BOOK REVIEW | The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker Image

The Empress of Mars
By Kage Baker
Trade paperback, 304 pages
Tor (2009), $10.87

The Empress of Mars was written by the late Kage Baker (June 10, 1952 — January 31, 2010; 1st name pronounced like ‘cage’). It started out as a novella (Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine July 2003), which won the 2004 Theodore Sturgeon Award and was nominated for a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award, but was later expanded into the full-length novel published in 2009 that I review here.

The Empress of Mars is not Martian royalty. This is not Barsoom, the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs. You won’t find a John Carter-type hero fighting native Martians and rescuing princesses within these pages, though Baker does pay homage to Burroughs’ Mars tales. Tars Tarkas makes an appearance as the Martian Santa Claus, for example.

No, The Empress of Mars is a restaurant and bar owned by one Mary Griffith, an early settler of Mars and former biological scientist. A tough, motherly figure, Mary Griffith embodies the rugged individualism and pioneer spirit that pervades Baker’s The Empress of Mars. Baker’s tale is more scientifically literate than Burroughs’, and qualifies (mostly at least, see below) as hard science fiction, leavened with superior writing and humor. It is set some unspecified time after the year 2186 — marking a past event, the year the Kutuzov expedition discovered Olympus Mons is not an extinct shield volcano, it was the only date I recall seeing in the novel.

The story revolves around Mary, her three daughters, and a host of other quirky characters, some of whom she takes under her wing, others she befriends or does business with, as they deal with at first neglect by and then interference from the bureaucrats of the British Arean Company (BAC).

As Baker tells it, the colonization of Mars was left open to the private sector as governments lost interest in the planet in the wake of offworld missile bans. Typical of governments, eh? At any rate, the British Arean Company is responsible for the early colonization of Mars. The status of large corporations is rather ambiguous throughout the novel, however. In the brief first chapter, Baker, in third-person omniscient narration, suggests the colonization effort did not greatly benefit from the infusion of taxpayer money. On the other hand, the British Arean Company struck me as analogous to the historical East India Trading Company. Its large size and dominance (its sister or parent company dominated Lunar colonization too), ability to get away with engaging in misleading and false advertising and with screwing over its employees, bureaucratic incompetence, and lack of entrepreneurial zeal leads the politically and economically-savvy reader to suspect it must benefit significantly from government aid in some way, if not direct funding then perhaps by favorable regulations and laws, monopoly franchises such as a royal charter, and so forth. Also, while the first chapter suggests the BAC is part of the private sector, later in the story a character explicitly contrasts the BAC with the private sector.

And the BAC does appear to benefit from government subsidies, if not of a directly monetary kind. Reading the first chapter of the novel, the tone used to describe the rugged individualists who became the first colonists seemed at first to be rather snidely derogatory. For example, the sentence “The psychiatric Hospitals were filling up with unemployed rugged individualists again.” But we later find out that Earth governments are actually putting large numbers of people into state-run psychiatric hospitals (such as the Winksley Hospital for the Psychologically Suspect), diagnosing them as Eccentric and incurably twisted as early as the age of 10, for such victimless “crimes” as daring to read Edgar Allan Poe. Such eccentrics and individualists made up a large portion of the early Mars colonists. You can be sure Earth governments would be happy to be rid of them, wouldn’t care what happened to them on Mars, and wouldn’t want them back.

Indeed, the Earth that the colonists are leaving for a better life sounds like a bleak, progressive, collectivist,  near-totalitarian hellhole. Raising cattle, eating meat, and competitive sports seem to be widely considered to be barbaric — the former being referred to as “beast slavery” and the latter being seen as degrading social violence. The pioneering spirit has been lost. Birth rates are declining. NeoMaoists are winning seats in the Nepali parliament, perhaps elsewhere as well. There are, unsurprisingly to a libertarian, agricultural crises plaguing the homeworld. What about the moon? Is there no refuge there? Well, the moon was rendered unprofitable by miners’ strikes and litigation, done in as a frontier by bureaucrats and missionaries. There’s a FemiNazi, Anti-Christian, Anti-Alcohol Neo-Pagan religious organization called the Ephesian Church that expanded from Earth to take over half of Luna from the British Lunar Company in a duplicitous lawsuit and is now seeking a foothold on Mars. They apparently have their own version of the inquisition going on, complete with an Orwellian “House of Gentle Persuasion.”

The BAC would screw over its highly-skilled employees too, firing them as soon as they had completed their work. Only the bureaucrats of the BAC Mars administration received enough “redundancy pay” to purchase a return ticket to Earth. And the company would look for any underhanded excuse in the fine print to fire employees: e.g., for sleeping around, for being a practicing Christian. The Edinburgh Treaty between the Celtic Federation and England, overseen by the Tri-Worlds Settlement Bureau, established leased allotments of acreage for colonists, ultimately owned by the BAC, that the colonists must keep in cultivation or risk it reverting back to the BAC. And, naturally, the BAC would leap at opportunities to reclaim land it felt was not being sufficiently cultivated. Other BAC tactics included threatening or employing audits, public health inspectors, and enforcing licensing permits.

But never one to give up without a fight, Mary used her “redundancy pay” to open The Empress of Mars, the first and only bar on the planet, and kickstart a thriving barter economy between her group, the incorporated celtic Clan Morrigan led by Cochevelou, the ice haulers, con man extraordinaire Stanford Crosley, and others. The colonists of Mars are a resourceful lot, as they must be, creatively turning even waste products into goods for trade and profit. The stonecast beer mugs used at The Empress are cleaned by sand abrasion, since water is scarce on Mars. Over time this wears them thin and imparts a silky polish. Instead of throwing them away when they get too delicate, they are sold as “Finest Arean Porcelain” to guests and tourists. The sludge, or gudge, left over in the bottom of the fermentation tanks are traded as fertilizer. Some of the colonists develop some innovative technology as well out of necessity.


When Mary accidentally discovers a large and valuable diamond on her leased property, a diamond rush reminiscent of the California Gold Rush is jumpstarted. Soon prospectors start appearing in numbers and things really begin to pick up. New companies and business partnerships are formed by old and newly arriving colonists. Rival corporations from Earth start to take an interest in Mars as well; not all of which are portrayed negatively like the BAC. Indeed, some are portrayed in a positive light and as wildly successful, particularly the smaller enterprises of the rugged individualists. But the anti-profit Martian Agricultural Collective, a bunch of atheist socialists, are among the new settlers as well.

There isn’t really a central, monopolistic legal system on colonial Mars, particularly given the alternately neglectful and obstructive BAC. So, given the harsh and precarious conditions of life on a distant and alien frontier, the colonists have every incentive to resolve disputes among themselves peacefully and to mutual satisfaction. I got the impression crime was rare and serious crimes, like murder, were unheard of. Most deaths occurred because of stupidity, ignorance, or bad luck regarding the hazards posed by Mars itself. One character remarks that those who survived did so because they were able to make friends and join families, including what we might call fraternal societies as well as artificial extended “families” such as Clan Morrigan. Indeed, this is the secret to Mary’s success. The Martian colonists get along just fine without the state. And insofar as government has any presence on Mars, through the BAC, it does nothing but cause harm and impede progress.

There are some particularly amusing moments involving the aforementioned Mars Agricultural Collective (MAC). At one point, their spokesmen complain to the BAC administrator on Mars that the land he had given them is unsuitable for farming. He must have given them the worst agricultural land available. No no, the bureaucrat informs them, he had in fact given them the best farmland. The BAC had given the worst agricultural land to the original colonists and had been saving the good stuff for more preferred settlers such as themselves. The BAC had been sitting on the better land, letting it go to waste, for 10 years, mind you. Another example of their neglect. Quite naturally the socialists express disbelief that the enterprising, profit-seeking Celts could do so well with worse land.

There is a great meta passage on p. 187 (chapter 19) about the naively statist and utopian streak in early science fiction:

“What did mankind imagine, when it first contemplated its flight into the stars?” [Chiring] intoned into his recorder, in Nepali. “A brief examination of early science fiction reveals a touching confidence in state-supported technology. Giant equipment was envisioned, perhaps run by humanoid robots, as silver-clad settlers watched from the comfort of their rocket ships. Atomic space-age life would be effortless and clean! No one thought for a moment of sweat, blisters, or shovels. Will humanity continue its voyages among the stars when it understands the labor involved?”

I hope so. In fact, I think those who retain a pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit, those intransigent rugged individualists, will be driven to “the final frontier.” There always seems to be some such people. Increasingly statist societies only give them more incentive to head for the stars. Perhaps the hope for a future libertarian society lies in space, where vast distances work against central control and the frontier necessitates and rewards our values.


The novel ends on a rather bum note, however, with the last paragraph mentioning “what a good socialist work ethic will get you” and briefly describing the farming successes and expansion of the socialist Martian Agricultural Collective, who, it is suggested a little earlier in the novel, are finally going to implement (over the course of generations, mind you) Manco’s (an original colonist, former BAC employee, and follower of Mary) ambitious terraforming plan that the British Arean Company rejected. Here, the author demonstrates a profound ignorance of economics in positing that a socialist system could actually produce and maintain a good work ethic and that a socialist collective could work as well as or better than private enterprise. Granted we’re not told how these socialists are organized politically and economically. But  I saw no reason to think the author was implying some “libertarian” conception of socialism. Ultimately the result of including the MAC in the story is to muddle the economic landscape and mar what was otherwise a good, entertaining novel.

The Empress of Mars is supposed to be a standalone novel set in the world of Kage Baker’s Company series of historical time travel science fiction. I haven’t read any of the stories in this series, but I didn’t notice any elements in the story that clearly referenced it — with one exception. I mentioned in the beginning of this review that this novel is mostly hard science fiction. The one element of the story that I think necessarily references the Company series (I could be missing others) is also the main, or only, exception to an otherwise hard science fiction novel. A couple of scenes suggest, but don’t explicitly tell us, that the influential ice hauler, Brick, may be one of the immortal cyborg employees of The Company. Personally, I think the novel could have done without this element because it otherwise seems like a very good, self-contained story and, unless you’re somewhat familiar with Baker’s Company series, the scenes in question are suggestive of the supernatural rather than science fiction.

4.5 / 5 stars     

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About the Author

Geoffrey Allan Plauché Executive Editor

Geoffrey is an Aristotelian-Liberal political philosopher, an adjunct instructor for Buena Vista University, the founder and executive editor of Prometheus Unbound, and the webmaster of The Libertarian Standard. His work has appeared in Libertarian Papers, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, the Journal of Value Inquiry, and Transformers and Philosophy. He lives in Edgewood, KY with his wife and two children.

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