Tuesday, June 21, 2011

2011 Hugo Nominee: Novelette - "The Emperor of Mars" by Allen M. Steele (Asimov's, June 2010)

I’m pretty sure this story is based on the life of real-life historical figure Emperor Norton, a mentally ill immigrant to San Francisco who declared himself Emperor of the United States in 1859. San Francisco, being San Francisco, obliged and unofficially recognized him as such until his death in 1880. We get a similar case in this story, though it’s transported to a blue-collar 21st century Martian colony.

Steele uses the new setting to ring some added poignancy to the situation. It’s not just the position that troubled worker Jeff Halbert invents, but a whole lost Mars of canals, ancient civilizations, and heroic Martians; it's a Mars lost not only to science’s understanding of the planet’s lifeless nature, but also to fiction, as sf writers abandoned Martian fantasies with probes’ explorations of its surface.

Steele also uses the setting to reference a lot of the past fiction about the red planet, as he uses the real-life Phoenix DVD, a collection of science fiction stories landed with a probe there in 2008. A lot of this just amounts to name-checking, but it does add to the overarching sense of Martian nostalgia that he evokes.

This story felt old-fashioned in several ways. A productive, blue-collar Martian colony by 2048 seems pretty optimistic in the current atmosphere, but the setting feels pretty familiar to readers of ‘50s sf. The portrayal of mental illness feels a bit old-fashioned as well, but Steele's obviously going for drama over realism. I can’t say there’s anything groundbreaking or revolutionary about this story, but I did thoroughly enjoy it. And I guess that’s what matters most.

Grade: B+

No comments:

Post a Comment