Backmatter Part 13: Slow Boat to Fast City

High Concept: James Ellroy’s The Martian Chronicles
Genre: Hard-bop Raygun Gothic sci-fi

Overview: The Space Wars began on May 9, 1945, when the Red Army stormed the walls of Berlin and saw Nazi space arks streaming through the sky from the Brandenburg Airport.

One jury-rigged Allied space program, six years and 60,000 casualties later, the inner solar system is at a simmering peace. Queen Elizabeth II has added Luna to her dominions, the Reds have turned the asteroid belt into a new Gulag Archipelago and French plantations are carving order out of the green chaos of Venus.

And Mars? After dragging Hitler and his inner circle to Nuremberg from their ramshackle Valhalla on the summit of Olympus Mons, the Americans opened Mars to all comers. The first wave of settlers came looking for solitude and struggle, building New Deseret, Nicodemus II, Barsoom and a score of other waystations in the wastes.

When the big money came, though, the desert bloomed. The Strip, a superhighway linking the Olympus elevator and Elysium City, glows day and night with the light of a thousand spaceports, ten thousand factories and a hundred thousand neon-lit Outfit-run boomtowns catering to zero-g roughnecks, factory workers, commodity traders and soldiers on leave.

Some of the first-wave colonists embraced the coming of civilization, lobbying for off-ramps and spurs from the newly built railway system. Others, though, took a harder stance, responding to any intrusion from outsiders with rapidly escalating violence and covert support from Soviet agents provocateur… and, rumor has it, some more mysterious allies the homesteaders met in the arroyos.

It’s 1958 and the night sky of Mars sings to a hot-jazz tune played by a quartet of slot machine, rocket engine, laser fire and broken bone. Hard-eyed grifters wearing dresses that are shorter and tighter than their Stargirl haircuts (designed to keep from getting mussed by a helmet) watch the spaceports and casinos, looking for the next mark who’s found a quick fortune in the void and needs help losing it. Deputy Marshals ride between the waystations and the city, bringing rough justice to the roughest beat in the solar system. Barsoomist rebels fight a hit-and-run war, staying one step ahead of the corporations’ hired guns and the Marines, knowing they’ve got miles to go before they sleep and deals to honor before they’re free of the yoke of Terra and their own all-too-human biology. An army of chancers, either too clever, too desperate or too foolhardy, make their way to the Red Planet in search of a bit of green.

And somewhere, in hidden valleys and lost caverns, the old masters of Mars awaken, peer out with tar-black eyes and prepare to up the ante.

System: Savage Worlds
Illustrator: Howard Chaykin

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