Transwarp Tuesday! The Emperor of Mars by Allen M Steele

best new SF 24“…red like a fire on a distant shore…”


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


Approaching Dust Storm on Mars by Ludek Pesek
Approaching Dust Storm on Mars by Ludek Pesek

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.

The Phoenix DVD - called Visions of Mars - on Mars
The Phoenix DVD – called Visions of Mars – on Mars

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 The base computers can no longer play this outdated technology, but Jeff manages to find some old kit stored away and eventually manages to access the disc.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.”

© Universal Pictures Mars attacks Earth - Flash Gordon and his scientist friend Doctor Zarkov prepare to impersonate the caped soldiers of Ming the Merciless, ruler of Mars.
© Universal Pictures
Mars attacks Earth – Flash Gordon and his scientist friend Doctor Zarkov prepare to impersonate the caped soldiers of Ming the Merciless, ruler of Mars.

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!

Alex Schomburg Image of Mars, 1954 Alex Schomburg's cover for Donald A. Wolheim's "Secret of the Martian Moons" (1954) combined the most accurate telescopic observations of the time with Percival Lowell's canals.
Alex Schomburg
Image of Mars, 1954
Alex Schomburg’s cover for Donald A. Wolheim’s “Secret of the Martian Moons” (1954) combined the most accurate telescopic observations of the time with Percival Lowell’s canals.

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: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

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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.

40 thoughts on “Transwarp Tuesday! The Emperor of Mars by Allen M Steele

  1. FictionFan – What is it about Mars that holds our fascination? I’ve often wondered about that. And there’s been so much written about it that I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding lots of material for this feature.


  2. Stellar review, for sure! What a cover to the book. You know, I’d never suppose you’d read something like that. Oh well.

    The first paragraph had me chuckling. Well crafted, I think.

    The professor would hate to travel into space.


    • Woohoo! A stellar! Thank you! Yeah, I don’t really know why I stopped reading sci-fi – I used to read loads.

      Did it make you add The Martian to your TBR? And Equilateral? (Of course, I’ve already got them both on your list at this end. *giggles*)

      Really? Oh, I always wanted to go into space. I really thought that we’d all be going to the moon for vacations by now. It’s the biggest disappointment of my life that I’ll never set foot on another planet. Unless I get abducted by aliens…


        • Yes, but not sci-fi! I think I’ve only read about three sci-fi books in all the time I’ve been blogging.

          *laughing even more* Poor Sweety-Pumpkin-Pie! FF is very cruel, isn’t she? If I were you, I’d hire a hitman…

          Oooh! Will you please, pretty please, abduct me then?


            • Well…yes… *tries not to look pitying*

              Anyway, I’ve stopped feeling bad about it, ‘cos I remembered you made me listen to jazz…and watch John Wayne…and watch American football! (Where’s the number of that hitman…?)

              Nah! She’d probably help me pack…


            • That’s okay. I sometimes like pity.

              But didn’t you like all that? (That’s the 4th time you wanted to kill me!)

              You can’t bring anything when you’re abducted! Women…


            • But maybe I should be envious rather than pitying – the Professor has the joy of all these books ahead of him.

              Well, most of it, eventually…but you’ll like The Martian too! (I don’t! The hitman just throws custard pies at his victims…)

              No luggage!! Oh, I’ll have to give this some thought…


            • But I’m so old. I probably won’t live to read most of them.

              Yes, I know I will. But John Carter isn’t in it… (Really? Nice. By the way, are you making me the pie you promised?)

              You can bring a knife if you like.


            • That’s true! Especially not at the rate you read them… *chuckles wickedly*

              There are lots of good books that John Carter isn’t in, you know. (Hmm…I fear the Professor must be confusing me with one of his ladies. I’m quite sure I never offered to make a pie…)

              A cake-knife? Aliens do eat cake, don’t they?


            • Unless I have to stay alive until I finish the mission. That sounds like something that might happen to a warrior.

              One of his ladies? John Carter wasn’t that special as a character, I mean. (Oh no, I’m not. It’s just the professorish way of telling you a cherry pie would be nice.)

              Hmm…no, they run cruel experiments, I hear. You should bring your bowie.


            • Well, that would be good! You’d be immortal! (An infinity of reading books – poor C-W-W! *chuckles*)

              Yes. He thought he was, though. (Believe me, a cherry pie as baked by FF would not be nice. I shall pass your request on to BUS…)

              What crueller experiment could there be than abducting someone and then denying them cake?!


            • Hmm…I don’t hate books! They hate me. And it’s a wonder, too.

              I know! He thought he was special. Dadblame fool! ( *laughs* Cherry pies need a strong hand. BUS would fetch it.)

              Oh, it gets gruesome. Not suitable for your ears.


            • They only hate you because you promise to pay them attention and then leave them languishing on a shelf, gathering the dust of years…

              No luggage and gruesome experiments? Hmm…I think I might change my mind about this whole adventure…


  3. Sounds like one for me. I suppose our generation(s) like Mars because it’s closest and because, when I was young (sigh!), we thought we might be going there.


    • I know – it’s one of my biggest disappointments that we’ll never get off the Earth. But I suspect it was also the canals that made Mars such a magnet for writers, and by the time we knew there was no life there, the tradition of Mars in sci-fi was too well-entrenched…


  4. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone on occasion is good. I like some SF, but only if it is a good story. I feel the same way about cowboy stories.


  5. Now in my cynical way i think you are fascinated by Mars due to a particular helps you work rest and play chocolate bar. Come on, come clean, you thought those canals were chocolate coated and caramel centred, and saw yourself eating your way through them

    I bet if rather than a chocolate bar a medication to slap on childhood chilblains (often red) had been called Mars Chilblain Liniment you would have moved your interest away from the red planet and over to one which is clearly a telecoms factory.


    • Quantum theory suggests that somewhere, in some universe, there must be a planet that’s made entirely of chocolate. I claim it for Scotland! Kirkintilloch, in fact! Of course, once I eat it, it may change the gravitational forces in that part of space, rippling out until eventually the entire universe implodes and all life is destroyed. Mmm…worth it though!


  6. For some reason, I like books that are set on earth. Call me unimaginative, but I find that creating other worlds in my head exceeds the processing capabilities of my data banks. They’re already filled with emotional landscapes. My husband, however, has far less storage for the emotional and far greater storage for the fantastic. Hmmm, a match made in the Goldilocks Zone. 😀


    • My head is the ultimate in recycling equipment – anything that enters it is promptly biodegraded and wafted back into the ether. This leaves a beautifully empty space ready for constant refilling…

      I do like sci-fi to be human-based though – either aliens coming to earth or Earthlings going into space. My tolerance for learning about alien cultures is limited…


  7. I love this review and through reading your Transwarp Tuesday posts I’m beginning to realise that sci-fi isn’t quite the genre I thought it was. I did think it was all about martians , aliens and other strange creatures. This isn’t a good one for me to start with though as I definitely wouldn’t get the references although the premise sounds really interesting.


    • There’s such a crossover between sci-fi and fantasy now that it can be quite hard to tell them apart, but for me sci-fi is pretty much always fundamentally about humanity, and should really be based on the possible. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be aliens and strange planets, but it should be the human interaction that’s the important bit. No, I don’t think this would be a good starter story, but I have high hopes of finding something you’d enjoy as we go through the summer… 🙂


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