Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Lin Carter's Zanthodon (JOURNEY TO THE UNDERGROUND WORLD/ZANTHODON/HUROK OF THE STONE AGE)

I figure I should start off by talking about what I'm currently reading - and to tell the truth, I'm not sure why I'm still reading this series.  I got the five-novel Megapack of Lin Carter's Zanthodon series on my Kindle for 99 cents on Saturday night, and I've polished off the first two novels, JOURNEY TO THE UNDERGROUND WORLD and ZANTHODON, and I'm almost done with HUROK OF THE STONE AGE now.

I'd never understood the derision with which Carter's work has been considered in those circles that know of him - I mean, yeah, he did do those Conan pastiches with L. Sprague de Camp (which is where his name first came to my attention), and his Cthulhu Mythos stuff was more pulp-action than not, but it never seemed that bad.

Zanthodon, to me, is bad.  And I get the derision.

Zanthodon is Carter's loving homage/pastiche/shameless ripoff of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar series.  And I do mean shameless.  The first novel here starts off at least a little fresh - our Abner Perry stand-in, Professor Percival P. Potter, PhD, has deduced the existence of a hollow space within the earth and is trying to put together an expedition to investigate this space for fossil remains of prehistoric life, as opposed to Perry's "Iron Mole" mining equipment going haywire and taking them to a hitherto-unsuspected hollow earth.

But once we're in Pelluci- I mean, Zanthodon...


  1. Our narrator is a virile man of action who accompanied/financed the Professor.
  2. We're on the inside of a hollow sphere.
  3. There's permanent daylight.
  4. Dinosaurs and ice age mammals freely mingle.
  5. Cro-Magnons and ape-like Neanderthals are locked in a state of perpetual war with each other.
  6. Our heroes are taken as slaves, and while in slavery learn the local language.
  7. Our narrator falls in love with the "princess" of a Cro-Magnon tribe.
  8. There's an enclave of pirates descended from refugees from the surface (Barbary Coast in Zanthodon, while the Korsars of Pellucidar were Spanish Main)
  9. There's an intelligent race of non-human creatures with hypnotic powers who dwell in a secret city, employ a special sub-species of humanity as guards and slavers, and capture other forms of human to use as food! While Pellucidar's had its Mahars which were intelligent pterosaurs, here the Sluaggh are giant, intelligent, six-eyed leeches.  
Lin Carter is also overly fond of Burroughs' trope of having characters get separated and following each character's narrative path until they reunite; the characters never seem to reunite for more than an hour or so before being separated again for days or weeks at a time - give or take the fact that, in a world of permanent noontime sun, "time" doesn't really exist.  

The first novel is almost wholly set-up, just introducing a whole cast of characters from our narrator, Eric Carstairs, and Professor Potter to Darya the princess, Hurok the noble Neanderthal, Jorn the Hunter, Darya's father Tharn, Darya's scheming, cowardly former suitor Fumio (who, like Dian the Beautiful's violent suitor in Pellucidar, Jubal the Ugly, suffers a grotesque facial injury, though in all other aspects he resembles the character of Hoojah the Sly), the Machiavellian Xask of Zar, etc., and move them around Zanthodon to get them in place to all be in the City of the Sluaggh at the same time in the second novel in the series, ZANTHODON.  In fact, he spends so much time setting up the City of the Sluaggh, I was actually stunned at how little time he actually spent on and in the city.  It seems like the characters are barely there two chapters before they've successfully led a slave uprising, slaughtered all of the Sluagghs' servants, and Carter actually glosses over the extermination of the Sluaggh.

And that glossing over is kind of indicative of the Zanthodon series as a whole, at least so far.  I feel like I'm reading a clip show, or "Greatest Hits," of Pellucidar, with Carter giving each sequence just enough attention to get us to the next one.

The biggest difference I've experienced so far between Pellucidar and Zanthodon is in how the introduction of gunpowder and firearms is treated by the authors.  Burroughs never stops to consider the cost or greater ramifications of giving firearms to Stone Age tribes - he's very much, "Yes, we're lifting these fellows up into the greatness of the industrial revolution, we're teaching them to make boats, to build houses, the make guns to exterminate the hated Mahars, all great things as we impress on them the value of 20th century civilization!" And most notably, in Pellucidar it's David Innes and Abner Perry teaching the noble Cro-Magnons how to make and use guns in order to rid themselves of the loathsome, anthropophagous Mahars.  There's no moral ambiguity or question of right - the Mahars are unequivocally evil creatures while the Cro-Magnons are the noblest of Noble Savages, whom the Mahars are using as cattle.  

In Zanthodon, Professor Potter is tricked into revealing the secrets of gunpowder by the guile and lies of Xask of Zar, a society descended from Minoan Crete and deep in the throes of decadence.  Xask got thrown out of Zar for being too devious a schemer even for Zar, and he hopes to use the secret of the "thunder weapon" to get back in the Empress' good graces (that he might supplant her as ruler of Zar, naturally).  The weapon is thus put in the hands of an already-technologically-advanced, though morally-depraved, empire with an expansionist slant controlled by a power-lusting autocrat, and Carter makes it very clear how bad this is for the rest of Zanthodon, most especially the people who have befriended our heroes.

This, of course, is due to the time difference between the nineteen-teens when Burroughs created Pellucidar, and 1979, when Carter's first Zanthodon novel was published.  Colonialism was still very much a thing when Burroughs began his writing career, while by the 1970s anti-colonialism and a greater respect and understanding of indigenous peoples had come into being.

Getting back to the stripped-down "clip show" nature of Zanthodon vs. Pellucidar, I think that's actually a big part of why I haven't put these books down yet.  By pastiching Pellucidar with less-florid prose, Zanthodon gives me a better opportunity to "look under the hood," as it were, of Burroughs' fiction, and examine its strengths and weaknesses without my long-time adoration of Burroughs tinting my vision rose.  Until I started reading the Zanthodon books, it never dawned on me how reliant Burroughs is on the trope of having his characters get separated, for instance, and given that I've been reading Burroughs for around two decades now and hadn't noticed that, were it not for Zanthodon I might never have noticed.

I'll still take the villainy of the Mahars over the Sluaggh any day.  

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