An archaelogical expedition on Mars has found the final resting place of the "lifelog" of Paj Nakasen, the philosoper who created the Wager, the philosophy-come-religion that governs all human space. It's a discovery of great importance, as control of the lifelog will mean control of human destiny. Jak's home, The Hive, wants that control - no matter what it costs. Left in charge of Diemos, when his superior heads off for a well deserved holiday, Jak finds himself in nominal charge of the expedition to recover the log for The Hive. But it's an expedition where he has many masters, and many directives (not the least the remnants of the condition he received from his schemeing princess ex-girlfriend - who's on her way to the scene). With old friends, relations, and enemies all on their way to Mars, Jak's sure to be in for an interesting time...
Barnes' far future solar system is a strange place. Ostensibly free, it's a feudal throw back, driven by the precepts of The Wager - a set of assumptions that are intended to provide an interesting and exciting world. It's also a set of assumptions that may well be founded on quicksand. Jak's world is, for all its utopian overtones, the dystopic end point of a Libertarian world view. It's one that has debt slaves on Mercury, and a shattered, balkanised Mars, while the aristocracy live high on the hog - controlloing and manipulating everything in sight. The principles of the Wager are revealed to justify everything in the name of personal advantage, leaving nothing for friendship or love. Everything can be sacrificed if it means winning the game, and for all his disbelief, Jak is the Wager personified. At last we see him as he really is: an amoral pawn. Jak is drifting and acting at the whims of others. He is both using people and being used, with no real understanding of the consequences of his actions.
Barnes is a dark writer, exorcising the demons of the modern world in his dense and complex stories. Even simple pieces like this, which lack the emotional impact of other novels, add to his explorations of these recurring themes. At times we may not enjoy how Barnes' approaches this - but it is important that he shows us the dark with the light. We may not get to his worlds from here, but it's only because of the stories he tells.
In The Hall Of The Martian King is important fiction in the guise of throwaway space opera. Excellent stuff, and a reminder that fiction shouldn't be cosy.