It’s a question that’s preoccupied scientists, authors, and the just plain curious for centuries: Is there life on Mars?
In Ethan Chatagnier’s debut novel, “Singer Distance,” the answer is an emphatic yes. The book follows a group of MIT graduate students in the 1960s who travel to the American Southwest in an attempt to communicate with the residents of the red planet. There’s no doubt that Martians exist — they communicated with earthlings decades before, but stopped after humans were unable to solve a puzzle that they sent.
Crystal, one of the students, is convinced that she’s solved the complicated mathematical proof, and enlists her boyfriend, Rick, and three other brainy students to help her send it 68 million miles into space. Afterwards, Crystal disappears in California, leading Rick to search for her.
Chatagnier, also the author of a short story collection, “Warnings From the Future,” happens to know the state well. He grew up in the Bay Area and went to college at Fresno State before going to graduate school at Emerson College in Boston.
Chatagnier will be appearing at Skylight Books in Los Angeles on Oct. 27. He answered questions about “Singer Distance” from his home in Fresno. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q. This is such a wildly imaginative novel. Can you talk about how the idea for it came to you?
I had half the idea for a long time. I had read this Ken Kalfus book, “Equilateral,” which is about a turn-of-the-century astronomer who, like many real-life astronomers at the time, thought Mars was inhabited. They thought they saw canals there. And in “Equilateral,” this astronomer wants to signal them. So he oversees the construction of a giant equilateral triangle in the desert in Egypt using colonial labor. I think Kalfus described it as about the follies of imperialism, and how we treat people on Earth while we’re looking up at the stars. But while I was reading it, I thought, “What if there was a civilization there that could respond to this?” But I also thought that the interesting take on it would be what if they could respond to us, but they just weren’t that interested?
That felt like it tied into this common interpersonal situation of being really close to someone and having them kind of face the other direction. So I had that half of the idea for a long time, and I thought it was going to be a background story, where two things paralleled each other, the story on Earth and the stuff on Mars being distant in the background. Things started to click together when I realized that I could have the people on Earth trying to reach out and communicate with Mars, and get their interest again, and have the two storylines intersect in that way.
Q. The book deals heavily with mathematics and science. Have those been interests of yours for a long time?
Yeah. I’ve always taken an interest in space. As a kid, like most kids, I had a fascination with space and the planets and black holes and all that kind of stuff. And I kept that through college. I didn’t dive as deep as some people. I think I could have considered going into the sciences at one point if I were less of a lazy student. [Laughs] But I’ve stayed interested at the level of watching the documentaries and reading some of the books that are written for non-scientists to help us try to wrap our minds around things like relativity and quantum mechanics. So I’ve been interested in that, but I’m removed enough from it that it all feels a little mystical, the way relativity works and the way quantum mechanics works. I’m so far from understanding it properly that I think that it has a bit of a magical feel to it.
Q. You’re able to communicate some pretty complex ideas about mathematics and science in a clear way. How did you go about writing about these kinds of topics, which can get pretty esoteric, for a general audience?
I don’t think it was so difficult because I kind of had to translate it to that level to understand it myself. I kind of have to have a visual metaphor or a framework to understand how some of these works, because you need a lot of training and scholarship to understand it on the deeper, more specific level. One thing that I discovered while I was writing the novel is a love of the teaching analogy, which I got to get at a lot with the character Lucas Holladay, who’s kind of a Carl Sagan-like figure in the book. He’s always trying to figure out what’s the right metaphor or analogy or mental framework that will let something mentally click into place, which is a lot of fun to do, to try and figure out how you take this really difficult-to-understand concept and link it up to another idea so that a light bulb goes off.
Q. Distance is obviously a big theme in this book. What was it about that concept that initially drew you in?
It started with the theme of thinking about Mars being so close. It’s pretty much the closest an alien civilization could be. And to have a civilization that’s so close feel so far away is a very kind of lonely emotional situation. So I was interested in the distinction between physical distance and emotional distance. And it became a great way to tie that theme into the characters and their journey because I was thinking too about what that would look like in the relationship between the two main characters. I knew that they needed to be trying to figure out some kind of math that didn’t make sense, that seemed like you just couldn’t wrap your head around it. And things like relativity and quantum mechanics do that, where it makes it seem like reality is fundamentally different in some ways than how we perceive it. So I wanted to do that with distance in a way to tie it in with the emotional theme.
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Q. The book also deals with the difficulty of maintaining intimacy over distance.
Yeah, definitely. I was interested in changing up the angles between the characters and the distances between them and seeing how that would affect them. Like in the beginning, [Crystal and Rick] are very close in physical proximity; they’re in this van together and they’re rarely more than 10 feet apart. And then in the second section, they’re writing letters to each other, yet there’s this struggle to maintain the same closeness, even though at least Rick, who’s telling us the story, absolutely wants that. And he’s trying to maintain that across the distance. He’s not necessarily getting the same back from Crystal. So I would say I wanted to figure out how the relationship worked differently over a larger distance, but also how the relationship worked differently when they didn’t have the same goals or the same focuses, when the two characters were not necessarily aimed in the same place anymore.