David Ebenbach’s Playlist for His Novel “How to Mars”

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

David Ebenbach’s novel How to Mars is a witty, tender, and thoroughly modern work of literary science fiction.

Booklist wrote of the book:

“Ebenbach explores science fiction for the first time in this clever novel focused on a one-way trip to the red planet. Financed by an eccentric billionaire with funding via reality television, six scientists emerge from a ‘Survivors’ gauntlet of seemingly meaningless tests. After two years on Mars, the reality series has been cancelled and the science-ing has been reduced to the humdrum. The engineer from Denmark has alienated himself by expressing his right to do whatever he wants, while the psychologist and astronomer find themselves revealed as breakers of the one hard rule laid down by the managers of the project: no sex. Vignettes of mundane concerns are interspersed with excerpts from the unofficial Destination Mars! handbook by the organization’s founder. The poignancy of the impossible pregnancy is the Bradbury touch, the reality show framework carries fingerprints of Douglas Adams, and the handbook provides a Vonnegut-esque struggle with the paradoxes of the human condition. How to Mars is Andy Weir’s The Martian (2014) infused with poetry in a superbly concise package.”

In his words, here is David Ebenbach’s Book Notes music playlist for his novel How to Mars:

First of all, I love this Book Notes series. (Thank you for doing this, David G!) I love it because it’s a great way to get to a know a book, but also because it just makes sense. Many of us writers listen to music while we write, and we also often write about music. But then we send the book out into the world as a silent object, with the idea that people will read it silently—although many people, including me, read while listening to music. So books and music just belong together, and I’m excited to be creating a playlist for my current novel, How to Mars.

Speaking of which, How to Mars is a novel about a group of six people who have, for various personal reasons, agreed to go on a dubious one-way mission to Mars. Dubious because they’re being funded by the reality TV show that’s being made about them, and the mission’s being run by a strange organization called Destination Mars!, an organization that left them with a lot of odd instructions, and one commandment: No sex on Mars. Well, see below to find out how well the Marsonauts stick to that rule.

Rachelle Garniez, “Galaxy”

The six Marsonauts are all leaving a lot behind. They’ll miss some of it, and some of it is the reason they wanted to leave Earth behind in the first place. In the words of Rachelle Garniez, “Now is the time to let go of your fear,/and watch the world far below disappear.” But is an escape to another planet enough to allow you to let go? Or will it take a bit more than that?

Elton John, “Rocket Man”

The book begins with the sentence “This is how I find out Jenny is pregnant on Mars.” (So much for the no-sex rule.) And yet, as Elton John tells us, “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids.” So…the Marsonauts may have a problem.

De La Soul, “Transmitting Live from Mars”

Once Jenny reveals that she’s pregnant, they have to tell the folks back on Earth. Of course, interplanetary communication isn’t easy.

The Magnetic Fields, “The Book of Love”

As I say, Destination Mars! has left our characters with some questionable guidance, most of which is contained in the meandering and strange Destination Mars! handbook, some of which shows up as chapters in How to Mars. Per The Magnetic Fields, “The book of love has music in it./In fact that’s where music comes from./Some of it is just transcendental./Some of it is just really dumb./But I, I love it when you sing to me./And you, you can sing me anything.”

Coldplay, “The Scientist”

This song is for Jenny, the mission’s pregnant astrophysicist, who prefers to think in bullet points, formulas, and charts when things get messy. And yet it’s hard to keep the mess under control. Kind of like the protagonist in this Coldplay song: “I was just guessing/at numbers and figures/Pulling the puzzles apart//Questions of science/science and progress/Do not speak as loud as my heart.”

The Clash, “Should I Stay or Should I Go”

One of the other protagonists, Josh, is the mission psychologist—and the father of the baby-to-be. He left Earth because, having been through a tragic loss back there, he’s ambivalent about getting too deeply emotionally involved with anyone. And yet he’s crazy about Jenny, and fatherhood may be on its way. What should he do? “If I go, there will be trouble,/And if I stay it will be double.”

Goldfrapp, “Strict Machine”

Stefan, the mission’s engineer, would probably not like this song. But that’s because he is a kind of strict machine. Grumpy on a good day, as the book goes on he becomes more erratic—and possibly dangerous? He does have a bit of a violent streak.

B-52s, “Cosmic Thing”

“I was havin’ this out of body experience, saw these cosmic beings.”

At least at first, the Marsonauts struggle to find evidence of pre-existing life on the planet. But are they really alone there? Or could there be life on Mars—even intelligent life? And, if so, is it friendly?

Asteroids Galaxy Tour, “Attack of the Ghost Riders”

And…if it’s not friendly, how dangerous might life on Mars become?

Piotr Wiese, “Mars—The Bringer of War”

This is not the Gustav Holst composition—though to me it’s kind of a riff on that composition. And it captures briskly, I think, the tension that builds as Stefan’s behavior becomes more alarming, as signs of Martian life begin to accumulate, and as the possibly life-threatening birth gets closer.

Zoe Keating, “The Optimist”

This cellist is the musician that Jenny has requested for when she goes into labor. And she’s the mom, so she gets two songs on this playlist. As to whether any of us should be an optimist about this impending birth…well, the end of the novel attempts to answer that question.

David Bowie, “Life on Mars?”

I mean, I think we all knew this one was coming. But really: can there be life—even for us—on Mars?

Flying Lotus, “Galaxy in Janaki”

To be honest, I just like this track. Plus, it does have the word “galaxy” in the title. Anyway, I think it’s got the right mood to serve as the outro on this playlist.

David Ebenbach writes. He has been writing ever since he was a kid, when he kept his whole family awake by banging away on an enormous manual typewriter, and he’s never wanted to stop. He is the author of eight books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, and his work has picked up awards along the way: the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the Juniper Prize, the Patricia Bibby Award, and more.

A Philadelphia native, these days David does most of his writing in Washington, DC, where he lives with his family–because he uses a laptop now, he doesn’t keep them awake with his typing–and where he works at Georgetown University, teaching creative writing and literature.

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