Vintage Autistic Book Party, Episode 11: The Empress of Mars

(First published Nov 20, 2013. Minor edits have been made.)

Today’s Book: “The Empress of Mars” by Kage Baker

The Plot: A group of colorful misfits in a half-abandoned Martian colony find diamonds in the Martian soil. Hijinks ensue.

Autistic Character(s): Perrik Cochevelou, the brilliant son of a local PanCelt clan chieftain.

I’ve talked about the difficulty of reviewing comedies before. A book like “The Empress of Mars” is inherently full of characters with exaggerated personalities who bounce off of each other (and the setting, and the general situation) in absurd ways. Perrik is as exaggerated as anyone else. He is in some ways a simple autistic stock character. A designer of wonderful robots, but a social recluse, Perrik stays in his room for most of the story (until he runs away, fakes his own death, and constructs a very comfortable bachelor apartment for himself in a cave somewhere while living off the profits of his inventions), refusing to see most visitors and only barely tolerating his own father. Yet the way Baker writes Perrik reveals that she’s on his side, and that she understands more about his needs than one might assume.

Take these exchanges in Perrik’s first scene:

Mary stood still, knowing that if she advanced on him he’d shrink away. She held up her empty glass and examined it ostentatiously, wondering if he’d come any closer. He did, sidling along until he stood within reach.
“I’m glad it’s you,” he said. To her great delight, he reached forward and took her hand, Perrik who could hardly bear to be touched by anyone. “I was going to show my dad the new biis. But I’d like you to see them too. Come have a look. Please?”…

There was a door’s hiss and a growl from the chamber beyond, and a moment later Cochevelou came in. “Mary? What’s this?”
“Perrik was only showing me a new bii he’s designed,” said Mary. Cochevelou gaped at the blue lights a moment, and then grinned wide.
“That’s my brilliant boy!” he roared. He came at Perrik as though to embrace him. Perrik flinched away and looked at the floor. Cochevelou dropped his arms, coloring, and cleared his throat. “Well! Er. What a fine thing, now! You see, Mary, what a genius I’ve raised?”
“You don’t even know what it does,” muttered Perrik.

Mary (our protagonist, who is awesome for a whole lot of reasons besides this one) respects Perrik’s personal space, takes care not to startle or crowd him, asks intelligent questions about the things that he shows her, and remembers what he has told her about them before. She is rewarded with Perrik’s friendship. Perrik’s father, though he means well, does none of these things, and is treated accordingly. Baker doesn’t hit readers over the head with it, but it’s clear she actually values Perrik’s boundaries, which is a rare thing.

And while Perrik is a stereotypical autistic science genius, he’s also much more practical than most people give him credit for. Here’s part of what happens when Perrik runs away:

“With only his dear psuit and mask gone,” said Lulu, brushing away tears. “The poor little unworldly darling didn’t take so much as a crust nor a thermos bottle with him, and he’s nowhere within the clan holdings, and chief is certain he’s got frightened and run off Outside! His only child!” she added, with a resentful glance at Alice’s baby bulge.
“Perrik’s not a child. So you’re all searching the bounds,” said Mary patiently…

But of course Perrik did not run away into the Martian wilderness with only his psuit and mask, and when Mary examines the evidence and follows him to his cave, she finds him quite comfortable, having already used his biis to construct a liveable and self-sustaining environment. He is already working on patents for the biis and on some legal matters related to his running away, and explains quite calmly why he doesn’t want to go back. Mary is distressed at the thought of what his father and the rest of the clan will say, but respects his wishes.

“…This is so much better! He won’t have to worry about me.”
“He’s your father, of course he’s going to worry about you!”
“Then you explain to him. I’ve always respected you as a sensible woman. You never acted-” His tic spasmed briefly. “-as though there was something wrong with me.”

Perrik’s not a huge part of the story, but the role he does play is pivotal, and whenever he appears, there’s a subversive little thread going through the narrative in this manner. He’s played for laughs because everyone in this book is played for laughs, but Baker never loses sight of the fact that he’s a real human whose feelings matter. The characters who do lose sight of this are far more laughable than he is, and Baker knows it.

If you’re going to write a comedy with a token autistic genius in it, then this is how it’s done.

The Verdict: YMMV, but I liked it

For a list of other past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.