Worldviews on Mars – ME Brines’ “The Queen’s Martian Rifles”

Description by the author / blurb:

Does the secret to the origin of Mankind lie within the Great Pyramid of Mars?

In this alternate steampunk adventure, the technical genius, Nicola Tesla, invented an anti-gravity coil that made steam-powered spaceships possible in the last decades of the 19th century. By 1899 the British Empire not only covers much of Africa, North America, Asia and the Pacific but also includes a moon base and a protectorate with the French over the backward civilization native to the planet Mars. But that empire, and those of the other western colonial powers have powerful extraterrestrial enemies no one even suspects exist – enemies that have renewed an age-old secret war against Humanity using all the supernatural powers at their command.

The cast of characters is sprinkled with historical personalities such as Aleister Crowley, the famous occultist history remembers as “the wickedest man who ever lived,” and Viscount Sir James Bryce, British statesman, author, world traveler and mountaineer who claimed to have discovered Noah’s Ark on a mountain in eastern Turkey.

His granddaughter, Lady Rebecca Bryce, is a militant suffragette and unorthodox scholar of antiquities determined to search the Martian pyramids of Cydonia for evidence of her theories on the extraterrestrial origin of human civilization. An educated and intelligent woman in a world that relegates females to insipid garden parties, she yearns to “set the male dominated science of archeology on its head.” She doesn’t believe she needs a man to fulfill her. But will she discover on Mars what she really needs?

Recent college graduate David Mclaughlin wants to make a real difference in the world, not just “host tea parties for old ladies.” So he abandons his parents’ plans for him to become a clergyman and seeks adventure as an officer in the Queen’s Martian Rifle regiment. But snubbed and scorned by his “betters,” can David persevere and save the Earth from destruction?

We also meet little Din, David’s personal servant and a member of the Martian Untouchable caste. His clan has patiently suffered in slavery awaiting a promised savior. But after more than three millennia, has God forgotten them?

Can Aleister bring down Western Civilization? Who are the Ascended Masters? What really happened to Atlantis? The answers lie within The Queen’s Martian Rifles!

Review

The Queen’s Martian Rifles(TQMR) is growing on philosophical ideas – specifically, religious ones. The reader must not share them, nor must the author. As a reader it is just my concern that the author is presenting the philosophy of his tale consistently. As the reader of a novel I also want to be entertained. If I’m instructed alongside it, all the better.

It is true that, in some scenes of TQMR, I saw the danger of textbook formality approaching at the horizon of the pages. Sometimes the author came very close to the brink of this horizon – however, with the next page, the looming forecasts of textbook disappeared, dispelled by the new onset of an action scene.

And the novel starts with an action scene, throws the reader right into the action, without him knowing what the fight for the pyramid in the desert is all about, without him having an idea about who the first-person narrator is and who the young adventurous lady of the expedition. After this first cascade of drama and wonder, the novel goes back telling the long way that lead up to this first episode. What is recounted first is the narrator’s way to Mars. He meets the young lady mentioned and she will be known henceforth as Lady Bruce; he also gets into talk with Aleister Crowley and a priest; he arrives on Mars and marks his first efforts to straighten out the poor condition he finds his company in.

Part of this recounting I’d designate as the truly introductory part of the story. This part is the longest stretch without action scenes. I think that in this stretch TQMR is most in danger of loosing a consistent shape. Different possibilities of identity are casting their shadows on the book’s horizon, and one identity hardly seems better than the other.
There is a long conversation, mainly between Crowley and the priest. The two different religious poles which are to mark the story are exemplified in these two characters. They explain their respective positions. In part the argumentation of the preacher is closing in on evangelical textbook quality – how, from a philological point of view, the gospels are the most reliable antique texts etc.
Also, Crowley’s reasoning could have been taken directly from the standard manual of the occultist free thinker. That the confrontation of the two positions happens at a dinner-table is no safe means for integrating them into a flow of story-telling.
To give an example, I find that parts of Descartes’ meditations provide with quite an atmospheric text – I can vividly imagine him sitting in a lonely, howling night at the crackling fireside. Descartes is an evocative writer even where he employs no images to evoke images. Yet it would be quite hilarious to call his reflections a novel.
Likewise, I didn’t see the novel in this discussion between very clear-cut principles, all the more so because the priest and Crowley don’t play their role with depth of characters but rather as personifications of theories. Their characters go as far as the typical enunciation of these theories goes.

With side characters, of course, nothing more can be expected, but I was sometimes caught by the idea that even the main characters are rather types of characters than individual characters in themselves – who could develop apart from the text-book-scheme. Lady Bruce is the classical sceptic who dismisses spiritual traditions as shackles to human progress – in unison, of course, with other traditions, like gender roles. Can she have modes of development apart from the typical ways of the sceptic, that is, either hardening of the heart or enlightment and conversion? Some way into the novel, the name of the first-person narrator is given: McLaughlin. He incorporates the shifting believer who believes, and yet, is not preoccupied about just how much he really believes. Can his personality follow a course of its own, with individual shades and protrusions, or is he predestined to either fall back into scepticism or fully revitalise his accidentally slackened faith?
This was, as said, a danger I perceived in TQMR – that characters and story line would become so much modelled by philosophical foundations that the novel would read as cogent as a textbook. That is, logical, but not emotional, not atmospheric, not enthralling cogency – and all the other qualities a novel should encompass. What would result would be episodes of religious discussion standing side by side with action scenes. But a novel requires a flow in storytelling, where action shows in philosophy and philosophy comes to the fore in action.

Sometimes I suspected the book to be more a collage of religious ideas and snippets of storytelling than a single novel – that is, a succession of events about characters with proper identities and unique opportunities of development. The impression of collage was strongest in what I defined as the introductory part. Even the identity of the novel as steampunk is largely derived from such a piece among other pieces.
During the travel to Mars, a dialogue takes place: a crew member of the spaceship explains to McLaughlin the functioning of the ship, its principles of space travel by steam technology. This crew member does not appear again, nor is, later on, reference made to the details of the explanation. It is just this: a piece of collage, connected to the other pieces, but not interwoven with them to a continuous stream of storytelling. The novel does not feel like steampunk either – that is, it is not laden with that atmosphere of a world in twilight that emerged from other scientific principles, with characters somehow more odd and glaring than they would be typically drawn in Sci-fi. The novel does tell an alternate history and does depict its machinery of steam – still, I wouldn’t brand it as steampunk. The alternate history is introduced, right at the start of the novel, with a list of chronological events. This is just another, this time quite formal piece to the collage.
TQMR doesn’t have enough of an identity for it to be called steampunk – nor, as the author did in sending it to me, ‘romantic steampunk’. I searched for the romance as an overarching theme. I didn’t find it. McLaughlin and Lady Bruce certainly develop a peculiar relation to each other – but it’s not a central topic, it’s just small episodes within episodes, pieces folded into pieces, some nice words, protection, a dinner, saving of life, then a decisive gesture. Between that, there are the ardent combat scenes and the philosophical explanations, both by far occupying the largest space in the book. In them any romance drops to point zero. When McLaughlin and Bryce have their first dinner, they’re talking science and religion. Thus, the presumed romantic episodes rather fit into the binary structure already identified. When they both explore their philosophical issues over their wine glasses, the textbook quality rises at the horizon again – and just before the entertainment factor is eradicated by textbook reading, the next action episode already casts its promising shape on the horizon of pages.

I find it problematic when a novel is structured in the way of a collage. It seems to disrupt the cohesive interlacing of narrative parts I associate with a novel. In a novel narrative parts should dissolve and emerge into a singular narration.
But also collage is an artwork and in TQMR it’s mastered thoroughly.

Collages still work under a general theme and if there’s a thematic centre identifiable in TQMR, it’s the religious philosophy of Christian principle. Thus, I can expect all the pieces of the collage, if not directed towards that theme, to be at least in harmony with it.
And this leads to the one misgiving I have about the assortment of collage parts. Often I wasn’t sure if the handling of violence in the action episodes fitted the principal theme. It’s interesting that it doesn’t strike as comical when McLaughlin, in fighting an emissary of their principal enemy, reverts to exorcism – it doesn’t appear misplaced because it chimes in with the tune of the theme. But it appears strongly misplaced when, in almost all the confrontations, the enemies are butchered without further reflection.
When McLaughlin and a few fellow soldiers are pursued up to a house top, McLaughlin doesn’t want to let loose a shot unless when forced by necessity – markedly, not because of any kind of moral appreciation but simply because he doesn’t want to exacerbate the fury of their pursuers. Once the soldiers start shooting, they shoot just as easy as if they were killing flies with a fly catch. Similarly in another scene it’s to be read: “It was a massacre. The machine gunner traversed his weapon back and forth mowing down priests like grain before a reaper… They attempted to flee from our relentless attack but bodies piled up rapidly in front of the only doors… I fired and fired again, almost in a daze from the pent-up fear and frustration of the last two days.”
McLaughlin, despite his moral high standing, not so much as once spends a thought on the bloody feats he commits throughout the story. But this simply illustrates the point I made above: the McLaughlin of the action episodes is not necessarily the McLaughlin of his philosophical reasoning. The two elements simply stand apart in the book and even the characters do not seem integrated across them. Why have resonant depth of characters, why even have developmental unfolding of characters if the structure of an unfolding single narrative does not predominantly emerge – if, instead, the structure of collage appears?

But I can only repeat: collage is an artwork. Apart from the fall from the religious theme mentioned above, the author assembles his parts and pieces very convincingly. The assembly steadily intrigues the reader to go on. The action scenes provide bursts of suspense, they are followed by philosophical talk that limits the events. Thus the action is preserved against the build-up of suspense-resistancy provoked by mindlessly ongoing action. And the philosophy, in its turn, is protected against the conversion into textbook talk by the return of the blow of events.

The technical skill of the author is beyond reproach. The writing style provides with an uncomplicated reading and always suits the individual parts. Thus, in the action scenes language is crisp and the structuring of paragraphs strictly follows the purpose of telling what happens. Likewise, in the philosophical reflections, poetical language flourish is omitted and the language is centred on cutting clear the ideas and recounts of history. The art is not in the language, it’s in the persuasive assembling of the collage parts under an original theme.

Thus, in summary, the novel is well-paced and entertaining throughout. The message the novel carries, its philosophy, does not proselytise, it does not aim at gaining followers. If the priest was right, so was Crowley, at least to a certain degree. The final revelation of the novel, if it confirms the Christian doctrines, does so in a purely materialistic sense. I feel that, in writing this, I’m not giving any content away – besides, it is a necessary remark to make, because it moves the book further away from textbook argumentation. TQMR carries an original message. This message turns out to be the historic-materialistic foundation of revelation. Apparently that’s a contradiction in terms, but it’s cogently presented as the synthesising theme of this narrative collage.

As the rating shows three stars, I wouldn’t want a reduction in stars to be seen here – rather a solid gain of three stars. As I explained I thought the cohesiveness of the narration should have been fully worked out. Due to this structural problem the characters remain rather distant, sometimes rather figuring as tabloids than as persons. And although I dwelled largely on the difficulties I had with this work, this is not my paramount impression of it. TQMR is, above all, a fluent and engaging read.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars
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