I’ve written about Mars in many of my short stories. Now that I think about it, the setting provides a quite literal sandbox in which a small cast of characters are isolated and dwarfed by the natural world – in that sense, it’s a little like the post-apocalyptic scenarios that have always interested me. My first Mars story, ‘The Walls of Tithonium Chasma’, introduced a community of colonists either travelling the surface of the planet in vast trawler bases or living in poky habitats sculpted from sand, accompanied by servile ‘aye-aye’ robots with brain patterns modelled on the human colonists themselves. Each successive story, scattered across publication venues such as Interzone and Shoreline of Infinity, added to this world, all of the stories linked thematically but narratively independent of one another.
Universal Language is my first long-form Mars story, and it was a chance to delve deeper into the various communities, political tensions, businesses and lawbreaking gangs of this new world. Just as Ray Bradbury’s Mars reflects the landscape and props of his childhood, my version of Mars is essentially British, with hints of post-Brexit Britain in its dilapidated state, and colonists’ eccentricities and fierce, self-defeating sense of independence. I have no real desire to write the kind of SF that attempts to accurately predict future developments; my Mars is rooted in the past. In place of utopia or dystopia is a mess of conflicting opinions and ambitions. I suppose it suggests I have little faith in humanity – or, at least, in British institutions – to work in harmony any time soon.
The novella is a departure in that it’s a murder mystery. It began with a one-sentence idea: An airlocked room mystery – that is, a murder victim discovered in an airlocked room. I’ve always loved complex mystery novels such as John Dickson Carr’s locked-room classic The Hollow Man, and my recent projects have all been mystery tales to some degree, including two upcoming Sherlock Holmes novels. The idea of adhering to the strict rule-set of mystery novels, but within my sandbox featuring a bleak Martian desert, alien crabs and robots, was hugely appealing. I decided early on that establishing an aye-aye robot as the only murder suspect would present a satisfying puzzle, on the basis that Asimovian protocols would have meant that the act was, in theory, impossible.
But as well as presenting a chewy mystery, I also wanted the story to be fun. I thoroughly enjoyed writing this novella from Abbey Oma’s viewpoint – she’s telling the story retrospectively and the tone is that of a shaggy-dog tale – and her jaded but amused attitude contrasts with her suspects and constantly threatens to undermine the seriousness of the crime. I hope one day I’ll get a chance to write about her other cases as an Optic private eye, hopefully with her newfound Watson, the puppy-like Franck Treadgold, in tow…