This is sort of a ‘what I read over the summer’ post – just not this past summer. A few years ago (yep, that’s how long I’ve been procrastinating with this), I was reading the John Carter, Warlord of Mars Omnibus published by Marvel (probably to accompany the release of the wildly-underrated John Carter movie – but that’s a subject/rant for another day).
That got me thinking about the SF sub-genre variously called sword & planet or planetary romance (I consider the terms synonymous, although not everyone agrees with that view – as shown by the two separate Wikipedia links), which was basically launched by Burroughs through his John Carter of Mars/Barsoom and Carson of Venus books. Yeah, I know there were some antecedents, like Edwin Arnold’s Gullivar of Mars, but really it was those two series of books by Burroughs that set the foundation for that sub-genre to become a staple of science fiction from that point onward.
Anyway, I was also reminded that that my shelf of shame (©®™ Greg Hatcher) had no shortage of planetary romance books that were just aching to be read. They’re all books that, for the most part, I’d never read before. And that’s kind of a key point, because these considerations of the sub-genre and these specific books will not be colored by nostalgia, i.e., it’s not material that I had read as a child or adolescent, but only read in middle-aged adulthood.
So I read three sets of books that all, more or less, take their cue from Burroughs. The first two are unconcealed homages to the Barsoomian books, while the last is just a fine exemplar of the general planetary romance/sword & planet genre.
It’s worth pointing out that all of them were written from the mid-1960s onward, thus at a time when it had already become apparent to scientists that Mars, or really any other planet in our solar system besides Earth, could not sustain life as we know it, much less serve as a location for swashbuckling adventures. So I found it interesting to see how each author dealt with that fact.
Back when Mars wasn’t dead yet
First up, there’s the trilogy of books by Michael Moorcock often collectively referred to as ‘Kane of Old Mars.’
As you can see, Moorcock originally had them published under a pseudonym. They were later released under his own name, with different titles: City of the Beast, Lord of the Spiders and Masters of the Pit, respectively, but I when I was shopping for these, I really wanted the editions with the original covers by Gray Morrow. There’s quite a bit of (intentional) similarity to Burroughs’ Martian books. Firstly and obviously, they’re also set on Mars, which can’t be said for the other books I’m covering below. Furthermore, the main character, Michael Kane, gets transported to the red planet, where there’s many exotic locales and strange creatures, as well as several different varieties of intelligent, humanoid denizens, including some very conveniently human-looking denizens – and in the latter group is a beautiful young princess who steals Kane’s heart.
However, Moorcock tried to provide a more plausible way to explain how Kane got to Mars, eschewing Burroughs’ murky astral projection (but with physical manifestation at the destination) for a more sciencey-sounding means. Kane is a scientist working on some kind of teleportation device, and when testing it he accidentally gets transported to Mars. And to avoid having to explain how such an inhospitable planet could be teeming with life, it’s set on Mars in the very distant past, to a time when it may have plausibly had a thicker atmosphere and a more pleasant climate.
Like his literary predecessor, John Carter, Kane shifts back to his own planet and time at the end of the first two books, thus setting up the tension for him to get back to Old Mars and the love of his life. These are thoroughly enjoyable, fast-paced adventures. Basically they’re perfect for lazy summer Sunday afternoon reading, and really, if you have an entirely free day, it’s possible to read them all in one sitting. As it is, I tore through these in three consecutive days.
So, what kind of tan do you get from a green sun?
Next is Lin Carter’s Green Star pentalogy. In a comment to Greg Hatcher’s “Itching and Scratching” post over a year ago, I noted my personal history with these books and the fact that I only sat down and read them all the way through rather recently.
Like Moorcock’s Mars trilogy, Carter’s series is very much an homage to Burroughs’ Barsoom, but he set the action on a distant planet orbiting the titular green star. The main protagonist, though, is an unnamed Earthman, and Carter deals with the travel to the distant planet by, like Burroughs, having his hero use astral projection, but, unlike Burroughs, it’s a conscious choice and – crucially – his actual body remains on Earth. He’s a man who has been disabled since he was a child,* but who eventually learns mental projection to free himself from his body – once he learns to do that, he speeds off into outer space to do some exploring. He finds himself drawn to a distant star, a green star (and no, green stars don’t actually exist), and then goes to a planet in its orbit and eventually enters the body of long-dead warrior whose preserved body is held in a glass display coffin by his people. They see his apparent resurrection as a sort of miracle that came just in their hour of need – they’re facing enemies who want to conquer them and so forth.
The setting is richly exotic: most of the planet is apparently covered with a dense forest of gigantic trees (although we later learn that there is at least one sea as well). Most of its humanoid denizens (again, a number of different varieties, including with with wings) live near the top levels, with cities built on the immense limbs. They travel around on what are basically giant dragonflies and moths. And there are, naturally, all kinds of strange and frightening creatures and other terrors, especially when the story takes its characters lower down on the tree trunks or even to the forest floor.
The first book, so like many others in this genre, ends with the hero’s spirit reuniting with his body on Earth as the warrior body he inhabited is killed just as he rescues the young woman he fell in love with: a – you guessed it – princess. In the next book, he again projects his spirit to the Green Star, and this time reanimates the body of a young man, perhaps in his late teens, who had just been killed by a cold-blooded scientist. He remains in this body for the duration of the series, i.e., the final four books. Much of the plot involves our hero trying to get back to his beloved princess, which involves all kinds of adventures – just as the princess has her own series of adventures after she’s kidnapped by enemies of her people and has to fight her way back to her own city state. After the first book, which is probably the best written of the lot, the overall story often meanders, and at times it seems like Carter could have used a more hands-on editor. Even so, I found myself enjoying these books quite a bit.
Walking the dogs on a dying planet
Finally, there’s Leigh Brackett’s Skaith trilogy. For these, Brackett dusted off her once quite popular planet-hopping character from the SF pulp magazines of the 1940s and 1950s, Eric John Stark. He’s a human who was orphaned as a toddler on Mercury and raised by the non-human ‘aborigines’ inhabiting the planet’s twilight belt until found again by Earthmen. His upbringing in that harsh environment made him incredibly tough, strong and mean as hell – and the harsh sunlight also made his skin almost black as charcoal (although none of the depictions on magazine and paperback covers reflect this). He always felt like a fish out of water, and became a sort of an interplanetary gun (or sword or knife) for hire, often getting in trouble with the law and having as series of swashbuckling adventures on Mars, Venus and a few other locales in our solar system.
For her new Stark adventures, Brackett moved the setting away from our solar system to a distant planet called Skaith – and simply refrained from mentioning where Stark had his previous adventures (although, notably, at one point she did mention his early childhood on Mercury).
Stark comes to Skaith to look for an intergalactic official who disappeared there while on a diplomatic mission. Skaith is a dying planet suffering through an eco-catastrophe, as its habitable area is rapidly on shrinking toward its equator (which reads like a potential scenario for our own planet). It’s worth noting that Skaith resembles the way Brackett depicted Mars in her pulp stories featuring Stark, i.e., as a harsh, arid and dying planet that once had oceans, lush forests and jungles and highly advanced but long-dead civilizations.
Anyway, on Skaith, its pending doom led to a reordering of society, with a class of priest-like overlords who have set themselves up as dictators who control most of the supply and distribution of food, among other things. Although they have inherited a good deal of advanced scientific knowledge and technology from the planet’s past heyday, they keep most of the people in ignorance and superstition to foster obedience. Many of the planet’s inhabitants in various city-states want to leave the planet and go to other worlds as colonists (which is why said intergalactic official came there), but the overlords see this as a threat to their power and try to stamp out any such ‘seditious’ activity.
Besides having their own armies of mercenaries, the overlords also exploit a class of people called the Farers, who are fiercely loyal to them, basically worshiping them as gods, and who wander about in large unruly groups – they wear garish and often tattered clothing, if any at all, they’re usually unwashed, and they frequently sing, dance and generally make noise and constantly extol the peace and prosperity secured by the overlords. And they’re supposed to be given food and shelter by anyone they encounter. At the behest of any one of the overlords, they can also be mobilized into an unruly and violent mob that attacks anyone the overlords see as a threat. Given that these books all came out in the early to mid-1970s, it’s really obvious here that Brackett was making a none-too-subtle dig at the hippies.
So not long after Stark arrives, he gets involved in the rebellion of one of the city states, and this leads to his roving adventures up and down the planet’s habitable zone in the course of the trilogy, and along the way he makes a number of enemies, but also allies – including a pack of telepathic assassin dogs that he subjects to his will at the end of the first book, and they remain his faithful companions in the next two books. Also, sticking with a theme that runs through many of these books, he becomes romantically involved with a soothsayer priestess from that first rebelling city – not quite a princess, but close enough.
I have to say, of the books I’ve examined here, I enjoyed these the most. Brackett was simply a top-notch writer across the board: she plotted out her stories well, fleshed out her characters, wrote believable dialogue and managed to seamlessly incorporate various political, philosophical or economic ideas and commentary while crafting rip-roaring adventures. And Stark is a fantastic action hero – I’m actually a bit surprised that, as far as I know, nobody even did a comic book adaptation of any of his stories (or used him in new sword and planet tales).
Postscript: A barbarian with an interplanetary taxi service
This book was an impulse buy in an antique store in Salem, OR (details here). The cover art makes it look like a Conan knock-off, but it’s very much a sword & planet tale with an intriguing set-up: a civilization of humans who live on a number of inhabitable planets orbiting the same star, each with its own monarch, but all under the rule of a supreme emperor on the main planet. The planets are all at uniform distances from each other, and travel from one to the other is accomplished by fully automated spacecraft that nobody in this society truly understands (i.e., they don’t know how they’re powered, how to pilot them, etc.). For the most part, although surrounded by the remnants of a very sophisticated technology, they live at a sort of high medieval level, using swords, lances and axes as their main weapons rather than firearms. And the social order is more or less feudal.
The main character, the titular barbarian lord, is a warrior who just fought for control of the only planet in this system that had up until that point not been fully unified under a single ruler – in fact, there was warfare between humans and some non-human natives. As such, that planet’s residents were looked down upon by the inhabitants of the other, ‘civilized’ worlds.
I’d never read anything by Offutt before, but given the fact that – besides SF – he was also known for writing dozens of erotic novels in the 1970s and 1980s under various pseudonyms and the book’s racy Vallejo cover, I was expecting something a little more campy and raunchy. It wasn’t for the most part. To be sure, there was lots of violence, but the (two) love/sex scenes were basically PG-13. Otherwise, while this book mildly surprised me at a few places and is a well-plotted and paced action story, I never found it as enjoyable as the other books being considered here.
* In the original version of this post, I mistakenly asserted that the Green Star protagonist is an injured Vietnam veteran; in the intervening time since I read the book, I must have mixed it up with something else I’d read featuring an injured war who learns mental projection, but for the life of me I can’t remember where. Anyway, my apologies for the error.