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The Empress Of Mars by Kage Baker

01/12/2009. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy The Empress Of Mars (A Company Novel) in the USA - or Buy The Empress Of Mars (A Company Novel) in the UK

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pub: TOR/SciFi Channel. 303 page hardback. Price: $25.95 (US) $32.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-1890-9.

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What happens when you reach the end of a popular series, whether it is in books or on TV? Once upon a time, it slowly faded from memory. Unless, of course, the author was Arthur Conan Doyle and you had just killed Sherlock Holmes. Public demand meant that Conan Doyle had to bring his hero back from the dead. The same thing happened with Buffy The Vampire Slayer, this time with the Internet helping the campaign. Sometimes, it is the author that needs resurrecting. If a successful series ends, it is the cast that is missed rather than the creator. Canny authors such as Laurell K. Hamilton and Charlaine Harris begin a series with another set of characters while still writing the one that got them noticed. That way, the reading public is already enchanted with the next series and there is no problem. Other authors fade from sight and the bookshelves unless they can find a way to re-engage their readers. The answer might be to go back and write about characters hinted at in the pre-history of a series as Katherine Kurtz with her Deryni books or the world view can be adopted for separate novels set against the same backdrop, a device exploited by Iain M. Banks in his 'Culture' novels.

Kage Baker takes a slightly different approach. In her novel 'The Sons Of Heaven', she completed the sequence about the Company, including explaining exactly what happened in 2355. The series chronicled the life of Mendoza, a Spanish girl saved from the inquisition by the Company. Their operatives, who came from the future, made her and others into immortal cyborgs and trained them to preserve plants, animals and artefacts that became extinct or lost to be re-discovered in the future. The motives were not entirely philanthropic. Money came into it, too. In any good series, there are a lot of little throwaway ideas or events referred to in passing without details being revealed. Baker has taken one of these and told the back story in this novel, 'The Empress Of Mars'.

After the failed (in monetary terms) colonisation of the Moon, the British moved their attention to Mars. The British Arean Company (BAC) had hoped to find mineral wealth there. Manco had originally been employed to draw up plans for terraforming the planet, until they decided that his network of canals would be too expensive. Gene biologist Mary Griffith had been given similar treatment. She and her three daughters were now stranded on the planet. Each settler had originally been allocated a parcel of land to farm but hers was particularly mean. So, with Manco's help she built a bar and manufactured beer.

No-one in their right mind would volunteer to be the first colonists of a planet with such poor soil, a problem with heating and water supplies and with almost no air. As a result, the workforce consisted mainly of misfits, gleaned from the Hospitals where social deviants were held. This is the start of the 24th century and one would expect that solutions to genetic and mental disorders would have been found. Instead, society seems to be even more in tolerant than the puritans of Cromwell's era. The men who drive the trucks that haul ice from the poles to settlement base are high on brawn but often low on intelligence. Yet the Mars community is close knit against the bureaucracy of the BAC. The domed fields are fertilised with sludge from the brew tanks and latrines. Robotic biis, devised by an autistic member of Clan Morrigan, pollinate the crops. It is a tough life but it works.

The first part of this novel was originally a Hugo-nominated novella. It sets up the situation, introduces Mary, her family and house guests and members of Clan Morrigan. It also sees the arrival of a lawyer from Earth who is on the side of the colonists, an adventurer who sets up a casino and the finding of the first diamond on Mars.

There have been a number of books over the years, such as Arthur C. Clarke's 'Tales Of The White Hart' which have been set in a bar. Either they are stories told by the visitors or, as in the case of Larry Niven's 'The Draco Tavern', where the landlord is a focus of events. 'The Empress Of Mars' resembles the latter and in the later parts of this book, the action can be regarded as a series of incidents.

To find the connections with Zeus Incorporated, the company of the series the reader needs to be familiar with the series. If they are, they will notice the appearance of William Nennius in Chapter 11, he is one of the Company's operatives, manipulating history along the path that it is known to take. This may satisfy the need to tie this book into a long running series, but it is unnecessary. 'The Empress Of Mars' has a lot of good things going for it. The life of the colonists and their tribulations is vividly painted. It is as scientifically as accurate as it is possible to be at this remove, giving the characters real problems to cope with as well as the inevitable squabble with the BAC that wants to control anything profitable. While it is nice to see the British being credited with the enterprise and foresight to actually put the money in to such a venture, it is a shame that all the members of that company are portrayed as buffoons and money grabbers. The balance is very uneven.

Overall, this would have been a better novel if Zeus Incorporated had been kept out of it and Baker had been shown to a good Science Fiction without the props of the series that brought her to the attention of her readers.

Pauline Morgan

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