The Empress of Mars…in 60 Seconds

SF author Kage Baker, whose latest novel is The Empress of Mars (Tor Books), told that the book has its origins in the fact that her sister, who ran a small sort of ad hoc tavern for actors, ran into some difficulties with certain corporate lackeys who shall remain nameless.

“I had always been drawn to the idea of writing a story set on Mars, and I thought it might be fun to write about Kate’s tavern in science fictional terms,” Baker said in an interview. “Then someone gave me a copy of Vaughn Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica, which is perfect music for envisioning the Martian landscape. It all came together.”

The novel tells the story of what happens when Mars is colonized by a corporation that then goes bankrupt. “Such things have happened before—busted corporations stranded a lot of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century colonists in remote parts of the world,” Baker said. “The colonists on Mars are stuck up there with no money to come home, and their situation is not exactly desperate but certainly squalid. One woman makes ends meet by keeping a bar and bartering for goods. Then she finds a diamond and becomes the richest woman on the planet. Everything changes.”

The protagonist is Mary Griffith, hired on originally as a xenobotanist, made redundant with no ticket home. “She has three very different daughters, whom she wants to see married off,” Baker said. “She is a survivor, a nurturer in a brusque way, short-tempered and grimly determined to defeat the corporate lackeys who are trying to close down her bar.”

In writing the novel, Baker drew on a lot of characters from real life. “About half of them are portraits of people I have known,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of fairly insane, talented, funny friends who don’t quite fit in polite society.”

For the novel, which is based on the 2003 novella of the same name, Baker naturally had to heavily research Mars. “I’m gratified that some of the guesses I made (like Mars having water) have since been backed up by the Rovers,” she said. “I swear, if I were ever by some miracle to bear twins, I’d name them Spirit and Opportunity. I have a friend in the Mars Society, Gerry Williams, who has been very helpful too, giving me a copy of Hartmann’s A Traveler’s Guide to Mars.”

Baker said that doing the worldbuilding for the book was fun. “Mars is a perfect place to take a failed sterile colony and model its progress from gritty frontier town to developing mom ‘n’ pop capitalist enterprise,” she said. “Especially when people bring their own expectations to Mars: for some characters it’s Barsoom, for other characters it’s the Old West, for others still it’s an agrarian socialist utopia watered by Schiaparelli’s canals. There are hints that the God of Old Mars is watching, throwing in a bit of magic realism.”

Although the novel is a standalone story, Baker said she hopes to write more stories set on the Red Planet. “Really,” she said, “you can’t beat human drama on an alien world as a topic, can you?”


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