Martian General's Daughter by Theodore Judson
Pyr, 2008, 253pp, £9.99
|This review first appeared on The SF Site|
| First, let
me just say how much I like the title of this book: there are three
levels of discovery as the reader learns that someone is from Mars,
that he is part of the military and that he has a child. Bang, bang,
bang – it's not an elegant title, but the possibilities these three
words instantly raise - and the questions they entail – will most
probably have any right thinking science fiction fan hooked forthwith.
Despite the presence of the Red Planet and of martial titles, this is not your standard piece of military sf; its 250-odd pages follow 45 years in the life of General Peter Justice Black and his illegitimate daughter, Justa, as civilization collapses back into a pre-industrial mode, helped along more than a little by its supreme ruler, the Emperor Luke Anthony. The Martian General's Daughter is heavily based upon the fall of the Roman Empire some 2,000 years earlier (although this similarity is never explicitly mentioned).
We first meet General Black in 2293, on Mars. An old man still greatly admired by his men, though his faculties are somewhat dimmed, Black hears of the manoeuvres and infighting on Earth following the death of Luke Anthony, the Emperor of Pan-Polaria, an empire that once covered half the globe. Precious few mourn Luke Anthony, however, least of all Black or his daughter, since Anthony's reign seems to have been comparable to that of the mad Roman emperor Caligula - or, better still, that of the rather less well known, but even madder, Emperor Commodus, who ruled from 180 to 192 AD.
Next the narrative retreats to 2278, on Earth, where a merely middle-aged Black, recently triumphant in a series of difficult military campaigns, meets Luke Anthony's wise and thoughtful father, the Emperor Mathias. Also present is a young and deeply unpleasant Luke Anthony, already clearly unfit to govern a farmyard, let alone an empire, while in the background lurk other characters who, it is hinted, may some day be troublesome.
We flash forward again to the Mars of 2293, where Justa and the General are forced to return home when a metal plague which has been slowly sweeping Earth destroying any and all machinery there, finally reaches Mars. They catch one of the last ships back to Earth before all contact is lost with the offworld colonies.
And so the action flits back and forward through time, alternately foreshadowing and revealing events and actions in a beautifully executed dance up and down the book's timeline. There's a dreadful inevitability about Luke Anthony's terrible reign, since long before he gains power we know exactly how things will turn out. However, since we are generally given only the barest retrospective rumours, those sections set in the past gain a great deal of power as the many awful details are slowly filled in.
Black, the central character, is a wonderful creation: supremely honourable, a bluff plain-speaking man. His naļvete, which is his weakness, allows us to warm to him as he searches for meaning – and, indeed, for sanity - in a time and place that is indubitably losing both. But it is Justa, who tells this story from start to finish, with her intelligence, eye for detail and dry observational humour, that make The Martian General's Daughter so much fun to read, even in the midst of so much horror and lunacy. Justa, eternally loyal to the father who can barely bring himself to acknowledge that once, in a moment of weakness, he fathered an illegitimate child. Justa, infinitely more perceptive and socially adept than her father, and yet utterly reliant on him in this collapsing world.
The Martian General's Daughter is a true tour de force in its retelling of the fall of the Roman Empire through a science fictional prism. I'm still uncertain quite why Mr Judson thought such a feat necessary, particularly since the science fictional elements are kept to an absolute minimum – there's precious little real world-building here, no attempt to explain or rationalise how 2293 AD has contrived to so resemble 193 AD. I thought the point might be that this is a meditation upon the rise (and presumably the eventual inevitable fall) of the American Empire today, but any such allusions aren't terribly strong, and to be honest, it doesn't really matter. Mr Judson has given us such a well-written, entertaining and very moral tale about the hazards of empire and tyranny, and the virtues of honour and loyalty, that it's a genuine pleasure to read, irrespective of any deeper meanings we might ascribe.
If you demand of your science fiction that it explode off the page all phasers blazing, then you might find The Martian General's Daughter a trifle slow (although not without its occasional salacious pleasures and humour). However, those of a more thoughtful disposition, those able to see that even with all our formidable modern achievements we remain for the most part the same foolish, grasping humans we always were, will enjoy this book a great deal.
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