One of my favorite books is Roger Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness (1969). It’s a whirlwind of disparate elements, mixing super pulpy science fantasy concepts and serious literary techniques into a ridiculously fun — and confounding — product. It doesn’t work, really; it makes no sense and it has weak characterization, no beating emotional heart; but damn if it isn’t a colorful splash on the big screen in your mind.
I’ve always liked works that take big chances. Even if they’re disasters, at least they’re interesting disasters. It used to be that big publishers routinely published works that made mincemeat of your brain, that defied reason and forced you to say to yourself, “Does this make any sense? Hell, do I even care if it makes sense?”
This isn’t to say, of course, that such narratives don’t ever get published by big publishing companies anymore — 2010 and 2012 saw rather high-profile confounding works (a positive term, in this case) published by Hannu Rajaniemi, for instance — but it’s hard to see something as weird and undigestible as Phyllis Gotlieb’s Lyhhrt Trilogy (1998-2002) or David Herter’s Ceres Storm (2000) being received with any enthusiasm in New York right now.
Fortunately, a reader like me can still find really gonzo speculation if he wants, but it’s generally found outside of the Big 5 Publishers (or is it 4, now?). Really neat and occasionally mystifying weird stuff is still regularly produced by smaller outfits like Solaris, ChiZine, Subterranean, Apex, and Night Shade (maybe/hopefully; we’ll see what happens to the new iteration of the publisher — which, I should clarify, own my own book).
Unfortunately, being published by one of these organizations also means a greater likelihood of their titles foundering. Where Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief made a pretty big splash, a work of equally beautiful oddity, coming from a publisher without the wherewithal to promote it as thoroughly, might end up languishing in obscurity. A reader like me looks at such books and laments — for himself, yes, because he wants someone to talk to about the book, but mostly for the author, who surely deserves a better seat at the table.
Which brings me to Guy Haley’s stunning 2012 novel, Champion of Mars.
To be clear from the outset, Haley is not writing in the same vein as Rajaniemi. In short, Haley is less confusing on the sentence level. He is a clear writer, above all — not without grace by any stretch, but certainly not writing to complicate matters for the reader.
In other words, he’s not making you work so freaking hard to understand what the hell he’s talking about.
Point in fact, the opening of Champion of Mars is striking in its evocation of the traditional (or as close to traditional as we get in the relatively short-lived sf genre). It reads like an homage to the science fantasy of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, when massively-thewed men fought saber-to-laser on the deserts of Mars — which, let me make plain, is exactly what’s happening in Haley’s novel.
Yoechakanon Val Mora, covered from head to toe in liquid steel, wielding a staff with razor-saws on either end, accompanied by his spirit-lover/AI Cybele, is a badass warrior fighting in one of the last titanic battles of a dying Red Planet. He leaps over lesser foes, splitting them clavicle to crotch, all the while struggling against the malevolent soul that inhabits his power armor.
Yep. You read all that right.
And it’s awesome, pulpy as all hell and written with a flair for the coldly dramatic that leaves you grinning at the presumption.
This is 2012, you think. We don’t do things this way. We’re gritty now, realistic.
It’s not strikingly original, of course, but it is…what? Ballsy? Sure, it’s ballsy to open a novel with such a retro feel — or, rather, such an earnestly retro feel; there is no winking at the reader, here. No, we’re being led, rather persuasively, to believe in this vision of the far future. It proves, in time, to be a singularly odd and soberly charming vision of an ancient world, a thing of seeming permanence that is nonetheless crumbling away as the remnants of humanity give their last noble breath.
However, none of this is particularly innovative or difficult for the seasoned science fiction reader to understand — that is, until you take into account that this story is being traded alongside a few other stories. There’s the partner-story to Val Mora’s, that of Dr. Holland, a man in the relative near-future engaged in the task of documenting and safeguarding Mars’one remaining ecosystem. Then there’s all the other tonally-varied stories, sprinkled liberally throughout the text, telling of the ever-metamorphosing human species on their ever-more-alien planet.
The links between these stories become more pronounced as the narrative evolves, yet they never entirely come into focus. Even at the end of the book, where in one blinding moment of transcension Dr. Holland becomes Val Mora and realizes a union with Sybil, an AI that will in millennia become Val Mora’s spirit-lover (uh-huh; this is Big Idea stuff, folks), the payoff is more emotionally comprehensible than intellectually sound.
I still haven’t made sense of it, if there is indeed sense to be made.
The fact that the strands of narrative don’t meet completely in the end — or if they do are so obscurely mended someone as thick as me has no way of ever understanding how — and yet still manage to feel completed is something of a wonder. The final moment, where the love between Dr. Holland and an AI, a creature he had once hated, is finally realized…well, it’s enough to leave your face sore from trying to find the proper expression for your emotion. It is superbly affecting writing, the kind of scene you hope to one day read.
This, you think. This is something I’m going to remember. I may not even know what the hell is going on, but I do know that when this moment is over, I’ll have lost something.
I’ll never feel this was again.
Sadly but perhaps inevitably, science fiction of the intensely speculative kind — the kind that presents broad vistas, showing you something new, daring you to imagine — is rarely as heart-tugging as it is at the closing of Champion of Mars. Sensuwunda and emotional depth should go together, like bacon and chocolate, but the fact is that they rarely do to much effect.
Which, I suppose, makes it all the more sweet when they do go so well together.
The simple fact is, Haley really did something unique with this novel, and it’s a shame more people haven’t read it. Solaris, the publisher, has struck gold with books by James Lovegrove and Gail Z. Martin, but it’s possible they saw Champion of Mars as more of a longshot — which it obviously is. It’s not an easily categorized thing, falling somewhere between near- and far-future sf, imperial space fantasy and rather dusty tech fiction. It pulls no punches in its science fictional-ness. It touches on the human and the alien, and all points in-between.
Roger Zelazny would have loved it. The untidiness of the structure, the overarching ambition of the narrative — these things would speak to him. I think, probably, he even would have loved that Haley managed to accomplish what he never could in his own fiction:
Attach a beating emotional heart to all that ridiculous fun.