Poster for the 1927 Soviet movie, Aelita
is a sort of Russian Communist version of Burroughs' Princess of Mars,
written in triumphal soviet style, back in 1923 by Count Aleksei Tolstoy
(January 10, 1883 - February 23, 1945). Like many other Mars
stories of the age, there are elements that fit it into Barsoom.
At the outset, let me acknowledge James McLeary who wrote to kick me off
my lazy butt and take a look at this one.
The plot is something we’ve seen before.
A pair of intrepid Earthmen wind up on Mars. They discover a desert
world of canals, the ruins of dead cities, strange multi-legged monsters
and eventually a human civilization which uses airships. Learning
the language, one of the Earthmen romances a Martian Princess, who is torn
between her heart and her duty. Meanwhile, a villain with a
prior relationship to the Princess puts in place his evil plan to destroy
both the lovers and the Martian civilization. The Earthman leads
an uprising, there’s a battle, aerial warfare, and a desperate flight through
catacombs filled with monsters. In the end, the Earthman and
his Martian Princess are tragically separated, but his heart remains true
Sounds a lot like Princess and some of the other
Barsoom books, doesn’t it? There are differences, as befitting a
Russian and a good communist. The villain in this case isn't the
Princess's prior betrothed, as in Dejah Thoris' plight. Rather, it's
Aelita's own father, Tuskoob. Instead of wild Tharks and Warhoons
and warring city states, there's merely class warfare and socialist revolution
in the one city. Okay fair enough.
Still, the resemblances are remarkable enough
to make you wonder if Aelita was inspired by Burroughs' remarkable novel.
Frankly, I don’t really know, but there's enough history to make the possibility
The Other Tolstoy
Nikolayevich Tolstoy was apparently a distant relative of Leon
Tolstoy. Born to something resembling a Tsarist Russian middle class
back in 1882, he appears to have fallen into literature and political radicalism
at around the same time. Russia back around the turn of the
century was as frustratingly backwards a society as you could get, with
a hopelessly antiquated and corrupt political system. So anyone
who spent more than five minutes looking around was going to turn into
a political radical. He started getting involved in social democratic
organizations, and taking part in demonstrations while only a teenager,
and almost got killed in a demonstration at the age of 19.
He became progressively more radical, coming to full fledged and devout
communism around 1921.
Thereafter, he evolved into a dedicated Stalinist,
and one of his plays was pretty blunt in its glorification of Stalin and
denunciation of Trotsky. By 1936 he was the head of the Soviet
Writers Union and in 1939 was elected to the Academy of Sciences.
That’s pretty vile when you think about it. In a period when Stalin
was indulging his most vicious purges and genocidal pogroms, this guy thrived.
That doesn’t say good things about his qualifications as a human being.
As a writer, Tolstoy came by it honestly enough.
There was that more famous and talented distant relative, Leon Tolstoy,
who did a little thing called War and Peace. But there was
more, his Mother was a free spirit and a writer of some small repute.
Aleksei wrote his first story at the age of ten. By 1907, at the
age of 25 he was publishing a couple of volumes of lyric poetry.
This was followed by prose work, short stories and novels starting in 1911,
and plays starting in 1913. His first play was banned by the Tsarist
authorities, which was probably a good sign. He wound up as
a war correspondent during WWI, but after that seems to have gone back
to novels and plays and remained there the rest of his life.
His writing showed an early bent towards mining
slavic folklore and mythology, I guess this would be termed fantasy these
days. Another running theme was historical works, particularly
Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible. He also wrote
a lot of children’s stories. Although his official biography
lauds his commitment to 'realism' I have to wonder a little bit myself.
The emphasis on myth and folklore, historical works and children's stories
all suggest to me that here was a writer strongly attracted to fantastic
themes and settings. Who knows, it may have kept him alive
during the purges, when more strongly contemporary writers found themselves
off in labour camps.
Given his bent for the fantastic, it should be
no surprise that Tolstoy wrote a science fiction novel, Alita.
It must have been successful because he followed up with two more science
Revolt of the Machines (no relation to Capek) and
Garin’s Hyperboloid (IMDB).
Engineer Garin’s Hyperboloid
book and 1965 film
I’ve slagged Tolstoy for thriving in the Stalinist
era. But to be perfectly fair, I’ll point out that he wrote Alita
and his other science fiction novels well before the dark days of Stalinist
excess. Alita dates from 1923. What was happening back
then? Well, the Tsar had been overthrown by the Russian Revolution
in 1917. The Great War had ended the next year in 1918. But
the new Soviet Union was beset by foreign invasions from America, Japan,
Britain and France as well as internal civil wars. By 1921-22 it
was all settling down, and in 1923, there was still a lot of optimism that
the Russian people were finally getting their act together, were leaping
collectively into the 20th century, and that they really could and would
build their socialist utopia.
Stalin had not yet come to power. The Ukrainian
famine was still to come. Things were fairly optimistic, and beneath
the veneer of 'socialist utopianism' there was a lot of flexible experimentation.
I doubt that Aelita could have been written even ten years later.
The dark days were coming, but back then, there
was very little sign of them, just a lot of idealism and optimism.
Still, even for Tolstoy there seem to have been doubts, his short story,
"Azure Cities," from 1925, is about an engineer whose dreams of building
21st century cities are destroyed by socialist realities and planning.
But this doesn’t get us any closer to seeing whether
Tolstoy was influenced by A Princess of Mars, does it?
Sorry about that. Let’s return to topic. It’s likely
that somewhere out there, some historian of Russian literature, or article
or reference might be able to say definitely that Tolstoy read Princess,
which would settle things. Or it might contain some definitive
statement by Tolstoy that he had ‘most certainly not’ read Princess,
uh uh, Aelita’s completely original... which might not settle things.
Without anything definite, however, we’re forced to speculate.
Have Inspired Aelita?
things first, whether Tolstoy ever read Burroughs, he was an educated man,
trained in engineering, and was almost certainly familiar with the same
science and pseudo-science of the day in regard to Mars. His
bent towards the fantastic almost certainly would have acquainted him with
the works of Percival Lowell. So Tolstoy’s knowledge was a
Mars of canals, a dying old world with dried or drying seas and endless
deserts and erosion, laced with canals, possibly inhabited by an ancient
race. It was the same template that other writers, from Burroughs
to Wells were drawing upon.
But was Princess of Mars floating around
Moscow or St. Petersberg for Tolstoy to read? I don’t know,
but it seems unlikely doesn't it. Princess of Mars was
published in North America in 1911. Was it translated into Russian?
If so, when? We know that Burroughs was a popular underground
figure in Russia, frowned upon by the formal authorities who disliked his
politics, but nevertheless much loved by those Russians who just wanted
a good story. So its possible that he did come across it through
But there’s more. Tolstoy was a war
correspondent for a Russian newspaper during the First World War between
1914 and 1918. After spending time at the front, he wound up
reporting in both France and England. After returning to Russia
for a period of time, he was back in Paris by 1920, had relocated to Berlin
in 1921, and it was actually in Berlin that he wrote and published Aelita.
Now this seems significant. Because
although we can wonder if Princess of Mars had made it to Russia,
we can be pretty sure that Burroughs story made it to Europe during the
first world war. It would have been a pretty simple matter
for copies to circulate in English-speaking Britain, or even re-publication.
France and Germany had strong ties with America, and could have received
or circulated American pulps, or re-published some of those stories, either
in original English or in translation. Even if they didn’t,
the vast numbers of English troops during the war in France, and the influx
of Americans towards the end, would have guaranteed that they brought their
magazines and novels with them. So it's almost certain that
copies of Princess of Mars were floating around. And would
have been floating around Paris and Berlin in the years after the war.
No guarantee that Tolstoy saw it, of course, but there you go, the possibility
must lay open.
One thing is that Burroughs Barsoom was hot and
current during this time. Princess of Mars may have come out
in 1911. But Gods of Mars was 1918, Warlord of Mars was
in 1919, Thuvia in 1920 and Chessmen in 1922.
So the series was both popular and mature. Its easy to conceive of
their popularity making them saleable in Europe.
And indeed, there’s good chances that Tolstoy
might have encountered other Martian adventures. Almost certainly,
he would have read Wells' War of the Worlds although there’s little
that might be Wells in Aelita. On the other hand, Matthew
Arnold's Gulliver Jones on Mars (1905) with its alien princess and
dying civilization was published in England. Gustave LaRouge’s
of Mars (1908) would have both been floating around at about this time.
Both of these have more than passing resemblances to the later Princess
On the other hand, Arnold’s Gulliver Jones
landscape is pretty normal and lacks the exotic desert feel that Burroughs
and Tolstoy give us. LaRouge's Prisoner lacks the Princess
and romantic plot, and his protagonist stumbles through a Martian swamp,
not a dry and empty world. Nevertheless, Tolstoy could easily
have been exposed to either of these.
There were other Martian adventures that would
have been floating around western europe while Tolstoy was there.
Unfortunately, Gustavus Pope’s ‘Journey to Mars’with its multicoloured
races and alien Princess probably wasn’t one of them, it was published
only in America back in 1894.
On the other hand, there was Griffin's Honeymoon
in Space (1901), Galopin's Doctor Omega (1905), Torquet's Call
from Another World (1906), Gayer's Serge Myrandahl (1908), LaHire's
of Mars (1911), Laurian's War of Dwarves and Giants (1912),
and others would probably all have been floating around in British and
French bookstores. These lacked many Burroughsian elements found
in Aelita, and were almost all in their own way more fantastic than
But I don’t think we could definitively discount any of them.
It's also worth acknowledging Kurt Lasswitz’s
Two Planets published in Germany in 1897, about Earthmen encountering
and being overwhelmed by a superior race of Martians, although it's hardly
Burroughsian. Tolstoy spent enough time in Berlin that he might have
run across it.
One guy who definitely wouldn’t have been an influence
was Otis Adelbert Kline, whose Martian novels were published a decade later.
Anyway, we can’t say for sure that Tolstoy actually
encountered Princess of Mars, or any of the other Martian adventures.
But from what we know of his literary predilections, it strikes me that
Tolstoy would have probably been an avid reader of science fiction and
fantasy, particularly if he wound up writing the stuff. And certainly,
there's a good chance that it was floating around for him to pick up.
The Mars of Aelita
All right, fessing up here. I’ve never
read Aelita. I’d have loved to, but frankly, living out here
in the frozen wastes of northern Manitoba, wrestling polar bears for food,
it’s hard to access a lot of works. So, I just went googling,
and found a neat summary of Aelita right here: www.sovlit.com/aelita
Okay, it's not as good as actually reading the
book. But frankly, you probably don’t have the book to hand either,
and this at least gives some decent descriptions. If it inspires
you to eventually find it and read it, well, that's a good thing.
The gentle reader is invited to check it out.
For myself, I'll simply restrict myself to a series of observations and
quotes, basically seeing how well we can fit Aelita into Barsoom and related
First observation - there's a Jules Verne/ H.G.Wells/
Tom Swift techno set up at the start. Not uncommon in the SF of the
period, kind of a time waster, but perhaps a necessary part of suspending
disbelief. Burroughs had the courage to simply say 'he just
winds up there, okay', but most writers of this period put a lot of energy
into trying to plausibly explain how one gets from one planet to the other.
This suggests a very strong awareness of and influence by the nascent 'early
pulp' sci fi writings of the west.
Arriving on Mars, our Russian heroes, Los and
Gusev get their first vision of the alien world:
"The Martian sun is large and firey.
The air is thin and dry. The spaceship lies on an orange-colored flat plain.
The land is overgrown with tall cactuses shaped like pronged candlesticks.
As Los and Gusev set off to explore, they find the walking easy, even though
their feet sink ankle-deep into the crumbling soil."
Sounds like a description of a dried sea bed, with
a layer of dried silt obscuring geographic or geological detail.
This is very much the desert, dessicated world of Lowell and Burroughs.
"cactuses are standing in neat rows.
Los also discovers cockleshells, indicating that they are at the bottom
of a large, dried-up canal."
Interesting. Although the canal is dried up,
it's obviously still used for agriculture. There's intelligent
life on Mars, and the neat rows suggest that it's still around.
The crops of cactus in the canal further implies
that it contains moisture, at least some minimal amount of moisture to
sustain a crop. However, a canal is a transit for water, it's not
in itself a reservoir or oasis. This implies that it may flow with
water from time to time, at least enough to replenish its soil for dry
crops. So. . . seasonal flooding?
Seasonal flooding would put it in the northern
hemisphere, where the polar cap goes through dramatic expansions and contractions.
The southern polar cap is much more stable. This would have
been well known to astronomers of the time.
"In the distance, mounds of stones, ruins,
and snow-covered peaks are visible."
Snow covered peaks are reminiscent of Burroughs'
"Snow covered Artolian hills," which in turn we've associated with the
Tharsis volcanoes. By and large, Mars doesn't have a lot of substantial
mountains, so if you're looking for snow covered peaks... well, the Tharsis
Montes are your best bet.
This suggests that Aelita is taking place
in the seabeds directly to the west of the mighty peaks of the Tharsis
plateau, including Alba and Olympus.
Burroughs' city of Dusar is somewhere in this
vicinity, but for the most part, this is largely unknown territory for
Burroughs Barsoom. As nearly as we can sort Barsoomian geography,
he doesn't really set anything much in this area, or fill in the map.
Interestingly, this is the general area I've identified
as being the most likely location for Kline's Outlaws of Mars and
of Mars. This includes the Empire of Khalsifar with its
capital city of Raliad. Of the other Martian states identified by
Kline, Nunt is in the south and Xancibar is further west near Gathol.
Most of Kline's adventures take place between Xancibar and Khalsifar, in
the western region.
So Aelita and her city would be in the
same rough geographic area, but well on the other side, much closer to
Tharsis in the East. The Tharsis highlands would be a geographical
barrier, limiting contact or communication with most of Burroughs' Barsoomian
nations. What we'd expect, therefore is that Aelita's culture
would probably be a bit more closely related to Kline's cultures than the
general run of Barsoom.
Of course, we've mentioned already that Kline
wrote his books a decade after Aelita. So there's nothing
deliberate there. And for the record, there's no chance that
Burroughs could have had any real information about actual Martian geography,
Burroughs had by 1923 barely begun filling in his own Barsoom, and it's
only a coincidence that we can relate either Tolstoy's or Kline's Martian
landscapes to any part of real Mars, or fit it into Barsoom.
As I keep saying. It's just a game.
But it's fun.
Dead Cities and Canals, of course, are a well
established part of the 'folkloric' Mars of the era, going all the way
back to Percival Lowell. So these parts may not be borrowings from
Burroughs (and certainly not a borrowing form Kline), but merely another
instance of drawing from the same well. A common 'source' leads to
"After a few moments, the creature descends
and lands again. Los and Gusev now see that this is no bird. It is a man-like
being seated in the saddle of a flying machine. Two curved mobile wings
flap on either side of the rider, and a disc--a propeller apparently--whirls
a little below the wings."
‘Manlike being’ my hiney. As we’ll see
in Aelita, the Martians are fully human and apparently cross fertile with
terrestrial humans, if their own folklore is to be believed.
The flying machine is an ornithopter, basically
an aircraft that flies by flapping its wings, they’re basically bird or
bat machines. This increases the identification with Kline's
work. Kline, like Burroughs, had flying machines. But Kline's
flying machines were distinguished by flapping their wings, they were ornithopter's
or 'bird machines.' (although given their mass, they probably
employed the Barsoomian’s lifting ‘ray’ for bouyancy). Burroughs
used propellors or screws and lifting gas.
As Aelita goes on, we'll see that ornithopter's
are the common flying machines in the novel. The implication here
is that Aelita's culture is probably more closely related to Kline's Martian
cultures than mainstream Barsoom. Considering our tentative
geographical identification, this works nicely. It's what you would
"After lunch, the travelers set off to
do more exploring. Soon they have learned how to jump over the cactuses
with long, bouncy leaps."
Well, that's straight out of Princess of Mars.
Of course, lesser Martian gravity is a given, and practically every writer
who had his characters go to the Moon or Mars has them bounce around in
lesser gravity. But still, its suggestive.
"Three paces away is a pair of eyes,
as large as those of a horse, with drooping red eyelids. There is an intense,
deadly hatred in their piercing glare. Gusev whips out his revolver and
fires at it. It sprints away. Then they see another one, getting a glimpse
of its striped brown fat body moving swiftly on long, spidery legs. It
is the kind of giant spider that is found on Earth on the bottom of deep
Exotic monsters, including oversized critters, giant insects or a dinosaur-like
beasties, were a common staple of interplanetary voyages. So it certainly
fits into the Burroughs traditions, and more generally, into the traditions
of pulp interplanetary adventures. But is there a little more to
it, or a little more that we could read into it?
A Banth? Or relative of the Banth? Note the tiger striping,
and the vertabrate style lidded eyes.
Okay, Barsoomian fauna is sprouting anywhere from six to ten legs.
A couple of Earthmen encounter a big predator with lots and lots of legs.
I think 'spider' might be a natural default way to describe the thing.
So, with an allowance or two, we might conclude that what we're looking
at here is actually a specimen of typical Barsoomian predator.
Who knows, if Tolstoy actually read the Barsoom stories he may well
have visualized creatures like Banths and Ulsios, with their many legs
as spider-like predators. Burroughs himself doesn’t spend a
lot of time giving detailed descriptions of his various critters.
"They enter the building and see a series
of mosaics on the walls. The mosaics apparently depict historical episodes--
battles between yellow-skinned and red-skinned creatures; a manlike figure
immersed in the sea, then flying amid the stars; battle scenes and scenes
of combat with beasts of prey; and scenes of domestic life. A strange human
head keeps recurring in the mosaic."
Wow. In the context of Barsoom, this is fairly suggestive.
A race of red skinned humans? A yellow race?
In Burroughs, of course, the dominant Martian civilization is the Red
Race, who have emerged after the sea beds have dried up. The
Red Race developed by the merging of other races, including the white,
yellow and black, and presumably warred with each of these parent races
as it came to rule the world. In Warlords of Mars, we discover
that the final refuge of the Yellow race, the Okar, is at the north pole,
which isn’t all that far from the general neighborhood in which Alita takes
For the record, Kline gives us another yellow skinned race, perhaps
just a different breed of the same group, known as the Ma Gongi.
This race inhabits the swamps of Xancibar, way over to the west of the
ocean bed. Both the Ma Gongi and the Okar are still fairly
hostile to the dominant population. Again, this goes to imply that
the general region between Tharsis and Elysium might have been a former
stronghold of the Yellow Race.
Generally, this area of Mars, in both Kline's and Burroughs description,
seems to be an ethnic refuge. In the outskirts of this region, Burroughs
locates his yellow Okar at the pole, a surviving population of Orovars
in the ruins of Horz, and an outpost of Blacks in Kamtol. The closest
Polar city is Panar, perhaps originally ruled by the Okar but now a Red
nation. Meanwhile, Kline has a surviving white population in Xancibar,
and a Khalsifar nation which is mostly brown, a mixture of black and white
races, with a few pure blacks left.
Overall, this is an area where you might well expect some race based
warfare, or a struggle between yellow and red. Indeed, if Panar was
originally an Okar city (as its dome and technology seem to suggest), then
the fact that its now a red city suggests that just such a conflict may
Since these are ruins on a dried sea bed, we can assume that these murals
were painted well after the seas dried and the Orovar age ended, and during
the period in which the red race was ascendant. So these murals
can be interpreted as depicting Barsoomian history.
Other bits of Barsoomian history? Remembrances of the sea?
A coincidental allusion to the face of Cydonia?
"The Martians are horrified when Gusev
takes out a cigarette and starts "swallowing smoke".
This is very similar in concept to a couple of scenes in Kline's Outlaw
of Mars, where Jerry Morgan, the earthly protagonist, astonishes and induces
religious awe in the Martians by smoking a cigarette. This is perceived
by the Martians as a sign of divine contact or affiliation, with their
Sun God, Sarkiss. Later on in Aelita, we'll see that there
may be similar religious/mystical overtones to the act of smoking or inhaling
In real terms, this is absolutely a coincidence. Or if anything,
its Kline somehow borrowing from Tolstoy. Realistically though,
this sort of thing falls into the category of the ‘white man’s magic’ cliche,
where westerners astonish the locals with commonplace tricks.
But, once again, this suggests an affinity between Aelita's culture
and Kline's cultures.
"After they pass some mountains, the
landscape changes dramatically. A broad shining plain, which the Martian
calls 'Azora' is dotted with sparkling lakes, rippling canals and
jolly canary meadows ... all like the little spring meadows one dreams
of as a child. Wide metal barges ply the canals."
Interesting. I've got a character named 'Azara' in a pastiche I did
called Torakar of
Mars (originally Lesbians of Mars.) Absolutely nothing
stands on it, but it's interesting.
Elsewhere in the novel, the great mountains are known as Liziazira,
or Lizi-Azira. Close enough to suggest that Azara is a root word,
perhaps meaning lands or a specific land. Lizi may mean mountains,
or perhaps a place related to the specific land.
Meanwhile, Burroughs never makes reference to River Barges, but Barge
traffic is well established in Kline's novels. So once again, there's
another affinity to Kline's Martians. . . purely a coincidence, but it
works for us. Again, not too much stands on it. Canals
naturally imply boats and barges.
But it is interesting how our read of the geography places it close
to our guesses for Kline’s locations, and independently, we can find a
number of affinities to Kline's Martian cultures.
Where are we now? Well, they're moving away from the Tharsis Montes,
so travelling west by air, probably at a decent altitude because they've
got a pretty good view of the terrain. The mountains that they
pass aren't the big snow capped ones in the distance, but rather, smaller
mountains passed along the way. They may well be high jagged
walls of large craters. There are quite a few of them in the
neighborhood, Note that they don't seem to be passing over them or through
them, but simply observing them in the distance.
The landscape becomes more fertile and well watered, so my assumption
would be that they're descending to a lower elevation... the place where
the canals may drain too. I note that they started off on a
flat sea bed plain, and except for the mountains, the sloping is pretty
gentle, but definitely there. There's no indication that they're
passing any cliffs or the remains of continental or submarine shelfs.
Based on all the foregoing, I'd put them around here on the Mola map:
for reference, here's the full Mola Map:
The likely location is just to the north and west of Olympus Mons, the
biggest Tharsis volcano. Roughly Minus 150 and 45. From this
area, you'd see Olympus, and Alba Patera, and perhaps a few of the Tharsis
Montes as immense snowcapped peaks in the far distance. But you’d
be on a flat sea bed which descends gently to a deeper plain.
"The bald Martian leads Los and Gusev
into a luxuriant copse, filled with weeping, azure-blue trees. A peaceful
herd of short-legged, long-haired animals grazes nearby. Water gurgles,
completing the idyllic scene....They descend a moss-covered staircase to
the shore of a lake. A slim, young woman in a yellow pointed cap appears
on the stairs. The bald Martian whispers, "Aelita", covering his eyes and
dragging Los and Gusev off the path and into the copse."
These Martians seem overdressed for Burroughs habitual nudists. But
then again, the evidence suggests that they're at a relatively temperate
northern latitude. So maybe that's understandable. In Burroughs,
fur bearing animals are only found in the northern climes, so the grazing
herd would tend to support the northern identification. Note the
reference to 'moss' here. Moss is big with Burroughs, but I haven't
seen a lot of references previously.
"Twenty thousand years ago, Tuma, or
Mars, was populated by a people called the Aols, the Orange Race. Some
were hunters, some were fishermen, etc., etc."
Tuma seems phonetically related to Barsoom. In Barsoomian, 'Soom'
or 'Oom' seems to be a root or suffix meaning world or place, thus other
planets are Jasoom and Cosoom. In Carter's Callisto, which may be
related to Barsoom, aliens races Yathoon and Zarkoon appear to have the
common root or suffix 'Hoon' or 'Oon.'
In Barsoomian, adding an 'a' or 'ia' at the end of a word denotes a
feminine context, either neutral feminine, or perhaps mother or daughter.
So, 'uma' or 'Oom-a' would translate as 'Mother-world' which is a
pretty understandable term. The 't' sound which prefixes may
just be a local accent, or it might be a religious Tur allusion.
'Holy Mother World'. I could see this as being a valid local
term for the world, after all, we call our planet ‘Earth’ and ‘Terra’ and
‘the World’ respectively, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the Barsoomians
had some flexibility too.
In more prosaic terms, calling Mars 'Tuma' strikes me as one of those
bits of 'cleverness' that gives me a strong feeling that Tolstoy has read
of Mars. It's close enough to be evocative, and yet it has the
feeling of being deliberately consciously just a little bit different.
As if he started off with Barsoom and changed it a tiny bit to make it
There's another possible word affiliation, this time absolutely coincidental,
with Otis Adelbert Kline's Mars. In Kline's Outlaw of Mars,
the sun god (Tur for most of Barsoom) is called Sarkiss. Iss of course
is the name of the successor River/Afterlife cult and Goddess.
This suggests that a part of the word Sarkiss might be the word for ‘sun’
itself, either ‘Sar’, ‘Sark’,
Now, if we look to Aelita, there's a word for 'sun' which is
given as Soatsr, or phonetically 'Soat-Sar'. Aelita's city is called
Soatsera, which translates as City or Settlement (sera) of the Sun (soat-sar).
But the point is that ‘Soat-Sar’ for sun, may well be related to Kline's
'Sar' or 'Sark'. Absolutely a coincidence of course, and certainly
there’s no way it could be intentional for either Kline or Tolstoy.
But suggestive, nevertheless.
Finally, here’s a real long shot: Oeyeo in Aelita's Mars
translates as 'concentrate', this is vaguely similar to the name for CS
Lewis’ Malacandran being ‘Oyarsa’ who might be a creature produced by psychic
concentration, like the bowmen of Barsoom’s Lothar. As I’ve said,
this is such a long short its hardly worth the mention.
By the way, James McLeary was kind enough to compile a list of Martian
words found in Aelita for me, and I scrounged up a few more names and such
from the Russian Lit summary. There’s some indication that
some of these words relate to each other, as in Azora and Lizi-Azara, which
is linguistically satisfying. But these were the only words that
I could relate, one perhaps deliberate, one definitely accidental, both
a bit suggestive.
On the other hand, many of the Martian words in Aelita are for
concepts or descriptions that have no clear analogue in the Barsoomian
words given to us by Burroughs or Kline. So its quite easy to say
that these are simply additional Barsoomian words, if that's your bent.
The 'orange race' is another tip off that there may have been some awareness
of Princess of Mars. It's like Tolstoy was aware that Burroughs
had used all the good colours, and was consciously choosing something he
In any event, from here we go into a great historical digression about
how the peaceloving orange Martian aols were overrun by white (or perhaps
black) Earthlings from Atlantis. The Atlanteans came, kicked the
Martians out of their fertile lands and settled down. Then they realized
that they hadn’t brought any Atlantean women with them (what an oversight!),
and so they let the Aols back provided they provided women. The Atlantean
culture built the canals and city, but alas, their civilization died out
and the locals were left unable to even read their books or match their
technology until recently.
The general narrative of an ancient civilization reaching great heights
which its descendants cannot match is a pretty typical Barsoomian trope.
On the other hand, this doesn’t really fit with what we know of Barsoomian
history. Can we reconcile it?
Possibly, its an accurate record, and simply describes what happened
in the local neighborhood. Or, what we have here, possibly, is something
which by Aelita’s own admission, is ancient, ancient hearsay.
So while it differs from what we know of Barsoom, it might hardly be accurate.
It seems a fair part of the book is devoted to ancient Martian/Atlantean
history. In later chapters, we learn about the first civilization
of black men on Earth, their construction of pyramids and wonders, their
usurpation by semitic types, the coming of red and yellow races and development
and fall of Atlantis. Apparently there's nothing much going on on
Mars at this time. This focus by Aelita on Earth history seems
So peculiar that I find myself wondering if our Russian protagonists
aren't receiving very garbled messages. They've only learned the
language a few days ago, so they may well be confusing the history that's
given to them. Or possibly, as noted, its Aelita’s own histories
that are a confused jumble of legend, folklore and history.
Or possibly its accurate, but the parts that pertain to Mars describe merely
local conditions quite different from the general run of Barsoomian history.
In Burroughs, of course, the first race of Martians and the first bearers
of civilization are the Black race, supplanted by the Orovars, who hang
on in this particular region, but who are challenged by both the Red and
Yellow races. This suggests that perhaps the Russians receiving
or misinterpreting a history of Barsoom, and because of their inexperience
with the language, confusing it with Earth and Atlantis.
Tolstoy likely intended this history to jibe with the Murals his adventurers
see early in the novel. But those Murals could just as easily be
interpreted in terms of the Barsoomian history we know.
In any event, I small the hand of Mme. Blavatsky and her Theosophist
histories in here. Blavatsky was an Eastern European crank whose
writings were popular in the turn of the century. It seems that there
was a whole vogue of these politically/mystically inclined 'hidden histories.'
So clearly, Tolstoy is drawing on these sources and giving it a neat socialist
morality tale gloss.
It's worth noting that some sources suggest that Burroughs may have
been influenced by some theosophical works. Among Blavatsky's previous
races were a red race with flying machines, and four armed giants.
"No one is allowed to watch the secrets
of the Supreme Council, she says, adding that she'll be exiled to the snowy
regions if anyone ever finds out."
There's some plot development here that I don't worry about. What's
significant about this passage is exile to the snowy regions. This
again argues for a fairly northern placement of Soatsera and Aelita's culture.
Northerly enough that exile to the polar caps 'snowy regions' is a realistic
"There are reports that there will be
a clash that evening in the Supreme Council between Tuscoob and Engineer
Gor, the leader of Soatsera's workers."
Gor or Gur is a not uncommon Barsoomian name. It's a minor thing,
but what the heck.
After that, it gets all ideological when our heroes lead a socialist
uprising. But there's all sorts of Burroughsian touches, including
a torrid romantic subplot with the Princess Aelita (who like Dejah Thoris
inflicts Martian dating customs on the hapless earthlings), a journey through
catacombs, and encounters with a horde of cave spiders.
In short, there's much that is reminiscent of Burroughs Barsoom stories.
Doesn't necessarily mean that Tolstoy borrowed from Burroughs.
It's definitely suggestive, but hardly proven.
But on the other hand, from what we can see and determine from
our limited exposure, Aelita's geopgraphy and culture seems to fit in neatly
and organically with the map of 'greater barsoom' which we've been developing.
And that's pretty satisfying.
The Further Adventures
Tolstoy never returned to Mars, of course. But Aelita turned
out to have a life of her own. In 1924, the Soviet Union made
the novel into a silent feature film, Aelita:
Queen of Mars one of the earliest Science Fiction films, and the
first soviet SF film.
Never having seen the film, I can do no better than to quote Fiona Kelleghan’s
synopsis over at the internet movie database:
“This is called the first Soviet science
fiction film because of its "futuristic" sets on Mars, although most of
it takes place in Moscow. The movie is set at the beginning of the NEP
(New Economic Policy) in December, 1921. A mysterious radio message is
beamed around the world, and among the engineers who receive it are Los,
the hero, and his colleague Spiridonov. Los is an individualist dreamer.
Aelita is the daughter of Tuskub, the ruler of a totalitarian state on
Mars in which the working classe are put into cold storage when they are
not needed. With a telescope, Aelita is able to watch Los. As if by telepathy,
Los obsesses about being watched by her. After some hugger-mugger involving
the murder of his wife and a pursuing detective, Los takes the identity
of Spiridonov and builds a spaceship. With the revolutionary Gusev, he
travels to Mars, but the Earthlings and Aelita are thrown into prison by
the dictator. Gusev and Los begin a proletarian uprising, and Aelita offers
to lead the revolution, but she then establishes her own totalitarian regime.
Los is shocked by this development and attempts to stop Aelita, and then
reality and fantasy become confused, and Los discovers what has really
The whole thing
turns out to have been a dream (gasp!). Seems somewhat different
from the novel. That bit of 'cold storage' is coincidentally
reminiscent of Panar in Llana of Gathol, but it doesn't appear in
the novel. Gusav of the novel becomes a supporting character,
his role largely abandoned or usurped by Spiridinov. Aelita becomes
a fantasy figure with no clear dramatic purpose, and Los' pining for Mars
is confusedly seen as escapism. It’s noteable that even a few years
later, we can see that the Soviet ideological extremism has grown more
The few stills I’ve seen show remarkable and vivid costumes and sets
for Mars. Aelita's design may well have influenced the later Flash
Gordon serials. On the other hand, goofily, it appears that
Aelita herself was costumed to make it appear as if she had one eyebrow
and three breasts! Dejah Thoris, eat your heart out.
Sadly, it appears that only 15 or 20 minutes of the 110 minutes running
time actually finds our heroes on Mars.
One of the alternate titles for Aelita is Revolt of the Robots
which is the title of Tolstoy’s second science fiction novel. This
might suggest that he did return to Mars after all, although if he did,
its not clear what if any of that plot wound up in the film.
Finally, in 1950, a low budget American production company named Monogram
made Flight to Mars, which featured a Martian Princess named
Alita. Pretty much everyone acknowledges that the name comes
from either the Russian film or novel. Some go further and
argue that the whole of the movie itself is based on Tolstoy’s novel (no
one as far as I can tell, has ever suggested that they ripped off the Soviet
film). In this regard, I’ll quote John Costello from Peabody, MA,
who wrote on the Internet Movie Database:
"This film is the American version of
Aelita, from the novel by Count Alexei Tolstoy (the less famous of the
writing counts Tolstoy) and the first version of the novel is worth reading
(he later did many more versions to try to please Stalin, but that's another
story.). The American version is in many ways a faithful retelling of the
novel done under a low budget. There is the engineer with the unhappy love-life,
the revolutionary has been replaced by the reporter (who was in the book
too), and Aelita becomes Alita, a Martian engineer with a slip stick as
long as her arm. .... The basic story line and character line up were retained,
with the exception of the professional revolutionary who got dropped. In
the book the reporter appears at the beginning and end of the narrative,
and does not accompany the characters to Mars. In the book the engineer
was married, not afianced. Of course, the Russians also filmed Aelita as
a silent. What is interesting is that the American version is more faithful
to the original plot."
Actually, this film I’ve seen, and I think that Mr. Costello is stretching
a bit. Take out the ‘revolutionary’ and seriously, what do
you have left? It strikes me Flight to Mars is a pretty
conventional SF potboiler for its period, so resemblances to Tolstoy’s
novel may or may not be coincidental, but hardly amounts to much.
For the record, although the novel itself fits neatly into the greater
Martian landscape we’ve charted for Burroughs, Wells, Kline, Lewis and
others, I wouldn’t attribute either film version to Barsoom, Greater
or otherwise. But we certainly hope that you’ve enjoyed this little
~ A 7,000-word article
by Den Valdron
ERBzine: AELITA PRINCESS OF MARS
A Thumbnail Gallery of Aelita
Art by V.A. Bylinkina
See the full-size images and read the Aelita
story summary at the
- Martian/Barsoomian Words from Aelita
(compiled by James McLeary)
Ae, seen for the last time
Aols, the Orange Race of Mars
Ash kkheh, second sight or psychic ability
Azora, joy/ homeland
Khao, emotion and chaos triumphing over reason
Khavra, an intoxicating smoke
Soatsera, name of principle city
Aelita - Martian princess, love interest for Los
Tuskoob - Martian leader, Aelita’s father, head of the
Gor - Martian engineer and revolutionary
Ikha - maid, love interest for Gusav
Magr - ancient Queen.