Monday, January 25, 2016

The Warlord of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1914)

Continuing where The Gods of Mars left off, Warlord finds John Carter roaming the lands of the First Born with Woola by his side, hunting down pockets of Thern resistance and seeking a means to free Dejah Thoris, Thuvia and Phaidor from the Prison of the Sun - and most importantly, learn if Phaidor managed to kill Dejah Thoris in there or not.

He luckily chances on two of his enemies, the Holy Thern Matai Shang and the black Prince Thurid as they are openly conspiring to open the Temple of the Sun and take the three women to a place where the Therns' power remains strong.  He follows them, seeking an opportunity to slay them and rescue his wife, but a wrong turn in the winding cavern tunnels under the Sea of Korus delays him long enough for Thurid and Matai Shang to kidnap the women and flee to a waiting flier.

John Carter gives chase, but his flier is shot down over the Forest of Kaol, on the Martian equator in the opposite hemisphere from Helium.  After a fight with a vicious hornet-like monster called a sith (likely the source of George Lucas' use of the word), he makes his way to the City of Kaol, one of the regions still faithful to the Thern religion, where Matai Shang and Thurid have been given sanctuary by the local Jeddak.  Just as John Carter is about to be put to death for blasphemy, he's rescued by a friend of Kaol's Jeddak - Thuvan Dihn, Jeddak of Ptarth and father of Thuvia.  When Matai Shang flees rather than produce the "slave girls" who are Dejah Thoris and Thuvia, Carter and Thuvan Dihn take off in pursuit.

Their pursuit takes them all the way to Mars' forbidding North Polar region, long known as a forbidden zone due to the fact that ships flying above a certain latitude never return.  Here they find the buried hothouse cities of the Yellow Men, a race long believed extinct.  Here Carter must contend not only with the cruel Thern and the lustful black prince, but with the savage appetites of Sallensus Oll, Jeddak of the North and his vicious pet apts - one of the most terrifying predators on all of Barsoom.

This book rounds out the initial trilogy of Barsoom tales, and ends on a note that could conclude the entire series well enough if Burroughs had decided not to continue.  It is also a fantastic example of some of the tools Burroughs used to keep a story moving that would probably get him labeled a poor writer today.

Burroughs is a big fan of the lucky coincidence and there's a couple big examples on display in this volume - for example, John Carter and Thuvan Dihn need to pass through the "Carrion Caves," a tunnel complex filled with rotting corpses and prowled by the royal apts to deter any who would try to enter the land of the Yellow Men this way.  There is apparently one day every month where the apts gather in one cave and sleep for a full day.  Guess which day it is when John Carter and Thuvan Dihn are passing through? Or, later on, while escaping from the dungeons of Sallensus Oll, John Carter's route to freedom takes him right up to the door behind which Thurid is loudly plotting to betray Matai Shang with the help of the man who controls the giant electromagnet used to destroy ships flying too close to the lands of the Yellow Men.

Likewise, Burroughs is a big fan of forcibly separating his characters and then reuniting them later to drive story.  The main through-plot of this novel and its predecessor is that John Carter has been separated from Dejah Thoris.  Burroughs keeps letting the two lovers see each other briefly, just enough to let them know the other is still alive, Similarly, while Carter and Thuvan Dihn enter the city of Kadabra together they are quickly separated.  This makes for great story-telling because it leaves Carter to rely on himself to get himself out of scrapes, but after a while it makes you wonder why John Carter bothers with traveling companions at all.

The one big disappointment I had was how it wrapped up the John Carter-Dejah Thoris-Phaidor love triangle plot (is it a triangle if one of the lines of connection is "kill" and another is "keep from murdering my wife"?).  Phaidor throws a cruel laugh at John Carter as she's leaving Sallensus Oll's throne room, having seen that Thurid kidnapped Dejah Thoris while (literally) John Carter's back was turned.  Then, on the flier as Thurid, Phaidor and Matai Shang are making their escape with Dejah Thoris while John Carter dangles from a rope below the ship, tables are turned.  Thurid stabs Matai Shang and throws him overboard to lighten the ship, and just as he's about to send John Carter to a similar fate, Phaidor jumps up and stabs Thurid repeatedly, stating first "this is for Matai Shang!" and second "this is for Dejah Thoris and John Carter!"

She explains, after Thurid's corpse has been disposed of, that she realized the error of her ways and understands the purity of love that John Carter and Dejah Thoris share versus the petty jealousy and possessiveness with which she approached "loving" John Carter.  She makes a comment about reparations for her sins, and then throws herself over the side!

I kind of think she's overstating her case on learning her lesson, given the "cruel laugh" she throws in Carter's face barely an hour before.  I feel like she killed Thurid to avenge her father, and threw herself over the side knowing that with Matai Shang dead, the power of the Therns was truly broken.  The bit about learning her lesson regarding love seems like rationalization to me.

The novel ends on a high note with John Carter and Dejah Thoris being reunited, with their son Carthoris falling in love with Thuvia of Ptarth, and the charges of heresy against John Carter dropped to the thunderous applause of Martians from pole to pole.  And I think this is a great place for me to take a little break from Barsoom and read something else briefly before returning to that world of barbaric splendor.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Gods of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1913)

Kaor, readers! Continuing with my return to Barsoom, today I'm looking at the second book in the series, Gods of Mars.  When we last left John Carter, he'd valiantly used what seemed his last breath to throw open the doors of the Atmosphere Plant so that the machinery could be repaired and Barsoom could live.  Upon so doing, he found himself back on Earth, ten years after he left it.  Gold discovered in the Arizona hills made him wealthy, but what did he care for wealth when Dejah Thoris, the love of his life, was on Barsoom, possibly asphyxiated? Years pass on Earth, and John Carter seemingly dies again, and is buried by his nephew (Edgar Rice Burroughs) in a tomb of his own design - one that can only be opened from the inside.

Awakening once more on another world, John Carter at first believes he's somehow missed Barsoom - he finds himself in what appears to be a well-manicured park, and a lake or sea is visible in the distance.  He's relieved to discover he has found Barsoom when he encounters his old friend Tars Tarkas - but learns that he has arrived in the Valley Dor, where Martians not slain in battle go to die, and from which, by ancient law, no man may return.

Dor is no paradise, however, being home to the vampiric Plant Men and savage White Apes.  Worse still, however, are the men John Carter meets - the Holy Therns, a race of white-skinned men who perpetuate the myth of heavenly Dor to lure in Red and Green Men, helping themselves to the arms and jewelry of the victims and eating their flesh.  John Carter makes it his mission to alert the world at large of the Therns' deception, regardless of personal cost to himself.

But escape from the Therns echoes Milton's Paradise Lost: "and in the lowest deep a lower deep, still threat'ning to devour me opens wide, to which the Hell I suffered seems a Heaven." John Carter falls first among the black-skinned First Born, who prey on the Therns as the Therns prey on the rest of Barsoom, and then into the hands of Zat Arrras, an old enemy from Zodanga who seeks to rule over the twin cities of Helium.  With Dejah Thoris in the hands of the First Born, John Carter embarks on a mad race to build a new fleet of warships to destroy the power of the Therns and the First Born forever, before Dejah Thoris is eaten and Zat Arrras claims the throne of Helium.

In this first sequel to A Princess of Mars, Burroughs cranks the adventure up to 11 and tears the knob off.  There are no "slow" scenes here; even when Carter is languishing in a completely lightless dungeon for months on end, it's written with a breathless intensity that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.

Here we get an interesting take on religion that prefigures probably a half-dozen or more crafty, fraudulent witch doctors in the Tarzan series.  I don't know what Burroughs' personal beliefs on religion or spirituality were, but the venomous contempt he shows for "false" religions such as that promulgated by the Therns and the First Born is fascinating and feels very contemporary to the 21st century.  It takes very little imagination to translate the self-servicing, vain corruption of the Therns to the real world of today - Matai Shang, ruler of the Therns, would not be out of place in a modern megachurch.  And having the First Born dupe the Therns the same way the Therns dupe everyone else was a delicious bit of irony.

Also a little startling given the 1913 copyright date is how the different races of Barsoom are treated.  The Red Men are the dominant human ethnicity on Mars, with a skin color comparable to Native Americans.  John Carter meets good people and bad people among them; the Red Martians run the gamut of morality and ethics, and are judged strictly based on their behavior towards their fellow men.  In Gods of Mars, John Carter encounters the First Born, who are black-skinned.  While initially described to him as bloodthirsty pirates, they're not described in any way, shape or form resembling how an African-American would be described in literature of 1913.  And while many of the First Born are arrayed against Carter, he just as quickly finds allies among them - through treating them as fellow human beings.  Burroughs even lampshades this a bit by having Carter, a Confederate veteran you recall, comment along the lines of, "this may seem odd for a Virginian to say, but these black warriors were some of the handsomest and most skilled I've ever seen."

The only Barsoomian ethnic group that is depicted as wholly and irredeemably evil are the white-skinned Therns.

Finally, I'd like to look at the three women in this book who love John Carter.  Total macho man power fantasy, of course, to have beautiful women falling all over you.  But the interesting thing is in how these three women - Dejah Thoris, his wife; Princess Thuvia of Ptarth, a slave to the Therns until Carter frees her; and Phaidor, daughter of Matai Shang - interact with him.  Carter is no testosterone-fueled beast; he is very strictly monogamous to Dejah Thoris, even when he believes her to be dead he remains faithful to her memory rather than so much as hug another beautiful woman who is throwing herself at his feet.

Thuvia falls in love with Carter when he frees her from the Therns.  When Carter says, "sorry, I'm married," Thuvia accepts this, and devotes herself, heart and soul, to both John Carter and Dejah Thoris, sublimating her romantic love into a sense of honor and service.  She goes on to save Carter's life multiple times in the books to come, while also having adventures of her own, as we'll see later.

Phaidor falls in love with Carter when she sees that he's handsome and skilled with a blade.  When Carter says, "sorry, I'm married," Phaidor's response is to tell him he'll regret ever turning her away, that nobody ever tells Phaidor "no", and that by refusing her love he has signed Dejah Thoris' death warrant, because Phaidor will torture her to death to punish Carter for his refusal.

Quite the difference, and I'm sure Burroughs brought these two together in these pages as an intentional contrast.  Indeed, one of the most powerful scenes in the book happens at the climax, as Phaidor lunges at Dejah Thoris with a dagger and Thuvia trying to interpose herself - to stop the dagger with her own heart, if nothing else.

The book ends on one of the most gripping and heart-clenching cliffhangers I've ever read - at the command of Issus, the false goddess of Mars, Dejah Thoris, Phaidor and Thuvia are placed in the Temple of the Sun, a prison whose doorway opens only one day every year.  John Carter is tearing through the palaces of the First Born to try and reach them before the door closes, and arrives just in time to see the door seal shut, his last glimpse of the three women the scene described in the previous paragraph.  We're left to wonder if Carter will ever see Dejah Thoris alive again, or if Phaidor's dagger found its mark.

While Carter must wait a year to find out what has happened to his beloved, Burroughs' readers had a much shorter wait - The Warlord of Mars began its serialized run in All-Story seven months after the serialization of The Gods of Mars concluded.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Princess of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912)

Greetings, readers! Some of you may know that when I began my current job back in August, the first thing I did with my first paycheck was treat myself to a big box of miscellaneous Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks; my mother always taught me, "with the first paycheck of any job, treat yourself to something you wouldn't buy otherwise." I didn't dive right into reading the contents of this box right away because I began the new job the day after Pulpfest last year, and I had a lot of new reading to work through first.  Now that it's a new year, I want to try and read as much Edgar Rice Burroughs as I can - it's been many, many years since I've read most of the Mars series, I've only read maybe a third of the Tarzan series, almost none of the Pellucidar series, and nothing beyond that.  So I decided to start digging in, and I decided to start where a lot of things began for me: under the moons of Barsoom with A Princess of Mars.

John Carter, a seemingly-ageless soldier and most recently a veteran of the American Civil War, has gone west to seek his fortune mining gold.  When his partner is killed by Apaches, Carter takes refuge in a strange cave, high in the Arizona hills.  A strange gas overcomes him, and he awakens on the planet Mars.  

Here, he finds himself amidst the barbaric splendor of a dying civilization; he's immediately captured by the Tharks, a tribe of savage Green Men - towering, four-armed creatures with bulging eyes and razor sharp tusks.  The increase of strength he experiences on the lower-gravity Mars (or Barsoom, as its known to its inhabitants) earns him their respect.  A Tharkian raid on a foreign airship brings Carter into contact with the Red Martian princess, Dejah Thoris, with whom he falls in love.  

His devotion to Dejah Thoris brings him into conflict with the Tharks, and he makes a daring escape with Dejah Thoris and Sola, a Green Martian woman capable of the softer sentiments.  Carter braves horrible beasts and worse men to see Dejah Thoris safely returned to her city of Helium, and earn her hand in marriage.  

I would be lying if I said there was any one book on this Earth that had a more profound effect on me than A Princess of Mars.  I first read it when I was in the 5th grade, which would have been 1997.  So it's been almost twenty years now since I was first introduced to Barsoom and its inhabitants.  John Carter is the standard of manhood, integrity and honor that I aspire to every day, and Dejah Thoris was my first crush.  I've given copies of this book to every girl I've ever dated, because I think it's the key to understanding what makes me tick as a person.  

I chose the Michael Whelan 1979 cover painting to accompany this post because that's what adorned the copy I read in 1997 and it's what adorned the copy I read this past week.  It's the image that defines the look of Barsoom to me - Whelan's spindly, mantis-like Tharks match the description in the book better than any of the beefier versions we tend to see today, John Carter is built like a warrior without looking like he's competing in Mr. Universe, and Dejah...she is nude, yes, as described in the books, but she's not presented as jerk-off material.  It breaks my heart to see my first love as she's so often depicted this days, splayed out like a centerfold or drawn with cartoonishly over-inflated breasts.  She's a scientist and a statesman, in addition to being a princess.  She's not a porn star.  Whelan gives her an elegance and an innocence missing from so many modern depictions.  

I've read this novel probably eight to ten times since 1997, but let's face it, as a ten year old there was a lot I didn't "get" that first time or glossed over because it wasn't moving fast enough, and many of those revisits since then were light read-throughs, a brief and pleasant diversion.  This past week was the first time I really sat down and read the book deeply, chewing over every word of Burroughs' prose.  A couple points:
  • I had forgotten just how big the portion of the book detailing Carter's life among the Tharks is.  The first chapter is set in Arizona, but Carter's then with the Tharks from Chapter 2 through Chapter 17, for sixteen out of twenty eight total chapters.  It makes sense that this would be the case, because we the readers are being introduced to this world along with Carter - without showing him learning about the world a step at a time, the reader would be totally lost.  I also never noticed the passage where it's mentioned that Tal Hajus, the Jeddak (high chieftain) of Thark is a slave to his sexual passions, whereas in most of the Green Race the libido is reduced and sex is solely a matter of reproduction to strengthen the tribe.  Between that and his bulk, I wonder to what extent Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars was inspired by Tal Hajus? The influence of Barsoom on the Star Wars saga, especially RETURN OF THE JEDI, is well-documented, but I've never seen this point raised before.  
  • I also forgot the extent to which Tal Hajus is the "central" villain of Princess.  Than Kosis, Jeddak of the city of Zodanga, is waging a war against Helium that will only end if Dejah Thoris agrees to marry his son, but the way it's paced it feels almost like an afterthought; the conflict between John Carter (and even moreso, his Green Martian friend, Tars Tarkas) and Tal Hajus feels so much more personal and visceral.  And I say that with full recognition of the fact that the final battle wherein Tars Tarkas overthrows Tal Hajus to become Jeddak of Thark takes place between two paragraphs.  
  • Red Martian houses are built atop a piston that can be raised or lowered at will; rather than locking their doors at night, Red Martians simply raise their house up to deny anyone entry.  I don't think Burroughs revisits this idea at all anywhere else in the series, but it's certainly an intriguing way of showcasing the differences between Martians and Earthlings.  
  • There's a nine year period after the defeat of Zodanga and the marriage of John Carter to Dejah Thoris that is glossed over.  Burroughs writes simply, in Chapter 27, "For nine years I served in the councils and fought in the armies of Helium as a prince of the house of Tardos Mor." I can't be alone in wanting to know what happened during that time.  Sounds like a perfect opportunity to write some continuation stories to fill that nine year gap.  
Rereading Princess and revisiting Barsoom...it's like going home, in a sense.  Reading it as an adult, I can recognize issues - Burroughs was essentially self-taught at writing, though I believe he had an innate sense for storytelling - but they don't matter.  What matters is, in these pages, I can feel the same swelling sense of adventure and wonder that drove Bradbury to his typewriter and Sagan to his telescope.  Nineteen years after my first trip to Barsoom, I still feel the fire in my belly that I felt as a science fiction-loving ten year old picking up the book for the first time.  I still want to look up at Mars in the night sky, feel the click like a taut wire snapping, and take off through a moment of darkness and cold to find my way, across millions of karads of empty space, to the moss-carpeted sea bottoms, dotted with the ruins of long dead cities.  

And still, and I suspect forever, the words are burned into the fibers of my heart: "I do not believe I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes..."

Kaor, Uncle Jack.  It's a joy to see you again.  

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Scarlet Jaguar (Win Scott Eckert, Meteor House, 2015)

Well readers, I'm pleased to announce we're beginning 2016 on a high note with Win Scott Eckert's follow-up to The Evil in Pemberley House, The Scarlet Jaguar.  Patricia "Pat" Wildman is back in this new novella which promises more to come from Win's word processor in years to come.  Before we dive into the meat of Win's prose, I want to draw attention to the cover art by Mark Sparacio.  I want to know who is modeling for Mr. Sparacio's artwork, because that figure is so over the top that the top is visible solely as a pinprick below.  Gina gave me some serious side-eye when I pulled this book out of the Meteor House box and had a few choice words regarding Ms. Wildman's likelihood of future back pain and whether or not the torn shirt is carefully glued in place to preserve her modesty.

But anyways, on to the review.

A few months after the events of The Evil in Pemberley House, Pat Wildman and her partner Parker have settled into Pemberley House and her role as the Duchess of Greystoke and Baroness Lambton, as well as their new venture, the detective agency of Empire State Investigations.  It is in this latter role that they're brought in contact with young Emma Ponsonby (a name I associate indelibly with an episode of the second season of Blackadder, But I digress...), whose father, a diplomat involved in the affairs of the Central American nation of Xibum, has gone missing.

It would appear the vanishing of Ponsonby is intimately related to the appearance of a master criminal calling themselves "the Scarlet Jaguar," and committing assassinations in a very unusual fashion - to the sound of a snarling jaguar, the target is transformed into crimson glass and shattered, releasing a puff of red smoke that resembles the roaring face of a big cat.  With the Scarlet Jaguar threatening to cripple the world's shipping lanes, Wildman is soon on the Jaguar's tail, with Parker and her old girlfriend, Helen Benson (daughter of Richard Benson, the Avenger, and the Domino Lady) by her sides.

The Scarlet Jaguar feels like it should be a Doc Savage novel.  The pacing, the organization, the language...if I didn't know better, I'd say Lester Dent's shade showed up in Win's office and said, "Scoot over, I'll show ya how it's done." I mean that as the highest praise; I consider Dent a world-class story teller, and Win's work here is a match for Dent's in quality.

A couple of the connections took me by surprise; Helen Benson had me scrambling to google both the Avenger and the Domino Lady, though Win does include a brief back-story to Helen's famous father and an explanation of her inheritance of certain traits from him.  Additionally, there's some clever references to the TV show "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." including the assertion that Doc Wildman was instrumental in the foundation of that organization, and the idea of the former foot-soldiers of a defeated T.H.R.U.S.H. becoming soldiers of fortune hiring themselves out to other megalomaniacs, which I thought was an inspired touch.

I think the thing that took me the most by surprise, after the rampant sexuality of Pemberley House, was how low-key it was kept in Scarlet Jaguar; Helen and Pat share a kiss and Helen gives Pat's rump a good squeezing to make Parker jealous, but that's about it.  Again, this is more in keeping with Dent and his target audience versus the more...err, drama-soaked conventions of the Gothic.  I'd told Gina about some of the sex in Pemberley House, and upon learning that this was a sequel, her immediate inquiry was "does she get it on with the Scarlet Jaguar?" So now I can tell her the answer to that is a firm "no."

What else is there for me to say about The Scarlet Jaguar? How about the fact that I devoured it in a single sitting, laying down in bed to start the book and finishing it two hours later without realizing the passage of time.  If that's not a compliment to a book and its author, I don't know what is.  It's a really great, riveting adventure that furthers Pat's understanding of her father and her own growth as a blight to evil-doers.  This is what New Pulp is all about, and you can buy it from the publisher here.