In the 1970s,
Barsoom had a revival. This was when I found the books and
discovered that Burroughs could do more than simply write Tarzan novels.
The initial wave of Barsoom's popularity, in the '20s and '30s, spawned
imitators in the form of Ralph Milne Farley and Otis Adelbert Kline, who
were very close to Burroughs in their own environment and sensibility.
This second wave in the latter half of the 20th century spawned its
own tribute series, the most notable being Michael Moorcock's Mars trilogy,
Leigh Brackett's ‘Eric John Stark’ and Martian novels and stories, and
Lin Carter's Callisto series.
Lin Carter was a writer and editor, although with a name like that,
he almost sounds like he should be some long lost cousin to John Carter.
Interestingly, like Burroughs himself, he became a character in some of
his own books, a contact or confidant for the hero, John Dark, and even
an actual hero, star of one Callisto book as Lankar of Callisto.
So perhaps his fictional altar ego really is a blood relative of John Carter.
Set in orbit on Callisto, a moon of Jupiter, the series of eight books
played like a faithful rendition of the Barsoom series, down to flying
warships, exotic princesses, daring swordplay, evil masterminds and nonstop
heroics in the Burroughs tradition.
Where Morocco's Mars really is substandard and hasty, and where Brackett's
Stark operates with decidedly grittier and modernistic sensibilities, the
Callisto series, though set on a different world, is by far the most faithful
to the spirit and tone of Barsoom.
It is the truest throwback to the pulp era, and on this basis, its worth
taking a look at.
Tongue in Cheek Outline of the Books
Jandar of Callisto
John Dark is
an adventurer in the far east of the late sixties, early seventies.
While doing emergency medical flights, he gets in trouble over Cambodia
and finds his way to a fabled lost city. Stumbling into a well, he
finds himself transported to another world, which he gradually figures
out is Callisto. Stumbling is pretty much all he does.
John Dark's first act on his new world is almost being eaten by a predatory
Yathib. Luckily, he is rescued and taken as a prize/slave by the
Yathoon, in whose captivity he learns the language. Escaping, he
stumbles into a beautiful Princess, Darloona, performs an inept rescue,
and is taken as a slave again by rival Yathoon. But before too long,
they're rescued by an aerial warship and meet Prince Thuton, who Dark proceeds
to insult for no good reason. The result is a humiliating beating
and more slavery, this time at the wheels of the airship. Taken to
Zandahar, he escapes and stumbles onto a fencing master who takes pity
on him and teaches him to fight. Then in a bone headed attempt to
rescue Darloona, who doesn't particularly want to be rescued, he incites
a slave revolt, and then proceeds to waste his chance at freedom by engaging
in a sadistic revenge match with Thuton and almost gets himself killed.
Rescued at the last minute by his pals in a stolen airship, they somehow
escape into the jungle, reuniting with Darloona's people. But Dark's
ineptitude wins out, and while he's congratulating himself, Darloona gets
captured by the Black Legion.
The Black Legion of Callisto
Before the beginning
of the first book, the Black Legion, a sort of mongol horde/mercenary company,
managed to take over Darloona's city, Shondakar, leaving her and her followers
cooling their heels in the jungle. Now the Black Legion has
captured Darloona and the leader of the legion intends to consolidate his
hold over the city by marrying her off to his son. It's hardly
a fate worse than death, all things considered, particularly the way that
Dark has been going about making an ass of himself in front of her.
Anyway, although his blonde hair and blue eyes stick out like a sore thumb,
somehow Dark manages to infiltrate the city and the Black Legion.
Next thing you know, he ingratiates himself by saving the life of the Legion
Commander's son. This gives him the run of the place, and so he spends
time wandering the secret tunnels. Eventually he ruins the wedding,
and the Ku Thad of Shondakor invade to take back their city, using the
same secret tunnels. At the same time as the Ku Thad invade,
the Zandahar invade with their aerial fleet, so it's a three way fight.
The short of it is that the Black Legion are decimated, the Zandahar driven
off and the Ku Thad are victorious... Except of course, that the
wily Zandahar prince, Thuton, has managed to kidnap Darloona. Dark,
failing to get the message that the girl is seriously not interested in
him, must go off after her. By the way, it turns out that the cause
of all the trouble is a rogue priest named Oola, who is actually a dreaded
Mind Wizard, he dies an accidental death at Dark's hands.
Sky Pirates of Callisto
to use a captured Zandahar airship to conduct a raid on the city of the
Sky Pirates. His friends tell him it's a crap plan, but they
go along to keep him out of trouble. Unfortunately, his
endlessly bad judgment persuades him to take a Zandahar officer aboard.
The next thing you know, he's pitched into the sea and the officer sets
out to wreck the ship, crippling it so that it drifts into the arctic circle
before repairs can be made. Meanwhile, Dark manages to swim to shore
where he is captured by the Perushtar and enslaved once again (see a theme
here - one wonders if Dark perhaps has a masochistic impulse or two).
Unfortunately, Dark has no useable skills, so the frustrated Perushtar
pawn him off on the Zandahar, and he winds up in the gladiator pits.
He does okay for a while, but being John Dark, soon screws it up.
Just as he is exposed, starting another slave revolt, his friends in a
repaired airship show up and pull his bacon out of the fire.
Then they 'accidentally' blow up the entire city. Bummer. But,
he's finally got Darloona to himself, and all the other likely suitors
are dead, so she decides to go with it.
Mad Empress of Callisto
Is Zamorra of
Tharkol who is not really mad, and not particularly angry.
She launches a bid for world domination, by kidnapping Jandar and Darloona
from a hunting expedition... With a balloon no less.
She gets away with it because none of Jandars pals think to look up.
They wind up in her Executive Dungeon (its pretty nice), but a wily Thief
named Glypto comes along and helps them escape. Jandar wastes
an entire chapter realizing that if the Mind Wizards are telepathic...
Then they can read your mind!!! and put thoughts in your head!!!
(John Dark isn't very bright, its physically painful to watch him work
it out.) Along the way out, Dark gets the bright idea of kidnapping
Zamorra, and stealing the balloon. Once aloft, Dark discovers it
has no steering wheel. Later a Ghastosar (pterodactyl like
beast) comes by, Dark manages to provoke it into attacking, resulting in
all of them crashing and being captured by the Yathoon. Luckily,
Glypto helps them escape again, and they wander around on the plain, harassing
poor walking trees. Then they get captured by a trading
Caravan from Soroba, which is actually a military mission in disguise.
Luckily, an aerial galleon appears and they flee onto that, which turns
out to be a newly built Tharkol ship. This is the ace in the hole
of the Empress, her city has learned to build airships. Darloona
talks some sense to Zamorra, who then overhears Ang Chan boasting of his
powers, and then its all over. Zamorra joins the good guys.
It turns out Glypto was a spy from Soraba all along. The three
cities, Tharkol, Soraba and Shondakar decide to take out the mind wizards
once and for all.
Mind Wizards of Callisto
Dark and his
buddies set out with an armada of four airships (four? Does that qualify
as an armada?) over to the unknown far side of Callisto to find Kuur, citadel
of the Mind Wizards. While traveling, Dark spots a flock of flying
creatures, but deciding that they're too big to be dangerous small creatures,
and too small to be dangerous big creatures, he ignores them, until they
attack. It turns out that they were dangerous, giving us yet
another example of John Dark's staggeringly poor judgment. Dark and
a hapless cabin boy, Tomar, gets captured by the creatures who are Zarkoons.
They're taken to the Zarkoon's colony, where they wait to be eaten.
Luckily, they run across a jungle girl, Yllanna, who figures out that Dark
is as dumb as a post, and the three of them manage to escape the Zarkoon's
lair, just in time to be picked up by Dark's friends Lukor and Koja, in
a five-man flier. Unfortunately, the Zarkoon manage to puncture their
tanks as they make a get away, and they wind up crashing in the jungle
of the Cor Az. They blunder into a plesiosaur, and their fight
attracts Yllanna's unwanted boyfriend, Xangan and his buddies, who take
them prisoner and they wind up in the middle of caveman politics.
Turns out the cavemen venerate the Mind Wizards, so Dark and his friends
are in a jam. Luckily, Dark is a man of action, so he introduces
his friends to the game of checkers and sets about writing his memoirs.
Sadly, his autobiographical efforts are interrupted when Yllanna comes
by, sneaks them a knife and warns them that the Mind Wizards are on their
way, so they escape temporarily but get captured again. Meanwhile,
the ‘armada’ blunders around looking for Jandar and his friends and eventually
splits up, with three going on to look for Kuur, and disappearing without
a trace. The fourth finds Yllanna and Jandar's memoir, putters around,
and eventually goes home. And for the record, not a single
damned Mind Wizard actually shows up anywhere in this book. To add
insult to injury, the book cover features a purple tyrannosaur, but good
luck waiting for one of those to show up anywhere. On the positive
side, this is actually one of the best, or better of the Callisto books,
with enough novelty and action, and genuine sexiness to keep things fresh
all the way.
Lankar of Callisto
Is actually Lin
Carter. I find myself wondering if, in this fictional universe,
Lin Carter is related in any way to John Carter of Barsoom, and I think
he drops a few hints to that effect. Traveling to Cambodia to pick
up a manuscript, Carter accidentally falls into the teleport, winding up
on Callisto. Much against his will, the middle aged, chain
smoking, coffee guzzling writer and editor is forced to be an adventure
hero, sort of. At first he stumbles through the jungle, but he makes
friends with a local dog, an Othode, who becomes his constant companion.
Together they fight a Vastodon. Then Carter blunders into a giant
spiderweb where he meets a youth, Tarin. Rescued by his dog, he travels
with the Youth until they blunder into Shondakar forces. Trading
on his relationship to Jandar (whom he has never met) Carter hangs about
in Shondakar and eventually joins the rescue fleet searching for Kurr.
His dog discovers the secret entrance to the hidden city, but Carter, less
impressively, gets himself captured. He meets Jandar who fills in
a lot of backstory and explains the danger the Mind Wizards pose to Earth...
(My ass, there are only 17 of them and they've been screwing up with only
a handful of Bronze age city states on Callisto? I think Earth is
pretty safe.) They are rescued from the Mind Wizards prison
by the boy and the dog, and there's a big battle (barely described) where
the Mind Wizards are wiped out. Carter goes back to Earth.
It's an odd novel, more travelogue than adventure, and Carter's constant
references to other works of fiction are a bit annoying. More
than annoying, the constant references to other novels or artworks suggests
a painful lack of imagination. In this novel, the impression of Thanator
being a photocopy of a photocopy comes through most strongly, and its especially
troubling because the plot and action is so thin. We have literally
nothing to do but to observe the hollowed out derivativeness of the setting
and action. As an action hero, the fictional Lin Carter is basically
a tourist, the ‘dog’ that adopts him does practically all the work.
It's like he stumbled onto the Thanatorian version of Rin Tin Tin or the
Yllanna of Callisto
Jon Dark and
Lin Carter hardly appear at all. Carter has gone back to Earth at
the end of the last book, but the timeline of this book is set before his
departure. Most of the story revolves around the last surviving Mind
Wizard who kidnaps the jungle girl, Yllanna and her boyfriend Tomar, who
appeared all the way back in Sky Pirates. as he flees to his final
refuge... The cave people. Yep, this guy really thought it
out. The Mind Wizard bumbles about until Yllanna and Tomar
and her dad escape and head for the River People. The new chief,
who has deposed Yllanna’s dad, sends a hunting party after them.
Then Yllanna is kidnapped by a River People group wanting to start a war.
Tomar turns out to be useless but well meaning. We get way
too much cave man politics, ending in a duel between two tribes troops
of malcontents, while the old chiefs watch with considerable satisfaction.
Yllanna and Tomar hook up and presumably live happily ever after..
The last Mind Wizard gets eaten by a Plesiosaur, which is fairly ironic
but rather unsatisfying. Better than Lankar of Callisto, Carter makes
a real effort to keep the pages turning. But sadly, he offers nothing
new and nothing remarkable, the plot is thin with complications literally
Renegade of Callisto
happens here, what with all the great big villains being put paid to and
everyone officially married happily ever after. There's been
a period of peace, during which Shondakar begins constructing its own airships
and Jandar starts up a program to produce an internal combustion engine
in order to fly the airships more easily. Tharkol, Soraba and Shondakar
exist in a de facto political and economic alliance. Taran,
who featured in Lankar of Callisto as Lin Carter's protégé
(i.e. - keeping him alive while he stumbled around in an alien jungle),
has been adopted as Jandar's ward. It seems that goofiness
is transmissible, because an accident leaves Taran, Koja and an othode
(Thanatorian dog) named Fido adrift in a small disabled airship.
No one notices that they’ve all disappeared, so they wind up drifting far
out onto the plains where they get taken prisoner by a Yathoon horde. There,
Koja meets a human Princess, Xara of Ganatol, and they strike up a tender
interspecies romance. Xara had been on her way to Shondakar originally,
to plead for an alliance, given that the Empire of Perushtar was starting
to crowd them. Unfortunately, Xara's interest in Mister Tall Dark
and Shelly is interrupted by a cattle stampede. Koja and another
Yathoon prisoner, Borak (who appeared in Mad Empress) wind up escaping
to Koja's horde. Koja resumes command of his troop, disposing of
a poser, and life is pretty good. Meanwhile, Taran and Xara are rescued
by a small airship that Jandar had sent out to find his lost friends.
Xara, the fickle slut that she is, immediately gets the hots for her rescuer,
Captain Vandar. Sadly, once again, before she can get laid, they
get ambushed by a horde of Yathoon, who take them to their hidden city
of Sargol. In Sargol, the focus shifts to Koja who ends up challenging
the Emperor of the Yathoon. The Wily Emperor decides that the duel
will consist of a game of Darza (a sort of Thanatorian version of Chess)
with live players, playing to the Death!!! (Shades of Chessmen of
Mars!!!) For no good reason, Xara, Valkar and Taran are dragged
in as players on Koja's side. As slaves of a rival horde, they have
no status at all, and therefore Koja has no right to enlist them and they
have no right to compete, but who's counting? Anyway, the game falls
to pieces when the Othodes get involved, so it comes down to single combat
between Koja and the Emperor. Koja wins, Jandar shows up at the last
minute, and everyone lives happily ever after.
My information on the series comes from Carter himself, through his
eight novels and the appendices or glossaries of Thanatorian names, plants
and animals and words. In addition I've also relied upon an essay
which he wrote, which is available on the net, as well as made use of reviews
on the net and backstory as set out in various books like Lankar
and Ylanna, which refer to events not in the books themselves.
I believe that there may have been a comic book series, but have made no
use of that. I apologize in advance for anything that I've
gotten wrong. The books largely are out of print now, but copies
can be found regularly, if erratically, in used bookstores.
The Sky Pirates in particular, seems to be pretty common, but Jandar
and the Black Legion are also easy enough to find. They're
fun and faithful, so feel free to track them down and give them a chance...
Lin Carter seems
to have been an ultimate fanboy. As a person, he seems to have
come across as a touch eccentric. He was a tall gangly man
with wild hair and a great bushy beard. He favoured a cane, the rumour
was that he had been injured in service in Korea, but the truth was, he
just liked canes. He dressed flamboyantly, but was married for many
years. By all accounts, he was an entertaining raconteur at conventions
and in fandom.
His life was not as happy as it might have been. He seems
to have been a compulsive personality, smoking heavily, drinking like a
fish and addicted to coffee. His marriage failed. Some
stories have him hanging out at conventions, sleeping in chairs in hallways
and cadging meals from sympathetic editors or fans. His chronic
smoking caught up with him in the form of mouth cancer, and he died in
As an Editor he was highly regarded, some say that he was in terms of
editing fantasy, what Tolkien was to the writing of it. He pioneered
a line of books that renewed or revived many of the classic fantasy writers,
including Tolkien. He wrote several nonfiction books on fantasy
writers or topics, including Tolkien.
He was also an
immensely prolific writer, chugging out something like fifty novels, together
with zines, stories, chapbooks and poetry, in a writing career that spanned
only a few decades. Sadly, I had a few Lin Carter books, but
never really got into him before starting this project.
As a writer, Carter was fairly hit and miss. His books are
generally short, perhaps 50,000 or 60,000 words apiece. They tend
to break down into five or six segments apiece, each of which breaks down
into four or five chapters. I'm not sure why he stuck to this
particular format, except possibly that he was serializing or hoping to
serialize into magazines. I see no evidence of this on copyright
notices. It might be that he was simply comfortable with this format.
On the other side, he tended to write his books as series, with anywhere
from four to eight books in a series. The series varied widely,
ranging from just re-using the same characters and settings, to forming
a single organic whole. The Callisto series, one of his longest,
falls in the middle of this, with the first six books forming two fairly
distinct trilogies, and the last couple being standalone. His series
often showed signs of burnout, as if in later books, he was running out
of ideas or enthusiasm, and relying more and more on plot twists or literary
The thing with Carter is that he wrote what he liked, which meant that
he wrote exactly like the authors that he liked. Thus his World's
End series in style, plot and subject matter is indistinguishable from
Jack Vance's dying Earth series. He wrote a Robert E. Howard style
Barbarian, Thongor, in the mold of, and voice of Conan.
With Sprague L. Camp he actually wrote licensed Conan novels.
Doc Savage was the model for his Zarkon series of books.
Clark Ashton Smith's voice inspired his Green Star series.
Leigh Brackett inspired his Martian novels. He even wrote
books or stories, though I'm not sure if any of those were commercially
Carter was, to his credit, well aware of this.
He was both unapologetic about it, and not shy about admitting or acknowledging
his inspirations. It was simple. He loved to read
these men, and his writing in their voices was an expression of that love,
a tribute rather than a plagiarism. He probably wrote far too
quickly and far too much for his own good, and he may well have been a
hack. But he was a hack who brought love to his craft.
I think that stands well for him.
Carter's biggest inspiration was Edgar Rice Burroughs.
The Callisto series was a take off on Barsoom through and through.
The Zanthodon series was a faithful reproduction of Pellucidar.
Burroughs also appears as a primary or secondary influence in his Martian
books, his Green Star series and his Thongor novels.
Turning to the Callisto series, though, I'm sad to say that it reads
as inferior Barsoom. Sadly, Carter never quite gets up to snuff
in terms of matching Burroughs writing. It's inferior to Otis
Adelbert Kline's Mars and Venus books as well.
It's not actually terrible. The original trilogy, beginning
with Jandar of Callisto and ending with Sky Pirates is quite good.
The world and the hero are fairly vivid, the action moves quickly.
It's hardly deep, but it is fun.
The series hit its high points with Mad Empress and Mind Wizards,
which are rousing, fast paced adventures. Mind Wizards
is filled with genuine tension and strangeness, and the cliff hanger ending
as Jon Dark conceals his notes even as his pursuers close in on him is
On the downside, the quality of the books was sometimes uneven. Lankar
of Callisto is frankly embarrassing to read, what with its endless
references to others works, the obvious self consciousness and ‘tweeness’
of the author, and the fact that just about everything interesting happens
offstage and to other people. It's an interesting conceit, but sadly
it fails. Yllanna of Callisto is only slightly stronger.
The writing is just weak, its constantly 'telling' rather than 'showing'.
Many passages feel more like an outline for a novel, rather than the novel
itself. Flashes of humour and wit fail to make up for an aimless
and meandering plot.
Renegade of Callisto was somewhat of a recovery, and there are
indications that Carter was laying groundwork for a new series of Callisto
books. It's acceptable, even good. But by this time,
I think, the series had worn out its welcome, both with the audience and
for Carter himself. I think he was perfectly happy to move on and
do something else. That's fair. He'd written his
Callisto series over a relatively short period of a few years. Whereas
in comparison, Burroughs martian tales took place scattered over three
decades, so even his inferior Barsoom books tend to contain a certain freshness.
Overall, I think that Callisto has two problems. One is
that unlike Mars or Venus, or unlike the mysterious East, darkest Africa,
the wild West, there was no great mythic narrative that Carter could tap
into. All of these other places existed as psychic landscapes
in the popular imagination, in the common mind. They were places
that resonated, that had some deeper subconscious meaning to people.
Africa was primordial savagery, the West was about manliness, Mars was
the dying ancient world and Venus the surging young eden.
Callisto? Callisto had no mythic narrative, no psychic landscape
to it. It was just a place to have derring do adventures. But
it didn't have any deeper identity or significance. Carter
did his best at world building, but in some ways it was sketchy.
He tries to call it the ‘Jungle World’ but that never really amounts to
much. The Perushtar were never much more than a stock race written
in shorthand, it took Carter eight books to really give us an insight into
the Yathoon's inner life.
There is some depth to the place, obviously there's enough to it,
consciously and subconsciously, to support the sort of rigorous analysis
that I put it through. You'll read from this, a series
of essays investigating and analysing the world that Carter built.
Not every fantasy world will sustain this sort of examination, sometimes
you push straight through and have to admit its all rubbish.
Callisto has a bit too much depth to be rubbish, pulp perhaps, but not
But Callisto and its characters and adventures often have a hard time
coming to vivid life the way Barsoom does.
The other part of it is that Jon Dark is kind of an arrogant jerk.
I mean, here goes: He winds up on Thanator, while escaping
from the Yathoon he meets his Princess. He ineptly rescues her from
a predator, sort of nice, but not inspiring. Then he commits a verbal
faux pas which makes him seem like a gauche and vulgar lout. He compounds
this by getting them both captured, leaving her with the impression he
lured her into slavery... that's got to be endearing. Later on, escaping
again, they wind up rescued by the Prince Zandahar.... who he proceeds
to obnoxiously pick a fight with, and gets a mighty thrashing for his troubles.
Later in Zandahar, he breaks into his Princesses parlour and tells her
a bunch of what she believes are filthy lies about her prospective boyfriend.
He starts a slave revolt, but then drops it and wastes his time serving
up humiliating payback to the Prince, in front of her, on the assumption
that a display of petty sadism will get her panties wet. He ends
up kidnapping her, dropping into the jungle and putting her life at risk,
so that she eventually winds up in the hands of her enemies....
And this is only the first book!
John Carter actually romanced Dejah Thoris, Burroughs took the time
and effort to make their relationship believable. In contrast,
Jon Dark's encounters with Darloona are sporadic and invariably bad.
There's no chemistry, there's not even an opportunity to develop chemistry.
This is a huge weakness, both for the books and for the character
Nor is this the end of Dark's flaws. Over and over again,
he comes across as a bit of an egotist, calling himself the greatest swordsman
on two worlds. He's constantly getting into trouble with half baked
plans, and is regularly rescued by his friends or saved by dumb luck.
He has terrible judgment. Beyond that, however, he's only the standard
action hero. Generic in that he's tall, strong, good looking
and self-absorbedly charismatic. There are no personality quirks,
no particular well of self knowledge, insight or humour, which would make
us like him, or make him distinctive or memorable. His shortcomings
might have been a vein for sly or broad satire, a la Harry Flashman, but
instead, they're presented straight on, and uncritically. Jon
Dark is a jerk, but Lin Carter never seems to quite realize it.
The particular quality that made John Carter likable and exciting, despite
his being a bloodthirsty homicidal maniac, is simply missing here.
I found myself wanting to like Callisto more than I did.
It has its moments, and for the most part, it reads well. I'm
certainly happy enough to recommend it to any Barsoom fan, though I might
direct them to Kline or Farley first. Certainly I put it ahead of
Moorcock's Mars novels, and it has much more of the spirit of Barsoom than
the 'Post-Colonial Mars' novels of Brackett and others which also drew
Interestingly, although Callisto left me lukewarm, I found his Zanthodon
series to be just terrific, shoulder to shoulder with Pellucidar, and I
enjoyed the World's End series immensely. So, on that basis,
I'm happy enough to recommend Carter.
Tastes are idiosyncratic. I suspect that there are some
who may find Callisto to be a worthy companion series to Burroughs and
Kline, on the same level. Fine with me. Even for those who
find it a lesser work, it's still enjoyable in its own right as a work
on its own or as a clone.