Mathew McCall’s The Dandelion Farmer is an extraordinary piece of steampunk writing. It’s set on Mars in the 1800s (there are reasons, but they are a fair way into the book, so, no spoilers). So we have steam trains, guns, airships, and telegrams, in what would more normally be a high tech, futuristic kind of setup if you’re used to reading sci-fi. Retro-Mars is dealing with all the issues of empire and colonialism that beset the Victorian era. Exploring those issues in such an imaginary context is brilliant because it allows the author to raise issues and express the breadth of attitudes – from the abhorrent to the enlightened – without it being too uncomfortable.
There’s a definite wild west vibe when the book opens. An unscrupulous man is trying to make a land grab, and sends thugs to terrorise a farming family – the dandelion farmer of the title. The dandelions are being farmed for biofuel. Gun fights, chases, corruption and heroism duly ensue.
From there we get into unravelling the back story of Mars, seen from various perspectives. The plot moves forward around a quest to make touch with the apparently vanished Aresian people. There’s a fine example of the kind of thinking going on in this book. People who have come from Earth to colonise Mars, are Martians. To distinguish them from original peoples, the former inhabitants are called Aresians, for Ares, the older god associated with the planet. Earth people are Tellurians. However at the outset there are a lot of names for groups of sentient beings and there’s a lot of fun to be had figuring out, who exactly, is what.
The narrative emerges from ephemera – reports, telegrams, letters, diaries, text books. It means the story is told through multiple voices, and I found those voices consistent, identifiable and engaging. The possible downside is that often you see the same events two or three times from different angles. Either you’ll love this, or you won’t. I really enjoy the way characters emerge in this process, and doubt over what, precisely happened at key moments, can develop from the differences.
The politics are really interesting. There are female characters trapped in Victorian standards and modes of behaviour. There are also female characters striking out and breaking the rules and finding varying levels of support for doing so. While most of the main characters have titles, there’s plenty of attention drawn to the poverty and exploitation that goes alongside colonialism and empire building. There’s also an underlying theme about corporate power that speaks to modern issues and pulls no punches in doing so. The author asks explicitly what happens when democracy is for sale to the capitalist with the most money, and the real-world parallels are obvious.
In terms of world building, this book is vast and epic, setting up for what I hope is going to be a series. It stands alone, but certainly left me wanting a lot more, because I was so fascinated by what happens in The Dandelion Farmer. I want to know what happens to these characters. I’m an occasional sci-fi reader, and it felt to me as though Matt has read every book imagining Mars and somehow distilled it all down into this uber-text. As though all other writers had glimpsed facets, and he’s somehow seen the whole. It’s impressive. This is a Mars unlike any I’ve seen before (I haven’t read everything, mind) yet it seems familiar. The book is full of nods to other writings, some of which I laughed over when I realised what they were. It’s clever, funny, knowing, and rewarding.
On top of that, the book explores questions about what it means to be alive, to be human, to be not-human. No answers are offered at this stage and these, I suspect, will be key issues in future books.
You can find The Dandelion Farmer here – https://www.amazon.com/Dandelion-Farmer-Mathew-McCall/dp/1549539140