|Christian Schoon Picture: Sarah Neighbors|
Zenn Scarlett’s alien menagerie catches fans’ imagination...
Those of us who grew up on a diet of Gerald Durrell and James Herriot, but also harbour a not-so-secret love for all things Star Wars (yes, there are people like us out there), should take note of a fresh voice in genre fiction. Zenn Scarlett (Strange Chemistry) by Christian Schoon, published in May, tells the tale of a young woman who’s learning the ropes in veterinary science – but not in the expected setting.
Firstly, Zenn lives on Mars, and secondly, her charges are often large alien life forms. On writing Zenn, Schoon says: “The character that would eventually become Zenn Scarlett arrived quite fully formed, as a youngish female, wearing oldish coveralls, perched on the snout of a huge-ish carnivore.
“It was all quite distinct. I could tell from this initial image she was there to help the animal, that she was not afraid of it, that in fact this was a routine sort of task for her. So, I realised she was a newbie exoveterinarian, studying animals so huge they had to be off-world.
“I’ve been enamoured of Mars ever since the Barsoom books, so she and her alien patients took up residence on the Red Planet.”
But all is not as bright-and-shiny on Schoon’s Mars. He adds: “Yes, all the shiny has rubbed off. A few decades back, Earth’s isolationist tendencies combined with a vicious global plague brought about a complete trade and communication embargo with the Earther colonies on Mars. From that point, when anything broke down or wore out, the colonists were forced to improvise or do without.
“So, while there are fairly intact older buildings dating to before the rift, later structures are cobbled together out of whatever can be recycled or scrounged: stray bits of metal sheeting, old shipping containers, the odd tent. Clothing is handmade and or patched.
“Tech devices have buggy software and are becoming rare. Vehicles are held together with baling wire and glue, and run on bio-fuels.”
This setting has also given Schoon the opportunity to indulge in social commentary, especially with regard to topics such as xenophobia. He elaborates: “That stems largely from the aforementioned plague. Decades back, Earth was a member of the Local Systems Accord, a loose union of the dozen inhabited planets circling stars in our neck of the galaxy. Aliens and their alien animals were seen with some frequency on Earth.
“Then a mysterious virus with unknown origins wiped out millions of humans. It was blamed on aliens. In the chaotic aftermath, a hyper-conservative world government rose to power, booted all the aliens off the planet and cut off all relations with the Accord, including the Earther colonies on Mars. Now, it must be pointed out there, was never conclusive proof the virus originated with any non-terrestrial. But humans can be a suspicious lot when threatened with extinction (I guess most life forms would be, though, huh?)”
Zenn’s alien patients are varied, though Schoon admits his fondness for mustelidae did lend a bias to his creations. He says: “Yeah, always had a weakness for the weasel clan; tiger-fierce predators in stretched-mouse packaging, or, in the case of wolverines, in a cocker-spaniel-on-steroids packet. I couldn’t resist magnifying an otterlike marine hunter into an 80-foot, eight-legged Mu Arae whalehound for Zenn to take care of. Another fave is the Kiran sunkiller.
“They’re upper-atmosphere drifters held aloft by hydrogen-methane filled bladders on the undersides of their stationary wings; two heads, baleen-equipped jaws for feeding on strato-plankton, adult wingspan reaching to 1 500 feet.
“Then there are the ‘stonehorses’, Lithohippus indra. During their several billion years of evolution, these colossal, serpentine, dark-matter-eating, vacuum-dwellers developed the ability to quantum-tunnel through the fabric of the space-time continuum.
“Their wild habitat is the interior of nickel-iron asteroids, which they carry before them when they tunnel, to protect them from the particle storms they encounter when tunnelling. A forgotten alien race learned how to harness the indra to carry a starship instead of an asteroid, and the Local Systems Accord is now knit together by fleets of massive indra-powered starliners.”
Schoon’s past experience has also helped him with the detail he’s been able to thread into his novel. “In my alternate life, I’ve been a volunteer with a number of animal welfare groups. On my farm here in Iowa, we’ve taken care of or housed or adopted out everything from horses and donkeys to black bears, mountain lions and coyotes to Burmese pythons, African rock pythons, rattlesnakes, cobras… I could go on. The amateur veterinary knowledge I picked up was all due to hanging around the vets involved with these critters.
“As for medical procedures in the book, these were conjured up in service to what was happening in a particular scene.”
As for some of the responses he’s had to the novel since its release, Schoon adds: “I’m glad to say the reactions have been almost universally appreciative and enthusiastic. It’s a real kick hearing from readers who say things like ‘this is unlike
anything I’ve ever read before’.
“On the comical side, dozens of people have written that they desperately want to have a rikkaset, a raccoon-sized, tufted-ear, big-eyed marsupial that is Zenn’s close companion. Rikkasets have the intelligence of a human two-year-old.
“I’m totally amazed to be able to say that Zenn Scarlett has risen to the number eight in Amazon’s Hot New Releases in Teen Sci Fi eBooks. Go, Zenn!”
See Schoon’s blog at www.christianschoon.com or follow him on Twitter @cjschoon.