Please note this review is for the 2003 novella The Empress of Mars, not the 2008 novel of the same name.
Edgar Rice Burroughs is most famous for his A Princess of Mars books (or perhaps Tarzan, there is the mainstream after all...). These stories, for all intensive purposes, are wild west adventures that visit the red planet. Numerous parallels existing between the Mars and western America of the 19th century, classic story lines utilizing damsels in distress, wild natives, shoot outs, and wily heroes fill the books. Revisiting the pulp era, Kage Baker’s 2003 novella The Empress of Mars is a light feminist revisioning of Burrough’s conception to positive effect.
Mary Griffith is owner/proprietor/overseer/supervisor/manager/outright boss of the Empress of Mars, a bar-restaurant for weary colonists in Mars’ first domed habitation. An eclectic group of employees at her side, a half-crazy heretic mans the kitchens, a redundant engineer cleans floors and repairs machinery, and a brood of daughters serve drinks, wait tables, and bring joy and life to the watering hole Mary lords over amongst the blowing red sands. Soft when she needs to be, and hard at all others, the woman faces an uphill battle every day. If her meager landholdings are not enough to grow the barley necessary to brew the Empress’s lagers, an English consortium threatens her every other move with restrictions and taxes, keeping her just financial afloat. But one day Mary experiences a huge stroke of luck, and the Empress’s fate shifts in a new direction.
Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, for parts of the novel, presents a realistic vision of Martian colonization, human gravitas lingering in the air. The Empress of Mars is the opposite. A return to the romance of Burrough’s planetary adventure, Baker has a lot of fun with Mary and her fight with the greedy English. The stock supporting characters, the ease of plotting (i.e. lip service paid to plausibility), the jokes, and the mood all feel more at home to sci-fi 70 years ago, rather than 2003 when it was published. The novella is intended to be a fun read, which, if such stories are the reader’s game, is successful.
But for as fun as The Empress of Mars is, Baker likewise has an underlying aim: to subvert Burroughs and other pulp writers’ presentation of female characters. Larger than life yet innate to it, Mary is a ‘real’ hero. She uses her female qualities (not physical ones) to fight the good fight, and in the process forms a mini-revolution the reader believes in. How she bears the heretic, her negotiations with unlikeable neighboring landholders, her openness and relationship with her daughters with patience, and ultimately her unwillingness to back down when she knows she’s in the right conflate to form a character Burroughs never would have dreamed of. Mary is anything but a damsel in distress.
In the end, The Empress of Mars is the story of a Martian rebellion spearheaded by the antithesis of the Burrough’s hero. Mother, proprietor, and woman with a bull heart, Mary Griffith, and how she gets others to rally around her, are the center of the story. In dialogue with A Princess of Mars, Baker proves women can survive in pulp sci-fi—and quite handily. Emphasizing family, friends, and the belief in home, it is a warm story and an easy read.