Girlfriend on Mars, Deborah Willis

In ‘Girlfriend on Mars’ a RomCom Competes with Climate Change

Girlfriend on Mars equips itself nicely on the climate change front, but subsuming that narrative and the tensions within it into the love story redirects the novel’s orbit.

Girlfriend on Mars
Deborah Willis
W. W. Norton
March 2023

The world is falling apart, but the enormous corporations responsible for climate change are not doing enough about it. If regular people want to organize and pressure these conglomerates, they have few ways to do so. Our economic systems explicitly favor their continued exploitation of natural resources. Communication among the populace occurs on digital platforms owned by, you guessed it, one of those giant corporations or obscenely rich individuals. It feels like there’s no way to win. This anxiety, ever-present in our modern lives, is at least fertile ground for fiction.

Enter, sort of, Girlfriend on Mars. In Deborah Willis’ debut novel, a SpaceX stand-in called MarsNow launches a reality television series where “regular people” can compete to become the first two people on Mars. Amber Kivinen, a former child gymnastics star and marijuana grower from Vancouver, decides to enter this competition over the objections of Kevin, her boyfriend of 14 years. As Amber competes, her relationship with Kevin becomes (obviously) strained, as the program’s no-communication rule makes a long-distance relationship unfeasible. Meanwhile, Amber falls for Adam, a fellow competitor, while Kevin sleeps with Bronwyn, one of their pot customers.

If one person wants to go to Mars and another does not, perhaps these people do not share a vision for the future. This scenario invites a rather obvious “why don’t they just break up?” question. While both Kevin and Amber are obviously complacent in their relationship, inertness is the foundation of their relationship; their refrain is “I love you for no reason.” Neither seems intent on doing much of anything about their shared problem.

As a result, there’s a disconnect between the novel’s supposed central conflict (the strain on the relationship) and what the characters spend most of the page count doing (Amber competing on a reality TV show while Kevin gets stoned, has sex, and mopes, sometimes all at once). Save for a few well-wrought climactic moments, the Amber-and-Kevin of it all bears little pathos and barely moves the story.

Because of this imbalance between action and the novel’s supposed conflict, Girlfriend on Mars is really a climate change anxiety attack disguised as a rom-com. The two central characters represent the two most common reactions to environmental catastrophe. Amber, in her determination to win the competition, is the self-important savior who will do anything (including destroying her relationship) to make a dent in the problem. Kevin, meanwhile, is despair-riddled; he believes that the planet is beyond saving and that any attempts to the contrary are too bound up in the nefarious machinations of capitalism to produce long-term change. Either may be right, but Amber’s version is simply more interesting to read.

Because Girlfriend on Mars‘ chapters alternate in their perspective (half for Kevin, half for Amber), roughly half the book sags under the weight of Kevin’s despair. Amber’s story, despite her misguided rationale, is at least interesting. She has to circumvent slimy producers, establish temporary friendships and alliances, shift her identity for the camera, and compete in intense challenges. Most compelling of all is her sense that planet Earth is doomed and her oscillations between optimism and cynicism that the Mars program can do something about any of it. Compared to this adventure, Kevin’s self-pity doesn’t warrant a 50 percent share in the page count.

But, Girlfriend on Mars‘ obsession with the modern condition is well-rendered. Willis’ prose is at its most vivid when grappling with the crisis of modernity: “It isn’t fashionable to admit this, but [Amber] likes social media… Instagram is a paradise of purity and abundance, a holiday from degradation… Kevin focuses on the negative, and seems to want to save her from the online world—but what if she doesn’t want to be saved?” These micro-turmoils that pepper the novel, on both Amber and Kevin’s ends, are its major strength.

Girlfriend on Mars equips itself nicely on the climate change front, but subsuming that narrative and the tensions within it into the love story redirects the novel’s orbit. Amber is a compelling character, and spending time with her is worth it; maybe the point of the story is that the same can’t be said for Kevin.

RATING 6 / 10