needless to say, I share this obsession.  I seek out the Martian landscape whenever I can, scrounging up every piece of entertainment, hit or miss.  Luckily I struck on a hit with Zenn Scarlett by Christian Schoon.


When I first heard about this novel, I thought, A veterinarian in space? Awesome!  I’d been itching for a good YA sci-fi book for years, something that captured the youthful ‘galactic magic’ like Bruce Coville back in the day, but also gave me what I was really craving: aliens.

This book delivered all of the above, no question.  But I never expected the story I found on those pages.  And I’m still reeling.

On the outside, Zenn Scarlett is the story of a young heroine of the same name.  Zenn has all the usual struggles of a 17-year-old girl: homework, boys, and growing up too fast.

But then there’s that whole Working-with-Giant-Alien-Creatures thing.

Zenn’s training to be an exovet at a Martian cloister–basically an animal hospital for some of the bigger lifeforms populating the galaxy.  Headed by her uncle–who also happens to be her biggest critic/guardian pro tempore–the cloister has become Zenn’s housing, school, job, and hobby.  And thanks to growing civil unrest both galactic and domestic, lapses in the cloister’s containment units, and Zenn’s unusual “spells” during important operations, it hasn’t exactly been business as usual.  Something’s up.  Tensions have reached their boiling points.  And time is running out.

On paper, it might sound like a lot of tools, tech, and jargon.  But in practice, Zenn Scarlett is basically Little House on the Martian Prairie.  With a dash of Heinlein’s Red Planet and twist of Whedon’s Firefly, Christian Schoon still manages to present a unique version of Mars, complete with history and mythology, but with a toned-down take.  I was amazed by the subtlety of what could have been a textbook for Alien Anatomy 101.  Instead of heavy scientific expository, I was treated to gentle tugs at my heartstrings.  One of the most beautiful things about this book is that Zenn’s past is an absolute tragedy, but she never lets herself know it.  She takes everything in stride and checks her emotional baggage at the door of every operation she performs; the definition of courage.

Miyazaki, if you’re listening: this is your next animated adventure.  Zenn deserves a place among Sen, Arrietty, Nausicaa, and Kiki.  Everything about this book screams vivid watercolors.

I knew from the minute I read the back cover blurb, I had to see who was behind the mind of Zenn Scarlett.  Luckily, I managed to wrangle up the author himself, Christian Schoon, to talk a little shop, a little science, and perhaps finally get to the bottom of this Mars obsession…


Mikel Andrews: The man of the hour–Christian Schoon!  First of all, thanks so much for the opportunity to chat about your very epic debut novel, Zenn Scarlett.

Christian Schoon: It’s my pleasure, Mikel – being an author yourself you know it’s not that tough to get a writer to talk about his/her book (we’re all easy that way). So, thanks for letting me drop by and hang out at your blog-lair to ramble on a bit about Zenn, her world and how the process of writing the novel went.

MA: Anytime. Right off the bat, the first thing that drew me to Zenn Scarlett was the emphasis on the anatomy of alien creatures.  With how believably these creatures were depicted, I have to wonder if you have a background in biology, or veterinary tech–or was it all research?  And, on the writer side, how’d you handle that fine line between explaining and info-dumping these complex extraterrestrial critters?

CS: Bottom line re: the creature development is that I’ve been a science/biology/ evolution geek since jr. high – and a sci fi geek since about the 3rd grade (I think Rusty’s Space Ship by Lampman was where my addiction started). Plus, I wrote for a med school paper when I was in college, and I’ve been deeply involved with equine and exotic animal rescue organizations for the past decade or so, so I’ve interacted with a number of great veterinarians dealing with a wide range of mammals, reptiles and avians. I’ve also always been fascinated by the incredible complexity and engineering of living things. It’s stunning what a few billion years of trial-and-error augmented by natural selection can achieve, from socially advanced mammals like humans, primates and cetaceans right on down through the simplest viruses. As far as info-dumping goes, I just attempted to layer in the explanatory bits in digest-able hunks, and also let dialogue carry some of that weight. For instance, Hamish, the eight-foot-tall sentient insectoid sexton at the cloister, was a noob on Mars, so he became a natural conduit for Zenn to explain things.

MA: You definitely found a way to endear me to all of Zenn’s alien patients, but do you personally have a favorite species?

CS: Well, as far as the species in the book, I fall prey to the usual authorial position of “I love ALL my kids.” But I had a lot fun creating the rikkasets since they’re like little raccoons or tarsiers but with dexterous paws that give them the ability to communicate in sign language. And sunkillers are cool since they grow to an adult wingspan of 1,500 feet and have entire sky-villages and palaces built on their backs. And of course, the “stonehorses,” or lithohippus indrae, the immense, vacuum-dwelling creatures who’ve evolved to be able to tunnel through the space-time continuum and, because of that, are harnessed by humans and others to propel vast starliners between the planets of the Local Systems Accord. I guess a big part of making these critters credible is by getting fairly specific as I sketched out bits of their evolutionary history and the environmental niches that they evolved to fill. It doesn’t take a lot of technical detail to achieve this, more like dropping hints that clue the reader in to the fact that they aren’t “monsters” or just random animals, but that they have this ecological/planetary history behind their development and that there are good reasons for them to have the forms and characteristics that they have.

MA: I was a big fan of “Rasputin.”  In that terrifying nightmare kind of way….

CS: Yes, he was a later addition to the story when it became clear that Zenn needed an additional obstacle to overcome near the end of the book. So, a 30-foot predatory centipede topped by a tarantula-like fore-body with venom-dripping mandibles seemed like a good idea.

MA: So after the aliens, the second big draw of Zenn for me was the setting–Mars–although, I must say, I found your version of Mars to be really unique.  Do you agree that there’s just something about Mars that captures human interest like no other when it comes to Sci-Fi?  Do you have any favorite Mars books or movies that inspired you to set the book on the Red Planet?

CS: Yes, I think it’s safe to say Mars has a hefty grip on Earthly imaginations, dating back to the Babylonians, Greeks and then Romans, and their early identification of the red planet with blood, violence and war. Then, closer to our own time, as soon as we understood Mars was something like Earth, we instantly started to populate it with all manner of races and tech, some benign, some not so much. My own early bookish explorations of the planet came from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars swashbucklers, and to a lessor extent, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (though his conception of Martians was always a little nebulous for my literalist taste…). My own take on the planetary environment led me to propose an alternate approach to terraforming the place. So, my colonists live only down in the deeper valleys, like the Valles Marineris. Using barymetric ion generators, they “roof over” their valleys with a thin, translucent layer of ionized molecules that seals in a breathable atmosphere; this lets sunlight through, but retains the necessary air and humidity to allow them to live on and farm the valley floors.

MA: What’s your “Mars Movie Guiltiest Pleasure?”  It’s Total Recall, isn’t it?

CS: I did like both versions of Total Recall (even Arnold’s) but as you might have picked up on from the last question, I have to make a stand and say I think John Carter was a much better film than the critical sniping it endured. It was a popcorn flick, after all, and I was fine with that. But my very favorite film on the subject is a great old 1964 classic called Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Features an astronaut and his spider monkey Mona stranded on the planet and being forced to survive. When I was a kid, I wanted to be that guy… Hell, if Mars was like they set it up in the movie, I’d still like to be him. (and maybe Mona is the prototype for Zenn’s rikkaset Katie).

MA: John Carter definitely got a bad rap! Definitely with you there! That’s not all we have in common though–we both grew up in a small Minnesota towns. Small world!  How did that setting for you play into the vast setting for Zenn?  Or into you being a writer in general?

CS: Archetypal Midwestern small-town Luverne, MN, was really a solid place for a kid to come of age. A nice balance of town vs rural pursuits, and a school that was small enough that I could be a geek, plus play sports, plus play in a rock band, plus be a class officer, plus act in school plays; so, not limited to just one clique, etc. And my mom taught English at the high school (tho I never had her as a teacher), so I had an early influence in my life telling me to appreciate books and writing and language. Then, for my senior year of high school I was a foreign exchange student. Spent that year in a town outside Stockholm, Sweden, so that also figures in as far as widening of horizons. (I basically left Luverne a Republican but came back a hard-core anti-war hippie. Ch-ch-ch-chaaaanges…)

MA:  Full disclosure, I’d really like to see an art book for Zenn Scarlett.  Any plans for something like that?  You could call it The Art of Zenn!  Boom!

CS: I love the idea, and the title. Or maybe: Zenn and the Art of Megafauna Maintenance. Perhaps this is a project for a little further down the line…

MA: I’d even take some high-quality napkin sketches at this point.  Those creatures were so awesome–I’d love to see how you see them!

CS: I used to do some sketching, drew advertising illustrations for a semester, did the poster art for the bands I was in, but never really pursued it. Still, I agree that it would be fun to get some images on paper. If I do, I’ll route them in your direction!

MA: Excellent! Cleverly-named art book aside, can you give us a hint of what’s next?  After finishing the book–and having it take a turn I didn’t see coming, by the way–I at least need to know we haven’t heard the last of Zenn Scarlett!

CS: Well, fortunately, when Angry Robot’s YA imprint Strange Chemistry signed me, it was a two-book deal. So, Zenn’s adventures will continue in the follow-up novel, titled Zenn Scarlett: Under Nameless Stars. I’m tweaking it now. Should be out first part of next year. I’ll be sure and have my editor check in w/ you if we do a blog tour!

MA: That would be amazing! Well, thanks again for shooting the breeze about your girl Zenn, Christian.  Really can’t wait for your next project, whatever it may be.

CS: As I said above, always more than willing to talk about the red-head who showed up in my imagination one day clad in oversized coveralls and perched on the snout of a very large marine predator. Thanks again for letting me stop in – cheers to you & your readers!

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