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The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

“The Empress of Mars” first appeared as a novella in Asimov’s in July, 2003 with the first hardback as the Night Shade limited edition published in September, 2003. In this early incarnation, it was not immediately obvious whether this was intended as a standalone or awaited incorporation into the Company series. We did not have long to wait as Mars was duly made relevant to the psychological destiny of Alec Checkerfield in The Life of the World to Come and subsequent novels. Frankly, I have never been terribly convinced that Alec, who had been operating as a smuggler and gunrunner, would be so devastated, but that’s a whole different can of worms we can leave for another review.

Being older and of increasingly fallible memory, I more or less forgot about the novella until, to my surprise, I discovered it had been expanded into a novel. There was a moment of internal debate. Should I buy it and revisit Kage Baker’s Mars? I harboured the unkind notion that this was a rip-off with author and publisher going for easy money from credulous buyers. It does not take that much effort from an author to add a few more words and suddenly the publisher has a “new” novel on its hands. In a moment of self-revelation, I was transported back to days of youthful arrogance when I thought my vocabulary included every word of significance. With shame, I admit buying a copy of Chrestomathy by Keith Laumer. After the first serious dip into it, I was painfully reminded of the lesson taught by Barnum & Bailey with their American Museum sign, “This way to the Egress.” People are always exploited through their ignorance. So, hoping I was not poking another pig, I ponied up the ante to play Subterranean Press’ new game. There were two questions to be resolved as I began reading the eerily familiar opening words. Has the author done anything interesting with the original idea? and Is its status still equivocal or has the author now formally converted it into a Company novel?

Well, the novel version of The Empress of Mars preserves the spirit of the original novella. This is not a fix-up with a new bit bolted on to make up the length. The resulting whole is a slightly strange book that requires the reader to accept a relatively benign planet even though only in the initial stages of terraforming. Conceptually, it echoes the Mars of Ray Bradbury as a metaphor for optimism in which there is always hope because only the small-minded and a crew of slightly perverse bureaucrats stand in the path of progress. The mechanics of space flight are also conveniently left unexplained as people and goods seem to be able to pass between planets in remarkably short periods of time. The strangeness comes from a fantasy element thrown into the sfnal environment with a heretic offering a curiously selective set of prophesies leading up to a miracle in which she formally ascends into sainthood. In its shorter form, you could overlook the cod science and the curious behaviour of the weather. But novelising the novella is attempting the mountain out of a molehill trick. The original plot is a distinctly shaky frame upon which to build and, no matter how endearing the eccentrics and basket cases who make up the group of heroic settlers, it is always going to be an uphill struggle to achieve any degree of credibility. There has to be a Mars Two for the future history to work out right. Thus, the force of circumstances, aided by the Company operatives, must continuously nudge events to avoid any paradox. Except, of course, for the aberrant components like Ottorino’s unexpected ability to take out a mortar with a single shot and cinema-inspired hand-to-hand fighting skills.

To answer my two earlier questions: Ms Baker has taken the shorter version as a design on a piece of fabric and then embroidered it to produce a richer picture of life on Mars. Having read the Company short stories and novels that explain something of the Earth’s repressive attitude towards eccentricity, I follow the logic of the colonisation strategy. This is a Botany Bay solution to a perceived social problem with corporations hoping it can be made profitable. But the resulting mix is a set of cardboard and stereotypical characters dropped into a very black-and-white political situation. Allowing for this being science fiction, the depiction of the relationship between the English and Scottish factions is unconvincing, and the suggested clan and implied class structures are unlikely. Unfortunately, Baker’s future history requires British characters and this exposes her lack of cultural understanding. But, for US readers, the character labelling exercise will pass unnoticed. For them, it will not really matter that SF is culturally unrealistic. All anyone looks for is entertainment. As to the second question, Baker has, for those who have the relevant background in Company affairs, made the link into the series more overt than it was before. I think this is an improvement even though many of the tie-in elements will probably pass unrecognised by the uninitiated.

This novel can be read as a stand-alone and is reasonably enjoyable in an undemanding way.

For my other reviews of Kage Baker, see: Sons of Heaven, The Women of Nell Gwynne’sHouse of the Stag, The Bird of the River, Not Less Than Gods, and Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key.

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