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.

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* 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!

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