RogerBW's Blog

The Empress of Mars, Kage Baker 26 September 2016

2009 SF, loosely connected with the Company series. The British Arean Corporation sponsored the colonisation of Mars… then it turned out that short-term profits weren't possible, and they lost interest. Mary Griffith runs the only place to buy a beer on the Tharsis Bulge.

This is an odd sort of book, quite lightly plotted; it's not so much a picaresque, which exists to tell you about all the strange places the story visits, as a narrative that exists to string together the strange people who've ended up on this alternate-history Mars: starting with Mary Griffith, former company biologist turned pub landlady, and the misfits she's collected through the years.

It was not his fault that he had to be told what to do. He had spent most of his adult life in Hospital and a good bit of his childhood, too, ever since (having at the age of ten been caught reading a story by Edgar Allan Poe) he had been diagnosed as Eccentric.

There's an Italian prospector who lives his life by the rules of Spaghetti Westerns, which works remarkably well for him; there's a one-eyed heretic from the Ephesian Church, who doesn't talk much but gets the cooking done; there's a visionary who's building a shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe out of Martian dust and his own blood; there's a journalist for the Kathmandu Post who tries to translate Martian practices (beast slavery!) for his audience at home.

"So… you couldn't say they were free-range, then." Chiring translated his remark.

"Free-range?" Matelot stared at him. "This is bloody Mars, man. Not even humans are free-range."

And there's a clan of PanCelts (I love to think that Baker might have read The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and it seems quite likely that she did) who cause their own set of problems, as well as having a pet genius:

"They're robots. I have an implant. It feeds me the data they gather."

"An implant?" Mary turned to stare, and he quickly looked away. "You did surgery on yourself?"

"It wasn't hard. I drank a glass of Dad's whiskey and lay down. The mechanics came and did what I'd programmed them to do. It didn't even hurt."

"Oh," said Mary, a little weakly.

The tone shifts quite alarmingly: at first it's a light-hearted tale of plucky misfits versus the big but barely-competent BAC, with a couple of familiar minor characters for those who've read the Company novels. But towards the end things shift into a more serious mode, as BAC's replacement starts shoving the settlers off their land. And the ending combines dramatic tension with a cause for that tension that comes out of nowhere and feels practically farcical.

This seems like a skeleton of a book; it's already been fleshed out from the original novella, but it starts in the middle of things and ends in a spray of "five years down the line"s rather than being a full story from start to end. Well, if we've read the other books, we know what happened to Mars Two in the end; and although that's quite far in the future at this point, the author's awareness of it echoes through the story, giving a sense of no-happy-endings that's quite at odds with the cheerful building and dealing-with-bad-guys that's going on here.

It's all right, and quite enjoyable, but it's nothing like the splendid shock to the system that the Company novels were.

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