Reader Request: Charles Dickens’ Martian Notes

This is the penultimate post in my Patreon request series for May — tomorrow will see one on Ursula Le Guin.

This is a review of a book by Simon Bucher-Jones. Simon’s a friend, we’ve written in the same book series a couple of times, and he’s commissioned me as an editor, so you may want to take that into account when reading my review. What I will say though is that I got to know Simon *because* I like his writing, and so I don’t think I’m too biased as a result.

‘You have done well stranger, and we note it. Your kindness will be stored here in our great crystal memory, and when we are ready and we leave this place. We will carry the memory of your good act to our newer world, and tell our children that as well as the slavers and the evil, good men also walked upon Mars, when the worlds were young.’

Charles Dickens’ Martian Notes is a rewrite, by Simon Bucher-Jones, of Dickens’ non-fictional American Notes. The conceit of the book is that it’s a 1913 edition, edited by Bucher-Jones’ great-grandfather Warwick, with the assistance of Sir Charles Dickens himself, who didn’t die in 1870 but had lived well into the twentieth century and had received a knighthood for his work as a spy.

In this world, America is a fictional country created by Dickens for Martin Chuzzlewit, yp satirise the author’s experiences on Mars. Mars is inhabited by several native races, but has been “dome-steaded” by humans, mostly from the Britannic Empire. A rebellion in 1775 meant that the British lost most of the planet, though the Northern region, “Kanata”, has remained under British rule.

Now in 1842 Charles Dickens lands on Mars, ostensibly to write a book about it, but really with a more important mission — one in which he is aided by a robot disguised as his wife (who is later replaced by another agent, Georgina Putnam, who sometimes imitates Dickens’ wife and at other times pretends to be a man called George). He explores a Mars which owes a little to Burroughs, a little to Wells, (and I think a little to some other pulp works I’m less familiar with) and quite a lot to nineteenth-century America.

Bucher-Jones is known among fans of his Doctor Who novels for the particularly strong quality of his technobabble, and that’s present here — “the current position of many scientists is that the Mau-Martians deliberately instigated a false-vacuum collapse (FVC) in local space which ‘toppled’ the ‘Edisonian’ or ‘High’ Mass-Boson which mediated dark-matter gravity (from the 250 – 275 GeV range ‘down’ into the ‘Low’ Mass-Boson 125 – 127 GeV range). This – in common language – ‘inverted the polarity’ of dark-matter, and destroyed the technologies of anti-gravity upon which the commerce of the worlds depended… In the event of the Grand Britannic Hadron Collider being able to create dark matter in the Upper Range upon its completion, we may be able to see again anti-gravitational travel as a possibility in the middle decades of the 20th Century”.

This kind of thing mixes freely with talk of Cavor and Tesla on equal footing, and in lesser hands it would have been all too easy for this to turn into a steampunk Pride and Prejudice and Martians. However, there are a few things that save the book from this fate.

The first is that Bucher-Jones has picked precisely the right materials to work together in his pastiche. I’ve recently been reading quite a lot of very early pulp SF, and essentially all of it is travelogue — the early adventures of John Carter or Buck Rodgers do have a certain amount of Princess-rescuing and escape from evil-doers, but the vast majority of SF, at least prior to the 1930s, is almost plotless — it’s worldbuilding, pure and simple. A traveller from Earth (usually a white man from the Northeastern United States) gets transported by some unusual means to another planet (or another time, or another plane of existence), describes what he sees there, and then comes home. The better-written of them tend to follow the patterns of Gulliver’s Travels, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or The Time Machine in using their travelogues for satirical social comment, but many others were plain travelogues of imaginary worlds.

So Bucher-Jones’ book mashes together several genres, but manages to make it perfectly coherent in terms of genre and time period. Other than some satirical jabs at things like birtherism, and the use of a handful of technical terms coined after that time period (lampshaded in the footnotes), there’s nothing here that would be out of place among the likes of The Gostak and the Doshes, Off on a Comet, The Man Who Awoke, A Princess of Mars, or Armageddon 2419 AD.

(All of those, incidentally, can be found in the rather superb collection A Sense of Wonder, which I also must review when I finally get through it all — as my ebook copy runs to 10095 pages, that might be a while).

But where he really excels, and what makes this book a very special one, is his emulation of Dickens’ prose style. The book itself is almost twice as long as Dickens’ original, and it’s almost impossible (except, obviously, when the plot becomes more involved — Dickens was unlikely to write lines like “she had a spring-loaded hypodermic up her sleeve with enough mars-squid venom to knock out a man for a week”) to tell where Dickens ends and Bucher-Jones begins. I’ve tried often enough to write in other writers’ voices to know how difficult it is, and it’s doubly so when the words of the writer you’re imitating are there on the same page. Bucher-Jones pulls it off perfectly.

There is one possible major criticism, and one minor one, I can make. The minor one is just that the version of the book I have is not perfectly proof-read — there are a few minor errors of punctuation in there. However, there are not many more than one gets in even the majority of books published by the major publishers these days, and the few that there are can be explained away as archaisms by a generous reader.

A slightly more major criticism — though one I’m not entirely sure is negative — comes from the nature of the work itself. Dickens’ book, of course, deals with slavery, and in translating that book to an alien planet, Bucher-Jones has to translate slavery as well, into a system that gels with his invented Mars of multiple human and alien races. I am genuinely not sure if dealing with such a real horror as American slavery in a science-fictional setting is something that it’s justifiable to do. As far as I’m any judge, it’s done well, and I don’t think the book trivialises real suffering in an unjustifiable way, but I don’t know that I’m confident enough of my own judgment of the issue, as a white British man, to say for certain.

(Says the man who just wrote a novel where an occult conspiracy gets involved with the Nazis during World War II… but that’s probably why I’m extra sensitive to such things right now).

I want to note, though, that that probably says more about my own insecurity in my own judgment of “is this an OK thing to write about?” than in the writing itself — and I certainly think there’s more to take offence at in Dickens’ original, which for all Dickens’ very real moral outrage at slavery still manages to excuse most of the people who perpetrated that disgusting crime. (And middle-class white people making excuses for other middle-class white people’s racism even while condemning it has become… more relevant… in the year or so since this book came out). If anyone’s going to get angry at anything in the book, the words they’re likely to get angry at will be Dickens’ rather than Bucher-Jones’.

If you’re a fan of alternate history, steampunk, Dickens, or early science fiction — or of the sort of clever intertextuality one finds in the Faction Paradox novels — you should definitely read this. It’s available from Lulu in paper form, and from all the usual ebook vendors.

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2 Responses to Reader Request: Charles Dickens’ Martian Notes

  1. Simon BJ says:

    Thanks Andrew! On the minor point I hope to do a revised edition with one more proof reading (doing your own proofing is hard) by end June so if anyone is thinking of buying, they might want to wait until then. On the major point, my intent is actually to refocus the eye of a modern reader on the horror, as increasingly the reality of slavery and its modern equivalents (including still, slavery) are softpedalled by the US alt-right. I’ve only tweaked Dickens very slightly, and I stand by his words. The bit you may be thinking of is his distinction between two types of slave owners, but my reading is that he is reporting a distinction made by his critics, conceding the point as irrelevant, while going on to say that they deserve the same condemnation as will befall the whole class of slave owners : “nor can the indignant tide of honest wrath stand still, because in its onward course it overwhelms a few who are comparatively innocent among a hundred thousand guilty”. It, is of course, an immensely tricky area, so I can only hope, I and Dickens have offended no one. (As only about 17 people have read the book yet, this is at least possible). Thanks again.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, I’m 99% certain you haven’t caused any offence, and certainly *I* read the book that way. As I say, I didn’t see any problem in the book, I just know that it’s the kind of thing where I *may* not see a problem even if there was one, and wanted to point out the possibility of my failure as a reader, more than of yours as a writer.

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