In the closing years of the 23rd Century, the British Arean Company, a private corporation, establishes first human colony on Mars. How do the Brits get there first? Find out in Kage Baker's new novel.
Expanded from a 2003 novella of the same name originally published by Night Shade Books, The Empress of Mars came out in a novel-length form from Subterranean Press and is now available in a more affordable hardcover from Tor. This standalone novel is set in the same world as Baker's Company novels, where we follow the entertaining adventures of time-hopping immortal cyborgs working for a nefarious 24th Century cabal of scientists and industrialists. Readers unfamiliar with these stories will enjoy The Empress of Mars on its own merits, but I highly recommend picking up more of the Company novels, too.
As the novel opens, Great Britain isn't what she used to be. Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have hooked up with Brittany and others to form an independent Celtic Federation. The English, along with most of the rest of the First World, have settled into cozy oppressive nanny states. Alcohol, tobacco, animal-derived foods and products are all forbidden. There is pervasive disfavor towards organized religion, most literature, team sports, or anything else that might cause uncomfortable thoughts or angry up the blood. The one somewhat accepted religion is the powerful Ephesian Church, a synthesis of various neopagan matriarchal "traditions" just as ridiculous as the overgrown political correctness that dominates the secular world. Citizens displaying undesirable traits like recurrent violence, constant moodiness, or just a fondness for monster movies are sent to Hospital where they can be kept from disturbing decent society. The New Celts gleefully still practice certain polluting industries and "beast slavery" — keeping livestock or pets, mostly just to piss off the English. I suspect they kept all the best music too. The Celts have a very profitable black-market trade in wine and cheese back on Earth.
Unlike some high-and-mighty nations we could mention, the British space exploration program never had to rely on the variable whims and fortunes of its military; also, working with metric measurements was never a cause for confusion. Besides, those tiny, sheep-infested islands of tin miners and fisherfolk have trumped mighty empires before.
But sadly, the Martian Settlement proves to be quite a disappointment to the British Arean Company. The BAC invested billions and transported a workforce of rugged individualists and other social misfits. But once there, they fail to find any profit. Technical miscalculations concerning Mars' lack of a magnetosphere render the expensive fusion reactors they sent useless (I suspect some handwaving here). This lack also keeps the honeybees from following their ancient instincts, the Settlement's greenhouse crops must be pollinated by pricey microrobots called "biis". To top it off there are really no resources worth shipping back to Earth or Luna aside from the rare fossils prized by wealthy collectors. The bubble bursts, terraforming projects are shelved and the BAC cuts its losses. Hundreds of scientists and technicians are laid off with no ticket back Down Home, especially the eccentric volunteers from Hospital or problematic Ethnics like the Celts.
Among the stranded is xenobotanist and single parent of three teenage girls, Mary "Mother" Griffith. Fed up with the dog's breakfast that Earth society has become, she takes her severence package and pursues the only logical solution, she buys a small dome at the edge of the Settlement and opens a bar called The Empress of Mars. This fine establishment brews the finest – okay, only – beer on the whole of the Tharsis Bulge and has a loyal clientèle of the new Martians. There are the rowdy members of Clan Morrigan, an agricultural collective from the Celtic Federation, disparaged by the English settlers as Medievalists with their clanking & smoking blacksmithy, beast slavery (they actually eat *shudder* animals) and wanton ways. The Clan is led, just barely, by the boisterous and blustering Cochevelou; I couldn't read his parts without thinking of Brian Blessed. Thunderous Cochevelou is devoted to his son Perrick, who couldn't be less like his father if they were different species. This pale, tiny man-child cringes at his father's rough embraces preferring to keep busy with his beloved gadgets, especially his new improved biis -– what a clever little fellow Perrick is.
Mary Griffith also enjoys a dedicated following among the Ice Haulers, the lowest caste of Martian society, without whom the Settlement could never exist. These hard-drivin' muthatruckers push their bigger-than-big rigs on the perilous route from the Poles and back, with the frozen cargo essential to all life on Mars. Every enormous man and woman of the Ice Haulers —with hair and skin permeated with the red, wind-driven fines of the Martian sands — follow The Brick, their mountainous spokesman who has a sagacity and incalculable shrewdness to match his impressive bulk. This dood is just too cool for school.
Living with and working for Mother Griffith and her pretty — and sometimes overly friendly – daughters, are other castoffs from the BAC. Let us regard poor Mr. Morton, a brilliant architect who spent much of his life in Hospital due to his youthful interest in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. His friend Manco Inca, was recruited for the Mars venture for his brilliant terraforming concepts and Andean physiology but was kicked to the red dust curb for his adherence to a very unique view of Catholicism. The Nepalese journalist Chiring has sworn to stay on Mars and report about his fellow Martians despite a nagging revuslsion towards certain "unenlightened" local customs. And let us not forget The Heretic in the kitchen, this confused young woman with her ocular implant and Cassandra-like utterances, who was driven out from the Ephesian Church. Ms. Griffith still worships the Goddess in her own way and tries to protect the Heretic from the self-righteous priestesses of the Church.
The Empress of Mars fights to keep open, against the efforts of the Settlement director, who would rather all these weirdos just "go away". Mother gains an advantage when she makes a remarkable discovery sparking off a land rush comparable to the California and Klondike Gold Rushes. Shuttle flights increase geometrically, bringing the hopeful, desperate, and greedy — as well as con-men extrordinaire and legal sharks, to prey on the unwary. There are also incurable romantics such as Ottorino Vespucci who turned his back on his family's mercantile empire to find his dreams of living in the Wild West on the red frontier of Mars. Will Mother Griffith and the gang find a way to preserve their independence amid the sudden population explosion? Their struggle for survival may shape the very future of the Red Planet.
It would be easy to look for comparisons to Moving Mars by Greg Bear or the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. The Empress of Mars reminds me more of Robinson's Antarctica, both describe communities of smart, highly-trained, and occasionally batshit insane people in a hostile environment cut off from the normal world. To borrow a line from Antarctica about the advantage a woman has in this sort of situation, "The odds are good, but goods are odd".The male to female ratio in such populations can grant an enterprising woman a power and prestige she may not receive in mainstream society.
The feel of frontier society runs strong in The Empress of Mars. The reader might find fond comparisons with Steinbeck's Cannery Road and Twain's Roughing It with sly humor and vivid, memorable characters. There are rough patches in the writing. Some passages definitely feel inserted to stretch the adventure to novel-length. The climax also feels very sudden — bang, and it's all over. I really would have enjoyed more stories of Kage Baker's Martians. I suppose I'll just make do with her two short stories set after the events in The Empress of Mars. Those stories are "Maelstrom" in the New Space Opera (Eos, 2007) and "Where the Golden Apples Grow" in Escape From Earth (Firebird, 2008).
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE!
Kage Baker's The Women of Nell Gwynne's (Subterranean Press, June 2009) is a new novella also set in the richly imagined world of her Company novels. This is a fast-paced racy adventure of Victorian Age secret-agents, astonishing mechanical prodigies, and of course — murder!
"Lady Beatrice" is the steel-willed daughter of a British officer serving her Majesty's interest in India and Afghanistan. A series of Cruel Events leaves her cast out from proper society and penniless on the streets of London, a member of the Oldest Profession. Refusing to let Fate grind her down, Lady Beatrice stands apart from the common round-heeled doxys. She recognizes her body and mind as tools and weapons to be employed to her own advantage. The clever-crafted eyes of a certain Mrs. Corvey catch this potential and the not quite crippled widow recruits the fiery Lady Beatrice into Nell Gwynne's, Britain's most exclusive academy of amatory arts.
Unbeknownst to its distinguished clientèle, Nell Gwynne's is more than a high-end brothel. The talented young ladies also act as the highly regarded espionage ring for the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, the 19th Century's version of a very influential and mysterious Company. Employing their obvious charms and some very peculiar technologies the women of Nell Gwynne's mine the most eminent skulls of the Empire for valuable secrets.
Despite the fantastic elements and twists The Women of Nell Gwynne's feels faithful to the Victorian Period. One of Kage Baker's great strengths is her brilliance in presenting other time periods. As a writer, educator, and actress she lives and breathes history. She captures not just the little details and mannerisms of daily life but the deeply held attitudes of her characters whether from 1844, 1604, or the 24th Century. Subterranean's Deluxe Hardcover Edition won't be for everyone's budget but if you get a chance pick up The Women of Nell Gwynne's. It's a witty steampunk thriller as if written by Ian Fleming's crazy libertine aunt. I am hopeful we will see more of Lady Beatrice and her sisters in espionage.
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT...
Tachyon Publications is releasing their first kids' book, called The Hotel Under the Sand by Kage Baker. Although ideally suited for readers between the ages of 9 and 12, babysitters, parents, and other boring people will also enjoy sharing this magical adventure.
The main character is a girl named Emma, who washes up on a desolate seacoast after losing all she knows and loves. (Why is it that orphans always get the cool adventures in books?) As she tries to find food and shelter on the empty Dunes, she meets a ghost named Winston in a bellhop uniform. Together they rediscover a glorious old hotel called the Grand Wenlocke.
The hotel has been buried beneath the Dunes for a hundred years — perfectly preserved by a brass-geared stasis machine. Inside they find the hotel's kindly cook, Mrs. Beet (she has an eyepatch!) and her dog who have been frozen in time. They are joined by Captain Doubloon, a grizzled old sea captain – not a pirate, really – with a pegleg, a parrot, and an eyepatch (why do all the cool grownups get eyepatches?) Just to keep things from getting dull, out of the skies on a homemade flying machine comes young Masterman Wenlocke. He's the last heir of the hotel's builder, a mechanical genius, and total brat, who escaped a boarding school and his greedy Legal Guardian (no eyepatch on that guy). The five new friends decide to reopen the beautiful hotel and look for its fabulous treasure. At the Grand Reopening, it seems appropriate that a hotel as odd as the Grand Wenlocke would attract guests who seem to have come from the pages of myth and legend. Wait 'til you meet them, they're really strange.
This was not too long, and is pretty easy too read with just the right amount of long words that clever readers would like looking up. Ms. Baker has written something like an Edwardian storybook by E. Nesbit but still suitable for modern tastes and attention-spans. There are also some beautiful and ethereal illustrations by fantasy artist Stephanie Pui-Mun Law. The Hotel Under the Sand is smart and funny, filled with old-fashioned wonder but never sappy. I think this would be perfect for a week's worth of bedtime stories or curling up with on a rainy afternoon.
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Commenter Grey_Area is known as Christopher Hsiang to Thuvia, Barmaid of Mars. He so totally wants an eyepatch!