"Venus On Mars" unfolds cosmic tale
With NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover constantly sending back new data about Mars, eyes are on the sky.
SF State cinema professor Jan Millsapps’ gaze has been pointed toward the skies for years. Her second history-based novel, “Venus On Mars,” is all about finding one’s place in the cosmos.
Millsapps had a release party for the book June 2 at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. Events took place at the observatory for the transit of Venus, an astronomical event that would happen only once in a lifetime when the planet appeared as a black dot crossing the surface of the sun.
Founded in 1894, the observatory is home to the Discovery Channel Telescope, the fifth largest telescope in the continental U.S.
The novel was made possible by a one-year sabbatical granted by SF State. Millsapps’ research took her to the Mojave Desert; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.; Lowell Observatory and even Boston.
Set in the 1970s during NASA’s unmanned Mariner 9 mission to Mars, the story follows Venus Dawson, as she returns from her grandmother, Lulu Dawson’s, funeral. Lulu’s character, who faces misogyny and gender bias, is based on astronomer Percival Lowell’s actual secretary Wrexie Louise Leonard.
“At Lowell Observatory I examined all of Wrexie Louise Leonard’s materials, including a journal she kept before she began working for Lowell — but her journal as it appears in my novel is fictional — based on the facts I was able to uncover,” Millsapps said.
Lowell, a main character in the book, was an astronomer who strongly believed Mars contained evidence of extraterrestrial life. The book explores issues female astronomers faced in both the 1970s through Venus Dawson’s storyline and the 1900s through her grandmother’s. Both were times when exploration of Mars was at its peak.
“It was very rare for a woman to be able to look through a big telescope in the Victorian Era. It wasn’t until the 1960s that women got full access to major observatories,” Millsapps said.
She decided that this was the perfect era in which to set the story.
“After continuing with my research, I realized I set my story right at the cusp of when women were pushing for equal status in the workplace,” Millsapps said.
Venus inherits her grandmother’s journal and takes it with her to her workplace in Pasadena, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Both the reader and Venus begin to uncover the romantic relationship Lulu and Lowell had during their time together through a series of journal entries woven into the narrative.
But it wasn’t until she was finished writing the book that she approached William Sheehan, a historical fellow at Lowell Observatory.
“At first I was critical, because I was reading it through a historian’s point of view, but once I loosened up and began to respond to it as historical fiction, I loved it,” Sheehan said.
Millsapps has placed quick response codes at the end of certain chapters to augment the reading experience. By scanning these codes, readers can access content online that will add to the story.
Eleventh grade English teacher, Jeannette Miles from South Carolina likes the idea of bridging the gap between old media and new and plans to use “Venus On Mars” as a part of her curriculum.
“I don’t have any problem asking my students to help me out with my technology. It’s a reciprocal interaction with students and I think this will make me successful with Jan’s books,” Miles said.
Millsapps’ plans to continue to push the envelope with new media back at SF State next spring, when she plans on “teaching cinema as an online medium and do the whole thing with smartphones and tablets.”