When introducing this little sci-fi series a couple of weeks ago, I somehow forgot to mention that I love stories about Mars. Old-fashioned ones, like A Princess of Mars, with aliens and canals; new-fangled ones, like The Martian, based on actual science; new-fangled ones that pretend to be old-fashioned ones, like Ken Kalfus’ Equilateral.
So the first thing I look for in the index of any SF anthology is a mention of the Red Planet. And that’s why this story has been chosen for this week’s…
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The Emperor of Mars by Allen M Steele
The year is 2048. The place is the Arsia Station, the largest of the Mars colonies. Very few of the inhabitants stay in the colony for life; most are on short contracts for two or three years which allow them to earn enough to make a good start in life on their return to Earth. Our narrator is the General Manager of the station and he is telling us how people can be psychologically affected by the separation from family, and how this can be exacerbated if they hear bad news from home. And the example he chooses to illustrate his point is the strange case of Jeff Halbert.
When Jeff hears that his wife and parents have been killed in a car accident, the station’s psychologist fears he may be becoming suicidal so, to divert his mind, he persuades the General Manager to send Jeff on an expedition that, amongst other things, is going to try to locate the Phoenix probe, sent to Mars by NASA in 2008. The trip is successful and they bring back the Phoenix’ robotic arm for the base museum. But Jeff also brings back the DVD that had been sent with Phoenix, containing a library of sci-fi stories about Mars from the 19th and 20th centuries, together with artwork inspired by the Red Planet. The base computers can no longer play this outdated technology, but Jeff manages to find some old kit stored away and eventually manages to access the disc. This all seems quite positive to the psychologist, until Jeff begins to show signs of believing that he can see the Martians described in the classic books he’s reading – HG Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Roger Zelazny et al. And soon he is asking people to call him the Emperor of Mars…
“He is now the Emperor Jeffery the First, sovereign monarch of the Great Martian Empire, warlord and protector of the red planet.” A pause, during which I expected Karl to grin and wink. He didn’t. “He doesn’t necessarily want anyone to bow in his presence,” he added, “but he does require proper respect for the crown.”
To be honest, the plot of this story isn’t as exciting as I’d hoped, although it is interesting. The stuff about the DVD on Phoenix is completely true – it was prepared by the Planetary Society, one of whose founders was Carl Sagan, with the idea of providing a library for future colonists who may one day live on Mars. As well as books and art, it contains clips of radio shows like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds; and parts of the DVD are narrated by Patrick Stewart, aka Cap’n Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise. The story of Jeff’s retreat from the reality of the Mars he is actually on into the fantasies created by these great sci-fi writers is nicely done, and gives the author the opportunity to pay tribute to a lot of people he clearly reveres. Not being an expert in sci-fi, I missed loads of the references but I got enough of them to hold my interest, and the story mentions so many classic Martian tales that it’ll be invaluable to me as I explore strange new genres, seek out new stories and new authors, boldly go where…oh, sorry! I do beg your pardon!
Anyway, as I was saying – a well written and enjoyable story, probably of most interest to existing sci-fi aficionados who will pick up on more of the references, but one which would certainly encourage me to read more of Steele’s work.
Little Green Men Rating:
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Notes and links:
The post heading is a quote from Ken Kalfus’ Equilateral.
The list of texts included on the Phoenix DVD can be seen here.
All pictures on this post other than the book cover are taken from The Planetary Society’s website and the artwork is all included on the Phoenix DVD.