a coercive of mars

An analysis of
S.M. Stirling’s
Swords of Zar-Tu-Kan

as featured in Old Mars

Report by
Dylan Jeninga

It has been brought to my attention by my lovely girlfriend that I use the word “however” too much. She is right, of course, and I will attempt to rectify that habit. I can’t guarantee that I’ll succeed, however.

Zendexor has already drawn up a very thorough and insightful set of pages about S. M. Stirling’s Lords of Creation duology, and heaven knows I’ve mentioned it often enough myself. I’ve largely neglected to mention a critical piece of the puzzle, an oversight I intend to correct today. In all my musings, I never once talked about Swords of Zar-Tu-Kan, the official prequel to the second book in the series, In the Courts of the Crimson Kings.

I have a confession to make. The first time I read Zar-Tu-Kan, I didn't get it. I was confused at the nature of the biomechanical Martian “tembst” technology and somehow got the impression that all the Martians were dog-people. I was also baffled at the appearance of a talking bird, among other things. All this would have been avoided if I had read the novels first, and when I came back to it later my opinion of it was much improved. One could debate whether a story which requires prior reading should be included in an anthology, but I’ll not get into that here. It is from my second, more educated perspective that I will provide my thoughts on this story.

Zar-Tu-Kan has quite a few things going for it. Stirling’s rendition of Mars continues to tantalize, introducing ideas which seem strange but also make sense. It's a Mars that feels very correctly Martian - so much so that I'm almost ready to believe it's the real Mars and our lifeless one is fictive.

It also captures in one sentence what I have tried to articulate about the Red Planet many times. I've made it bold for convenience.

“Mars isn't older than Earth. It just feels older,” Tom Beckworth said, as they walked, renewing a discussion they'd been having off and on all the way from Kennedy Base on the icebound shores of the Arctic sea.

Shipping people between planets was expensive, even in this year of our grace 1998, and only the very best got to make the trip. Unfortunately, sometimes smart, highly educated people invested a lot of their mental capital in defending preconceptions rather than challenging them.

“Martian civilization is a lot older than ours,” Beckworth went on. “But there have to be commonalities. And frankly, they've done less with their time than we have with ours.”

She smiled to herself. This wasn't Venus and you couldn't play Mighty Whitey Sahib in a pith helmet here. He would learn. Or not.

Or not indeed! Certainly by the end of the story, one can imagine Mr. Beckworth’s opinions have shifted.

By far my favorite aspect of Zar-Tu-Kan, and probably Crimson Kings as well, is the character Teyudza-Zhalt. Dejah Thoris, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ titular princess of Mars, is notable only as a plot device. More often than not, the story kicks off when she is thrust into danger at the hands of some fiend in need of a sword through his heart. I don't hold this against the Barsoom novels - they are classics, products of their time, and their influence cannot be downplayed - but I do find the agency of Sterling’s Martian assassin to be a breath of fresh air. Especially since (SPOILERS) we discover in Crimson Kings that she is herself a Martian princess-in-exile. In this case, Stirling took the groundwork put down by Burroughs and did the obvious thing with it, and the result is a character who is recognizable and also delightful for defying our expectations.

Much of what can be said about Swords of Zar-Tu-Kan has already been said on the page for Crimson Kings, and to go on talking about it would be to risk plagiarism. I'll conclude by saying that if you read it before reading the novels to which it is attached, take it with a grain of salt. You're not getting the complete perspective.

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