For me the greatest benefit of the e-book revolution is low expectations coupled with low prices. For 99¢ or $4.99 or anyplace in-between, I can take a chance on an unfamiliar author and download a novel or collection onto my Android, then read a few pages whenever I have a lost moment — usually while waiting somewhere for somebody. I’ve pulled a few stinkers, but then again I’ve also spent more on bad cups of coffee too. And, occasionally, there’s that casino-win kick when I unexpectedly discover a polished thrill-ride like A Prince of Mars.
Space: 1889, first published in 1988 as an RPG/miniatures wargame, is a mash-up of H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon and Burroughs’ Barsoom and Amtor novels. The setting is an alternate history in which space flight was pioneered in the late nineteenth century. With its emphasis on Her Majesty’s presence on Mars, the result is the British Raj transplanted to the canals and deserts of a dying world, alongside flying ships made from Martian liftwood, the setting’s answer to cavorite. I suspect the focus on Great Game political machinations and aerial skirmishes appealed more to the wargamer than the hack-and-loot dungeon delver, allowing Space: 1889 to persevere to the modern day through its small but dedicated audience. Well — that and the fact Frank Chadwick, as both writer and publisher, maintained the rights to his creation and therefore didn’t allow it to drown in the industry quicksands of neglect, copyrights, and petty feuding, which is so often the case.
And yet there’s something else about Space: 1889. I’ve never played it or even read any of the gaming materials, but the art — ads in Dragon depicting ironclad flyers and Imperial characters harassed by mohawked Martians — resounded with me. Years later, I still can’t read Lovecraft’s “In the Walls of Eryx” or Smith’s Martian stories without imagining the characters sporting pith helmets and revolvers. Those tales have nothing to do with Chadwick or his products; and yet somehow common themes of colonialism and retrofuturistic alt-history weld it all together in my brain.
Perhaps having such a distinct and long-running IP is what led Chadwick to start carving a share in the steampunk fiction market by licensing a series of Space: 1889 e-novellas. When I learned the fifth in the series, A Prince of Mars, was written by the grandfather himself (though an afterword reveals he only did so when the original author dropped out), I tried the free sample offered by Amazon. Within a few hundred words — a deft introduction promising sinister villainy — I was hooked and happily laid my $2.51 on the virtual countertop.
The story picks up right after the previous installment, Abattoir in the Aether, though not having read it doesn’t impair; if anything, the vague references to past events further propel the narrative and its resourceful characters. After crash-landing on Mars, English engineer Nathanial Stone and feisty adventuress Annabelle Somerset must cross the sands to civilization — a journey made more dangerous by a grievous injury Annabelle received prior to the book’s opening. In no time they are mixed up in skulduggery, caravan ambushes, and a plot by the Martian equivalent of the Thuggee to overthrow a democratic city-state. Chadwick’s fast pacing, plus a bit of Cthulhu horror and an awesome climactic skyship battle in which the hero deploys fluid dynamics as a weapon (I know, right!? Science in science fiction!), make the price tag even more amazing.
Chadwick recently revealed he has two books forthcoming from Baen, the second of which is a Space: 1889 novel. He doesn’t know the release dates yet, but when they arrive he can count on a few more pounds sterling out of my pocket.