After reading a brief synopsis that mentioned both sci-fi and (somewhat tangentially) beer, I couldn’t resist picking The Empress of Mars up. It was also well received, having earned best novella nominations for the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2004. Although set in the same universe as the author’s Company series (which I have not read) no previous reading seems to have been required for this book.
There were three Empresses of Mars. The first one was a bar at the Settlement. The second was the lady who ran the bar; though her title was strictly informal…The third one was the queen of England. (Prologue)
The story takes place around the first two, Mary Griffith and her bar. Mary is one of the most influential colonists on Mars and the proud proprietor of its only brewery, an operation she runs with the help of her three daughters and a contingent of eccentric yet loyal staff. While there is no shortage of interesting people and money-making schemes coming through her doors, life is not exactly easy on the red planet. Colonization had once been enthusiastically led by a merger of corporate interests and old-fashioned British Imperialism, but the dream was soon abandoned when the board of directors of the British Arean Company (BAC) determined the endeavor was unlikely to turn a profit. Left to their own devices, the remaining colonists carry on the task of terraforming the world and creating a society of their own, all the while cursing the BAC and its remaining administrative presence. Life continues on like this until one day an unexpected discovery rekindles interest in the planet and draws in a host of new people, problems, and intrigues; all of which inevitably end up passing through the Empress.
On the whole I enjoyed this book. Although it felt a bit superficial at times with its short, episodic, and often anecdotal chapters, there was a fun overall story arc. Mixing in bits of political and economic intrigue with slices of sci-fi life, something about the reading experience just felt good as the book’s light-hearted, whimsical narrative moved the story along at an enjoyable and easy-going pace. Calling this Cheers in space might be somewhat incorrect considering many of the events that take place outside the Empress, but that’s not exactly an inaccurate comparison either. All the action and events in one way or another end up involving the bar’s regular group of workers and/or patrons, creating a diverse ensemble cast that compensated nicely for the lack of depth given to any one character in particular. All in all, a quick and satisfying read.