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!

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.

Wolframfästet förverkligas till slut

Mitt rollspelsprojekt Wolframfästet — ett inför-katastrofen-spel som utspelar sig på en döende jord i en fjärran framtid — har legat på is i flera år på grund av att “livet kom emellan”. Krig, sjukdom, dödsfall — sådant sätter käppar i hjulet för en ambitiös spelkonstruktör. Men nu har jag gjort en deal med Tove och Anders Gillbring, utgivare av speltidningen Fenix: mycket av Wolframfästets världsbeskrivning kommer att publiceras där under det kommande halvåret som artiklar. Projektet inleds i det kommande numret med en omfattande översikt över kampanjmiljön Aftonvärlden och fortsätter sedan med kortare artiklar i de följande numren.