Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Book Review: The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

empress_of_mars_coverTitle: The Empress of Mars
Author: Kage Baker
Publisher: Tor
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

Life on Mars is hard. Although the British Arean Company promised wealth, growth, and a new life to all Martian settlers, once it found out that it couldn’t terraform (and profit from) the planet quickly enough, it pulled up roots and stranded those left behind without providing enough money for a return trip to Earth. Now the BAC’s presence on the planet consists of a skeleton crew of ineffectual bureaucrats.

Mary Griffith has been forced to make do in the aftermath. Formerly a botanist on the BAC’s payroll, she’s reinvented herself as the proprietor of The Empress of Mars, the closest thing that the entire planet has to a hotel, bar, restaurant, or welcome centre. The Empress of Mars is all about Mary’s attempts to keep a roof over her family’s head – attempts which rapidly gain steam when the discovery of a huge red diamond on her land rekindles interest in the red planet’s resources.

One of the hazy, oft-quoted rules of novel-writing is to avoid prologues. I don’t understand why, because they serve a purpose. The prologue for The Empress of Mars is absolutely astounding – here it is, in its entirety:

There were three Empresses of Mars.

The first one was a bar at the Settlement. The second was the lady who ran the bar, though her title was strictly informal, having been bestowed on her by the regular customers, and her domain extended no farther than the pleasantly gloomy walls of the only place you could get beer on the Tharsis Bulge.

The third one was the queen of England.

That’s it. Three paragraphs. But those paragraphs pack a powerful amount of information. They tell us about the geopolitical structure of this story’s universe – that England has managed to rebuild an empire, and that it has sole sovereignty over Mars. They tell us about the mindset of the people who are settling Mars right now – that they’re playful and informal, but also just really want a beer. They also tell us that life on Mars is a scarce one – there’s only one settlement, and only one bar.

However, this excerpt provides only a taste of what Kage Baker’s Mars is really like. You’ve got abandoned BAC employees like Mary and her colleague Manco Inca, a terraformer who has built a shrine to the Virgin of Guadeloupe in an underground cave. There’s Chiring, a Nepali journalist whose dispatches from the bar have greatly increased the circulation of The Kathmandu Post. There’s Brick, one of the planet’s many sturdy ice haulers. There’s also Eli De Wit, the lawyer who has come to broker the sale of Mary’s new diamond, and Mary’s daughter Alice, who has always hated living on Mars and sees Eli as her ticket off the planet.

One of the things I like about The Empress of Mars is its exploration of what life is like in the frontier of space. Baker references this explicitly through the character of Ottorino Vespucci (Reno for short), a dreamer who has come to Mars to seek his fortune – his time spent as a stuntman at a Wild West amusement park acts as  his chief frame of reference for living on the planet.

This is not new territory for science fiction. However, Baker’s taken great pains to depart from Golden-Age space opera in other ways, most notably in the ethnic, religious, and linguistic variety of her characters. As mentioned above, we’ve got Nepalis, Peruvians, and more. Americans speak English, but other characters speak a new language called PanCelt, while Ottorino speaks Italian. Interestingly, Christianity is no longer a dominant religion in human society, having been replaced in many respects by a New-Age form of goddess-worship. Mary’s tangles with the Ephesian Church make up one of the story’s many subplots.

And what fun they are! They all coalesce towards the end, but there’s a lovely shagginess to the way that all of the book’s various subplots – Mary’s new-found wealth from  her diamond, the marriages of two of her daughters, her dealings with the local clan of Irish medievalists – interact and converge. The plot here is solid, but the throughline of the book moves laterally in all sorts of ways. This is a refreshing change of pace from the vast majority of novels, where it feels like you could render the book on a graph. In some ways, the plot of The Empress of Mars defies easy categorization. But sometimes it’s really nice to have a book like that.

Up next: Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan – my 40th and final book review of 2012!

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Title: Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, Book #1)
Author: James S.A. Corey (the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck)
Publisher: Orbit
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook
Note: Nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel

Like any well-adjusted nerd, I grew up with Star Wars as a healthy part of my cinematic diet. I didn’t know it then, but Star Wars belonged to the sub-genre of science fiction known as space opera. Despite my exposure to the original trilogy I still haven’t read much in the way of space opera, so Leviathan Wakes was as good an introduction as any. I read it because it was one of this year’s Hugo Award nominees.

From what I gather, Leviathan Wakes uses many of the elements common to space operas: a diaspora of humans spread across several colonies within the solar system, space stations, and asteroid mining. However, it also includes science fiction concerns that are more contemporary, like sociopathic corporations, terrestrial ecological limits, and the proper use of military power.

Please note: this review contains spoilers.

It all starts with Juliette Andromeda Mao, the scion of a lunar corporation who rejected her affluent upbringing to join the Belters – the restless, entrepreneurial, and hardscrabble people who have abandoned life on Earth and Mars to make a go of it in the asteroid belt. Julie’s gone missing, and it’s fallen to Detective Miller – a cop on Ceres – to do a cursory investigation for his employer, a security agency partially owned by Julie’s family.

James Holden, the commanding officer of of an ice freighter, has found an abandoned ship in the middle of space and is captaining a small shuttle to investigate it. However, when his home ship is destroyed by a third party attempting to protect the abandoned vessel from interference, he sends out a distress signal that inadvertently shatters the fragile balance of power between Earth, Mars, and the Belt. Ultimately, Holden’s search for answers and for safe harbour dovetails with Miller’s search for Julie Mao, which leads them both to the discovery of an alien life form that poses a threat to all three factions.

First off, there are several things that Leviathan Wakes does right. In particular, I appreciated the effort that went into imagining what a non-terrestrial form of human society would look like. Corey came up with subtle but effective touches, like imagining the resinous scent of air that’s been scrubbed through machine filters for generations, or how Belters would come up with an exaggerated set of gestures to convey information despite the bulkiness of space suits.

Less successful, but still interesting, was the inbuilt antagonism that Belters had for Earthers. Early in the book, Miller is partnered with Havelock, a detective from Earth. Later on this is revealed as an attempt by his supervisor to isolate both men; since no other Belter detective wants to work with an Earther, she decides to saddle him with Miller, a lonely has-been cop downtrodden by alcoholism and a messy divorce.

Havelock’s presence is meant to highlight the mutual distrust that those from Earth, Mars, and the Belt have for each other, but this fell flat, as all of the animosity was one-way – although Miller’s peers were antagonistic towards Havelock, Havelock didn’t respond in kind. This left me wondering where exactly the focus of class/privilege in the book resided. Did Belters feel naturally superior to Earthers? Did Earthers feel naturally superior to Belters? It makes sense for the latter to be true in context, but all of the Earthers present in the story were either neutral or supportive of Belter politics.

Such is the case with Holden, who gets caught up trying to find his way out of the web of Martian armies, Belter rebels, and corporate interests that he’s gotten himself tangled up in. He’s such an upstanding person, always willing to do what is right, that in the end he’s as distinctive as a slice of bread. This points to one of my biggest problems with the book – the lack of nuanced characterization. Miller’s a depressed alcoholic trying to solve his Big Case so that he can Make Things Right and restore his self-respect. James Holden is an honest man who grew up on a farm/commune, of all places.

However, sad-sack cops and forthright farmboys have nothing on the real villain: a corporation that has discovered an engineered parasite created by another species and wants to reverse-engineer it so that it can genetically modify humans for intergalactic travel.

This is where the space zombies come in.

You heard me right. Space zombies. As in, people infected by said parasite, who die, reanimate, and then dissolve into some sort of fleshy goo that coalesces into a giant sentient hive-mind.

One one level, this is is pretty cool. Zombies have been popular for a while now, and this twist on the genre is gonzo enough to work. But the book already contains enough interesting speculation on intrastellar life and politics that adding mutagenic zombie parasites into the mix seems a tad garish.

Despite this, I still enjoyed the climax, where Miller finally does meet up with Julie – or what’s left of her after she gets infected. Throughout the novel, Miller’s focus on Julie Mao has taken hold of him so thoroughly that his conscience eventually transforms into her likeness. When he finally meets her in person and talks to her, and she understands what he’s saying and asking her to do – when she realizes that she’s become the index case of the infestation she tried to escape, and that she has to sacrifice herself to prevent others from meeting the same fate – it’s a moment of sadness and beauty.

Did I enjoy Leviathan Wakes? Yes. It had some intriguing sociological insights, and some lovely images and events going on, especially at the climax. Would I be interested in reading the sequels when they are released? Sure. However, do I think that this book is worthy of the Hugo Award? No.

I’ll discuss the merits of the Hugo nominees in greater depth later, but suffice it to say that I was looking for a book that made me go “wow” – and this book was not it. It was workman-like and competent, but it didn’t have the radical political commentary of The Disposessed or The Left Hand of Darkness, the intricate thoroughness of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or the sheer holy-crap-this-is-amazing-ness of American Gods. In other words, it broke absolutely no new territory – and if anything, I think the best science fiction or fantasy book of the year should do at least that much.

Up next: Briarpatch by Tim Pratt