The Janitor on Mars by Amis, Martin, 1998

The Janitor on Mars by Amis, Martin - Book cover from

Bookmark and Share

In the last two-and-a-half years, roughly the length of time I have maintained a blog dedicated to SF, I have noticed about myself that I tend to read certain types of stories in blocks. For example, sometimes I will plow through five or six post apocalyptic stories in a row, or will begin, put down and start again three of four non-fiction books all at once. One other feature that I have been drawn to of late is SF stories that were written by mainstream writers. I currently have SF works by Michael Chabon, B.F. Skinner, Gore Vidal, Martin Amis and Sinclair Lewis sitting in my pile of things to be read. These stories often amaze me, I think because the authors who write them have only a beginner's understanding of the idiom of the genre. That is to say, they understand that in order to write good SF they must not flout the rules of science, but if they do, they had better have a pretty good explanation of how and why. What they often are not burdened with are the methods by which established SF authors have fleshed-out those thematic frameworks, and because of that I think that the SF stories that mainstream authors produce are often fresher and more imaginative. Certainly that is not the only reason. For example, often SF authors can be successful and well regarded in their genre by adhering to the rule stated above, even if the work that they put out is subliterary. Larry Niven is a perfect example. His writing style is often bad, sometimes atrocious even, but he is scientifically accurate and wildly inventive, so that when he does not adhere to the known, we are told the reason why very convincingly. Now, so I am not accused of swinging too far the other way here, I will also state that there are some very literary writers in the genre. Samuel Delaney, Ursula K. LeGuin, James Tiptree and Robert Silverberg are some of my favorites. But I think that mainstream authors generally make better SF authors, at least when they conform to the rule above, because they are generally better at the literary aspects, and have wider and deeper experience with important things such as characterization, setting and metaphor, and are generally more literary authors. After all, mainstream literary critics will tear them apart if they are not.

This week's story is a novelette by mainstream novelist Martin Amis, son of noted mainstream and SF author Kingsley Amis. Martin Amis, no slouch himself in the literary department, has as best I can tell produced two SF works in his career: This one, The Janitor on Mars, and a beautifully written, experiential novel about a Nazi war criminal who lives his life in reverse through time called Time's Arrow. Despite what I said about mainstream authors being free from the strictures of the genre's ideals, The Janitor on Mars was, like most of the excellent British SF, heavily influenced by Olaf Stapledon, although there are doses of Robert Heinlein in there too, mostly appearing as if they were channeled through John Varley, though occasionally in the pure form. As you read this essay (and hopefully the story it is about) consider Heinlein's Job: A Comedy of Justice and Varley's Ophiuchi Hotline. Douglas Adams' influence is also visible, though it will take a bit of looking to find it. There is also quite a bit of pulp-era techno-babble, and the story is chock-full of emotion and drive. The Janitor on Mars is a first contact story about mankind's true place in the racial pantheon of the cosmos. Written in Amis' primary mode of irony, there is also quite a bit of sarcasm and fatalism too. Amis is regarded as one of his generation's brightest lights, as was his father back in his day in the 1960's. Amis' engaging style is known for creating devotees within a few pages. Most of his releases created a popular and critical sensation upon publishing, and he continues to mature as an author. He also has no fear of genre work, having also reached into the romance and detective spaces.

The Janitor on Mars is about the sole surviving Martian. Mankind has crossed some threshold called "the tripwire," and as a result the Janitor took over CNN to broadcast his presence, and invite a coterie of the intelligent and the beautiful (excluding only politicians and clergy) to come to Mars and learn the Janitor's secrets. So a mission was cobbled together, with some help from the Janitor, and eighty-five or so people went to Mars to hear him out. When they arrived on Mars, inside Olympus Mons to be precise, the first thing that they learned was that the Janitor was a robot, and that all the Martians were gone. The robot told the tale of the history of the Martians, who matured as a race very quickly after the planets of Mars and Earth were formed, built up a glorious culture, then, mostly out of boredom, blasted themselves almost out of existence. The Martians, in keeping with legends that would be written about their patron billions of years in the future and an entire planet away, were a very warlike race. They were also highly advanced. In an uncountable series of wars they destroyed themselves in seconds, then built their culture back up over hundreds of thousands of years only to do it again and again and again.

The Martians were an ambitious race though, and before long they turned their attention to the rest of the universe. They ventured out boldly to conquer and explore, and quickly learned that despite their vast intelligence and fearsome warlike qualities, they were pretty much the low-men on the galactic totem pole. There were races out there that made them look like bacteria, against which they hardly stood a chance. As they explored the universe, then the Multiverse (an infinite number of universes), they encountered many races and the remnants of others, each more powerful than the last. Around the central black hole of the Milky Way they encountered a vanguard of guardian robots on a "Loop World" that turned their entire battle fleet off in a nano-second and sent them back to Mars at sublight speed. Worse, they discovered that that race was the real source of power in the galaxy, and that Martians and Earthlings, situated on an outer arm of our spiral galaxy, were nothing other than an early warning system in case a more powerful extra-galactic race decided to attack.

While the Martians put together battle plans that took hundreds of thousands of years to deploy, life was beginning to evolve on Earth. Rather than wipe it out, as they had on all the other solar planets in which it had evolved, the Martians found themselves too busy to even care. So we evolved on Earth, becoming the oddest creatures in the universe, dedicated to religion and art and other useless pastimes. About religion the Janitor spat:

Terrestrial religion and its scarcely credibility tenacity: Everywhere else they just kick around a few creation myths for a while and then snap out of it when science gets going. But you? One of your writers put it succinctly when he said that there was no evidence for the existence of God other than the human longing that it should be so. An extraordinary notion. What is this longing? Everyone else wants "God" too - but from a different angle. For us, "God" isn't top-down. He's bottom-up. Why yearn for a power greater than your own? Why not seek to become it? even the most affable and conciliatory Martian would have found your Promethean urge despicably weak. Okay, on Mars we had to face - and maybe we never truly faced it - our actual position in the order of being. It goes beyond the Third Observer (a race of beings that is much more powerful than the Martians, by orders of magnitude), on and on and up and up. And what do you reach? An entity for whom the Ultraverse is a game of eight-ball. And maybe he's just a janitor - the Ultrajanitor. This entity, through his surrogate the Third Observer, created life on Mars. And what am I supposed to do about Him? Worship Him? You must be out of your fucking mind. That's your thing. When all is said and done, you are very talented adorers.

Though there are significant numbers of people out there who think that we may one day become as gods, Amis turns all our sense of purpose and trust in science on its ear in this tale. I cannot say that these ideas are novel, because very few of them are. Most of them have turned up at one time or another at various points in the genre's history. But the central idea, that we are incapable of participating in galactic culture, is presented in a pretty novel way: As a cosmic joke. But in getting to the punch line Amis made a pretty interesting observation of human nature.

The Big Bang and the Steady State theories are both wrong. Or, to put it another way, they are both right but incomplete. It pains me to see you jerk back from the apparent paradox that the Universe in younger than some of the stars it contains. That's like Clue One.

Iain Henryson Lucasian Professor at Cambridge University, described the mathematics that accompanied this memo as "ineffable. In every sense." The janitor on Mars was often petulant, insensitive, factious and sour, and not infrequently profane. But Earth trusted his intelligence, believing, as it always had, in the ultimate indivisibility of the intelligent and the good.

The irony here is that even though we are preparing ourselves, we likely would never survive first contact with any race, even the true Martians, were they to reveal themselves. It's not that they would surprise us; it's that we are genetically unable to prepare. The ultimate irony actually is that even if we were worthy, we still would not have been adequately prepared. Here the janitor chastises us:

Lord Kenrick (said) "You shaped us? Is that what you're saying?"

"...Yeah I fucked with you some. Sure. Hey. I was programmed to do that. I had - guidelines. Some things worked out. Others didn't. Slavery was all me, for instance. Yes, slavery was my baby. That worked out. All worlds dabble with it, early on. It's good practice for later. Because slavery is what the Ultraverse is all about. Okay, on Earth, you could argue that it got out of hand. But on a nonculling planet it seemed like a necessary development. Even in its decadent phase slavery had many distinguished though irresolute advocates. Locke, Burke, Hume, Montiesquieu, Hegel, Jefferson. And there's an influential justification for it in the holy book of one of your Bronze Age nomad tribes."


"The Bible. Any last questions?"

Amis says that as a race we are nothing but our own culture, and as admirable as that culture is to us, it will not save us and in fact is nothing more than a diversion from true enlightenment, and thus survivability. But even if we were worthy; even if our culture and our own DNA did not hold us back, we would have been ill prepared anyway, because as brutal as we are, we just are not brutal enough.

The side story in The Janitor on Mars concerned a janitor and an inmate in the UK's sole remaining private orphanage. The orphanage was a bastion of pedophilia, though one particular pedophilia, Pop Jones, was chaste. He cared for the children, even as he lusted for them, but refused to indulge himself because that quality he lusted after, purity, would be destroyed by one sexual act. The children at the orphanage had been conditioned as sex objects by the wardens and behaved as prostitutes in a brothel, but one boy, Timmy, was a chaste as Pop. One night though Timmy was found semi-catatonic in the cupboard, violently raped and left to bleed and babble on the floor. Pop took him under his wing to find out who could have hurt the boy so badly, but all Timmy could do was mutter meaningless words like "floor," and "sweep." The whole scene was disgusting, but in light of Amis's meta message - that in such a violent universe there is no other way to prepare for first contact and the bloodshed and misery it is certain to bring other than by practicing acts of barbarity on ourselves - it has special significance. In the orphanage rape was an everyday occurrence, but Pop Jones refused to participate. Even though he was driven to fondle and rape little boys, he did not. That may have been because he had turned his back on sex and not because he particularly cared for what the boys wanted, but it really does not matter too much. It still looked like an act of kindness, and to be honest, Pop really was kind of a nasty old romantic anyway, caring more for the souls of the boys then their orifices. His outlook was obviously a reflection of the way humanity as a whole chose to see the universe: Disgustingly barbaric, but not without some compassion. Pop's virtue was evidence of how we as a species were lacking, and his perversions a metaphor for how disgusting we are as a species.

The Janitor on Mars is available only in Amis's collection, Heavy Water, and Other Stories. As an example of what a critical darling of the mainstream is capable of producing, it is somewhat telling, though Martin Amis's other genre story Time's Arrow is much more original, though possibly because it is rooted in a seldom used and difficult motif, that of existence backwards through time. The primary draw for this story is undoubtedly Amis's wonderful voice and compelling prose, as the themes here are a little dusty with age. Still though, it represents a full one-half of what Amis is capable of in genre writing, so I would recommend it to anyone. I also fully recommend Amis' father's SF works, and I will note that one of those books by Kingsley Amis, The Alteration is one of my favorite books of all time. It, like Kinsley’s other major SF fiction work, Russian Hide and Seek is an alternate history work, and worth every effort to pick up.

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)


Software © 2004-2023 Jeremy Tidwell & Andrew Mathieson | Content © 2007-2023 Gregory Tidwell Best viewed in Firefox Creative Commons License