Book Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars (Barsoom, #1)A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edgar Rice Burroughs, the writer who gave us Tarzan, published this novel first as a magazine serial and then released it as a completed novel later on. It’s always an interesting experience to read classic sci-fi, especially when it’s this classic. This pulp legend is loaded with so many tropes it might make the modern reader toss it aside in disgust; except that none of these were tropes when this book was written. And why are they tropes? Because they were amazingly successful and popular, and thousands of writers who succeeded Burroughs tried to imitate what made the John Carter books what they were. These, along with C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, were the primordial space operas.

John Carter, ex-civil war soldier and Southern gentleman, is mystically transported to the planet Mars in a fashion that feels more like fantasy than science fiction to the modern reader, except that almost everything that happens after that is sci-fi to the core. John Carter finds that as a denizen of Earth he is considerably stronger and can leap incredible distances compared to the native Martians, who are adapted to Mars’ lesser gravity; which, of course, would be exactly what would happen by all laws of physics and biology, if Mars were actually inhabited (though this is also ignored in some places; for instance, Martian riding beasts have no trouble carrying John Carter, although he is certainly more dense, and therefore much heavier, than the people of Mars, which is called “Barsoom” by its inhabitants.)

Carter initially finds himself among the savage green men, who are twelve to sixteen foot tall green, four-armed aliens with great tusks like orcs; where he, through a strange combination of coincidences and misunderstanding of social custom, finds himself both a prisoner and a chieftain; and he teaches the green men about friendship, loyalty and benevolence, which are qualities they have forgotten because limited resources on the dying world of Mars have demanded a more savage way of life of its denizens. Then he ends up meeting the more human-like, more technologically and culturally advanced (but smaller and weaker) red men of Mars, where he meets the princess who motivates him to acts of heroism that read like mythology; which of course also make the John Carter books the primordial planetary romance.

As a modern reader I found that I was impressed by much of the implied technology, which included but was not limited to anti-gravity vehicles, terraforming, and the rudiments of nuclear power and plasma weaponry (described as being powered by radium or something similar.)

Aside from the fact that this standard story formula has become the essence of the default science fiction plotline and setting (clearly guiding, among other things, the standard plots of the original Star Trek series,) I can see so many direct influences in many other ways. The Gor novels are essentially Barsoom updated, kinkified and taken to the extreme; the Dark Sun novels borrow the “savage world of limited resources” setting whole-hock, and I think we even get the fact that Mork hatched from an egg from this novel, since the people of Barsoom are born thus. We even get our scantily-clad heroes and heroines from Burroughs’ work; the Martians wear jewelry and combat harness, but not clothing.

There is much to irritate the modern reader if you allow it to. Racism and sexism is rampant, as is the hypocritical logic of Colonialism, and as I’ve said, it’s full of what have become tropes. The writing of the time is prone to contrived plot conveniences and dei ex machinae. There’s a lot of telling and not showing, which of course is considered bad writing by modern convention. And yet it’s a damn good read that keeps you pressing on to the very last page. It took me only a day to burn through it even though I don’t have as much time to read as I would like on working days.

Refreshing, however, to the modern reader, is the fact that despite his Colonialism, John Carter is a man who tries always to do the right thing as he sees it at the time, and in this age of dystopias and anti-heroes, this is like a breath of fresh air. And the style is an easy read that is appropriate for everyone from teens to octogenarians and up.

Everyone who considers themselves a sci-fi or fantasy fan should read this book, whose influence is clearly underrated. Despite, or perhaps especially because of, the tropes.

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Book Review: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy, #1)Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have found that in looking at descriptions of this book, it is often “dismissed” as “theology.” I think that does this book a grave disservice. Certainly there are theological themes; it is well known that Lewis was a devout Christian, wrote about it, and his fiction also often focused on Christian themes. But one never hears his classic Chronicles of Narnia being *classified* as “theology,” although of course the main tale is the retelling of Biblical themes in many ways. No one hears that about Lord of the Rings as written by his friend J.R.R. Tolkien either; though literary critics point it out. And in the realm of science fiction, while literary critics, again, do not miss the references, no one *classifies* Ender’s Game or Dune as “theology.” Perhaps this has something to do with the rest of the trilogy, which I have not read, but taken alone I don’t understand this.

Out of the Silent Planet is among the most awesome science fiction books I think I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and I think the only reason it’s not considered a classic in the field is because of the bias of “pure reason.” Keep in mind that this book was written in 1938, so one cannot expect that it should conform to modern science in the wake of the Space Age. But its science is actually spot on when founded in scientific theories that were, as yet, untested at the time of this book’s writing; much like Frankenstein and War of the Worlds.

The protagonist, a professor of languages named Ransom, finds himself kidnapped in a misadventure to be taken to Mars (called by a different name by its inhabitants) to be offered to those inhabitants as a sacrifice. It turns out that this is not what the inhabitants want him for and a fantastic adventure ensues. I expect that why it’s often interpreted as “theology” is because Lewis uses the Christian mythology as a framework for an extraterrestrial cosmology that involves beings that might possibly be described as “extra-dimensional”. That this extra-dimensional understanding involves godlike beings who are the “lords” of the worlds they inhabit, and that this is fairly consistent as an extraterrestrial interpretation of Christian cosmology, is almost incidental; the moral cautionary tale, however, is not. But if you’re going to not consider a book seriously because there’s a moral cautionary tale hidden in it, you might as well give up on the genre.

Lewis’ Martians are among the most interesting aliens I’ve ever had the pleasure to read about. The cultures he created, and the difficulties in a human trying to understand, and be understood by, an alien culture, is the stuff that we geeks read this genre for. Ransom spends a great deal of time among the Martian cultures and learns their ways and their language (remember that he is a professor of languages) and he develops a close friendship with one member of the three sentient races that inhabit Mars, while in the meantime he is pursued by the two men who brought him to the planet in the first place; one of whom views himself as a man of intelligence and reason who wants to ensure the immortality of humanity — at all costs, including that of the sentient species who inhabit Mars and any others that might exist — and the other of which is interested solely in money. Unlike many other books in which the “peaceful primitives” are overwhelmed by the warlike humans that invade them, thus requiring defense by a violent action-hero protagonist, the Martians find the humans incomprehensible and ultimately silly. This does not make them any less a danger to Ransom, however.

Lewis’ vast alien Martian landscape, as imagined by a man who had only seen a blurry pink image with dark blotches and ice caps on it through a telescope at that point, was an absolute delight. And solar radiation was more potent outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, gravity was minimal and artificially created and air was limited in the spaceship, and Mars was cold, had lesser gravity, and thin oxygen at its higher elevations. Lewis’s low gravity Martian landscape was truly fantastic, more like the crazy surface of comets as we are currently familiar with them. I was taken by its beauty and the scope of its imagination.

In short, read it. It was amazing.

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Escape from Borka (Book Excerpt)

It was over.  The Champion of Clan Bloodfist looked over the flotsam and jetsam that had once been the greatest fleet in the history of the Scro Empire, shattered and broken like so many forgotten toys.  At least, they would be if the blood and body parts weren’t floating serenely between them.  His blood brother Corin, the clan leader, was no longer pouring blood from the wound in his throat where a stray shard of broken metal from their shattered rail had pierced it, but he was still unconscious and whether or not he would live or die remained very much anybody’s guess, especially since the healer was only Sarga’s acolyte.  Sarga was dead, killed when their primary helm was crushed by rough-hewn accelerator shot.  They were adrift in the Void, and all around them the noose tightened as the butterfly-shaped vessels of the Imperial Elven Navy Fleet, easily three times the numbers they had any reason to suspect, swarmed the outer limits of the shattered remains of Borka, prepared to pick them off if they dared to navigate the dangerous, oddly floating rocks and escape their deadly trap.

“Helm’s down, sir!” Thorgir, their Artillery Commander, bellowed too loudly through his ringing ears.  “Shall I get some straws?”

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NPCs of Bral: Captain Strekha, Pirate Hunter

Captain Strekha is a well known captain of a privateer ship who hunts pirates.

Originally from Greyhawk, her father fled with her to Realmspace when she was about 11, due to a vendetta with priests of Erythnul, who later managed to assassinate her father when she was about 15. Her father died about 18 years ago now.

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Weal or Woe (Book Excerpt)

Shaundar trained his glass on the approaching vessels; and then he saw something that froze his blood in his veins.  He uttered a curse that would have blistered paint.  “Bring ‘er about!  Get us out of here!   Max tactical!” he howled, limping over to the mainsail to begin tacking.  “Dammit, Trevan!  Grimmauld!  Help me!”

Trevan just stared at him for a few long moments.  “Have you gone completely insane?!” he exploded at last.  “How are we going to get rescued if we run away?”

“That’s no rescuer,” he moaned.  “They’re flying the flag of the illithid.  Mind flayers!” Continue reading

Book Excerpt: Haunted

Shaundar and Yathar stood with Sylria on Queenie’s Castle Deck, smoking cigars together.  They’d stopped smoking pipes because it was just too time consuming to load and light, and a waste of perfectly good tobacco if they were suddenly called into action, which happened more and more frequently.  The cigars were cheap and slightly sour – the best they could generally do on their Lieutenant’s pay – but Shaundar was becoming almost affectionately attached to them.

Supply lines were becoming more strained, too.  Occasionally, the alu’quesst ration was being supplemented with the human creation of grog.  Shaundar was not fond of it and generally chose not to have his allotted taut when that was what was available.  But he didn’t complain.  Nobody did.  That was just what there was.

They were in orbit around the Karpri space station, along with the burnt-out hulks of a Scorpion and an Ogre Mammoth, and a Hammership that was technically a prize but would likely be pressed into Navy service, depriving them of their shares.  The prisoners – survivors, is more like it, Shaundar thought privately – were few enough to be kept comfortably in the Hammership’s hold.  They had been exceptionally meek.  This was making the Matey jumpy, but Shaundar had no doubt that it was no act.

The Karpri station showed recent signs of battle to go with its ancient scars from when the illithid had destroyed it just after the First Unhuman War.  Shaundar felt badly for it.  The starfly plants that comprised it seemed deeply saddened.  Or maybe he was just being maudlin.  He was not sure what had possessed the scro to decide to take it.  Surely they must have guessed that there would be a reason that the elves had not used it themselves, now that war had returned to Realmspace?

The Queen’s Dirk had been sent to stop them, and stop them they had, but by the time they had arrived, the enemy had already landed and all hands not actively manning the helm were forced to become a boarding party.  Shaundar shook his head to banish yesterday’s images of screaming and blood from his mind.  Ship battles could be brutal but they were rarely so personal.  He wondered how Yathar managed it, being a marine. Continue reading

In the Hands of the Enemy (Book Excerpt) * Trigger Warning

The following book excerpt contains scenes of graphic violence and torture.  Discretion is advised.

A door opened.  Shaundar tried to get a grip on himself at once; the last thing their captors needed to see was weakness.  His eyes blinked against the sudden brightness of the lantern in the corridor, but it was quickly blocked by an enormous silhouette.  Its owner was a scro; gray-skinned and huge, with arms like tree trunks.

“Ah, good, you’re awake,” the scro rumbled in a voice that sounded almost like a lion purring.  His unconscious echo of Yathar’s earlier remark was a little disturbing.  It was odd to hear the Espruar tongue in such a rough baritone voice.  “Maybe you’ll be more forthcoming than your friends.”  He grabbed Shaundar’s shirt and with one hand lifted him to his feet.  Shaundar was too weak to stand, however, and his leg startled him with the blinding jolt of pain it reported when his weight was put on it.  He made a noise that sounded to his own ears like the bleat of a goat.

Yathar was on his feet as well.  “He just came to a minute ago,” he was saying.  “He’s still not quite aware.  You should give him some time.”

The scro backhanded Yathar in the face as casually as one might swat an insect.  He crumpled backwards against the wall.  Shaundar noticed now a purple bruise all the way around Sylria’s left eye.  He imagined this scro punching her in the face the way he had just punched Yathar and his fists involuntarily tightened.

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