Pyr trade paperback - 252 pages
Cover art by Sparth (aka Nicolas Bouvier)
Book reviewed August 2008
Rating: 5/10 (Mildly Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
The Martian General's Daughter, a stand-alone novel by Theodore Judson, author of Fitzpatrick's War, takes place long after Western society's experiment with democracy has failed. Set in a future world that calls to mind ancient Rome, the novel should appeal to science fiction readers who also enjoy I, Claudius or Gladiator.
The world of The Martian General's Daughter is dominated by empires, the most powerful being the Pan-Polarian Empire, which covers much of the globe including all of North America and Europe and has its capital in Mexico City. The Pan-Polarian Empire is on the wane, however, slowly imploding from decadent and incompetent leadership, as well as a nanotechnological plague infecting the world's metals, which has forced a reversion to pre-industrial lifestyles. (This plague calls to mind S.S. Held's The Death of Iron (1931), which Robert Silverberg fondly recalled in a recent column for Asimov's Science Fiction, "Reflections: The Death of Gallium".)
Let me pause here to clarify what The Martian General's Daughter is not. Despite the title, it is not a pastiche of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series. Almost none of the action of the story takes place on Mars. (If you want a recent reimagining of Burroughs, I suggest S.M. Stirling's The Sky People.) Despite the great cover art, The Martian General's Daughter does not involve laser battles between huge space dreadnoughts. The only spaceship to appear in the novel is an unarmed cargo carrier. Indeed, I don't see this as military science fiction at all. There are military campaigns, ranging from the Middle East to Middle America, but due to the nanoplague the campaigns rely on cavalry and artillery, so rather than futuristic military SF they read like something out of the Crimean War.
While there are some battles, at its heart The Martian General's Daughter is the story of the political intrigue surrounding the different contenders for emperor and for the positions of power behind the throne.
The novel opens 270 years from now on a Martian mining outpost, where General Peter Black has been stationed. The mining station continues to operate, for the empire's spaceships have outlived its airplanes, one of many anachronisms resulting from the gradual deterioration of technology. Peter Black learns that Emperor Luke Anthony has died, and he must decide whether to return to Earth and seek the reins of power. Circumstances may demand it even though he has no real wish to be emperor, as Peter Black is the last honest, unambitious man in the cutthroat Pan-Polarian Empire. His honesty puts him at a sizable disadvantage against his Machiavellian competitors for the throne.
From this opening on Mars, most of the novel consists of flashbacks to different periods in Peter Black's life, narrated in first-person from the point of view of his illegitimate daughter Justa. Black has taken responsibility for raising Justa even though he is embarrassed by her presence, with the result that from the outset their relationship is formal and strained.
Through Justa, we learn that Black rose to prominence fighting hard in China and the Mideast for Mathias the Glistening, the last decent emperor even if he was too scholarly for Black's tastes. After Mathias's death, his cruel and increasingly insane son Luke Anthony took control and quickly began to squander all the fruits of his father's efforts. He consumed the empire's resources on pointless indulgences, such as huge gladiatorial games. Unlike in the film Gladiator, Luke Anthony does not seem to be using the games for any political purpose, he just likes 'em. Often he participates, gunning down rare species of animal from a safe vantage point above the floor of the arena. Luke Anthony tends to execute anyone he believes may pose a danger (and plenty who don't), but he is often not good at identifying the greatest threats to his power from among his various political advisers, military commanders, and wealthy merchants.
Like the title character in I, Claudius, Peter Black survives the constant infighting for imperial power largely because he is widely mistaken for a fool. Black is not a fool, although as his name suggests, he has a black-and-white way of looking at things that is ill-suited to the political machinations of the capital. (Incidentally, the capital of the Pan-Polarian Empire is Garden City, so for much of the book I thought New Jersey was running the world, until it finally registered that Mexico City has been renamed Garden City in the future. It is a misnomer; the place is completely squalid.)
Black's limited outlook on events becomes obvious whenever he talks to his more savvy daughter Justa, for example in this early passage, when Justa tries to ask her father why Emperor Mathias tolerates such a contemptible, impudent heir:
"Sir, does Mathias get along with his son?" I asked.
"How would I know?" growled Father. "You are asking a foolish question. Shows you're becoming a woman. That's the only kind of question women ask. Look, Mathias made that pup of his coemperor, so he must like the boy in some way. Why would a person give a gift like that to somebody he doesn't like? You've got to think about these things, girl."
"Did the Greeks like the Trojans, sir?" I asked.
"That's from a book, isn't it?" said Father.
"Yes, a really old one."
"It may surprise you, Miss Genius, but I happen to recall that comes from a rotten long poem written by that Homer fellow....As I recall, the Greeks hated the Trojans. They were fighting a long, bloody war, weren't they?"
"Then why did they give the Trojans a gift, sir?" I said.
"Well, they gave them that big horse full of bloody soldiers, didn't they? That is the right story, isn't it?" asked Father. "This doesn't have anything to do with that other old story about the man in the red suit?"
"Yes, it's the wooden horse story."
"Then that was not a real gift, was it?" said Father. "Honestly, Justa. You are bad as the emperor. You think so deeply you confuse yourself. You see, there are two types of things in the world: those that are simple and those that seem not to be."
Because of such clever dialogue I enjoyed this novel too much not to give it a mild recommendation, and I will look for future Judson titles; however, I was disappointed that Judson did not do more here with an interesting premise. The political commentary never much goes anywhere. Judson does not attempt to justify the assumption that democracy is inherently unsustainable, nor does he offer much insight into modern politics other than the less-than-startling observation that people who covet power are mostly SOB's.
The story is not very strong, told in flashbacks that plow straight ahead without any interesting twists or turns. I never found it absorbing, largely because not enough is at stake for the primary characters. For most of the book, Peter Black has no designs on the throne, nor would he make a very good emperor if he did. I kept waiting for Justa to become more directly involved in the political intrigue, but she is always in the background.
And that is the single greatest flaw with The Martian General's Daughter. The novel remains fixed on Peter Black, even though he is not the most interesting character. Justa is the title character for good reason; she is the one the reader wants to hear about, the only character with any hint of depth. Yet the story gives her nothing to do but occasionally whisper simple advice in her father's ear. She never gets the chance to develop fully as a character. Because of that, there is not enough here to sustain a novel that started out with much promise.(Incidentally, The Martian General's Daughter joins an SF tradition of post-apocalyptic futures with the trappings of imperial Rome, notably Empire of the Atom by A.E. van Vogt. Recently John C. Wright listed instances of SF modeled after Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - Wright's list - although I find his list over inclusive. The connection between Gibbon and, say, The Road Warrior is a bit strained. If you like The Martian General's Daughter, you may also enjoy some other books on this list.)
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|Copyright © 2008 Aaron Hughes|