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Book Review: Under the Moons of Mars

Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom

John Joseph Adams, editor

Simon & Schuster, 2012

All through the glorious summer of 1911, All-Story Magazine ran a science fiction serial unlike anything readers had ever seen before. It was called “Under the Moons of Mars,” and it featured a soldier named John Carter, a Virginian late of the American Civil War and now being pursued by Indians in the badlands of Arizona. As the story opens, a desperate John Carter hides in a cave, passes out, and wakes to find himself stark naked on Mars. But this wasn’t the Mars we know today, the bleakly freezing world of missed barometric chances, no: this is instead a teeming, exotic wonderland of alien species and high-towered cities living a long last golden age in the thin air of a dying world.

The planet may have been spat out from the sun billions of years ago, but the Mars poor transplanted John Carter encounters was created by a mild-mannered Bostonian. Percival Lowell devoted his leisure time (and since he was one of the ur-Brahmin Lowells, it was all leisure time) to studying the red planet, and his studies convinced him that the vivid lateral scorings he glimpsed through his telescope – scorings we now know to be massif ridges and long-dry canyons – were artificially created … they were canals, obviously built by the living inhabitants of Mars in order to suck the last drops of vitality out of their planet’s vanishing waterways. Lowell wrote about that Mars in three books that became the most improbable of best-sellers, and his lectures on the subject packed halls and ampitheaters with intelligent, educated Bostonians avid for the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the solar system (readers familiar with the latest “water world” findings from NASA will know the feeling).

That particular conception of Mars quickly proved untrue, but Edgar Rice Burroughs gave it immortality just the same. The world where John Carter finds himself – called Barsoom by its inhabitants (to them, Earth is Jasoom) – is a fantastic place full of magnificent, often heroic peoples, including the ‘red men’ of advanced cities like Helium, men ruled by ‘jeddaks’ and transported by flying ships, men – and beautiful women – who dress scantily in Mars’ sultry heat, talk like Elizabethan bravos, and live to fight courtly duels. John Carter first encounters the ‘green men’ of the dead Martian sea-beds, the Tharks who stand ten feet tall and green skin, huge tusks, and four arms. True to the Earth-man’s stalwart nature, he makes friends and allies everywhere he goes, including both the incomparable Dejah Thoris (the Helium princess who becomes his beloved) and the redoubtable Tars Tarkas (the thark who becomes his best friend), and “Under the Moons of Mars” – issued in book form in 1912 as A Princess of Mars – follows the very first of their many adventures together.

21st century readers might not know anything about those adventures, because the idea of those readers simply walking into a bookstore and buying a copy of A Princess of Mars, or Swords of Mars, or Llana of Gathol, or The Synthetic Men of Mars has long been anathema to the folks at Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc., whose stinginess with reprints (another of their signature properties, an obscure character named Tarzan, hasn’t had all of his book-adventures in print in half a century) is matched only by their bizarre blind-man’s-bluff licensing of new adaptations. Seldom has a pop culture creation (or many creations – it’s a safe bet that today’s readers have never even heard of Carson of Venus, or Pellucidar) been so unimaginatively served by its custodians.

2012 marks the 100th anniversary of that first John Carter of Mars book, and 2012 is also the year a big-screen big-budget movie of the story will finally make its debut in a special-effects extravaganza starring a suitably chiselled Taylor Kitsch and a host of computer-generated Tharks looking, we can hope, even more natural than anything Ray Harryhausen might have created. The books Burroughs wrote are slowly, steadily coming into the common domain, but Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. still retains the trademark, which is why the officially-licensed Disney movie might refer to itself as “John Carter of Mars” but none of its army of attendant book spin-offs can. In addition to sporting a Surgeon General’s warning about how “this book is not affiliated in any way with Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc,” the books have to pussy-foot around the matter of nomenclature – hence, Under the Moons of Mars (with its subtitle, “New Adventures on Barsoom”) instead of John Carter of Mars: The New Adventures or something like it. 

But trademarks are much more slippery than copyrights, and so the century-mark floodgates begin to open on all things John Carter. Barnes & Noble led the way with a couple of really attractive trade paperback omnibus editions a few years ago, and more – much more – is saturating the market as the behemoth movie nears, but this one, Under the Moons of Mars, edited by the eagle-eyed and super-talented John Joseph Adams, is in many ways the most mouth-watering, since it represents a dream sci-fi and fantasy writers have had for decades: this is a collection of new Barsoom adventures, some starring John Carter, Dejah Thoris, Tars Tarkas and crew, others featuring Barsoomian characters we’ve never heard of. As usual, Adams has taken his editorial duties seriously, and the result is a volume to cherish.

Of course it’s uneven, as all anthologies must be. Fantasy giant Peter S. Beagle turns in a story called “The Ape-Man of Mars” in which Burroughs’ most famous creation, Tarzan, finds himself on Mars just long enough to pummel John Carter in unarmed combat (as Beagle sensibly points out, all other things being equal, there’s no out-fighting somebody who can spar with gorillas) – but the narrative itself is awkward and gallumphing. Whereas veteran hack Joe Landsdale in “The Metal Men of Mars” (with accompanying illustration by the great Greg Manchess) produces a puckishly anachronistic story with pulp details worthy of the master:

I hustled to my feet and sprang toward him to administer the death blow, but it was unnecessary. The hoses and wires had been his arteries, his life force, and now they were undone. Odar Rukk’s body came from of the chair connection with a snick, and he slipped from it, revealing the bottom of his torso, a scarred and cauterized mess with wire and hose connections, now severed. The fat belly burst open and revealed not only blood and organs, but gears and wheels and tangles of wires an hoses. His flesh went dark and fell from his skull, and his eyes sank in his head like fishing sinkers. A moment later, he was nothing more than a piece of fragmented machine and rotten flesh and yellow bones.

Fan favorite comic book writer Chris Claremont gets into the spirit of the thing when John Carter’s Martian friends find themselves transported to Earth along with him in “The Ghost that Haunts the Superstition Mountains”:

The noise of weapons, even the radium rifle, is nothing compared to the monstrous, inhuman bellow that erupts from behind me up the slope. I know for a fact it is like nothing ever before heard on this world. I know also from experience how terribly effective it is on men in battle, especially when that single outcry is echoed by a hundred more. It is the war cry of the Green Martians, capable of striking fear into the hearts of even the bravest of Helium’s warriors.

And popular science fiction author S. M. Stirling (creator of the hyper-addictive “Change” novels, among other choice goodies), no stranger to John Carter pastiches, can’t resist joining Beagle in having Burroughs’ two fictional worlds intersect. In “The Jasoom Project,” see if you can guess just who it is John Carter’s great-great grandson Prince Jalvar is meeting:

The man spoke sternly, but without fear. He was Jalvar’s height, six foot two in the Earthly measurement system. Apart from that he looked not unlike John Carter, with dark hair – worn to the shoulders of his Jasoomian garments – and gray eyes. A great scar creased his forehead, and others showed on his face and hands; he smiled slightly as he greeted Tars Sojat with calm friendliness, weird though the Green Man must appear to an Earthling. His grip was strong and precisely judged, and he moved like a hunting banth.

There are twists and turns here – corners of Burroughs’ vastly entertaining world – for virtually every reader, and the whole volume itself will be a godsend to all those readers who’ve waited their whole lives even for this much. And if Adams felt like orchestrating even more ex cathedra Barsoomian adventures, those fans would certainly vote him a hearty “Kaor!”

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