Thanks to Bill Hillman’s everlasting good nature, I’ve been loaned a copy of Tarzan on Mars and Tarzan at Mars’ Core to read. It’s interesting to encounter something that has such a unique place in history, and of course, having read it, there’s the temptation to review it. Of course, John Allen Small, has already provided his review of Tarzan on Mars, so this is completely unnecessary. But then again, life is all about labouring to do the unnecessary for the oblivious, so why stop now.
I’ve already discussed the unique history behind Tarzan on Mars, the mad dwarf/showman Ray Palmer, his ‘find’ John Bloodstone, and his confrontation with the Burroughs estate. We know the meta-story, now let us turn to the actual story.
For the record, Tarzan on Mars has been around for some fifty years, so it’s hardly brand new. And also, it remains sufficiently rare and obscure, that most people will never actually get to read it, unless they’re so insanely devoted that a few spoilers aren’t going to stop them. With these things in mind, I’m just going to go ahead and spoil things.
As the novel opens, La of Opar is having a hard time. She’s about to be married/raped by one or the other of the bestial ape-men who populate Opar. The front runner is the despicable Cadj. Cadj used to be dead, got better, but has a relapse. She’s not happy about it. Fleeing into the tunnels, she eventually comes across a hypnotic jewel and gets zapped off to Mars.
The Oparians discover La's absence, figure that the Gods took her, and trek off to give the jewel to Tarzan, figuring he’s the best chance to get their goddess back. Unfortunately, Tarzan leaves the Jewel where Jane finds it, and she gets zapped off to Mars a few weeks or months after La.
What’s happening is that the Jeddak of Lothar, the mentalist Tario, who Carthoris and Thuvia encountered in Thuvia, Maid of Mars, at some point got a clue and realized that Barsoom was not actually a dead world. There were people in it. So he decided to go out and become Jeddak of Barsoom.
But of course he needed allies, so he recruited Sardon Dhur, leader of the disgraced Therns, and Zithad, leader of the First Born of Omean. (Zithad also used to be dead, but he too got over it) Of course, all three have come up snake eyes against the Carter family, and things aren’t looking good. But they’re all for it, and they enlist the strange men of Tarnath.
Tarnath is a big rock inhabited by a small number of three-eyed men who are the last survivors of the planet that now forms the asteroid belt. The inference is that it’s a piece of that planet that managed to make a soft landing on Barsoom and is now one of the tallest mountains on Mars. They have a unique ability to see through time. Tarnath is also, allegedly, the source or headwaters of the River Iss.
So anyway, they are all sitting around pondering how they’re going to wax John Carter, and they hit on a terrific idea. They’ll just reactivate the old Iss Cult, but this time, they’ll promise to ‘really really be good, cross their hearts.’ They don’t really mean it of course, but they figure if they promise they’ve reformed, people will buy into it.
By the way, this is not out of the blue. Burroughs in Chessmen of Mars includes this suggestive passage:“A little band of holy therns was attempting to revive the ancient and discredited religion of Issus, who they claimed still lived in spirit and had communicated with them. There were rumors of war from Dusar. A scientist claimed to have discovered human life on the further moon.”I’m not sure that Byrne read or picked up on this passage, but clearly he did go through the books carefully. There are a lot of cameo appearances, references, plot elements from pretty much the whole series. So I think its likely that he did read this. We might be looking at one of the inspirations for the novel’s plot right here.
One of the themes in Tarzan on Mars is that religion, regardless of whether its true or false, is vital for social stability. John Carter destroyed the old faith, but he hasn’t provided anything to replace it, so they see a marketing niche they can fill. They come up with some story about how the old Issus that John Carter met in Gods of Mars was a false Issus, and that the real one has returned, and this time, it’s all going to be done right. The fact that the ‘real Issus’ has returned will be the guarantee that this time it’s all going to be on the up and up.
The Goddess Issus and one of her Thern Priests -- by Jesse Marsh
© 1952 by Edgar Rice Burroughs Incorporated
There’s a problem though.
In the legends, the real Issus was a white woman.
This is a big problem on Barsoom. The Lotharians have no women left. In the time period that this conspiracy begins (around 1900 to the 193's more or less), the events of Llana of Gathol have not happened yet (that takes place in the late '30s, early '40s), so no one knows about the surviving Orovar population of Horz, and that means that there’s a distinct shortage of white women to play the goddess.
Now, normally you’d think.... Well, just stick a dark wig on a Thern chick, why not? There’s still a lot of white Thern chicks floating around. But they don’t want to do that. I guess they want real hair.
Or they could get a few Lotharians to take shifts mentally visualizing the Goddess the way they do their phantom bowmen. But that doesn’t seem to occur to them. Or at least, it takes a while to occur to them.
Actually, come to think of it, except for a brief scene at the start, the only Lotharians who are ever actually seen is Tario and Kar Komack. The rest of them are never mentioned. At first, I wondered if Tario might have ice picked his entire former kingdom. But as it turns out, they’re just really quiet. The other Lotharians have a sort of brief collective appearance near the end of the adventure as they materialize hordes of phantom bowmen.
Bottom line, they’re short a goddess. That’s a problem. Tario, after mucking about for a decade or so (or however long in the continuity of the novel) all of a sudden realizes he once somehow created Kar Komak, and decides to go off by himself and try the trick again, using the Great Jewel of Barsoom. Except his jewel is connected to the one that La and later Jane just happen to be fooling around with at the exact moment that Tario decides to try his shtick.
Can you say “Coincidence!”
The result is that Tario accidentally brings them to Mars, one after the other, not realizing that he didn’t actually create them. Tario is not too thrilled with La, considering that when she wakes up on Barsoom, she kicks him across the room and tries to bite his throat out. Scratch one Issus.
A few weeks later on, when he tries again, he gets Jane, and this time, he uses his mental control to keep her well behaved. That’s pretty much all we’re going to see of Jane for the rest of the novel. She’s just not there in any significant way.
Meanwhile, John Carter gets wind of the conspiracy against him, and sends Kar Komack to spy for him. Because, you know how it is, Komack being one of only a few hundred known Orovars on the entire planet, and the one best known to all Lotharians for being both an ancient hero and the only permanent creation of their mentalism. Sure, that’s exactly the sort of person you’d send on a secret mission.
It’s like George W. Bush sending Michael Jackson, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt on a secret undercover mission to infiltrate a supermarket tabloid newsroom. Personally, I think that Kar Komack has been just a bit too mopey these days, and John Carter has decided to get rid of him in a permanent way.
Amazingly, Kar Komack somehow manages, through no fault of his own, to infiltrate Tarnath, learns the villains evil plans and gets the skinny secret weapon (a ray that cancels out levitation, grounding all those big flying battleships) and then escapes!
You or I would, of course, head back to headquarters and report. Well, maybe Michael Jackson wouldn’t, and who knows what Angelina Jolie would do... probably start a hot affair with a Green Man, or start adopting White Ape babies.
But Kar Komack is made of different stuff. I think the element is Stupidium. He decides to go to his old stomping ground of Lothar, now abandoned, and moon around for a bit. Then he decides to try and use his mental powers to create a girlfriend.
Let’s back up and think about that for a second: Fate of the world at stake, Kar Komack decided it's time to take a break and that hand lotion just won’t do any more. What the hell is this guy’s problem? No wonder John Carter got fed up with having him around.
At this point, Komack is attacked by a handful of red warriors, real ones, although nearly lobotomized. He quickly dispatches them and finds a beautiful woman. Being a moron, he decides he’s just created her. He doesn’t wonder why, if he created her, she was under guard by mind controlled zombies.
The woman, as it turns out is La. Tario, not wanting her around, and not able to wish her out of existence, had her packed off to his old headquarters in Lothar, just in case he needed her after all. He got her out of Tarnath to make sure that neither his Thern nor his First Born allies got any ideas of their own. Okay, sure, I’ll buy that. Why not?
Anyway, Komack and La have a brief clinch. He, figuring since he materialized this real estate, he’s got tree planting rights, and she seeing yet another eager python she’s going to tie into a knot. Unluckily, the budding romance is interrupted by an attack of the Green Men of Torquas. And then, while Komack’s back is turned, a White Ape kidnaps La.
Now usually, the White Ape would sit down to a La course meal, but this one, Churg, is a philosophical sort, and so he asks her about the meaning of life. Big mistake with La, who has spent the last thousand years (or whoever long) bamboozling subhuman rubes with religious mumbo jumbo.... Churg has no chance against her.
Meanwhile, Kar Komack gets hit on the head, and loses his memory... Good to know we’re hitting all the cliches.
Seven years later, Tarzan finally shows up on Mars. Oh, but don’t worry. The novel's various plot threads are so fractured in time, with so many unannounced flashbacks and flash forwards that its hard to tell what’s going on and when. A major problem with the novel, which I’ll touch on later, is that its time frame is simply too huge. It all finally gets straightened out and everyone is lined up in the same time frame about 250 pages in.
In any case, apparently nothing much happens in that intervening seven years, between La’s appearance on Barsoom and Tarzan’s. Who would have guessed? La hangs out with great apes and develops a sun worshipping cult around her, with herself as goddess daughter of the sun. Komack spends seven years wandering around with amnesia John Carter, apparently not having bothered to send any other spies out, sits around and feels vaguely worried. The conspiracy proceeds apace, building up its armies, fleets and plans, but not actually doing anything. And Jane, apparently, spends seven years sitting on a throne as a mind controlled zombie. I hope they let her go to the bathroom.
What’s Tarzan doing during this seven years? Well, he decides its more important to be a Jungle Secret Agent for the whole of World War II. I’m being harsh, but to be fair, he doesn’t have a clue as to where Jane is.
Then once the war is over and done with, he decides to poke around for Jane. Jason Gridley persuades him that she and La are on Mars, and sends him off to see John Carter’s nephew, Jules Ainwright Carter (who never actually appears onstage). Tarzan is convinced. Not trusting John Carter and Ulysses Paxton’s teleportation, he nags Gridley into building a rocketship to get there, using the wealth of Opar. The Gridley wave is no longer working, some sort of cosmic interference, and he’s got no other way to contact Barsoom.
Once he gets to Mars, he figures he’ll just land, and wander around 52 million square miles of savage warlike planet until he stumbles across her. How’s that for planning! As we saw from his adventure in Pellucidar, Tarzan’s not really a detail man.
This actually leads to some pretty thrilling scenes, shortly after landing on Mars, Tarzan encounters and kills two Banths, three White Apes and a Thoat. Then he takes a nap. When he wakes up, he’s taken prisoner by the Green Men of Torquas, who take him back to Lothar for a rousing episode of Martian’s favourite reality/game show, Barsoomian Gladiator, the live and fatal variety. At this point, we’re somewhere between half way and two thirds of the way through the novel.
Meanwhile, La has accumulated a cult of several thousand, perhaps tens of thousands of followers around her, worshipping her as the living goddess. Her sun god cult has really taken off, and her followers include uplifted white apes, green men and red men. She’s looking for headquarters, and she runs across the amnesiac Kar Komack and his bunch, so she enlists them. They tell her about this great abandoned city that would be perfect for headquarters: Lothar.
The next thing we know, Tarzan’s in the Lothar jails, he looks up, and who does he see in the Arena, but La, slated to be monster chow. Apparently, in some chapter that Bloodstone didn’t actually bother to write, La and her cult/horde met the Lotharians, fought and somehow La got captured from the middle of them. Oh, and Kar Komack got another head injury and got his memory back.
Anyway, La is rescued, a mad Zitidar is defeated, the horde of La shows up at the last minute to chase the Torquassians away. Then the real problems start. Y’see, Komack has caught La rubbing herself all up and down against Tarzan’s well-oiled bod like a cat in heat, so he gets crazy jealous, seeing as how he figures he created her, he feels that he’s the one entitled to all that freestyle pole dancing, Jungle Goddess style. Tarzan just wants to find Jane, and since he hasn’t had any for seven years, he’s not appreciative of La throwing temptation his way, in the form of a double breasted, four wheel drive, positive traction unit that PURRS. La for her part is all thrilled by the prospect of the call of the great bull ape between her thighs, but once again, she don’t get any.
I dunno. It’s that classic romantic quadrangle. Jungle Goddess falls for Ape Man, Ape Man loves American Girl, American Girl is a Zombie under the control of a Psychic Madman, Creation of the psychic Madman is in love with the Jungle Goddess because he thinks he created her. Man, if I had a nickel for every time that happened to me!
And of course, nobody gets any! Instead, Kar Komack and John Carter go off together, in a scene that could only occur in a pulp adventure or a gay porn novel. Go figure.
At this point, everyone is heading to Karnath. Tarzan’s going there because Jane is going there. John Carter is going there because he’s finally gotten a clue. Kar Komack is going there... I don’t know why, the guy’s just dumb, okay. Even La is going there, because she’s got a horde to think of, and this planet isn’t big enough for two Goddesses.
Y’see, La figures that if Jane’s in the picture, she is just never going to get her tires rotated by Tarzan, but if Jane has... an accident, yeah, sure, that’s it, an ACCIDENT, well, Tarzan will feel bad for a while, but then he’ll perk up, and she’ll ride him like an all-day roller coaster at Disneyland.
This is all happening with a matter of days since Tarzan has arrived on Mars. The plot having taken forever (forty or fifty years) to actually get moving, suddenly kicks into overdrive, escalating like a runaway chain reaction. Because things are moving so fast, it starts to feel like Byrne is skipping entire chapters, failing to develop plot and character threads, and just racing towards climax. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got some awkward and inconsistent pacing on this sucker.
The whole thing winds up in a great big action adventure sequence that almost makes the weak front end of the novel bearable. There’s secrets, revelations, heroism, major fights, villain fights, hero fights, rescues, disguises, the works. It’s rousing, breakneck, exciting. It’s a lot of wild fun, terrific action sequences, wicked plot twists.
In the end, it turns out that La is the long lost daughter of Tario, and she’s the Goddess Issus, and Kar Komack is her destined boyfriend. It seems that way, way, way back before the Cataclysm, her dad performed an experiment that made her immortal and more psychically powerful than him. (Not that any of these powers have ever been on display now or previously.) So she banished him off to wherever, because he was EVIL, and then took off on a tour of Earth with a band of First Born bodyguards, getting stranded there when the cataclysm hit.
This sort of puts an icky spin on the fact that when Tario materialized her on Barsoom, the first thing he wanted to do was stick his tongue down her throat. True, Tario believed that La was his fantasy creation, not his actual flesh and blood daughter. But you know what, it’s still creepy as hell. Unfortunately, or fortunately, nothing much is made of this incest angle, but it’s still there if you want to look for it.
There are some neat ‘connect the dot’ moments. It turns out that Atlantis was really Barsoom, or maybe a colony of Barsoom. The old tongue spoken by the Oparians when they’re not speaking Mangani is really archaic Barsoomian, which suggests that they’re degenerate Barsoomian/Human hybrids, or perhaps simply the descendants of Human/Ape servants who inherited La and the remnants of her culture. La as Issus visited Egypt at the beginning of its civilization, which is why the Egyptians worshipped a Goddess Isis (or Issus), who represented both fertility and a sacred river.
Oh, and the black people of Africa - they’re hybrid descendants of the Barsoomian First Born, how do you like them Martians. Given the time, it’s actually quite provocative to suggest that Africans are actually the descendants of a highly advanced and quite powerful spacefaring race.
Actually, it’s really quite clever how Bloodstone ties Earth’s Isis and Barsoom’s Issus together, and wraps the whole thing up.
Unfortunately, Tarzan is nowhere near getting his groceries. Jane has vanished, along with lesser villains, Zithad the First Born and Sardon Dhur the Thern. Nothing to do but continue the chase.
Finally, there’s a little post it note from Bloodstone advising that he can either wrap it up pretty quickly in a chapter or two, or if there’s a market, he could stretch it out into another novel, Tarzan on Venus, with Tarzan chasing the villains and Jane to Burrough’s other creation, Amtor. It might have been fun, thinking out loud, to see what Byrne might have come up with for Amtor.
Oh yes, and the post it note gives the big shocking surprise ending (disclosed already a couple of places on the net, so I don’t feel guilty), La leads Tarzan and Jane up to the top of some temple to gaze upon the product of her love... An Egg.
Ladies and Gentlemen, that’s the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story.
Before we get into the meat of the thing, a couple of small observations. I find myself wondering if Lin Carter read Tarzan on Mars, because his The Man Who Loved Mars also features a journey to the heart of Martian religion and culture, including a physical trip to the ‘holy of holies’, where his characters discover at the center of faith and prophecy, aliens from the destroyed fifth planet. Just a thought, the overlaps could be coincidental, or at least unconscious.
Apart from that, I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t do my now standard exercise of trying to fit it all into the framework of Greater Barsoom. We all know I’m just a geek.
If you’ve read my ‘Religions of Mars’ or ‘Linguistic Archeology and Orovars’ (If you haven’t, go read it now, I’ll sit here and wait). Basically, I lay out the idea that the Barsoomians were originally worshippers of a Sun God, Tur, and that the Iss or Issus Cult came later. The original Tur faith shaped Barsoomian society, finding its way into place names and into linguistic evolutions. Tur, Tar, Tor, Ter, Thor, Thur, and Thar are all phonetic variants of Tur. Other words, like Far or Var, Sar, Kar, Bar all diverged from concepts of Tur worship. Kar for instance means Children or Son. Thus, John Carter to the Barsoomians is actually John Kar-Tur or John Son-of-God, which explains why the Green Men kept him around after they got bored with his jumping. Dejah Thoris is actually, Dejah Tur-Iss, a very holy name worthy of highest royalty.
Some people accuse me of being a bit ‘Tur crazy.’ Yeah, okay. I’ll buy that. Just the same though, it does seem to work. As to why or how it works, that’s for another time. So, in the framework of ‘Barsoom theory’ what do we make of this? Well, the archaic name Tario is clearly derived from Tur. The Thern name Sardon Dhur (Thur?) may be a Tur corruption.
Most interesting, we get two new Barsoomian words: Tarnath, the birthplace of the river Iss, and the mountain/refuge of the Oracles of Mars, the three eyed survivors of the fifth planet. And then there’s Tharos Pthan, the guardian of Issus. Both of these obviously contain the ‘Tur’ root in TARnath and THARos.
With respect to Tarnath, there is a bit more than just the ‘Tur’ connection. The root ‘Ath’ shows up twice in Barsoomian - the cities of Gathol and Tjanath. Gathol is a former sea mountain (now a regular mountain). Tjanath isn’t described per se, but it is noted as being located near a volcano, so it too is associated with a mountain. So ‘Ath’ may mean Mountain, in which case, ‘Tarnath’ means something like ‘Mountain of God’ or perhaps ‘Sacred Mountain’ or ‘Holy Mountain.’ Not a bad title for the Oracle rock and the legendary site of the headwaters of the sacred Iss.
As for Tharos Pthan, I don’t know if the ‘p’ is silent or pronounced. But ‘Than’ seems to be a term that denotes warrior, thus panthan and gorthan for mercenary and assassin. If we import a similar meaning, then THURos pTHAN probably means something along the lines of ‘God’s Warrior’, or ‘God’s Protector’ or ‘God’s Bodyguard.’ Which is essentially what the role is.
I do note that Byrne goes into archaic Barsoomian, gives us a verb ‘Tharasi’ which means ‘to create’, and that ‘tha’ means ‘you’ and claims the title Tharos Pthan is actually a phrase that means ‘I create thee.’ This isn’t necessarily an exclusive interpretation, nor is it necessarily incompatible. ‘Tur’ is after all, the creator, so at least some uses of the ‘Tur’ root may have been used to describe creation or the act of creating.
Finally, let me observe that La on Earth is a dedicated sun worshipper. Moving to Barsoom, she continues to preach the cult of the sun god, appointing herself as the daughter of the sun. It seems our La, in addition to being a Goddess in her own right is also a dedicated Tur worshipper. Which actually makes sense given her Daddy’s name and given that the Tur faith clearly precedes the Iss cult.
Okay, that’s the geek stuff. But back to the novel: How does it shape up?
A bit hit and miss actually. First of all, structurally, it’s a mess. Byrne spends too much time, an incredible amount of time, laboriously developing his backstory, beginning with Tario’s realization that there are other people on Barsoom that he should be ruling over. We get to see him putting together his conspiracy in excruciating detail, lots of meetings in Boardrooms, arguing over rules of procedure, arguing over who is going to take minutes, arguing over the minutes. Bureaucratic stuff. Exciting stuff, not!
Worse, this is a conspiracy that goes way back. Chronologically, this would occur shortly after the events of Thuvia, Maid of Mars, which doesn’t occur too long after the events of Warlord of Mars. So I make it around the turn of the twentieth century. That’s right, Byrne is doing tedious exposition for plot developments occurring forty or fifty years before the main event. Byrne knows he’s got a problem with this too, so he tries to liven things up by throwing in subplots with La, with Tarzan and Jane, with John Carter and Kar Komack. But since they’re all happening at different times, none of them really synch up. So there’s approximately a hundred pages between the time that we discover La has disappeared and the time that La shows up on Barsoom. Worse, there are several scenes which take place after Tarzan is told that La has vanished, that show the events leading up to La disappearing. The result, as I’ve mentioned, is a pretty fractured and incoherent narrative..
To make matters worse, there’s altogether too much exposition, including several painfully awkward passages of characters telling each other things they both already know, in stilted, inept ways. It goes something like this:
“Hello John Carter, as you know, I am Tars Tarkas, your first and best friend upon Barsoom.”
“Hi Tars, not only are you my best friend, but you are a green man of Mars, which means you stand about fifteen feet tall, have tusks, and four arms, which is obvious from a glance, but I feel that I must mention it. You are also Jeddak of the Tharks, by virtue of the previous adventures that we have had together, which I gratuitously reference.”
“Yes, and you and I and everyone else knows that you are married to Dejah Thoris who is the Princess of Helium, which is fitting since you are the Warlord of Mars. I see that you have a light bulb in your living room, as we both know, a light bulb is a common fixture in most Barsoomian living rooms, and used to provide light, especially when it gets dark, which it often does at night.”
“Kill me now, Tars Tarkas!!!”
The long and the short of it is that the novel could lose the first 120 pages or so, or literally, the entire first third, and no one would even notice. That’s just deadly. And it’s dead weight, and it’s all front-loaded dead weight, which is the deadliest kind there is.
Another problem that the novel has is a fatal lack of focus. Who is the hero? Tarzan? Fifty pages go by without anyone even so much as mentioning Tarzan. He’ll show up, he’ll walk around for a chapter. Then he’s gone and another fifty pages go by. We’re practically two thirds of the way through the novel before he even shows up on Mars.
Is it La? Is it Kar Komack? Who knows. They both keep showing up, but not in any consistent fashion, and certainly not with the steady through line to really hold the narrative focus. John Carter for most of the novel is an occasional walk on.
This really hurts, because we actually need to follow characters to build real interest. The characters are handled awkwardly. I’ve already mentioned Tarzan’s seven-year holiday, and the awkward timelines. But at times, Byrne doesn’t write about what he should be writing about.
La is a key character, and she’s the prime example. In one scene, we see La being abducted by a White Ape. The next time she shows up, she’s leading a multi-racial cult and a horde of thousands. The appearance after that she’s a prisoner marked for death by Zitidar in the Torquasians arena. Well, geez. How about a little connection here? Filling in the details? How does La get to be a Barsoomian sun goddess, perhaps showing a little of her progress might have been interesting. La is the worst example, but she’s not the only one with gaps in the narrative.
The worst treatment is reserved for Jane, who has maybe three brief onstage scenes in the entire novel and has absolutely nothing to do. In perhaps one scene she’s herself. She spends most of the book as a mind-controlled zombie, and most of that is offstage. That’s pretty cruel treatment for the woman who is the MacGuffin for both the conspiracy and Tarzan’s journey to Mars.
Instead, we get a lot of plot. Too much plot, or at least two much plotting, by a group of villains who aren’t very interesting. They’re sufficiently villainous, obviously. But at the same time, they’re all pretty two dimensional. They’re in it for the bad, and they’re not any deeper than that. Does Tario have any redeeming features, any personality quirks, does he have humour, focus, imagination, is he barking mad, does he have any plans apart from world domination? No, he just wants to rule Barsoom, that’s about it. Well, get in line, bud.
Indeed, the novel spends so much time setting up the plot, that it almost forgets to set the plot in motion. The fracturing of plotlines and timelines, and the failure to really focus on anyone for too long, kill momentum. The structure is a mess. The novel drags terribly in its opening, and we’re hundreds of pages in before it really starts to come together, then all of a sudden kicks into hyperdrive, the result is wildly uneven pacing, too much detail applied to the wrong things, and far too little applied to later developments.
What this really feels like to me is a first draft manuscript.
First drafts are like that. The author sets up his plot, working it out for himself, he feels his way through the characters and the action. The first draft is often more the process and the mechanics of the novel than the novel itself, though it should be chock full of the clay, the scenes and passages, the adventures and encounters, that will be in the novel.
I imagine in the days before word processors, it was a lot different. Ideas, plot threads, outlines would be developed on notes, on napkins, on 4x6 cards. The writer would sit down and start writing, laboriously typing it all out on sheets of paper. There’d be no saving, there’d be no cutting and pasting, no deleting, no overrwriting, or at least it wouldn’t be easy. A lot of writers, especially in the pulp days, would just sit down with some idea of what they were going to do, and start jamming at the keys.
So, I suspect a lot of first draft stuff, if it passed muster, would get published. Particularly short stories. I mean, if we look at the old pulps, and especially some of the serials, we can tell these guys were just churning things out. You would hear all sorts of ridiculous stories. A. E. Van Vogt had his typewriter attached to a roll of paper so he wouldn’t have to keep changing sheets. L. Ron Hubbard had a special typewriter with unique keys for small common words like ‘the’ and ‘and’ so he could type faster (Holy Macro, Batman!). There was a living to be made as a pulp writer, but you had to write fast and write a lot.
But even then, there was first draft, and then there was first draft. Editors weren’t just guys sitting at desks. They could and would make real changes in how writers stories turned out, often demanding these changes or rewrites of writers. On something like this, a rewrite would simply involve things like dropping out entire chapters, or sections, demanding new chapters to fill in the gaps. I can’t imagine that an Editor as canny as Ray Palmer letting as flawed and uneven a piece of work as Tarzan on Mars is in its current form out in front of the public.
I can just imagine a guy like Ray Palmer sinking his teeth into this. “Knock out the first 120 pages, we don’t need to hear about the conspiracy, our heroes are going to get involved and we’ll learn all about it with them. And we don’t need to hear all this detailed stuff about Tarzan building a rocket, he just gets there, okay. Oh, and add some more chapters about La, because she’s hot. And maybe have her spend more time with Kar Komack. And give Tarzan more to do before he winds up in the arena, he’s on Mars after all....”
Let’s face it, a lot of the problems are obvious, and the fixes are even more so. In the sections that work, Byrne/Bloodstone proves that he can write with a decent amount of dash and verve. So the basic abilities are there. I can’t imagine that a writer with those skills, and an Editor with Palmer’s cunning couldn’t turn out a far more polished, far more thrilling piece of work.
But then again, why? Let’s think about it. This was basically free work by Byrne. The guy was a professional, or semi-professional, pulp writer. He expected to be paid for working. This sort of thing was a wild stab in the dark. If it didn’t sell, then all the work he put into developing his ideas, pushing carpal tunnel syndrome, and pounding out a painful 100,000 words on a clunky old underwood, would be a waste. He’d already laid out a lot of time, a lot of words, and a lot of pages without a paycheque in sight. The result was a first draft novel, which amounted to proof of concept.
Doing the thing for free, well, that’s bad enough. That’s one thing. But to then re-invest time and effort into doing a second draft, with no money in sight, and no actual hope of publication... Well, that’s another thing entirely.
I dunno. Maybe Byrne should have taken it to a second draft. Maybe he should have taken guidance from Palmer, put in the time and effort, and produced a more polished and engaging final work. Maybe that final work might have sold the Burroughs heirs. Or maybe not.
Probably not. The Burroughs estate has always been pretty cagey with its properties. They’ve made a lot of money from the movies and licensing, and considerable though not so much money from the books. Burroughs left a big backlog of fifty-something novels, and they sell very well on their own, thank you very much. They’ve been very very reluctant to let new writers in to mess with the brand. Particularly when Byrne was doing radical things with not one but two key franchises.
My own feeling is that Palmer probably knew from the start that Tarzan on Mars was either a dead letter or a very long shot. But that didn’t matter to Palmer, all he had to do was sell the sizzle, a few press releases, some editorials, a letter writing campaign, and his magazines would sell like hotcakes.
For Palmer’s purposes, a workable first draft by Byrne or someone as proof of concept is all he really needs. Remember, this is before the age of photocopiers, scanners and computer files shifted around on the internet. So Palmer was perfectly free to talk Tarzan on Mars up as a work of heartbreaking genius. In the normal course of things, he and Byrne were the only people who would actually see the manuscript. So who was to know. If, by some incredible long shot, it came within spitting distance of real publication and actual money... Well, they’d fix it up then!
On the other hand, Byrne was doing real work, genuine work, a lot of it and work that wasn’t obviously going to get him anywhere. It’s a bit much to push him into doing it again, particularly when there’s not a whiff of the long green anywhere.
All of which is my extensive background into why we should look at this not as a finished product but as a first draft novel, and recognize that it needs to be judged by different standards.
And how does it stand up as a first draft work?
You’ll be surprised to hear me say this, given my sarcastic dissection of the plot, but actually its pretty damned good. As I said, you can’t judge it by finished standards, by those standards its kind of crap.
But clearly its not a finished work, that’s obvious from the postscript note. And this means that we can’t judge it the same way we’d judge a final product winding up on the bookshelves.
First things first, it’s obvious that Byrne has done his homework. You can’t always take that for granted, consider the Barton Werper ‘Tarzan’ novels. Byrne has clearly gone over the previous Barsoom and Tarzan novels with a fine tooth comb, and more than that, he’s internalized them enough that he can play confidently in Burroughs universe.
Sometimes he overdoes it. There are endless cameos and references. Hormads, Ras Thavas, Zodangan scientists, Gathol, Jahar, Ulysses Paxton. It’s practically gratuitous. In one sense, Byrne is being timid, repeatedly anchoring himself with subtle and blatant references to previous Barsoom novels. In another, he’s simply so thoroughly steeped in Barsoom that he can’t help himself, it’s all at his fingertips.
One thing that he does do is show a bit of respect for the world, he keeps his own invention modest, and he makes sure to fit it neatly into Barsoom and not violate the continuity that’s established. Tarnath, the three-eyed men, the Lost People, are all firmly rooted in a Barsoomian context, can even be seen as logical developments or extensions. He’s not willy nilly creating new incompatible civilizations, introducing new monsters, or throwing in contradictory technologies.
Indeed, his keystone plot, actually grows organically out of Burroughs novels. How would a thug like Tario of Lothar behave, once he realized that there was a whole world out there to conquer? Would he really stay home and sit out the next century? What are the consequences of simply trashing the single, worldwide, thousands of years old religion? Wouldn’t there by a reformation? A counter movement? Would Barsoomians really let their faith go so easily? As I’ve noted, Burroughs in Chessmen actually alludes to a revival of the Iss Cult.
The plot and scheme that is set forth against John Carter and his Heliumatic League is both plausible within the history of Barsoom we see and organic to the world that Burroughs has created. It’s an extension of what is already there, rather than an addition of radical new material.
In a sense, this, together with the incessant ‘in-references’, tends to characterize Tarzan on Mars as a species of fanfiction. Fanfiction is very focused on exploring and filling in the textual gaps, the missing pieces or loose ends, of the canonical works. It’s less interested in jumping off with new works. An interesting distinction, a very subtle one, but meaningful.
In terms of the Tarzan canon, it's less thorough. There’s definitely name dropping all over the place - Opar, Cadj, Nkima the Monkey, Korak, Merriam, etc. Tarzan, on the other hand, is unevenly portrayed, and doesn’t really come into his own until the later passages of the book. Even then, Tarzan just doesn’t get the sort of attention that he deserves. He arrives on Mars only to be thrust almost immediately into the tide of events. He doesn’t really get the opportunity to spend much time on Barsoom actually being Tarzan.
In contrast, however, La is drawn with real passion and insight, as vividly as Burroughs ever wrote her himself. She gets to show off the full range of her personality, from fierce savage, barely a step above Mangani, to goddess Queen, to desperately lovelorn woman. There is real sympathy for the character, and more than that, there’s real depth given to her.
Even the swerve that she’s actually a transplanted Orovar Princess works. It’s a swerve that probably gave the Burroughs estate conniption fits. But despite that, it’s an elegant solution to the gordian knot of mysteries and contradictions that La presents, not least of which is that in the Tarzan series, she is the major perpetually unresolved and unresolvable character.
In the Tarzan series, she’s literally painted into a corner. She is Tarzan’s true mate, if not for Jane. The sexual chemistry between Tarzan and La pours off the page every time they’re together. She is a vividly realized character, among Burroughs most vivid women, set apart in her solitary independence. And yet, within the Tarzan series, she can never ever have that resolution which characters normally earn. She will never ever have Tarzan, and any other mortal man is so obviously inferior to both Tarzan and her that we’d never accept it as anything more than a shuck and jive job.
Making her the lost Goddess of Barsoom, is very little short of a brilliant inspiration. It not only resolves La, but substantially adds to her. The connection to Egypt’s Isis, the resolution of Atlantis and Opar, the convergence between Barsoomian and Terrestrial races... its an elegant piece of work. Sacrilegious to some, perhaps to many, certainly. On the other hand, in many ways, I think that Byrne earns the right to be sacrilegious. He’s been very true to Barsoom throughout, his La truly is the La of Opar. So why not? Yes, it turns everything on its head, but once in a while, that needs to be done. The point is that he does it with the requisite respect and care. This isn’t some dolt taking a crap because he doesn’t know any better.
And I’d argue, something like that was necessary. After all, it’s a fine line doing something like this. If you copy Burroughs too closely, then really, in the end, all you get is an imitation. A photocopy. That’s not going to sell John Bloodstone, and it won’t sell Tarzan on Mars. John Eric Holmes wrote and published “Mahars of Pellucidar”, and while it’s a decent Pellucidar novel, my feeling is that wasn’t enough to recommend it. It didn’t really push, it didn’t really go over the top. On the other hand, if you don’t copy Burroughs sufficiently, you’re screwed as well. If it’s not true Burroughs flavour, why bother? Who cares about the Barton Werper Tarzan books?
So what you have to do is follow Burroughs, you have to recognize and work with the canon, but you also need to find a way to push that envelope. You need something to make people sit up and go “Hey! What did you just do!”
Look, you can’t just be an Elvis Impersonator. You need to be an Elvis Impersonator with a Gimmick!
Well, this certainly does the trick. And it does it by taking the greatest unresolved and unresolvable character of the Tarzan saga and transplanting her to Barsoom, and then making her both central to the ongoing story, but genuinely authentic as herself, and resolving her in a completely unexpected but basically logical way. Like I said, brilliant.
Kar Komack is perhaps the major unresolved character of the Barsoomian series, so it makes sense to pair him up with La. Pretty much everyone else is a couple by this time, so its kind of like both sides are pushing together their lone single friend and doing some matchmaking.
Unfortunately, it’s less successful with Komack. Kar Komack wasn’t nearly as vividly described a character as La. He was a supporting character in one part of one novel who walked offstage at the end. Komack’s abilities are inconsistent, his character rather thinly drawn and not impressive. In order to keep the plot moving, Komack has to be put into the dubious role of a spy, he has to act very unprofessionally and foolishly, and then he has to have amnesia for seven years. That’s pretty harsh.
More time could have been spent on him, fleshing out the character. And he should have been used more consistently and sensibly. Likely on a second draft or finished work, he would have been more fully developed as a through-line character, and the relationship with La would have been more organic. Still, I’ll give it to Byrne for having the right instincts, and for justifying his choice, even if he didn’t follow I through properly.
For the record, I’m not too concerned about using characters like Cadj and Zithad who are killed in the canonical series. What’s in a name. Perhaps Cadj and Zithad were really popular with moms in their respective cultures, and we’re dealing with new unrelated characters who simply have the same names. Or perhaps they’re ‘placeholder villains’, and a second draft would have had different names to sidestep the whole issue. By the same token, I’m not too concerned by difficulties in placing the story in La’s own continuity. That’s the sort of thing that gets resolved in process.
One of the most interesting things, and perhaps for the Burroughs estate, the one of most controversial (apart from the La thing) was Byrne’s bizarrely ambivalent use of religion and faith as the centrepiece of his book. More than anything else, this was his biggest departure from Burroughs. I’m not sure if he appreciated just how big a departure it was.
Burroughs was a free thinker when it came to religion. I don’t think it would be fair to characterize Burroughs as an atheist. I suspect that philosophically, he was closest to the Jeffersonian Deists. He allowed for the notion of a god, or a higher power, but saw it as remote from day to day life. Over and over again, through his novels, his portraits of religion are relentlessly cynical. It’s either a horrible con came, as with the cult of Iss, or a foolish delusion, the cult of Tur, or a dangerous one, the cult of Komal. Whether he believed in God, he had unreserved contempt for priests and the structures and demands of organized religion. Religious faith in his world was very close to superstition.
But Byrne has written a novel whose crux is that Barsoomians need faith to survive. That Barsoomian, or human society, needs a belief in a god, belief in the moral foundations of that god, in the tenets of religion, in order to organize and sustain himself. This pretty much runs contrary to everything Burroughs ever believed in and much that he wrote.
For Burroughs, religion were the chains enslaving humanity in superstition and darkness. But in Byrne’s novel, humanity once freed, yearn for those chains. Not only that, but the narrative of the book, the ‘voice of the author’ tells us that humanity doesn’t just yearn for those chains, it needs them in order to be sustainably human.
Seriously, I can’t imagine anything more philosophically at odds with Burroughs. The very thought would have had him spinning in his grave. And if the executors of the Burroughs estate had any window into Burroughs thoughts and opinions (and its possible that they did, Burroughs hadn’t been dead for more than a few years, his children and those who knew his views were all around and likely active in estate decisions), that might have been the deal breaker right there.
Oddly enough, Byrne brings a considerable amount of ambiguity and nuance to the subject. The most interesting idea he presents is that while religion is necessary to man, it doesn’t have to be true religion. Any old pile of rubbish will do.
This is very clear from the get go. None of the founders of the new Reformed Church of Issus are believers, although its clear that Zithad the First Born does become a believer. Zithad’s discovery of faith, in itself is an interesting little twist. The cult is a sham, it’s as big a sham as the previous sham, and in the end, it's intended to finish as a scam. La’s Sun Cult is based in her own Oparian beliefs, but really, for her it's less about the god and more about her.
This cynicism is widespread. Near the end, John Carter consolidates and pacifies his followers, not by declaring for or against Issus or any version of Issus, but merely by setting out the demand that his followers will be allowed a place at the table to settle the doctrine and the beliefs of this new cult. I’m sorry, that’s not religion, that’s politics. And people who figure they’ll work out the bible in Committee aren’t believers, they’re politicians.
Religion becomes a shell game for the rubes. I’m sure that Burroughs would have approved.
Byne maintains this cynical ambiguity right up to the end. La is confirmed as the immortal goddess Issus, and the ordained figure of fate and prophecy. But at the same time, La’s non-divine nature is clearly established... she’s Tario’s daughter, her immortality is not divinely conferred, but the product of an experiment. She’s both goddess and fraud. Her divinity is a role.
I find it interesting. Was Byrne’s ambiguity here a concession to the Burroughs that he absorbed, which simply would not and could not allow a genuine god, a genuine religion? Or was he just dodging around Christianity, which by definition meant that any Martian faith would have to be false? Or does this represent Byrne’s own cynicism, that religion was necessary but false? Who knows?
As for the writing itself. Well, it runs the gammut. Some of it, particularly scenes where there’s nothing but exposition, is just terrible. A lot of it is lackluster, it’s simply Byrne struggling to develop his plot and unnecessarily laying out mechanics that he doesn’t actually need to have up front.
But there’s some good writing in there, and stuff that’s close enough to Burroughs breakneck style to pass muster.
Ultimately, Tarzan on Mars isn’t so much a novel as a historical curiousity As a historical curiousity, I think it satisfies expectations.
As a finished novel of course, its horribly flawed, structurally a mess, with plot threads, timelines and characters going off in all directions, suffering from a terminal lack of focus and with a big dragging dead weight occupying the front. Certainly it deserves every unkind thing that Mike Resnick or John Small has to say about it. I won’t argue, they’re right, they’re dead on.
On the other hand, I don’t think we can or should judge it as a finished novel. This is obviously a creature of interrupted process. This is a first draft, it is a process more than a product, and we’ll never actually see the final product.
The best that we can do is look at the thing as the process itself rather than as the end product. We look at the sorts of decisions Byrne was making, the ideas he was playing, we look at the respect he had for his material, and in part we can look and see the bits and pieces of actual writing that would have gone into the novel. We can look at it and make reasonable judgements about where it was going, and whether that looked to be interesting or worthy directions. But we’ll never actually have that final draft, that finished product that we can glimpse through this.
If indeed Ray Bradbury had kind things to say about it, I think that this was what he was seeing. He was a writer who struggled with the written word, who knew the torturous process of refining from one draft to the next. For myself, I’m inclined to be kind. I’ll admit, large parts of it, particularly the front end, I found pretty tough going. There were things I scoffed out loud at, and things I winced at. But in the end, I think that the whole is a lot more than the sum of its strengths and flaws. The big picture actually does amount to a big picture, notwithstanding that Byrne struggles and thrashes and stumbles trying to get there.
When I first started discussing this, I wrote “Perhaps its enough that it exists.” You know what? I think I’ll stand by that. It was the product of a very strange history, it's no surprise that it is the incomplete, process rather than product, thing that it is. Given the circumstance, it’s hard to see it as anything else. The unresolved, incomplete nature of the novel, the fact that it so clearly and in so many ways is not and will never be finished, is the perfect counterpart to the unresolved and incomplete story of which it is a part. The fact that it represented this odd, strange twisty excursion by Ray Palmer, this bizarre intersection between fans and professionals, between franchise and tribute. I think its exactly what it ought to be, no more, and no less.
It would have been interesting if there could have been a finished novel instead of what is clearly a first draft work in process. It might have been fascinating to see what Byrne would have done with it if he’d been successful enough to follow up with Tarzan on Venus. But alas, that never was and never will be.
It would have been nice to have discovered a hidden masterpiece, something to rock our world and knock our socks off. But I am satisfied with what we have. Taken on its own terms, in its own circumstances, it is a good piece of work, perhaps even containing the possibility of greatness. It is sufficient, and it fits . . .Den Valdron
2007 ~ The Pas ~ Manitoba ~ Canada
1. Tarzan On Mars
2. Forgotten Sea of Mars
3. Mike Resnick's Ganymede
4. Ganymede: Two Universes
5. Resnick's Ganymede II
Den Valdron's Fantasy Worlds of ERB
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