Review: Sea-kings of Mars

There used to be a Hollywood genre called swords and sandals, that is heroic B-movies set in ancient Rome or Greece: muscular men in tunics fighting monsters or evil rulers. Those movies are mainly of my age, i.e. from the fifties or early sixties. And very few of them are enjoyable nowadays, perhaps only the A-quality ones like Spartacus and Ben Hur.

Anyhow, to the point. One of Leigh Brackett’s most well-known Mars stories is a novel called either Sword of Rhiannon or Sea-kings of Mars, depending on edition. She wrote it in the early 1950s, when the swords-and-sandals genre was flowering, and that shows.

In this tale she leaves her 22nd-century Red Planet for a jaunt into its past, a million years ago or so. The basic plot is simple: corrupt archeologist Matt Carse has been expelled from academia because of his misdeeds and now ekes out a living in the lawless city of Jekkara.

Matt Carse knew he was being followed almost as soon as he left Madam Kan’s. The laughter of the little dark women was still in his ears and the fumes of thil lay like a hot sweet haze across his vision — but they did not obscure from him the whisper of sandaled feet close behind him in the chill Martian night. Carse quietly loosened his proton-gun in its holster but he did not attempt to lose his pursuer. He did not slow nor quicken his pace as he went through Jekkara.

“The Old Town,” he thought. “That will be the best place. Too many people about here.”

Jekkara was not sleeping despite the lateness of the hour. The Low Canal towns never sleep, for they lie outside the law and time means nothing to them. In Jekkara and Valkis and Barrakesh night is only a darker day.

Carse gets a clue where he could find the lost tomb of a legendary Martian called Rhiannon the Accursed. However, instead of plundering that grave, he is catapulted into Mars’s distant past, when it was a verdant world with oceans and strange intelligent beings.

Despite the occasional appearance of super-science gadgets, this is a fantasy tale placed in a SF context. Most likely, the fantasy tropes we are so familiar with were not established then and Brackett’s readers would not have accepted them. So on ancient Mars we find slave-crewed galleys, pirates, winged humans, “tritons”, seers, and a cool warrior princess — all appropriate for the swords-and-sandals fans.

The sun sank slowly toward the horizon. As Carse topped the last ridge above the city and started down he walked under a vault of flame. The sea burned as the white phosphorescence took color from the clouds. With dazed wonder Carse saw the gold and crimson and purple splash down the long curve of the sky and run out over the water. He could look down upon the harbor. The docks of marble that he had known so well, worn and cracked by ages and whelmed by desert sand, lying lonely beneath the moons. The same docks, and yet now, mirage-like, the sea filled the basin of the harbor.

Round-hulled trading ships lay against the quays and the shouts of stevedores and sweating slaves rose up to him on the evening air. Shallops came and went amid the ships and out beyond the breakwater he saw the fishing fleet of Jekkara coming home with sails of cinnabar dark against the west. By the palace quays […] a long lean dark war-gallery with a brazen ram crouched like a sullen black panther. Beyond it were other galleys. And above them, tall and proud, the white towers of the palace rose.

This story was my introduction to Leigh Brackett’s fantastic solar system. I read it in a Swedish translation in the late 1970s during a five-hour train ride between Gothenburg and Stockholm. The memories are still vivid, which shows what impact the story had on my teen-age self.

I will not speak much of the plot, because that would entail spoilers, but I can assure you that the story-telling is great: Brackett portrays a place which she must have loved. The pacing is quick, the protagonists hard-boiled and unscrupulous, and their adversaries malevolent. The mood frequently evokes an American version of heroic-era Greece. Carse must be both shrewd and brutal to survive and find a way back. Also, Brackett introduces two tough women, which were rare in adventure stories from that era: Ywain the Amazon (a Xena-esque princess) and Emer the Seer, a power-playing “court sorceress” in the pirate lords’ fortress.

[Ywain] stood like a dark flame in a nimbus of sunset light. Her habit was that of a young warrior, a hauberk of black mail over a short purple tunic, with a jeweled dragon coiling on the curve of her mailed breast and a short sword at her side. Her head was bare. She wore her black hair short, cut square above the eyes and falling to her shoulders. Under dark brows her eyes had smoldering fires in them. She stood with straight long legs braced slightly apart, peering out over the sea. Carse felt the surge of bitter admiration. This woman owned him and he hated her and all her race but he could not deny her burning beauty and her strength.

[Emer’s] eyes were gray and sad, but her mouth was gentle and shaped for laughter. Her body had the same quick grace he had noticed in the Halflings and yet it was a very humanly lovely body. She had pride, too — pride to match Ywain’s own though they were so different. Ywain was all brilliance and fire and passion, a rose with blood-red petals. Carse understood her. He could play her own game and beat her at it. But he knew that he would never understand Emer. She was part of all the things he had left behind him long ago. She was the lost music and the forgotten dreams, the pity and the tenderness, the whole shadowy world he had glimpsed in childhood but never since.

The main characters are people that one hardly would like to have as friends: Ywain is haughty and Matt is greedy, both self-centered in the pursuit of wealth, glory, and power. But still, the reader comes to care for what happens to them. The story ends by tying all threads together, but I would have loved to read what happened to Matt and Ywain later, because, being the people they are, they must have experienced many other Martian adventures together.

I give this story five red planets of five possible. But my taste is unusual, so be warned: other readers may judge it otherwise.

Real-life revolutions vs fictional revolutions

As a consequence of the French revolution, the French introduced the meter and the kilogram successfully, but failed to make decimal hours popular.

Rebellions against tyrannies are exciting, at least in fiction: Luke Skywalker and buddies taking on the Empire, Katniss and Peeta standing up against Capitol, and so on. I, too, have written about the subject in the novel Ice War, which is loosely based on the European revolutions of 1848.

However, carrying out such grand political schemes frequently have unforeseen consequences: for instance, the Frenchmen calling for tax reforms in 1789 could not imagine that their actions would lead to Napoleon, a military dictator, killing off much of Europe’s youth in a world-spanning set of wars merely one decade later. Once again, I have touched that subject in my fantasy roleplaying game Gondica and my novel Spiran och staven which takes place in the same world. There a popular revolt against an oppressive monarchy has drastic consequences that nobody predicted. After all, a violent revolution tends to devour its own activists; look at the fates of Danton, Robespierre, Trotsky, and marshal Tukhachevsky.

Here is an interesting web article looking at various aspects of this subject and explaining why reality gets far messier than fiction — link >>>

Review: “The Man Who Loved Mars”

The late American author Lin Carter must have enjoyed writing pastiches, because if you look at his bibliography you find lots of books that emulate the ideas and styles of pulp masters like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard.

I am a fan of old-style Mars adventures and therefore I could not resist acquiring the Kindle edition of Carter’s first entry into that subgenre: The Man Who Loved Mars. It is part one of a quartet of novels about a very alternate Mars and a less alternate Earth. However, each story stands alone; they only share planets. Carter chose a Brackettian approach to the Red Planet (see my explanation here >>> ). However, his prose often makes me think of the late inferior works of space opera writer Edmond Hamilton and that is not the way to handle a fantastic Mars: it is too polished, too scientific.

The first-person narrative of The Man Who Loved Mars starts in Venice, Italy, where protagonist Ivo Tenggren, a German by birth, lives as a down-at-heel remittance man. He indulges in cheap brandy and mulls on his past as a major “power player” on Mars. However, he is banned from returning there by the federal government of Earth. He gets contacted by an ambitious scholar, with two associates, who wants to locate something very special on the Red Planet. When the story kicks off, the reader expects colorful adventures and strange events. Unfortunately, Carter does not deliver. As soon as the quartet arrives in the Martian wilderness, the story turns slow and predictable with lots of walking and riding. And the ending — merely a bland deus ex machina solution to the main plot issues.

The Man Who Loved Mars is a tale of two worlds.

Its Earth is an alternate-history near-future version that resembles ours: there are countries like Italy and Germany, but there is also a global federal structure called AN. Carter wrote the story in the early 1970s, but the setup lacks a Cold War. The true qualities of the governments are never revealed but there are hints that they are more oppressive than the European democracies we know. The technology is mostly familiar, though there are plenty of spaceships that easily cross interplanetary space and Tenggren uses a General Electric laser pistol with good effect at least once.

Its Mars is partially based on what astronomer’s knew of the Red Planet in the late 1960s: a desert world pock-marked by craters. The “canals” are explained as natural cracks in the planet surface, in which humidity gathers and vegetation flourishes; an elegant twist to an old cliché. The atmosphere is thin and breathable, though less so than in Tibet. The Martians are humans (yes, genetically they are a branch of the Homo family) and how they ended up on Mars is something that scientists on Earth argue about. Their bodies have evolved to handle the chill and the thin air of their homeworld. Mars is decaying slowly and the Martians have declined from a city-based advanced civilization to pastoral iron-age nomads, but they still know that their history encompasses many hundred millennia.

Many decades before the story, Earthmen arrived on Mars and set up an exploitative colonial administration whose behavior resembles the ruthless policies of 19th-century European great powers in Asia and Africa (e.g. the many unjust treaties forced on China and the British crushing of India’s Great Rebellion in 1858). However, such an administration feels misplaced in a near-future context.

Protagonist Ivo Tenggren started his Martian career as an idealistic colonial civil servant, but became so appalled by his colleagues’ activities that he changed sides to support the Martians’ struggle for liberation. By chance he took the lead, but the Martian revolt failed due to the Earthmen’s superior weaponry (cf the British conquest of Southern Rhodesia in 1890s) and that is why he got exiled to Earth.

Other authors (e.g. Leigh Brackett in The Secret of Sinharat and Robert Heinlein in Red Planet) have described Earth’s colonization of a declining Mars in vivid ways that make the readers feel that those Red Planets “exist” beyond the stories, that there is much more to tell about them*.

Sadly Carter’s story lacks such depth and his Mars is insufficiently alien, insufficiently mysterious, and insufficiently exciting. So my verdict is 3 red planets out of 5, and I will not purchase the other books in the series. (Carter’s world wouldn’t even make an acceptable setting for a role-playing game.)

Bechdel Test: a complete failure, perhaps because the novel is 40 years old. There is only one female speaking character and she gets to play the stereotypical “cute granddaughter” and “romantic interest” roles. The only Martian women to appear are dancing girls that Tenggren describes in an Orientalist manner.

* One example is Leigh Brackett’s evocative description of the Martian city of Valkis in The Queen of the Martian Catacombs:

    “Stark had never been here before. Now he looked at the city that sprawled down the slope under the low moons, and shivered, the primitive twitching of the nerves that an animal feels in the presence of death. For the streets where the torches flared were only a tiny part of Valkis. The life of the city had flowed downward from the cliff-tops, following the dropping level of the sea. Five cities, the oldest scarcely recognizable as a place of human habitation. Five harbors, the docks and quays still standing, half buried in the dust. Five ages of Martian history, crowned on the topmost level with the ruined palace of the old pirate kings of Valkis. The towers still stood, broken but indomitable, and in the moonlight they had a sleeping look, as though they dreamed of blue water and the sound of waves, and of tall ships coming in heavy with treasure.”

That author knew what fantastic Mars is like!

Recension: “Revolt”

Revolt är en science-fiction-roman för ungdomar av Lisa Rodebrand. Läsaren kastas rakt in i en ockupationsdystopi i den nära framtiden. Jorden har underkuvats av klykonerna, ett synbarligen genomodifierat människoslag från en annan planet. Mänsklighetens koloni på månen har en problematisk men inte lika hårdhänt relation till ockupanterna. Läsaren följer den tonårige motståndsmannen André och månkolonisten Caroline genom ett komplicerat förlopp som bland annat handlar om förberedelserna för ett anti-klykoniskt uppror på jorden och Andrés vendetta mot quislingen Mark Keyer som mördade hans far. Stora delar av handlingen utspelar sig runt en gruva där motståndsrörelsen och ockupanterna manövrerar mot varandra med list och våld.

Detta är en otäck berättelse: misshandel, gruvslavar, svält, mord, sprängattentat, ghetton sida upp och sida ner. Rodebrands beskrivning av kyklonerna får mig att tänka på Sarumans uruk-hai i Ringarnas Herre: fula, storvuxna, glödande ögon, hård hud och långa piskor. Ockupanterna är genomonda, medan de pragmatiska motståndskämparna knappast kan beskrivas som goda i klassisk äventyrsbemärkelse: det handlar om en svart/grå moral, inte en svart/vit.

På plussidan:
1. Det här är ett action-fyllt äventyr — läsaren får knappt en lugn stund.
2. Huvudpersonernas sätt att tänka är tonårsmässigt impulsivt med starka känslor — trovärdigt med tanke på att de är tonåringar.
3. Vem som helst kan dö, inklusive små barn — rimligt med tanke på premisserna.
4. De enkla människorna har blandade känslor inför motståndsrörelsen, eftersom de vet att uppror leder till brutal vedergällning. För mig, som är bevandrad i 1900-talets historia, är detta en realistisk attityd.

På minussidan:
1. Prosan är spretig och skulle ha mått väl av en uppstramande redigering.
2. Våldsbeskrivningarna är alltför många och alltför detaljerade. Jag blev efterhand illa berörd och började hoppa över sådana avsnitt. Dessutom, André får så mycket stryk under resans gång att han knappast borde ha överlevt. (Är han egentligen en superhjälte? Jo, det skulle nog vara rimligt.)
3. Skildringarna av teknik och naturvetenskap hade mått bra av mer research. Jo, det är SF, men naturlagarna verkar ändå vara desamma där och här. Alltså: nollgradigt vatten har värre effekt på människokroppen, helikoptrar bullrar mer, med mera.