Our book today is an enormous treat now out from Baen Books: The Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, edited by Mike Resnick and Robert Garcia, sporting a very good front cover (featuring John Carter of Mars and a sultry Martian warrior-woman holding a strategically-placed saber) and a quietly superb back cover (featuring Tarzan standing on a tree branch in an alien world as huge flying dinosaurs sail by in the background), both by the extremely talented Dave Seeley.
It’ll be an attractive package to science fiction readers, yes, but the full realization of what this book is will drive long-time Edgar Rice Burroughs fans absolutely ape.
As our editors point out in their brief Introduction (ironically brief, since Resnick is somebody I’d gladly listen to for hours, whereas the most boring masters of ceremonies are always the ones whose Introductions run to dozens of pages), Burroughs’ incredibly fertile hack’s imagination gave birth to half a dozen fantastic imagined worlds – from the jungles of Tarzan to the Mars of John Carter to the Venus of Carson Napier to the Pellucidar of David Innes – and populated them with monsters, madmen, time-displaced Romans, squirrel-sized warriors, lost civilizations, and lots and lots of dinosaurs. ERB fans drank up these adventures as they poured from the master’s pen, and subsequent paperback reprints of most of this good stuff have hooked further generations. There’ve been newspaper strips, comic books, and many, many movies, but books have always been this great fantasia’s first and finest home.
And yet, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. has allowed most of these novels to dip in and out of print for decades (there are at present no Carson of Venus or Savage Pellucidar paperbacks waiting for you at your nearest Evil Chain bookstore, and neither will you find the complete runs of either John Carter of Mars nor Tarzan himself). The company commissioned great cover art by Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo and Michael Whelan for their Tarzan/John Carter paperback reprints, but that was nearly four decades ago – those books are not only no longer in print, they’ve practically disintegrated out of existence. And after them came what? Scattershot partial reprints with some of the ugliest covers in book-cover history. An imaginative adventure landscape unrivaled by anything in the 20th century this side of Robert E. Howard, allowed to go to seed.
And as bad as that was, the tale of ERB adaptations is even worse: hardly any have been allowed. Over the course of the last sixty years, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. has been approached by dozens if not hundreds of first-rate writers wanting to create new novel-length adventures for Tarzan, David Innes, and the rest – and the overwhelming majority of those writers (including some of the biggest names in the industry) were sent away with querulous refusals ringing in their ears. The only reason the last few years have begun to see a resurgence of interesting and eye-catching Burroughs reprint volumes is that the estate is slowly losing the copyright to its treasure-trove, as more and more of ERB’s work slips into incontestable common domain.
Thirty years ago, a volume like The Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs couldn’t have existed, wouldn’t have been allowed to exist. Now, at least, we get the beginnings of the feast.
As far as beginnings go, this is mighty strong. The eleven stories presented here range over the whole gamut of ERB’s fictional creations, from his lesser-known settings of the alien world Poloda to the more well-known locales of Venus, Mars, and Pellucidar. They reward the experienced fan in inverse ratio to the newcomer, of course – the stories are so thick with allusions to the canon that it’s hard to picture a newcomer making much sense of them. But then, a project like this isn’t really designed for newcomers – this is more like a carefully-prepared gift for those of us who’ve managed to hang around long enough to finally be able to open it.
And there are plenty of neat little suprises, like when F. Paul Wilson, in his Pellucidar story “The Dead World,” has his Victorian-era genius Abner Perry notice a wavery quality to the landscape of Pellucidar’s dead moon and speculate that it’s something called a hologram, prompting his befuddled companion to ask that golden question, “What’s a hologram?” – and get a classic response:
“A three-dimensional projected image. Various scientific journals were discussing the possibility of such a thing before we left, but it was more in the realm of scientifiction. And now, here it is …” He turned to me with wonder-filled eyes. “In Pellucidar!”
The oldest gem in this collection is Resnick’s own story “The Forgotten Sea of Mars,” an uncanny imitation of Burroughs’ style and even diction that originally appeared in an ERB fanzine way back in 1965 and is every bit as enjoyable to read today. Peter David puts a surprising amount of flesh on Burroughs’ hyperventilating novel The Moon Maid, and Todd McCaffrey does likewise for the aforementioned world of Poloda. But although writers clearly have lots of fun with John Carter and Carson of Venus, there is – there can be – only one real king of an anthology like this. The Tarzan in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Tarzan and the Great War” and Joe Lansdale’s “Tarzan and the Land That Time Forgot” is the quintessential stoic Burroughs hero, and the version we get in Kevin Anderson and Sarah Hoyt’s fantastic “Tarzan and the Martian Invaders” is even better, a wonderfully, believably re-imagined ape man who’s both more savage than anything in the original ERB novels – and more tender:
Although normal expressions still did not come naturally to him, Tarzan gave he the best smile he could command. He extended his arm to her. “You are quite safe with me, Jane. Human or ape, I am always your husband.”
She came swiftly to be enfolded in his embrace. “Don’t I know that? Have I not seen you when you still didn’t know how to form human words? And yet …” Her hand caressed his powerful arm, feeling the muscles beneath his shirt. “You’ve always been human to me, the best of men.”
In fact, just about the only thing this volume is lacking (except for a Korak story, as you probably knew I’d say) is a big Roman numeral “I” on the cover, as a clear signal that more such volumes are on the way. I’m imagining it there anyway, and I’m hoping for the best.