The Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice BurroughsMay 8, 2010
The Book: The Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Originally published in 1922, the edition read was the edition read was published by Ballantine Books in 1975.
The Setting: As the title suggests, it’s set on Mars.
The Story: Tara, daughter of John Carter, gets swept away in her flier by a horrible windstorm. She finds herself in a distant and unfamiliar land inhabited by strange people with weird heads. But wait! It’s just inhabited by heads and bodies. The heads are the hyper-logical, but crablike kaldane. The bodies are simply beasts of burden and, later, snacks for the kaldane. Meanwhile, Gahan of Gathol follows Tara into the storm, but falls off his flier and manages to find her anyway. He rescues her with the help of one of the kaldane, Ghek, who has been affected (infected?) by Tara’s singing. They escape and soon find themselves in bigger trouble in the kingdom of Manator where they are captured and escape (more than once!) and play the deadly, life-size, Martian version of chess. Intrigue and danger follow. Eventually the day is saved and the boy gets the girl.
- The Kaldane and the Rykor: Mars must be a poorly explored place, because the heroes of these books are always blundering into undiscovered civilization. In this case, it’s the kingdom of Bantoom, where the terrifying crab-like brain creatures, the Kaldane, use the human-like bodies (without heads!), the rykor, for riding, working, and eating. As is explained, the perfect symbiotic relationship between the two species is the end result of a long and directed process of co-evolution. It seems quite terrifying, particularly because the bodies have become very human like (including secondary sexual characteristics!), but it’s fairly reasonable. Species evolve in relation to each other all the time, though most examples I can think of are parasitic, and not on the scale of the example in the book. So, I think it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Though I strongly doubt that the Rykor would evolve into human-like bodies, particularly retaining secondary sexual characteristics (when they no longer have eyes), as the most useful form for the Kaldane.
- Human Taxidermy: I don’t know that this is really science, but this is visceral shock number two of the book (after the Rykor). In Manator, the dead are preserved via taxidermy. Privileged warriors are shrunk, but most are rendered exceedingly lifelike. Taxidermy is certainly not just a modern invention, but has existed for a long time. And the idea of preserving human bodies is not new – it’s essentially what embalming is, and what exhibits like Body Worlds takes to extremes. As for actually practicing taxidermy on people, I didn’t have the nerve to go beyond the first page on a google search. I’m sure it’s possible, and probably has been done, but is probably not legal in many places. One thing we can examine empirically, is the longevity of taxidermy specimens. The book indicated that one grouping was, at minimum, 5000 years old. Currently, no Earthly taxidermy survives from before the 1620s, and I really doubt our chemicals are good enough to withstand 5000 years of tenacious pests.
The Reaction: It’s kind of the same thing again, isn’t it? This time with new characters and more shock value. But, Burroughs did totally invent a game that works, both in the story and in real life. So that’s pretty cool. I’m not gonna knock it too hard, but it wasn’t as good as those original books. Burroughs just isn’t taking the same sort of joy in writing – nothing has come close to matching the Dead Monkey line. But it’s a good, fun, novel adventure story, and I’ll take it.
The Cover: Cover art by Gino D’Achille. My husband was hoping that this cover was accurate when he first saw it, and it is! Okay, except that the people are supposed to be naked, just wearing a leather belt and “harness” which I imagine to be like the top of lederhosen. But the Kaldane? Looking pretty close to the description in the book.
Next Up: “The Color Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft. Short story!