Archive for April, 2010

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Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

April 30, 2010

The Book: Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Originally published in 1913-1914 as a serial, the edition read was the edition read was published by Ballantine Books in 1973.

The Setting: MARS! or BARSOOM!

The Story: John Carter fights his way from the south pole to the north pole in pursuit of his kidnapped princess, who is NOT dead.  Although most everyone else that John Carter meets ends up dead.  At the north pole he finds the lost Lemon Colored People of Mars, who all have big black beards and are fierce fighters (aren’t they all?).   He kicks more ass without taking names.   He rescues the princess, saves the jeddak (king), kills the bad guys, and is named supreme ruler of all Mars.  Who’s the warlord of Mars?  JOHN CARTER!

The Science: “I am a fighting man, not a scientist,” says John Carter in my second favorite line from the book.  (First favorite line: “…and before I had half a chance to awaken to my danger he was like to have made a monkey of me, and a dead monkey at that.” Emphasis mine.)

Anywho, science!  John Carter’s ultimate victory is secured by disabling a magnetic tower (which is situated upon the magnetic north pole) which irresistibly attracts all the airships of Mars.

The shaft was a mighty magnet, and when once a vessel came within the radius of its powerful attraction for the aluminum steel that enters so largely into the construction of all Barsoomian craft, no power on earth could prevent such an end as we had just witnessed.

The fact that this device can be disabled by a switch suggests to me that the tall tower is some sort of enormous electromagnet.  Which is fine and well on it’s own, but here’s the problem:  airships can’t escape it, but none of  the other metal the Barsoomians use (which is a lot, since everyone seems to be wearing metal and fighting with it) is attracted to the tower.  If it’s that’s powerful, there’s going to be other stuff that sticks to it…  Moreover, aluminum is not magnetic under most circumstances, although we can suppose that the aluminum steel is some sort of fancy martian contrivance.

Magnets are cool though, and magnets as uberweapon is cool, even if it was used against the good guys.

The Reaction: Fightin’ around the world! So… how will life on Mars continue when John Carter has killed all men of reproductive age?  Because, seriously, the body count in this book must be higher than in Return of the King.  Which is probably why this book is a ton of fun.  Burroughs’ prose is fantastically wonderful in it’s sheer pulpiness.  I mean, that dead monkey line had me in stitches.  I felt the need to read choice tidbits outloud to my husband almost constantly.  Now that the initial trilogy is done, I wonder what they’ll do in the next seven books.

The Cover: Cover art by Gino D’Achille.  What we have here is another example of “things that didn’t exactly happen in the book.”  The image is thematically correct – some weird looking green guy is running off with a mostly naked girl while a white guy, also mostly naked, wields a sword.  The major problem here is that the kidnapper appears to be Green, and the kidnapper was actually Black, or White, or even Yellow.  But definitely not Green.  Besides the green guy on the cover does not look like the green men of Barsoom.  Good effort, exciting, and thematically correct, but lacking accuracy in terms of the story.

Next Up: Thuvia, Maid of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

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The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

April 25, 2010

The Book:  The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Originally published as a serial in 1913, the edition read was published by Ballantine Books in 1973.

The Setting: MARS!  Okay, okay…   BARSOOM!

The Story: John Carter returns to Mars and finds himself in the Martian afterlife.  He fights his way out and then back in again against: blood sucking tree men of Mars, white apes of Mars, white priests of Mars, black pirates of Mars, more black men of Mars, green Warsoon of Mars, red men of Mars, the black and the white men of Mars at the same time, and Issus the Goddess of Eternal Life and Death of Mars.  And maybe some other stuff.  He fights till he passes out, alone and with friends.  He finds his son, discovers his wife is missing, seeks his wife, finds her, then loses her at the very end.  WILL HE FIND HER AGAIN??

The Science:

  • The Blood Sucking Tree Men of Mars:  Carter encounters these fiendish devils first in this book.  They are bipedal with wiggly arms that graze the top of the tall grass, and end in mouths hungry for blood.  Also, they sprout new tree men from their arm pits.  I’ve got to say, these creatures are pretty terrifying.  Because they will pursue you and suck out all your blood.  And, scientifically, I think there’s a basis for them.  Not the bipedalism, mind you, but vegetables evolving mechanisms to catch animal prey is not unknown.  Additionally, plants move all the time anyway, even if we don’t notice it: they bend toward a light source.  So to imagine a vegetable that evolved a way of moving across the landscape while still alive is not unfathomable.  But I doubt they would have two legs – more likely a root structure wherein the plant develops new roots in a particular direction, abandoning those at the rear.
  • The Martian Year: In an important plot point of the book, Carter is positively giddy to remember that the Martian year is 687 earth days long.  And Burroughs did his homework, because that figure is correct.  Dull, yes, but accurate.

The Reaction: Pew pew pew.  Bang bang!   Biff pow whammo! Zzzzzz…  That’s what the book is: Fighting until you pass out from fighting.  And that’s fine by me!  Lots of fun, lots of action, a really quick read.  Burroughs was clearly feeling a little disillusioned with organized religion when he wrote this book; it shows.  And I really love how John Carter is straightforward about when he’s an idiot.  The one really tedious point was the “suspense” about who the young Martian was that turned out to be his son.  Burroughs was not so artful about that.  Carter: “Say, who’s your father?”  The boy: “My father is – ” They were interrupted by some ridiculous thing to draw out the suspense.  But it’s okay, I don’t mind too much with the rest of it being a rollicking good time.

The Cover: Art by Gino D’Achille.  Hey look at that!  Carter is hanging on the anchor of an airship wielding a gigantic sword while a black man wields a sword at him from above.  THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED IN THE BOOK.  Yes.  It did.  Really.  It happened at night, but I’ll forgive that.  It’s an exciting cover, except that Carter is posed like a 1940’s pin-up on the anchor, which is a tad ridiculous.

Next Up: Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Gulliver of Mars by Edwin L. Arnold

April 22, 2010

The Book: Gulliver of Mars by Edwin L. Arnold.  Originally published 1905.  Edition read was the 1964 reprint by Ace Books (F-296).

The Setting: MARS!

The Story: Lt. Gulliver Jones goes for a magic carpet ride.  To Mars!  He gets drunk, gets married, his wife gets kidnapped.  He travels the planet in a leisurely fashion to rescue her, being very lucky along the way (in that he does not get himself killed).  He saves the girl, survives a comet not hitting Mars, returns her to her people, fights the bad guys again, is losing, and hightails it out of there on his carpet (which was lost, but found at the moment of utmost need).

The Science: Ha.  What science?  Dude goes to Mars on a flipping magic carpet (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME), finds the almost-Eloi and the much nicer Morlocks.  Mars is a fairly lush planet, with lots of water and creatures similar enough to earth creatures that it’s all pretty much the same.  Arnold does take an interest enough in making the planet seem strange and weird by incorporating some novel sorts of plant life.  There are two sequences describing predatory plants which use a scent based bait, some sort of all-species pheromone maybe, to catch and devour animal life.  Also, the Eloi type people that live near the sea use mold to shape enormous melons as they grow to use for boats, which is clever as all get out.  And totally plausible.

The Reaction: This book gets a solid MEH from me.  I bought it because I’d never heard of it, and yet here was a book that the back cover was claiming had influenced the Barsoom series.  It’s an interesting book to read for the project – the Mars folk are clearly derivative from Wells’ Time Machine creatures and Burroughs was no doubt familiar with this book when he wrote the Barsoom books.  I mean, Mars+Martian Princess+River of Death=come on now.  But Gulliver is a sorry sort of character, lacking in consistency.  The action is okay, but all very superficial.  It wasn’t painful to read, but I’m rather looking forward to getting back to the Burroughs series which at least has the courage of its convictions.

The Cover: Oh my, that looks exciting.  Ragged man with sword flees..  what are those?…  an enormous rat fighting a protoceratops with a pterodactyl in the background?  Yeah, that didn’t happen in the book.  Gulliver heard a couple of huge beasts fighting in the night, but never saw what they were.  File under: Didn’t happen.

Next Up: The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

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The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

April 14, 2010

The Book: The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Originally published in 1912.  Edition read was printed in 1963 by Pyramid books.

The Setting: A mysterious plateau in the Amazon Basin, South America.  Also, London.

The Story: Edward Malone is in love, but his girl wants to love a man of adventure, of importance, of daring!   And he’s a newspaper reporter…  Through a series of surprising and unlikely events, Malone finds himself on a journey through the wilds of South America with the adventurer Lord Roxton, the brilliant and intimidating Prof. Challenger, and the brilliant and skeptical Prof. Summerlee to find the spot where Challenger had encountered a pterodactyl on a previous journey.  (But no one believed him, thus this return trip.)  They find the plateau.  Hooray!  There’s no way up.  Boo!  Being resourceful Englishmen, they find a way onto the plateau.  Hooray!  But then they get stuck.  Boo!

With no one to save them, only their faithful, enormous, slow black servant Zambo (seriously) is left at their basecamp to wait for them.  But they make the best of their situation.  After all, they’re here for SCIENCE!  Resourceful Englishmen that they are, they build a fort out of thorny brush and set up camp.  They observe a peaceful family of iguanodons and have a spot of trouble escaping from the swamp of the pterodactyls.  Malone decides to be a hero and do some night exploring, but is chased into a pit by a meat eating terror.  He escapes and heads toward camp.   His companions are gone!  A pool of blood on the ground!   He wanders, dazed, searching for his companions, but collapses in exhaustion.

He’s woken by Lord Roxton!  RUN!  Everyone’s been captured by bloodthirsty, cruel, sub-human ape men.  Even some little red men who apparently live on this plateau, too.  So Malone and Roxton rescue everybody, and become heroes with the red men.  And since those ape men are a problem for the red men, and now they have guns on their side, what’s left to do but engage in a little bit of retributional genocide?  They go and wipe out all the adult male ape men and enslave the women and youth.  Very progressive.  Then they have a few more adventures.

Anyway, a red man helps the party find their way down, they head back to London where everyone is crazy about them.  They show the people a pterodactyl they captured and everyone believes them.  Also, Roxton found them some diamonds so they all end up rich.  Malone does not get the girl, but he does start a bromance with Roxton.

The Science: Are there undiscovered species in the Amazon?  Probably.  Do prehistoric creatures survive into the present day? Yes (coelacanth, I’m looking at you).  But to have such enormous biodiversity in such a small area, and moreover for the creatures to be of great size in that area?  Very unlikely.  Also, every species there was in an evolutionary bottleneck that would have led to greater susceptibility to disease and a prevalence of undesirable traits in offspring.  So I take issue with the sheer number of species on the plateau.  But the whole field of evolutionary biology was pretty young at the time, so I’ll give Doyle a pass.

The Reaction: Okay, can the early twentieth century quit it with the racism already?  The last Wells book I read included an apology from a Jewish character for his entire people, which made my jaw literally drop.  And this book has Zambo, who is a walking stereotype, as well as “half-breeds” (though half of what, I’m never quite clear on).  So that’s not cool.  But, aside from that, the story was a lot of fun.  The prose was kind of delightful even when Roxton’s “eager eyes fixed eagerly upon” something or other.  A fun story, especially the second half.

The Cover: Hey look!  Some guys hiding from a dinosaur!  But…  um…  the triceratops is not even in the book.  Iguanodon, yes.  Stegosaurus, yes.  Triceratops, no.  Fail.  Also, that triceratops is the least threatening triceratops ever.  He’s all like, “Hey guys, have you seen my awesome horns?”  But, I do have to give this book a special award for best back of book so far.  I mean, check this out:

I mean look at that!  It’s so exciting, they had to put FOUR (4!!!!) exclamation points in front of the word DINOSAURS.  They are defying the rules of grammar!

Etc: I prefer Doyle’s The Lost World to Crichton’s The Lost World.

Next Up: Edwin L. Arnold’s  Gulliver of Mars.  Jumping back from 1912 to 1905 because I just bought this one!  and them’s the rules – go back to catch books purchased during the course of the project.

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A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

April 3, 2010

The Book: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Originally published in All-Story Magazine as a six part serial, February through July 1912.  Edition read was published in 1975 by Ballantine Books.

The Setting: MARS!  and a little bit on Earth

The Story: John Carter, mysterious fighting man of Virginia, is chased into a cave by pursuing Apache where he becomes frozen.  Ripping himself out of his frozen body, he is transported to MARS!  There he finds himself buck naked and confronting 15 foot tall, four armed, tusked, angry green Martians.  Decreased gravity on the planet makes him a kick-ass warrior and he kills one green guy dead with one blow.  But then they capture him.  He lives among them, learns their ways, and finds himself a chieftain among them (kill a chieftain, become a chieftain, easy peasey).

The green men shoot down some airships of a different race and capture Dejah Thoris, smoking hot princess of Mars.  She’s the size and shape of normal humans, just red in color.  John Carter falls in love with her.  Dejah Thoris falls in love with him.  But she’s a political prisoner!  Together with a sympathetic green Martian (or Barsoomian) and John Carter’s faithful, enormous, ferocious, 10-legged dog-thing Woola, they make their escape.  They get lost, separate, and John Carter gets captured.  After a lot of fighting and exciting escapes, he finds himself part of the Red Martian (he paints himself) Air Force for the city of Zodangan, and soon a private guard for the jeddak (king of the city) who just happens to be at war with Dejah Thoris’ city and has captured her.

Basically, there’s some intrigue, some fighting, some ally making, and Carter, with the help of Thark (Green Martian) chieftain Tars Tarkas, Carter and the Tharks invade the city where Dejah Thoris is being held, take it over, break up her wedding to the son of the jeddak of Zodangan, and win her back.  They return to Dejah Thoris’ home city of Helium and live happily ever after.  For 10 years.  Then John Carter wakes up in his Earth body, no longer buck naked.  Did I mention that everyone is totally naked the whole time?  Also, they all come from eggs.

The Science: At its heart, this is an action romance.  It’s set on a decaying Mars which has a lot of different bits of scientific things going on.  So lets nitpick and look at two bits of the book.

  1. The entire planet of Mars, once lush and easy to live in, has become arid, desolate.  It is only habitable because the Red Men of Mars maintain an atmosphere factory which transforms solar power (of the ‘ninth ray’) into atmosphere, keeping the planet surrounded by air.  Now, they don’t exactly go into the technical bits of the transformation, but I’m just impressed that Burroughs was thinking about the sun as a potential source of capturable, usable energy.  Pretty neat for 1912.
  2. Radium.  Most everything on the planet is powered by radium.  The element was discovered in 1898 and isolated as a metal in 1910.  So in 1912, it would have been known and used commercially on earth.  And no one would have quite worked out that it kills you dead.  So having radium power everything on Mars is like a high powered nuclear reactor.  Or maybe Burroughs just thought it sounded cool.

The Reaction: A rollicking good time.  It’s amazing how many battle scenes are skipped – but that’s just how much fighting goes on in the book.  I also appreciated the low level of background science fiction, like where Burroughs casually mentions that they got dinner in the restaurant by pressing a button.  But mostly, just a fun, classic adventure read.  Recommended!  And I hope the next 10 books maintain the quality…

The Cover: Cover art by Gino D’Achille.  Carter fights a Green Martian on the surface of Mars while Dejah Thoris looks on.  And everyone has their bits and pieces covered.  I don’t think this scene ever happened in the book, and I don’t think the anatomy of the Thark is quite right (also Dejah Thoris isn’t all that red), but I don’t hold it against the artist.  It pretty much says what needs saying.  Also, this is one of the later published books in the project, and I think the art is part of the 1970s and 80s trend toward women in metal bikinis on the covers of books.

Etc: OMG, Pixar is making it into a movie!

Next Up: The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle.