The picaresque novel (Spanish: “picaresca”, from “pícaro”, for “rogue” or “rascal“) is a popular sub-genre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts, in realistic and often humorous detail, the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. (Wikipedia: picaresque novel)
The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker (2009) is a novel in the picaresque tradition which features, according to the Wikipwsia definition, ” a roguish hero (sic) who lives by their wits in a corrupt society”. Mary Griffith is clearly a character in the mould of literary heroines like Moll Flanders who ‘make good’ despite the lousy hand fate has dealt them.
As the proprietor of Mars’ one and only bar ‘The Empress of Mars’ Mary needs all of the smarts at her disposal as she juggles the competing demands of motherhood – her three daughters are less than perfect children – running her bar and brewery – and making ends meet on a frontier world where the politics of settlers and The British Arian Company are only slightly less detrimental to survival than the planet’s carbon dioxide atmosphere and freezing temperature.
Baker’s Mary is an engaging character – the kind of person you might be lucky enough to meet in any frontier town. Kate brings with her the baggage of failed marriages, bad romances and unjust treatment by the bureaucrats and flunkies who populate company towns, or in this case, a company planet.
Mary is also a disbarred priestess of the Daughters of the Goddess, proving that the sisterhood are, if anything, as controlling as their counterparts in British Arean Company who sacked Mary when she worked as a xenobiologist designing lichen meant to aid in terraforming the planet. Made redundant, Mary survives by providing beverages and hospitality in her bar, The Empress of Mars, to the various trades, tribes and tricksters who have found a refuge on the Red Planet.
The novel put me in mind of all of the pioneer women whose hardships and contributions to building society are all too quickly forgotten or pushed aside in the rush to construct narratives of male heroism and daring. Baker’s commitment to telling the pioneering female characters’ side of the story is one of The Empress of Mars unique elements contributing much to its strong characterisation and plausible scenerio.
Mary’s friends, family and shifting allies are as intriguing as she is. They fight the insanity of a for-profit world that really hasn’t ever been profitable. Baker constructs a rough and ready pioneering society complete with its ‘types’: the company is brutal, indifferent and plausible in the way of mining companies and their ilk who, when given license to operate according to their own lights, will do as their lack of conscience dictates; the Haulers, who live dangerous lives doing the essential work of hauling ice from the polar ice-caps to furnish the colony’s water supply; the opportunistic Celtic Clans and the smattering of dreamers and desperadoes who have immigrated to Mars to make their fortunes or hide from their crimes.
Baker’s exploration of how science and society are derailed by short-term politics is timely theme – the halted terraforming project which may bear fruit for the future has been shelved because the company foresees no profits from the venture. Mary Garret’s frustration at the corruption and negligence of the company is a comment on the short-term graft and grab of politicians intent only on securing financial advantage while short changing the majority.
The Empress of Mars is, however, an optimistic exploration of these themes. It reminds us that circumstances can change and that those who can outlast and outplay the power players and cynics long enough are in with a fighting chance when the pedulum swings the other way. And the situation on Mars does shift and Mary Griffith and her cohort of outcasts and rebels find themselves in a position to make improvements – if only they can hold their nerve.
The Empress of Mars is an impressive novel. Baker’s ability to describe accurately and sympathetically the machinations of the various factions and characters is delightful. For me, her elaboration of the politics and dynamics of the new society is as interesting as the science and vision of the future underlying it.
The characters are an unpredictable lot – sometimes their own worst enemies – all too caught up in the perverse pursuit of their own short-sighted agendas yet trapped in a common plight.
A cast of idiosyncratic misfits make for a great reading: ‘the Brick’, Manco the mad artist who sculpts roses from his own blood, De Wit – Mary’s righthand and barman, Cochevelou the canny clan leader, the exiled mystic ‘the Heretic’, all give colour and energy to the story of a society fighting to establish itself and to the story of the Mary Griffiths, the woman who is the heart and soul of the struggle for a better world.
Kage Baker died in 2010. It is a testimony to her storytelling prowess that her work continues to entertain and inspire her readers and other writers.
For more about Kage Baker visit: www.kagebaker.com/
The novella of The Empress of Mars (2003) later expanded to novel-length appears in Asimov’s Science Fiction: www.asimovs.com/_issue_0406/empressofmars.shtml