Thursday, March 14, 2013

Well, that's one way to get to Mars

Read/Watch 'em in Order #32

Otis Adelbert Kline was a pulp writer from the 1920s/30s who made a living emulating Edgar Rice Burroughs. For instance, he wrote about Jan of the Jungle, a Tarzan knock-off who had adventures in the jungles of South America and India.

He also tried his hand at the same sort of Sword and Planet story that Burroughs perfected with his John Carter of Mars tales. In fact, there was a report kicking around for quite a long time that Burroughs and Kline were in a literary feud because of this, but that's since been debunked. Kline did overtly copy Burroughs' popular formulas, but he did so with skill and left us with some very, very entertaining tales. He retired from writing in the 1930s and become a literary agent. Robert E. Howard was one of his clients.

Kline wrote two novels set on Mars and three on Venus that all take place in the same continuity. The Venus novels were published first (beginning in 1929), but the Mars tales take place first. We'll be covering them in the proper order--so we will start with The Swordsman of Mars (first serialized in Argosy magazine in 1933).

{By the way, I tried to confirm in what order Kline wrote the novels--as opposed to their publication order.I couldn't find any definite information. So I don't know if he wrote the Venus novels first, then wrote the Mars novels as sort of-prequels; or if he wrote the Mars novels first but didn't find a publisher for them for a few years. I welcome any comments from anyone who has any better information about this.}

But enough of my research failures. Let's get to the good stuff.

Dr. Morgan has come up with a nifty way of transporting men to other planets. He's built a device that can swap the minds of two men--so the mind of Person A will inhabit the body of Person B and visa-versa. This machine can work over vast distances and move minds back and forth through time.

So he can effectively send Earthmen to Mars millions of years ago, when a human civilization existed there. He telepathically finds a Martian and an Earthman with identical body types and matching thought waves, then (after both men volunteer) swaps their minds.

But the first guy he sends to Mars--Frank Boyd--proves to be a villain. Soon Boyd (now in the  body of a Martian named Sel Han) is the right-hand man of a brutal dictator and is planning on taking over himself at the first opportunity. Morgan can't bring Boyd back against his will.

So Morgan instead sends an adventurer named Harry Thorne to Mars (swapping with a man named Borgen Takkor) to stop Sel Han. And that's where we enter the adventure.

I agree with most of the commentators I've read who state that Kline is not quite as good a writer as Burroughs--Kline's Mars falls a a little short of the sheer awesomeness of John Carter's adopted world. Also, Kline isn't quite as good as fitting exposition into the novel without slowing the action down. But Kline's Mars is still a fun place.

It's certainly got a cool back-story. Apparently, our moon was once a planet orbiting between Earth and Mars, inhabited by a race of men called the Ma Gongi. These guys fought a war with Mars, with both sides using extremely destructive weaponry. The Moon was rendered uninhabitable and knocked out of its original orbit, with surviving Ma Gongi still living on Mars. Both civilizations lost much of their advanced technology, which provides a good reason for everyone fighting with swords and javelins despite the presence of some more advanced gadgetry.

There's any number of bizarre monsters on Mars--as there properly should be in any Sword and Planet tale. This includes several tame beasts, most notably the gawr, a large bird-like creature that's used as a mount. Martian cavalry is therefore airborne.

There's also the dalf, a carnivorous amphibian. Thorne makes good use of a trained dalf named Tezzu several times during the story--something that reminded me rather overtly of John Carter and his calot Woola.

Anyway, the villain Sel Han has allied himself with the Ma Gongi and is trying to recreate a powerful heat ray used by them in the ancient war. While he's doing this, Thorne is fighting for his life against monsters, the Ma Gongi and the machinations of Sel Han. He meets not one--but two--beautiful and capable women; and he gets captured several times. On one occasion, he's sent to supposed certain death as a slave in the baridium mines. Finally, he and a small military force are trapped in a castle, surrounded by Sel Han's army and threatened with a quartet of large heat ray guns.

There's also a traitor in their midst--but Thorne might actually be able to use the traitor to get the best of Sel Han.

It's all good stuff, with exciting fight scenes and a few nice twists at the end. The climax involves a desperate raid against an large enemy force, a chase involving gawrs and a last-minute rescue followed by a last-minute rescue followed by a last-minute rescue. I especially like the way Kline manages to toy with our expectations involving the two female characters while all this is going on.

It all seems to end happily ever after. But life on a Planet of Adventure such as Mars never stays dull for long. Kline would be returning to Mars in The Outlaws of Mars, also published in 1933. We'll take a look at that one soon.

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