SciFi Month 2016 – Short Stories: THE EMPEROR OF MARS, by Allen Steele
Short stories are a difficult matter to handle: on one side, they might not give the same satisfactory “density” of a book, on the other they afford you a glimpse into a world, a setting you know you would enjoy – but end all too soon.
Every time I read about some fellow blogger reluctance about reading short stories, I understand, but at the same time I see these smaller offerings as a way to sample authors I have not read yet, without committing to a full book.
For this mont of November dedicated to science fiction, I’ve decided to look up some of the short stories offered online by many sites, and see what I could find. It was a somewhat difficult search, because not all stories were to my taste, but what I found made it all quite worthwhile: my heartfelt thanks to all those online magazines that allowed me to sample such an incredible variety of stories.
The Emperor of Mars, by Allen Steele – from Clarkesworld Magazine
This story deals with madness, and the physical and psychological displacement suffered by space-faring humanity: the premise sees the early colonization of Mars, where the first human settlements are being built by enterprising adventurers. As with modern oil-rig workers, those who accept a two-year stint on Mars – not counting the travel time, that’s limited to the periods when the planet is closest to Earth – do so knowing that their sacrifice will earn them a sizable amount of money with which to start a new life.
But outer space is an unforgiving environment, and the strangeness, the alien-ness of it all, can play tricks on the human mind: as the narrator says, there are many kinds of madness that can infect the unwary human – but the tale he relates is one in which madness is a saving grace.
Jeff Halbert is one of those hopefuls: young and driven by the will to gain enough for himself and his fiancée and their future together, he becomes quickly known for his good-humored dedication and appreciated by co-workers and supervisors – until tragedy strikes. On Earth, his parents and fiancée – and the unborn child she carries – are killed in a car accident: when the news reaches Jeff, he’s only seven months into his 3-year stint and he understandably falls into zombie-like depression, until he’s assigned to an exploratory mission that also retrieves the old Phoenix probe. Inside the probe, he finds an old DVD where the scientist of the Phoenix project uploaded a number of books and stories concerning Mars: losing himself in these old stories, many of which depict a planet that’s quite different from the one where Jeff lives and works, he builds a wall around himself and his pain, forgetting his day-to-day harsh reality thanks to a fictional dream-world.
To say I loved this story would be a huge understatement: what looks like a sad tale about loss and displacement transforms into something a reader of speculative fiction can relate to – the need to lose oneself, now and then, in a place other than the one we live in. And in the end, The Emperor of Mars becomes an uplifting story that shows how we can build something good, and lasting, from a painful beginning.