“The Emperor of Mars” is the third of five novelettes up for a Hugo. It's about a guy who reads a lot of science fiction and then goes insane. (Unlike me, who has gone insane and begun to read science fiction.)
That's not a joke. (Other than the part in parentheses. Probably.) This Martian colonist reads old scifi stories about Mars and begins to think it's real, eventually believing himself to be the Emperor of Mars. It was weird to read a science fiction story that takes place on Mars about a guy who reads science fiction stories that take place on Mars. If you really want your mind to be blown, consider this: what are you reading right now?
But enough about the stories that this story isn't. “Mars” begins with a horrible tragedy and ends with a surprisingly uplifting and emotional conclusion. It's kind of like reading Romeo and Juliet backwards.
Additionally, the story makes you want to go google NASA's Mars Lander missions. I'd say it's a good mark of success for a science fiction story when it makes you curious about science fact.
“Mars” has the curious position of being able to address its own genre within itself, asking some interesting questions. Did we lose something when our views of Mars became less fantastical and more scientific? Is science fiction a harmful escape from life, or a helpful one? And why hasn't anybody found Marvin the Martian? Did Bugs Bunny ever really land on Mars, or was that a Loony Toons conspiracy?
I'm generally not a fan of meta-things: news stories about journalists, fiction about fiction writers, plays about putting on plays, and so forth. It just always seems a little incestuous to me. But it didn't feel gimmicky at all in this case. Because of how tragic the character was, you're not distracted by references to classic science fiction stories – you're too busy wondering with all your might what's going to happen to this guy.
There's an interesting moment as you're reading where you think, “That poor guy. Doesn't he know that science fiction is just a story?” And then you realize what you're reading. What's your response at this point? It's not very many novelettes that successfully ask the reader to confront the fact that they're reading. I should know; I've read a lot of novelettes. Multiples of three of them.
Unfortunately, this story has one enormous flaw, and that is a lack of robots. This was deliberate – you might even say that this is a story about its own lack of robots. However, that is little excuse, and I have to give this story a Robot Rating of zero robots.
Read the first portion of Allen Steele's novelette, "The Emperor of Mars," here, and listen to an entire audio narration here.