I had a moment of genuine glee while reading last night as a spaceship from the planet mars crashed into Surrey’s Horsell common in 1857… The astute and well read among you may be able to guess why, but to be clear, it is all to do with the date, 1857…
This event, I should add, has both very little, and everything, to do with the novel I was reading. The ‘landing’ of this spaceship is the prelude to an invasion, conquest and colonisation of one world by the inhabitants of another which lays the fertile ground for the actual novel. But again its that date that is important, as that date is 40 years before another famous literary landing on Horsell common. The first landing site of the Martian invasion fictionalised in HG Wells War of the Worlds.
Hence my glee, its the small details that make me smile.
The landing 40 years before Wells, is in a ship piloted by two earthmen who had been kidnapped for study by Martians as part of their preparations to ultimately invade the Earth. Their escape from the red planet, with irrefutable proof of life on Mars and the Martians intent, sets about a leap in technology in Victorian England and among other 19th century colonial powers, who do what the colonial powers did best and pre-empt the threat of mars by invading the red planet themselves, quite wisely if Wells is anything to go by. Leaving us with a late Victorian Human society on Mars, and a blend of Martian and human technology. A revolution by colonists to throw off the colonial powers for self rule later, we have the mars we find ourselves embroiled within in Mat McCall’s ‘The Dandelion Farmer’.
This is the kind of Mars envisioned by Burroughs, and other pulp era writers. A mars of strange creatures and strange Martian societies. It’s also draws from Bradbury, Wells, a smidgeon of Lovecraft and many other sources. There are lots of gleeful little references in here, such as the president of Tharis (one of the independent human states) is called Bradbury. There are so many in fact I suspect I missed as many as I stumbled over and that’s a tribute to the gentle way these little asides are slipped into the narrative.
That narrative, a complex epic narrative at that, is told entirely through the device of journals, letters and other more oblique sources that give you the over all story from the various perspectives of the principal characters. While not a unique way of putting forth a narrative I have seldom come across a whole novel done this way. There should be an inherent weakness in telling a story this way. With the various extracts over lapping events and retelling the narrative from a second perspective. Particularly later in the novel when most of the principal characters are all present for the same events. Yet it is a tribute to the craft employed by McCall’s writing that each voice is sufficiently different, each view point distinct and focused on different aspects of events, that at no point does it feel a weakness. If anything in fact what should be an inherent weakness of the narrative becomes one of its greatest strengths.
The story is compelling in of itself. It starts with all the aspects of a traditional western plot. A vile industrialist, Du Maurier, is trying to oust the dandelion farmer of the title, Edwin Ransom, from his land. When buying Edwin out fails he falls back to violence and intimidation, that escalates quickly. But while this is going on our hero finds a mysterious man, with a metal arm, named Adam Franklin, who has lost his memory, to the point he does not even realise he is on mars, squatting out on his land. Adam is very much Shane at this point, the man with a complex relationship with violence and a difficult history, who helps the oppressed Edwin fight back against his oppressor. While this, set against a backdrop of mars, would be compelling in of itself, Edwin’s troubles with Du Maurier are just one thread of a much more complex narrative, that slowly layer upon layer builds throughout the novel.
Du Maurier’s real reasons for wanting Edwins land are embroiled within this. As is Edwins farther-in-law’s suspicions about the native Martians that vanished 25 Martian years before (1 Martian year is approximately just under 2 earth years) and his planed expedition to discover where they went and reinitiate contact with them.
There is a lot to unpack here and a raft of interesting characters with their own complex viewpoints. Aside Edwin, his wife, and father-in-law, there is a female go-getter reporter straight out of 1920’s pulp fictions, a brave rocketeer/hunter/adventurer of mildly dubious breeding, an aging archaeologist specialising in Martian archaeology and his feisty daughter, the old solider, sent to keep an eye on things, a spiritualist aunt with a herd of small dogs, a scoundrel or two, automatons with almost human personalities and a multitude of supporting’s cast.
But the most interesting characters are Adam Franklin, and Aelita.
Adam is far from what he first appears, and far from what he knows himself to be at the start of the novel. His journey back to himself, and realising not just who but what he is, would make a fascinating novel all on its own. He struggles with the realisation that the truth behind his existence brings only more mysteries and when that same realisation comes to his friend towards the end of the novel another layer of complication is layer out for the sequel which I very much look forward to reading.
And then there is Aelita, the most complex of all the characters as she is not human, but a orphaned Martian raise among humans. A devout catholic by education, closeted away form the world by an over baring husband, she knows next to nothing of her own heritage. Something which starts to change when she joins Professors Frammarion (edwin’s father-in-law) expedition against her husbands wishes. Events take place that lead her to start to rediscover her alien heritage, history, and something more.
By the end of the novel it is these two characters more than anything that drive the mystery, though that is to sell short all the other intricate complexities to the plot, with so many characters and all of them engaging and intriguing in their own ways.
In short, this novel is a tour-de-force, fascinating and very different, told in a way that could have easily become unhinged and distracted if a less artful scribe had penned it. I couldn’t have written this (and I so wish I had), I doubt most of the writers I know could have written this. I say that as one privileged to know many very talented writers. This however is unique, a narrative told in a way I and I doubt few others would even attempt, yet alone done so with such mastery. Which is what makes it such a wonderful read.
That, the depth, and pure invention within these pages.
If you read one book this year on my recommendation, (which surprisingly people do on occasion) read this one.