Girlfriend on Mars by Deborah Willis

Author:  Deborah Willis

The cover to Girlfriend on Mars by Deborah WillisNew York. W. W. Norton. 2023. 368 pages.

The information revolution brings a new round of human alienation, and the existential crisis becomes more apparent. In her timely novel Girlfriend on Mars, the Calgary-based Canadian writer Deborah Willis uses everyday language to depict a real world, where living on Mars seems to be not science fiction but an imminent future for mankind: disease epidemics, rampaging AI, collapse of food stocks, resource wars between nuclear-armed states, together with overpopulation and ecological problems, all help boost the billionaire Geoff Task’s pet project, which aims to relocate some of humanity to another planet.

The main character of the story, Amber, is chosen to be a Marsonaut. Amber and Kevin have been in love for fourteen years, but a crisis arises when Amber signs up for the first human-led mission to Mars and stars in the MarsNow reality TV series, followed by a sequence of cheating, betrayal, and breakup. Amber was once an Olympic gymnast whose career was ruined by a shoulder injury. Now she tries hard to leave the planet, dreaming of saving the earth out of human hubris, and escaping the trauma of her family of origin, but her “daddy issues” haunt her—she makes every effort to win the approval of her evangelical Christian father, but in vain.

Kevin is a failed screenwriter, prone to smoking marijuana as a “spaceship” to travel to any unreality—one of his fantasies is “to make profound, literary love to Zadie Smith.” He blames himself for his mother’s death and grows agoraphobic because he feels unable to save Amber from the exploitation-industrial complex, the religion of fame, and the System itself, which results in “the most dramatic, narcissistic suicide in the history of humanity.”

The author portrays both the social media carnival and the profit-oriented enterprise with bitter sarcasm but shows the utmost tolerance and respect for ordinary people with warmth and tenderness: when Amber miscarries, suffers from cancer, and faces death on Mars, her Martian partner, Adam, utters comforting and forgiving words she has never heard from her father. When Kevin learns about her fate through Instagram, he finally decides to leave the “sanctuary,” going outside to meet with his friends. Amber’s footsteps on Mars (“one small step for woman,” as she believes) and Kevin’s footsteps out of his apartment are both hard steps on the road to discovering the meaning of life and self-existence.

Like Kevin’s desert-island book The Great Gatsby, Girlfriend on Mars tells “a story ostensibly about love but really about soul-crushing decadence. Ostensibly about decadence, but really about love.” Through this dark rom-com, Willis illustrates the eternal propositions of human beings—love, freedom, and faith—against the context of an absurd capitalist society and prophesies a new promised land: since it is unsuitable for survival on frozen Mars, we might as well turn attention to our own garden and explore the inner universe.

Yang Yiyi
Nanjing Normal University

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