Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Voyage of the Space Beagle: Introduction


I've written before about my Dad's collection of science fiction paperbacks which fascinated me when I was little and which introduced me to new galaxies of the imagination. Many of the authors in his collection are well-known masters of science fiction, like Heinlein, Asimov, and Bradbury. He also had several novels by a writer with a peculiar name whom I had never encountered elsewhere in my readings of science fiction. Yet, during a brief span in the Golden Age of Science Fiction, A.E. van Vogt was reckoned as one of the greats. Writers such as Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison admired him and cited him as an influence on their own works.

The Voyage of the Space Beagle is the first van Vogt novel I ever read and it remains my favorite of his works. It's an episodic tale about a space exploration vessel, stitched together from short stories originally appearing in Astounding Science Fiction. Because van Vogt is somewhat obscure today, I thought that this time around, instead of jumping right into the story, we would take a week to look at this forgotten master of the imagination


Alfred Elton van Vogt was born in 1912, on a farm in Manitoba, Canada. His father was a lawyer, and his family moved frequently when he was young. He began his writing career doing "true confession" stories for pulp magazines like True Story, before switching over to science fiction.

His first published science fiction story, "Black Destroyer", appeared in 1939 in John Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction. It was the cover story that issue, which featured a number of notable works and which has been called the beginning of Science Fiction's Golden Age. The story was set aboard a scientific exploration vessel named the Space Beagle, after the ship Charles Darwin sailed on in the 19th Century. Some critics have suggested that the Space Beagle was an inspiration for the Star Trek.

He was a prolific writer during the '40s and '50s, producing many short stories and serialized novels for Astounding. In the '50s, he reworked some of his short stories into what he called "Fixups": novels created by stitching together existing shorter works. When the stories were related, as in his Space Beagle stories and his book The War Against the Rull, this worked; in other cases, such as The Beast and Quest for the Future, it resulted in a mish-mash of plot.

Possibly his best novel was Slan, the story of a young mutant growing up in a society that hates and fears him, searching for others of his kind. This theme of "Mutants are Hated and Feared" has become something of a cliché, thanks to Chirs Claremont's run on the X-MEN, but van Vogt came up with it first. Modern critics may argue about whether the X-Men are supposed to be a metaphor for Black Civil Rights or for gays, but the fans of Slan when it first appeared in 1940 knew what being a mutant was really about. The Slans of the novel were adolescent science fiction geeks, marginalized by the "mundane" society around them, but possessing a secret power, the power of imagination.

Often his protagonists were synthesists, who were able to draw upon a wide range on knowledge to solve their problems. For his Space Beagle stories, he created a scientific discipline called Nexialism, which gives his main character Dr. Elliot Grosvenor a broader view than his colleagues who are narrowly focused on their specialties. In Planets For Sale, which he wrote with his wife E. Mayne Hull, super-space entrepreneur Artur Blord claims not to be a scientific genius; but he has a large research staff and an even larger pool of science and technology which he has acquired. In Empire of the Atom, (essentially the Roman Empire with atomic energy and updated to a post-apocalyptic future), Clane the Mutant studies ancient science which is preserved only in the temples and uses it to stay one step ahead of his scheming family.

He was attracted to fringe ideas. One of his late novels was based on the idea that Kirlian photography could record a person's aura and postulated a society where Kirlian surveillance cameras were monitoring the public to identify people who were about to commit crimes. He was friends with L. Ron Hubbard and for a time was head of Hubbard's Dianetics organization in California. Through much of the 1950s, he and his wife ran a Dianetics center, partially financed by his writings, until he "signed off" in 1961.

In the 1940s van Vogt became interested in Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics and used it as the theme for his novel The World of Null-A. It's hero, Gilbert Gosseyn, was a typical van Vogt superman who used Korzybski's non-Aristotelian logic, (non-A, or Null-A for short). I tried reading Null-A when I was younger, but found the plot difficult to follow and the quoted passages from Korzybski to be incomprehensible. I might try tackling it again to see ow van Vogt's "Null-A" compares to the Objectivist "A=A".

I was not the only one who found it hard to follow. A young science fiction writer and critic named Damon Knight wrote a scathing review of The World of Null-A when it first came out in which he called van Vogt "a pygmy who has learned to operate an overgrown typewriter" and labeled him "the Cosmic Jerrybuilder."

Damon Knight is probably best known to the general public for his short story "To Serve Man" which was adapted as a Twilight Zone episode; but he had greater influence as a science fiction critic and editor. He founded the Science Fiction Writers of America and was a leading voice in the movement to raise SF out of the pulp ghetto and hold it to more literary standards. And to be fair, by those standards  van Vogt's writing was not very good.

Van Vogt could write a gripping story, but his grasp of science was sometimes tenuous and occasionally his plots could get incoherent. Partly this was because of a conscious effort to put "something new" in every 800 words. This kept the story moving and the reader surprised, but sometimes at the cost of an orderly plot. In addition, van Vogt liked to incorporate elements from his dreams into his stories, and his tales follow a dream-logic which does not always make sense if you try to dissect them into proper syllogistic form. These qualities were aggravated in some of his "fixups" where he shuffled together previously unrelated stories.

But these non-Arisotelian qualities also had their fans. Philip K. Dick cited van Vogt as one of his influences, and Harlan Ellison lobbied for van Vogt to receive the SFWA Grand Master Award. Since such an honor would be considered an insult to Damon Knight, the founder of the SFWA, van Vogt was not recognized until Knight had received his own Grand Master Award in 1994.

Van Vogt's writing output declined in the 1950s as he fell out of favor with the SF Establishment and as Dianetics ate up more of his time. He made a bit of a comeback in the late '60s and '70s, publishing some new works and reprinting several of his classics. Towards the end of his life, he suffered from Alzheimer's and ceased writing altogether.

Critic David Hartwell in 1984 said of van Vogt:
No one has taken van Vogt seriously as a writer for a long time. Yet he has been read and still is. What no one seems to have noticed is that van Vogt, more than any other single SF writer, is the conduit through which the energy of Gernsbackian, primitive wonder stories have been transmitted through the Campbellian age, when earlier styles of SF were otherwise rejected, and on into SF of the present.
C.S. Lewis liked to use the word "mythopoeic" in describing the works of his favorite author, George MacDonald, who also wrote dream-like works of imagination. "Mythopoeia" is a type of story which stirs the imagination the way the best myths do. Lewis admitted that in terms of literary style, MacDonald could have been better, but insisted that his works had an imaginative power to them. I think the same could be said of van Vogt.

NEXT:  We board the Space Beagle to visit a desolate planet with a dead civilization. And among the ruins prowls the Black Destroyer!

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Princess of Mars: Part 4: War With Zodanga


After weeks of imprisonment by the savage Warhoons, escape, more weeks of wandering in the Martian desert, and a narrow escape from a creepy scientist in the atmosphere factory, John Carter has ended up in the city of Zodanga, a city-state currently at war with Helium, the home of the Princess Dejah Thoris. He has met Kantor Kan, a soldier of Helium whom he met earlier and from him has learned that Dejah Thoris is now a captive of the Zodangans. Carter and Kantor Kan have enlisted in the Zodangan air force hoping to get closer to wherever the Princess is being held, which may seem like a roundabout way of doing it, but it worked. Carter has managed to save the life of a member of the royal family and so has been promoted to a position in the palace guard. Now all he has to do is find the Princess.

Piece of cake.


Carter is assigned to bodyguard the Zodangan jeddak, Than Kosis. The jeddak's throne room is situated so that his guards remain concealed behind a wall of one-way tapestries, so that the guards can see everything, but no one else can see them. It is while he stands hiding like Polonius behind the arras that who should come into the room but Dejah Thoris.

The jeddak's son, Sab Than, is infatuated with the Princess, and Than Kosis has decreed that he will end his country's war with Helium if she will voluntarily marry the prince. She has come before Than Kosis to tell him she has decided to accept.

"From the beginning of time upon Barsoom it has been the prerogative of woman to change her mind as she listed and to dissemble in matters concerning her heart," she says coquettishly. "Two days ago I as not sure of his love for me, but now I am, and now I have come to beg of you to forget my rash words..."

This is the last thing Carter wants to hear. The reader will guess that she is only agreeing to the marriage for the safety of her country, but Carter has to speak to her directly to know exactly what is really in her heart.

He commented at the beginning of his narrative that he is not so much brave as that the cowardly course of action never occurs to him until he is already committed to a rash one. This usually works for him, but here his impetuousness gets him in trouble. He darts out of the throne room, his departure hidden by the tapestries, and goes looking for Dejah Thoris' chambers. This takes some time, because he still doesn't know where in the palace she's staying. When he finds her room, he tries to bull his way past her guards. Again his luck fails him and the guards aren't buying his bluff. Oh well, it was a stupid conversation anyway. He draws his sword and quickly dispatches the four guardsmen.

The Princess does not recognize Carter immediately, because he's painted his skin a Barsoomian orange and he's wearing the metal ornaments of a Zodangan soldier; and because she believes John Carter to be dead. When she does recognize him, she wails in despair: "Too late, too late... O my chieftain that was, and whom I thought dead, had you but returned one hour before -- but now it is too late, too late."

She has made her promise to wed Sab Than, the Zodangan prince, and on Barsoom that promise is a binding oath. The wedding ceremony that will follow is but a formality. Carter offers to remedy the situation by making her a widow at his earliest opportunity, but she tells him that won't help either: "I may not wed the man who slays my husband, even in self-defense." There are a lot of these Barsoomian Dating Do's and Don'ts that Carter has to pick up on yet.

She does however explain the reason for her earlier coldness to him:
"Do you remember the night when you offended me? You called me your princess without having asked my hand of me, and then you boasted that you had fought for me. You did not know, and I should not have been offended; I see that now. But there was no one to tell you, what I could not, that upon Barsoom there are two kinds of women in the cities of the red men. The one they fight for that they may ask them in marriage; the other kind they fight for also, but never ask their hands. When a man has won a woman he may address her as his princess, or in any of the several terms which signify possession. You had fought for me, but had never asked me in marriage, and so when you called me your princess, you see," she faltered, "I was hurt, but even then, John Carter, I did not repulse you, as I should have done, until you made it doubly worse by taunting me with having won me through combat."
Things were so much easier in Virginia.

Now he can't escape with his Princess, and he can no longer remain either. The bodies of the guards he killed are quickly discovered. Although the jeddak first assumes that there's some kind of hit squad roaming about his castle, his personal psychologist reads the minds of the dead men -- yes, you read that right: he reads the minds of the dead men -- to find that the carnage was committed by one man, whose description matches the new bodyguard who has gone missing. (That bit about mind-scanning the dead guards is a lovely piece of pulp; I'm surprised Burroughs didn't do more with it)

Carter tracks down his buddy Kantos Kan and explains the situation. "If I can come within sword's reach of Sab Than... I can solve the difficulty in so far as Helium is concerned, but for personal reasons I would prefer that another struck the blow that frees Dejah Thoris." They plan to steal a couple of fliers; Carter will make for Helium, while Kantos raids the palace to deal with Sab Than.

As Carter is making his escape, he is spotted and fired upon by an aerial patrol. Using a "trick of gearing, which is known only to the Navy of Helium" which Kantos Kan has taught him, Carter is able to evade and outdistance the patrol; but their fire has damaged his compass. Without navigational aids, he has to guess his general direction and hope he happens across the twin domes of the cities of Helium. (Why doesn't he just follow the canals? Perhaps his mind is too busy concentrating on Twin Domes.)

Now, given Burroughs' fondness for coincidence, one might guess that Carter does indeed happen upon the right city; but no, that would be too improbable. Instead, he happens across two armies of green Martians fighting each other, one of which is being led by his old buddy Tars Tarkas. He swoops down and helps the Tharks defeat their enemies.

Tars Tarkas offers to give John a team of thoats to flee on; Tal Hajus, the jeddak of the Tharks, has not forgotten the humiliation blow Carter dealt to him the last time they met, and will undoubtably order him killed. Helping him, however, will make Tars Tarkas a fugitive as well; and Carter would rather have it out with the Tharkish tyrant.

He tells Tars Tarkas the story Sola confided in him; about how she was Tars Tarkas's child by his long-dead lover, who had been betrayed by the vicious Sarkoja into Tal Hajus's hands. At this, Tars Tarkas agrees to confront the jeddak; but first he wants a few words with Sarkoja.
"Sarkoja," said Tars Tarkas, "forty years ago you were instrumental in bringing about the torture and death of a woman named Gozava. I have just discovered that the warrior who loved that woman has learned of your part in the transaction. He may not kill you, Sarkoja, it is not our custom, but there is nothing to prevent him tying one end of a strap about your neck and the other end to a wild thoat, merely to test your fitness to survive and help perpetuate our race. Having heard that he would do this on the morrow, I thought it only right to warn you , for I am a just man. The river Iss is but a short pilgrimage, Sarkoja. Come, John Carter." 
The next morning Sarkoja was gone, nor was she ever seen after.
Carter is brought before Tal Hajus, but before the jeddak has a chance to order his death, Carter demands the right to be heard. "Cheiftains of Thark... I have been a chief among you, an toady I have fought for Thark shoulder to shoulder with her greatest warrior. You ow me, at least, a hearing." The Tharks are a cruel people, but they pride themselves on being just. Although Tal Hajus howls, the other chieftains of the Tharkish Council agree to let Carter speak.

"You are a brave people and you love bravery, but where was your mighty jeddak during the fighting today? I did not see him in the thick of battle; he was not there. He rends defenseless women and little children in his lair, but how recently has one of you seen him fight with men? Why, even I, a midget beside him, felled him with a single blow of my fist. Is it of such that the Tharks fashion their jeddaks? There stands beside me now a great Thark, a mighty warrior and a noble man. Chieftains, how sounds, Tars Tarkas, Jeddak of Thark?"

Tal Hajus is in a corner. The only way he can prove his fitness to lead is to fight Tars Tarkas for it; which is just the opportunity Tars Tarkas has been longing for all these years.

It's not much of a fight; it's over almost before it begins. And now Tars Tarkas is jeddak of the Tharks.
I hadn't made the connection before, but we also saw this kind of succession-by-combat in Frank Herbert's Dune, except that there Paul Atriedes was trying to establish his leadership without having to kill the existing leadership of the Fremen that he needed as allies.

Seeing that the Tharkish Council seems favorably inclined, Carter now brings up the situation in Zodanga. He wants the Tharks to attack the Zodangan capital so that he can rescue the Princess. Tars Tarkas supports him. He reminds the Council that the Princess had originally been their captive -- so there is a certain amount of pride involved here -- also that by looting Zodanga they will gain much booty and that by returning the Princess to Helium they will be able to establish an alliance that will benefit the tribe. The Council is delighted to have a leader who actually seeks to build consensus rather than rules by fiat. Or perhaps they just like the idea of a good fight. In either case, they endorse Carter and Tars Tarkas's proposal.

Traveling by night and camping during the day in the ruins that litter the martian landscape, the great Tharkish army avoided notice by Zodangan aerial patrols. Carter was able to lead a small commando team into the city and open the city gates so that the invading army could enter. While the Tharkish horde engages the city's defenses, Carter leaps ahead to the palace where Dejah Thoris is about to be wed to Prince Sab Than.

There's a big fight, involving Carter, the Princess, Sab Than and his father, lots of guards, and ultimately Tars Tarkas himself. We never do find out exactly who kills Sab Than; the narrative doesn't say. I like to think that Dejah Thoris did it herself, but then that's the romantic in me. (She does kill the prince's father at the beginning of the fight; you have to give her credit for that).

The City of Zodanga has been conquered. Carter and Tars Tarkas seize as many Zodangan airships as they can and fly to Helium. Dejah Thoris is returned to her grandfather, the jeddak of Helium; who welcomes Carter warmly, and greets Tars Tarkas courteously as a fellow-jeddak and an ally.
John Carter and Dejah Thoris marry, with the blessings of all Helium. You'd think from there it would be all Happily Ever After, and for a few years it is. Carter becomes a respected Prince of Helium and earns a respected position in its armies; he and Dejah Thoris have a beautiful egg which they put in a special incubator in the palace. All is wonderful.

Then about nine years after the rescue of the Princess a new crisis strikes Barsoom. Radio contact is lost with the keeper of the Atmosphere Factory. It is presumed that he has died. The keeper's assistant has been found in his home, murdered. Only those two men know the secret to opening the door of the Factory, and without supervision, the Factory will shut down and the the Martian air supply will begin to dwindle. Who murdered the assistant? Was there some kind of plot? Who would do such a thing, since the loss of the Factory threatens all live on Mars? The narrative doesn't say and Carter never finds out.

It isn't until the air supply on the planet is dangerously low that Carter remembers that he knows the psychic combination to the Factory doors; he was able to get it from the keeper when he visited it briefly after escaping the Warhoons. He hurries to the Factory on the swiftest flier where a team of men are laboring vainly to penetrate the Factory walls, and with almost his last gasp of air sends the nine thought waves at the unyielding door before he passes out.

He wakes up once again in the Arizona cave where his adventure started. Somehow, his unconscious body has remained unmolested there for ten years. He finds the gold mine he and his friend had dug way back when and comes back east, a wealthy man, but haunted by his experiences.
Did the Martian reach the pump room? Did the vitalizing air reach the people of that distant planet in time to save them? Was my Dejah Thoris alive, or did her beautiful body lie cold in death beside the tiny golden incubator in the sunken garden of the inner courtyard of the palace of Tardos Mors, the jeddak of Helium. 
... 
As I sit here tonight in my little study overlooking the Hudson, just twenty years have elapsed since I first opened my eyes upon Mars. 
I can see her shining in the sky through the little window by my desk, and tonight she seems calling to me again as she has not called before since that long dead night, and I think I cans see, across that awful abyss of space, a beautiful black-haired woman standing in the garden of a palace, and at her side is a little boy who puts his arm around her ans she pints into the sky toward the planet Earth, while at their feet is a huge an hideous creature with a heart of gold. 
I believe they are waiting there for me, and something tells me that I shall soon know.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Princess of Mars: Part 3: Escape and Capture


John Carter, former Confederate cavalry officer and now interplanetary expatriate, has fallen among the Tharks, a cruel, barbaric tribe of green, four-armed Martians. By virtue of his fighting prowess he has gained a certain amount of status and respect among the Tharks, but he knows this is temporary; as soon as the tribe returns to their capital city, he will face the judgement of their jeddak, Tal Hajus, a merciless tyrant regarded as sadistic even by Tharkish standards.

He has also met and fallen in love with Dejah Thoris, the beautiful granddaughter of the jeddak of Helium, a city-state of the Red Martians; who is a captive of the Tharks. She loves him too, but because of Carter's unfamiliarity with Martian customs, he seems unable to speak to her without putting his foot in his mouth. She's mad at him and he doesn't know why.

He has also made an enemy in Sajorka, a Tharkish female who had developed an unreasoning implacable hatred towards Carter. She has persuaded a young warrior named Zad to pick a fight with Carter and he has found himself embroiled in a duel to the death. Stabbed in the chest, Carter makes one last desperate lunge at his opponent and passes out.


He is only unconscious for a trice. When he recovers, he sees that he has successfully delivered a fatal blow and his opponent lies dead upon the Martian moss. Zad's blade had driven through his chest, but has glanced off his ribs without piercing any vital organs; nothing that the remarkable medicinal techniques of the Martian women cannot take care of.

He goes to find Dejah Thoris, who lies weeping in her chariot. Sola, the Martian woman who has been acting as Carter's teacher and servant and who has been watching over Dejah, explains that she thinks Carter is dead.
"Tears are a strange sight upon Barsoom," she continued, "and so it is difficult for me to interpret them. I have seen but two people in all my life, other than Dejah Thoris: one wept from sorrow, the other from baffled rage. The first was my mother, years ago before they killed her; the other was Sarkoja, when they dragged her from me today."
Carter tells Sola to tell Dejah how he survived, but not to tell her he saw her weeping. He's on thin enough ice with the Princess; he doesn't want to risk further wounding her pride.

 
He is curious, however, about Sola's comment regarding her mother. The Green Martians generally don't know who their parents are. Their eggs are gathered and placed in communal incubators. Once the young are hatched, they will be selected by some of the tribes women who will finish raising them; but neither the child or the foster mother ever know who the actual parents were.

(Oh, and all Martians are oviparous; even the Red Martians like the beautiful Dejah Thoris. If you want to know why egg-laying creatures have breasts, take it up with Frank Frazetta).

Later, Sola tells Carter her story. Sola's mother was a sensitive woman, who detested the cruel sadistic culture of her people. Too small to be considered adequate breeding material, she nevertheless fell in love with a young warrior who shared some of her sentiments. She gave birth to his child and hid the egg in a secret place, lest she and her lover be executed for their sin. Her lover determined that he would someday challenge the jeddak, Tal Hajus, and bring about reforms. The lover was off on a military campaign far to the south when the egg hatch. Sola's mother then kept her hidden, biding her time until the next batch of hatchlings were brought to the city.

But the mother was overheard telling her daughter of her story by none other than Sarkoja, who passed the news on to Tal Hajus. The mother had just enough time to slip Sola among the newly-arrived hatchlings before she was captured. The mother died under torture without ever confessing the name of her lover: Tars Tarkas, the warrior who Sola now serves and who has been John Carter's patron among the Tharks.

The rest of the journey back to the Thark capital. Carter keeps his distance from Dejah, waiting for her to make the next move. Which she doesn't.
I verily believe that a man's way with women is in inverse ratio to his prowess among men. The weakling and the saphead have often great ability to charm the fair sex, while the fighting man who can face a thousand real dangers unafraid, sits hiding in the shadows like some frightened child.
When the caravan arrives in the City of Thark, Carter is assigned living quarters appropriate to his current warrior's status in the tribe. Now, finally he goes to talk with Dejah. She addresses him coldly: "What would Dotar Sojat, Thark, of Dejah Thois his captive?" She uses the name given to Carter by the Tharks as a pointed reminder of their relative positions.
"Dejah Thoris, I do not know how I have angered you. It was furtherest from my desire to hurt of offend you, whom I had hoped to protect and comfort. Have none of me if it is your will, but that you must aid me in effecting your escape, if such a thing be possible, it is not my request, but my command. When you are safe once more at your father's court you may do with me as you please, but from now on until that day I am your master, and you must obey and aid me."
This actually impresses her. Women. Go figure.

They bring Sola into their conspiracy and plan an escape. Sola has already heard scuttlebutt that the Princess is going to be thrown to the wild calots, and so they have little time. Carter will steal a couple thoats and come back to get the girls; then they will proceed to one of the canals near the city and follow it into territory controlled by Helium.

Stealing the thoats goes without a hitch, but when he returns to Dejah's apartment (leaping to her second-story window so as to be inconspicuous) he discovers a group of guards positioned there waiting for him. Overhearing their discussion he learns that the Princess and Sola have already been taken to the unspeakable Tal Hajus.

Evading the guards before they spot him, Carter proceeds to the palace of Tal Hajus and sneaks into the throne room where even now the loathsome jeddak is drooling over his lovely captive. Earlier, John Carter had commented on how as a rule the Tharks were quite virtuous in regards to the sexes, despite their callous contempt for the finer emotions in other respects. Tal Hajus is the exception. It's a tradition in popular fiction that you have to have the Beautiful Girl menaced by a malevolent pervert, the more ugly and obscene the better, who threatens her with A Fate Worse Than Death. Tal Hajus fits the criteria in spades.
"Princess of Helium, I might wring a mighty ransom from your people would I but return you to them unharmed, but a thousand times rather would I watch that beautiful face writhe in the agony of torture it shall be long drawn out, that I promise you ... But before the torture you shall be mine for one short hour, and word of that too shall go forth to Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium, your grandfather, that he may grovel upon the ground in the agony of his sorrow."
It turns out that one short hour was optimistic. Before Tal Hajus has a chance to lay even one of his several sweaty palms on the incomparable Dejah Thoris, John Carter leaps to her defense. He is strongly tempted to slice the foul jeddak's gizzard right there, but decides that he shouldn't rob Tars Tarkas of that pleasure and so contents himself with simply giving Tal Hajus a sock on the jaw. Now Tal Hajus is the one on the ground.

Carter, the Princess and Sola, accompanied by Woola his faithful calot, flee the city. They travel for a couple days before they spot a group of Green Martians in the distance pursuing them. Carter tells his companions to hide in the ravines of the hill country they are entering while he attempts to draw off pursuit. Dejah doesn't like this plan.
She sprang quickly from the thoat and throwing her dear arms around my neck, turned to Sola, saying with quiet dignity, "Fly, Sola! Dejah Thoris remains to die with the man she loves."
But Carter is too much of the Virginian gentleman to permit her to die like that. He dumps her back on her thoat and gives the critter a slap on the rump, (the thoat, not the Princess), to send it off. Bounding into the air with his tremendous leaps, he draws the attention of Martians and leads them away from his companions. But he is greatly outnumbered, and eventually they capture him.


These Martians are not Tharks sent to recapture him, as he first thought, but rather come from Warhoon, a rival tribe, smaller and not quite as cultured as the Tharks. Carter isn't in their clutches five minutes before the jeddak of the Warhoons is killed by his chief lieutenant in a vicious and bloody duel. He is thrown into a dungeon to keep until the next round of gladiatorial games.

For many weeks, Carter sits in that lightless dungeon, slowly losing his grip on sanity. He manages to attack and kill the guard who brings him food, but before he can find the guard's keys, the unfortunate fellow is grabbed by a creature who has been lurking in the dungeon all this time waiting for something to die. Then after a while, Carter gets another cellmate: a padwar, or lieutenant, of the Helium navy named Kantos Kan, who was captured by the Warhoons while searching for the Princess. The two prisoners become friends.

A couple days later, they are both dragged out of their cell to participate in the great games, with a great number of wild calots, mad zitidars, green men and women from other hordes and critters Carter has never seen before. They will all be pitted against each other in the arena and the last one alive will win his freedom. Carter has a plan.

With his incredible earthly strength and agility, Carter easily beats his opponents. Kantos Kan has a harder time of it, but being a skilled warrior he defeats all his foes too; until it is just Carter and Kantos Kan. Carter tells his companion to stall, drawing out their fight until evening. Then, when the light is growing dim, Carter takes a dive and Kantos Kan fakes delivering a coup de gr√Ęce. Since the custom of the Green Martians is to leave the dead lie where they are after duels, no one thinks to check to make sure he's really dead, and so Carter is able to sneak off after nightfall.

He hopes to connect with Kantos Kan again once his friend has been granted his freedom, but Kantos does not show up, so Carter proceeds onward into the desert. For two weeks he wanders, trying to navigate as best he can by the stars. Faithful Woola shows up and saves him from a wild beast. Woola's ten stumpy legs may have difficulty keeping up with Carter's leaping stride, but he always catches up eventually.

Carter comes to a huge building, about two hundred feet high and covering about four square miles. He is allowed in by an old man who explains that this is one of the Atmosphere Factories which maintain the breathable atmosphere on Mars. We get a little bit here of the science which the ancient Barsoomians possessed. The ancients had discovered two additional "rays" beyond the seven colors of the visible spectrum: the "Eight Ray" is a repulsive force which propogates light from the sun and which the Red Martians use to propel their sky ships; and the "Ninth Ray" provides power for much of their super-technology, including the Atmosphere Factories. These factories are vital to the existence of life on Mars, so all races, even the barbaric Green Martians, respect them.

The keeper of the Atmosphere Factory, has an advanced form of the telepathy all Martians have, but is incapable of reading Carter's mind. Carter, however, can see his thoughts, and sees that the keeper considers him a possible threat to the planet and is planning to kill him in his sleep. Carter slips away unnoticed before he can carry this out.

Continuing on, Carter comes to Zodangan territory, another Red Martian city-state hostile to Helium. The actual citizens of Zodanga are helpful and friendly to John. A family of farmers he stays with give him needed supplies and a riding thoat. They also help him dye his skin a martian copper so that he'll blend in better. He is careful not to mention his association with Dejah Thoris. Relations between Zodanga and Helium are tense due to attacks made on the Helium fleet by Zodanga's ruler.

In the Zodangan capital, Carter runs into Kantos Kan. These coincidences tend to happen to John a lot. Kantos brings him up to date on what has happened since they last parted. It turns out that Dejah Thoris has been captured by Sab Than, prince of Zodanga, who has fallen madly in love with the Princess. Than Kosis, the prince's father and jeddak of Zodanga, has made her voluntary marriage to Sab Than the price of peace between the two countries. Kantos Kan has infiltrated the city to try and find her.

Posing as a Zodangan citizen, Kantos Kan is going to enlist in the Zodangan air navy in order to get closer to the prince and suggests that Carter do the same. He does so and soon is learning to fly the Barsoomian sky ships.

On his first day on patrol as a sky scout he spots a band of Green Martians converging on a downed Zodangan ship whose pilot is trying to make emergency repairs. Carter is able to drive off the hostiles and rescue the pilot, who turns out to be a cousin to the jeddak. For his act of heroism, the jeddak promotes him to padwar and now has a place in the Palace Guards.

Now all he has to do is find Dejah.

NEXT:  It's Not That Easy; Lost in the Air; Tars Tarkas's Revenge; Raid on Zodanga, and the Princess At Last. It's Dejah View All Over Again!!!

Monday, April 1, 2013

A Princess of Mars: Part 2: Dejah Thoris


John Carter, ex-cavalry officer and gentleman of Virginia, has found himself inexplicably transported to the planet Mars. Astral projection can be such a pain. He has been taken captive by the six-armed green-skinned natives of the planet, a tribe of warlike barbarians who live in the ruins of a much older civilization. He has earned the respect of his captors through his amazing leaping ability (due to the planet's lower gravity), and his ability to take out one of them with a single punch, (which they find hilarious; this should tell you something about the Green Martians' sense of humor).

Carter has been cared for by a female named Sola, belonging to the household of Tars Tarkas, a high-ranking warrior. Sola has been teaching Carter the rudiments of Martian language and culture. Carter has also acquired a pet of sorts; a "watchdog" which is supposed to be guarding him and preventing him from straying.

He is about to meet another kind of Martian. Enter the Princess.


The Martians are about to leave the ruined city they have been occupying to return to Thark, their capital. They had been staying there to be near the incubator where their eggs were hatching. The hatching has occurred, and so now they are ready to pack up and take the hatchlings, and their prisoner Carter, home.

But before they leave, they spot aircraft on the horizon. Instantly the Martians scoot for cover, and their warriors take up offensive positions. Although a seemingly primitive culture, the Green Martians possess firearms which shoot explosive bullets. Burroughs calls them "radium bullets", and later on explains how they have a core which explodes when exposed to light, jacketed by an opaque protective coating which ruptures on impact. This makes loading your rifle very dangerous and battlefield surgery suicidal.

A fleet of aircraft approaches the ruined city. From their hidden positions, the Green Martians open fire and drive off the greater body of the fleet, crippling one vessel. Carter watches as a boarding party brings back armloads of plunder (and as we can see, the Tharks have a lot of arms to load) and also a single captive. The new prisoner looks very much like a human female with coppery-reddish skin and dark hair. She is one of the Red Martians, (the many races of Mars have been color-coded for our convenience), and Carter immediately takes an interest in her. When she sees him, she makes a gesture to him, evidently some kind of signal which Carter absolutely fails to recognize.

Strike One, John.

Carter continues his education gaining more fluency in the Martian language as well as other aspects of Martian life such as fighting and the making of weapons. One evening he overhears Sola discussing the new captive with some of the other females. One of them, Sarkoja, states that their leader, Lorquas Ptomel, plans to take her back to the capital, where she can be tortured to death as part of the half-time entertainment at the great games before their Jeddak, or king, Tal Hajus. Sola expresses the hope that the girl would be ransomed back to her own people instead.

Sarkoja derides Sola for being soft and sentimental, but Sola replies with a bitter tirade against the Tharks's culture of violence and warfare. Carter realizes how fortunate he's been to have been placed in the custody of the kind and compassionate Sola rather than a callous and cruel Thark like Sarkoja. He also sees that Sola might be a future ally.

Carter has gained another ally: the guardian beast Woola, his "watchdog." By treating the creature kindly, as he would a mastiff back in his native Virginia, he has gained the beast's loyalty. The fearsome fang-faced monster becomes quite affectionate to him.

The next day, Carter slips in to a council meeting of the Green Martians. Their leader, Lorquas Ptomel, is questioning their beautiful captive. She states that her name is Dejah Thoris, and that she is the daughter of Mors Kajak of Helium, a major city-state ruled by the Red Martians. She explained that the flotilla which the Tharks had attacked was a scientific expedition to chart changes in the air currents and to take atmospheric density readings.

"The work we were doing was as much in your interests as in ours, for you know full well that were it not for our labors and the fruits of our scientific operations there would not be enough air or water on Mars to support a single human life."
She gives an earnest plea for peace and for the co-operation of all the races of Mars. And for a moment, it seems as if Tars Tarkas at least might be moved to consider her words. Just then, however, one of the younger warriors present shuts the Princess up with what passes among the Tharks as a witty bon mot: he socks her in the jaw.

This is too much for Carter's Virginian blood. As the warrior laughs at his witticism, Carter leaps to his feet and attacks him. They duel briefly and Carter kills the jerk. He then goes to Dejah Thoris, who fortunately was little injured by he warrior's blow.
"Why did you it?" You who refused me even friendly recognition in the first hour of my peril! And now you risk your life and kill one of your companions for my sake. I cannot understand. What strange manner of man are you, that you consort with the green men, though your form is that of my race, while your color is little darker than that of the white ape? Tell me, are you human, or are you more than human?"
Carter explains that he is an earthman from Virginia and a captive of the Green Martians as well, and that he is only wearing the harness and regalia of a Thark chieftain because... well, actually he's not sure. He was given this harness and these ornaments to wear and didn't know they denoted any status. Actually, it is a custom among the Green Martians that when a fighter is killed in a duel, his rank and all his accouterments go to the winner. Remember the other jerk Carter punched out a couple days previous? Carter got his stuff; and this inherited rank was why they let him be present at the council meeting.

Tars Tarkas explains this to him as he gives Carter the spoils of his latest victory; and also warns him that he got lucky.
"Do you know what your unprecedented temerity would have cost you had you failed to kill either of the two chieftains whose metal you now wear?"
"I presume that one whom I had failed to kill, would have killed me," I answered, smiling. 
"No, you are wrong. Only in the last extremity of self-defense would a Martian warrior kill a prisoner; we like to save them for other purposes," and his face bespoke possibilites that were not pleasant to dwell upon.
Carter takes advantage of his newly-discovered rank within the Thark community to claim custody of the prisoner from Helium. Tars Tarkas, and presumably his superior, Lorquas Ptomel, consent; but Carter is warned that he will still have to answer to their king, the jeddak Tal Hajus, when they reach the city of Thark.

Carter and Dejah Thoris go off for a bit of private time together. He tells her a little more about himself and is surprised to discover that she actually knows a good deal about Earth. Her people have been studying it for centuries through telescopes. The reason she did not recognize him as an earthman right away was because it was her understanding that the men of Earth covered themselves with layers of cloth all the time.

Yes, we might as well address this point here. The Martians, of all races, do not wear clothing. They wear metal ornaments denoting rank and tribe; they wear utilitarian harnesses to hang weapons on; but that's it. This is why Barsoom has always been a popular subject with fantasy illustrators.
(This also comes up in the Skylark of Space novels by E.E. "Doc" Smith: the heroes discover that Earthmen are the only people in the galaxy who wear clothing. I can't help but wonder if this is a common theme in pulp science fiction).

Carter is called back before Lorquas Ptomel. Carter's position in the tribe is a peculiar one. The easiest way out of the problem would just be to kill Carter, but as he says, the Tharks may be a cruel people but they are also just. They will not kill him without orders from Tal Hajus, unless he does something to justify it. And Lorquas Ptomel emphasizes that trying to run off with the Princess before they get to Tal Hajus counts as justification. Carter gets the distinct feeling that Sarjoka has been spying on him and Dejah Thoris, and passing the information on.

Carter doesn't get to spend as much time with the Princess as he'd like. He does learn how to ride the eight-legged Thoats which the Martians use as mounts. As with Woola, he treats them with kindness and so is able to train them much better than the callous Tharks can. Tars Tarkas, impressed by Carter's results, asks him to teach him to become a Thoat-whisperer too.

When he can, Carter spends time with Dejah Thoris. He asks her if she is being mistreated.
"Only in little ways, John Carter," she answered. "Nothing that can harm me outside my pride. They know that I am the daughter of ten thousand jeddaks, that I trace my ancestry straight back without a break to the builder of the first great waterway, and they, who do not even know their own mothers are jealous of me. At heart they hate their horrid fates, and so wreak their poor spite on me who stand for everything they have not, and for all they crave and never can attain. Let us pity them, my chieftain, for event though we die at their hands we can afford them pity, since we are greater than they and they know it."
That sounds awfully racist and condescending, Princess. But she does have grounds for a sense of superiority apart from mere pride of ancestry. Her people have a deeper understanding of science, and a more sophisticated culture; they also have an appreciation for mercy and compassion which the Green Martians have lost. The novel never makes any connection between the relationship between the races of Mars and the situation Carter would have known on the plantations of his native Virginia, but it's hard to imagine that he didn't think about it.

Dejah Thoris also said something very significant here, something which Carter misses all together. He refers to Carter as "my chieftain." And it goes completely over his head. At first she seems amused by his cluelessness; ("What a child! A great warrior and yet a stumbling little child."); but deep down he has stung her pride. All he knows is that he has offended her. She begins avoiding him and tells Sola that he is unworthy to polish the teeth of her grandmothers sorak.

Strike two, John.

The tribe is finally ready to move on to the City of Thark. Dejah Thoris has been chained to the chariot in which she is riding, to insure that neither she nor Carter tries to escape; for Tars Tarkas knows Carter will not leave without the girl.

Carter spends much of the trip obsessing over his love for Dejah Thoris and puzzling over why she won't speak to him anymore. He barely notices that Sarkoja has been plotting with a young warrior named Zad.

Then, a day or two into the journey, during a rest stop, Zad unexpectedly strikes Carter's thoat with his sword. Carter may not know enough to polish a sorak's teeth, but he does know a challenge when he sees it.

Zad is a worthy swordsman and under Martian etiquette  Carter may only fight with the same weapon as his attacker or a lesser weapon. The fight is a long one, and only Carter's agility and earthly stamina keeps him from avoiding death.

Suddenly, a flash of light temporarily blinds him. Sarkoja, observing the fight from the sidelines with the other Martians, is using a small mirror to reflect the sun into his eyes. She has found a way to kill Carter without striking the blow herself. As Carter tries to recover, Zad wounds him.

Dejah Thoris, standing next to Sarkoja, sees what she is doing and now there are two fights going on; the one between Carter and Zad and another one between Sarkoja and the Princess. Sarkoja attmepts to stab Dejah Thoris with a dagger, but Sola throws herself between the Princess and the fatal blade.
Carter takes another wound to the chest and makes one last all-out effort to defeat his foe. He throws himself and his sword against Zad with all the force he can muster and then passes out.

NEXT: Sola's story; an escape; fun with Warhoons and the deadly Zodangas.