Back to Barsoom

Today, I’m taking a look at a couple of older science fiction novels from the book collection I share with my wife. These are two of the later volumes in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous John Carter of Mars series. The series had its start in 1912 when Percival Lowell still argued there were canals built by intelligent beings on the surface of Mars. John Carter himself was a former Confederate soldier prospecting in Arizona when his human body died in a cave and he found himself resurrected on Mars, known to its inhabitants as “Barsoom.” What’s interesting about this back story is how much it resembles the fate of Camille Flammarion’s heroes from his 1890 novel, Urania.

Each of the Burroughs’ Mars novels opens as one of the characters on Mars, usually John Carter returning to his human body, comes home to tell humans a story of recent events on the red planet. I picked up the Mars books where I left off, on volume 7, A Fighting Man of Mars. In this book, the Martians develop Tesla-like long-distance radio to communicate with Earth and the story is told that way. In this novel, John Carter is relegated to the role of minor supporting character. The protagonist is Tan Hadron, a warrior infatuated with one of Barsoom’s noblewomen, Sanoma Tora. The plot moves into full swing when raiders capture Sanoma Tora and Hadron volunteers to rescue her. It’s good fun action and adventure that makes a lot of twists and turns. Along the way, Hadron meets a slave girl named Tavia who proves to be a capable and competent fighter. It’s a set up that could easily have become cliche or fallen into tropes of romantic adventure fiction that were tired even then. At worst Burroughs teeters on the edge of those tropes before giving us a rousing conclusion.

I had so much fun with this book that I continued into the next book in the series, Swords of Mars. This one is focused on John Carter, who returns to Earth to narrate his story to an old friend. In this tale, Carter travels to the Martian city of Zodanga to break up an assassination ring. While in Zodanga, Carter learns that two scientists are racing to build rockets to travel to the moons of Mars. When the assassins learn Carter is on their tail, they use one of the space vessels to travel to Carter’s home of Helium and kidnap his wife, Dejah Thoris. They then take her to Mars’s moon called Thuria with plans of holding her for ransom. Carter takes the other space vessel and goes in pursuit.

These two novels were published in 1930 and 1936 respectively. At this time, there were still questions about whether or not Mars could support life. Although these novels first appeared when my parents were young children and they do fall into “damsel in distress” plots, Burroughs does make a point of showing women as capable and competent, which felt refreshing after Voyage of the Space Beagle with its all-male crew.

Can one still find relevance in pulp fiction written nearly a century ago, set on a planet we know has no ancient cities linked by canals? I think the answer is yes. In both books, John Carter has a motto: “I still live.” The idea is that while Carter still lives, he has a chance of finding his way out of even the most difficult situations. In these challenging times, I take comfort in Carter’s motto. I also appreciate how the heroes in these novels stand up for the oppressed despite terrible odds. Percival Lowell may have imagined a Mars with canals and ancient life, but Edgar Rice Burroughs imagined a Mars that I would, at the very least, want to visit and explore.

Voyage of the Space Beagle

These are the voyages of the Space Beagle. It’s mission: explore new worlds, seek out new life … and kill it!

Wait, what?

Let me step back a moment. When I married my wife, a friend quipped that I was marrying her for her collection of science fiction novels. One of those novels was A.E. van Vogt’s classic science fiction tale, Voyage of the Space Beagle. It’s one of those novels I’ve long meant to read and I came across it the other day on the bookshelf and decided to give it a go.

The novel is a fix-up of four novellas written between 1939 and 1943 that describe a large space ship full of scientists sent out to the galaxy to learn everything they can. The primary point of view character is Elliott Grosvenor, an early practitioner of a science called nexialism which endeavors to take the results of all the sciences and come up with comprehensive results that specialists in those fields can’t achieve alone. This is probably a good thing, since the Space Beagle’s all-male crew consists of a bunch of scientists from different specialties, most of whom don’t seem to work and play well with others. Even Grosvenor felt like something of a know-it-all jerk at times.

In the first part, the Space Beagle lands and takes the cat-like creature from the cover aboard as a specimen. This coeurl turns out to be a lot smarter than anyone anticipated and it goes on a killing rampage through the crew until they figure out how to dispatch it. In the second part, hypnotic suggestions begin flooding the ship and causing the crew to turn against each other. Grosvenor figures out that they’re receiving communications from an alien race. In the third part, they encounter a living creature out in space called an Ixtl and decide to bring it aboard as a specimen. It promptly begins going around the ship and inserting its eggs into the intestinal tracts of the crew. Finally, the Space Beagle leaves the galaxy and encounters a galaxy-spanning entity at M33. It transforms planets into jungle planets with lots of life that it can feed on.

I found it difficult to sympathize with a lot of the characters in this novel. While it was interesting that they had egos and that led to conflict, I just wanted them to get over themselves and work together once in a while as something nasty attacked the ship. What’s more, for a thin novel, it was rather plodding and methodical in its pacing. Despite that, the real importance of this novel is in its influence. The first thing I noticed was the cat-like creature on the cover. He reminded me of one I’d seen on another recent novel.

It turns out that Haruka Takachiho, the author of the Dirty Pair light novels was a fan of A.E. van Vogt and Mughi, the third lovely angel, shown on the cover, is supposed to be a coeurl. There are obvious parallels in this novel with movie and TV space opera that followed, such as Forbidden Planet and Star Trek. When van Vogt mentioned his all-male crew, I immediately thought of the problems the crew of the C-57D had when it’s all-male crew encountered a woman on Altair IV. Although I poke fun at the Star Trek connection in the opening of this blog, it does resemble Star Trek in that the Space Beagle ostensibly is an exploratory ship that finds itself in the position of defending Earth against creatures that would do Earth harm. For that matter, the coeurl feeds on the potassium in human bodies, not unlike the creature that kills people for salt in an early episode of Star Trek.

One thing that’s quite striking in this novel is its resemblance to the plot of 1979’s movie, Alien. Most people point to the obvious parallels of the egg-implanting Ixtl, but the coeurl story also resembled Alien quite a bit. I was especially struck at the end of that story when the biologist, Kent, suggests that a crew should return to the coeurl’s planet and exterminate the species before they become more of a problem, the setup for this universe’s version of Aliens. Apparently van Vogt did sue the producers of Alien and was awarded a settlement.

Although it feels dated, and I’ve read novels from the period that I enjoyed more, I was glad to discover this influential science fiction novel and travel with the crew of the Space Beagle for a little while, and survive the experience.