Book Review: The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker
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!