In the last installment of our Reading Barsoom series, find out what happens when Edgar Rice Burroughs tried to write an "urban" novel of Mars, why "synthetic men" suck, and how Nazi aliens built Salt Lake City on Jupiter.
One thing missing from the Mars series is ordinary Martian cities. Burroughs spends so much time shuttling his heroes through an endless succession of lost cities, forgotten lands, and exotic locales that normal Martian cities are little more than starting points for extravagant adventures. Even the nomadic camps of the green Martians are described in greater detail than the cities where John Carter and his red Martian cohorts spend most of their time. It's as though Burroughs was writing wild adventure stories aimed at an audience of Martians.
Swords of Mars is the closest Burroughs came to an "urban" Mars novel. John Carter returns to center stage to tell "a story of love and loyalty, of hate and crime, a story of dripping swords, of strange places and strange people upon a stranger world." It seems the Assassins Guild of Zodanga (the same Zodanga razed in Princess) is getting out of hand. John Carter personally goes undercover to infiltrate the guild. He signs on with a mad inventor as a freelance assassin and spends fully half the book skulking on the streets of Zodanga and skirmishing with the guild in some of the best sequences since the original trilogy.
But Burroughs couldn't resist the urge to go exotic. Guild leader Ur Jan counters Carter's campaign by kidnapping Dejah Thoris and spiriting her away to Phobos (Mars's nearer moon) using a newly-invented spaceship. Luckily, Carter's boss has invented his own spaceship and is in hot orbital pursuit. Life on Phobos turns out to be not that much different than Mars proper, filled with swords, dungeons, and escapes. The only notable twist is that Ur Jan is so impressed with John Carter he pledges fealty to him. So much for those out-of-control assassins!
While Swords is only half bad, Synthetic Men of Mars pretty much sucks cover to cover. The last full-fledged novel of the series, it's among Burroughs' worst work. Not that the set-up lacks potential; brain-swapping surgeon Ras Thavas from Mastermind returns, having created full-fledged synthetic life. The titular synthetic men force Ras Thavas into large scale mass production, with the goal of conquering all Mars by sheer weight of numbers. John Carter is able to spirit Ras Thavas away, but a production vat goes viral, producing an ever-expanding mass of living tissue that threatens to engulf the entire planet!
Unfortunately, the synthetic men are "a stupid, egotistical lot of morons," the blob is no match for a few well-placed incendiary bombs, and the usual forgotten cities are totally forgettable. One potentially great sequence, when John Carter escapes across the Great Toonolian Marsh, battling giant reptiles and insects with 30-foot wingspans, takes place entirely off-stage!
Thankfully, the series does end on a high note. By the time Burroughs wrote Llana of Gathol in 1940, the heyday of novels serialized in pulp magazines was rapidly passing. Llana was originally published in Amazing Stories as a series of four stand-alone novelettes. In turn, John Carter and his grand daughter Llana battle/escape from: 1) another lost city inhabited by remnants of the original Martians; 2) a hitherto unknown outpost of the First Born from Gods; 3) an army of yellow Martians out to conquer all Mars; and, 4) another lost city whose inhabitants have discovered the secret of invisibility. The format suited Burroughs' episodic plotting, and John Carter is in fine form throughout, hacking and slashing his way through some of the best sword fights in the series. Whatever Llana lacks in freshness and imagination it makes up for with sheer action.
John Carter of Mars, the 11th and final volume of the series, is an afterthought. Published posthumously during the Burroughs revival of the early 1960s, it collects two novellas, "John Carter and the Giant of Mars" and "Skeleton Men of Jupiter," tangentially associated with the series. "Giant" was apparently written by Burroughs' son for Whitman's Big Little Book series and allegedly hastily revised by his father for a quick magazine sale. The setting wildly is wildly at odds with the Mars so carefully described by the elder Burroughs: the apes are too short, the rats don't have enough legs, and suddenly everyone's toting ray-guns. John Carter's encounter with a 130-foot tall giant is totally stupid. Those who find Burroughs juvenile should read this for a taste of the real thing. Burroughs fans universally assign "Giant" to the apocrypha.
"Skeleton Men of Jupiter," on the other hand, is Burroughs near the top of his game. Apparently the opening novelette in an unfinished Llana-style quartet, you can almost feel Burroughs's excitement at having a whole new world to play with.
The titular "Skeleton Men" are the Morgors, Jupiter's translucent answer to the Nazis. They don't do science, they don't do art, they don't do architecture (Burroughs describes their capitol city "as depressing as Salt Lake City…on an overcast February day"); all they do is conquer stuff. Having overrun all Jupiter save for a few remote corners, they've turned their eyes to Mars.
They kidnap John Carter and Dejah Thoris in a scheme to extract information about the Martian defenses (apparently their military intelligence is as advanced as their art). John Carter discovers that he's just as adept as escaping on Jupiter, and they ultimately find refuge in one of the non-Morgor nooks of Jupiter. While the plot may have been routine, the freshness of the setting and the promise of inter-planetary war made this a promising opening to a novel that was never to be.
Burroughs would never write the great Mars/Jupiter smackdown. By the time "Skeleton Men" was published in 1943, he was bumming around the South Pacific as a war correspondent for the Honolulu Advertiser. After the war, a case of Parkinson's and a series of heart attacks hobbled him; he never wrote another story. But you can be sure that if he had, John Carter would have found himself Warlord of all Jupiter.
Go back and read all four installments in the Reading Barsoom series!
John Marr is the editor and janitor of the zine Murder Can Be Fun. He blogs at the Murder Can Be Fun Library.
Top image by (of course) Frank Frazetta.