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"Strange creatures were coming toward us in prodigious leaps and bounds."
Synthetic Men of Mars, frontispiece
"Directly before me, on a table, lay my body."
(Charcoal pencil on paper laid on board 16.75 x 11.75 in.)
(Restoration of piece damaged in Burroughs fire)
This artwork has been extensively restored, in particular the upper left and right quadrants;
most notable, the monster in the upper right quadrant has been re-created
from his belt and forearm up; burnt area visible on the bottom center edge.
A Summary and Commentary
I've finally finished my latest re-read of the Martian series. Synthetic Men of Mars (Ballantine Feb. '81 edition) was saved for last as it is one of my favorites in the series and the second one (Chessmen being the first) I had read. I know that this story is often referred to as a "pot boiler", but I enjoyed it immensely, despite the occasional gripes I air involving the plot.
The tale is from the lips of Vor Daj, a padwar in The Warlord's Guard. It is translated by Ulysses Paxton (Vad Varo, of course), and relayed to Earth (Tarzana) via the (Jason) Gridley Wave. ERB records the story for the masses here on Jasoom.
Vor Daj joins John Carter in a search for the legendary Master Mind of Mars, the infamous Ras Thavas himself. Only he has the necessary medical skills to heal Deja Thoris (off-stage), critically injured in an airship collision. They had hoped to team up with Vad Varo in Duhor, as he knows Thavas better than anyone. This would be "useful" but alas, does not occurr. Due to a faulty (bent) compass needle the two warriors end up being closer to Phundahl than Duhor. So, on to plan B: land their aircraft near the city and enter as panthans and try to ferret out info on the Master Mind's current whereabouts, as he used to reside there.
II never tire of the old "enter a city as a panthan ploy". With John Carter I also enjoy his coloring of the skin with red pigment and his fake identity as Dotar Sojat (pages 11 & 12), brought back memories of "A Princess of Mars". Those were heady days indeed !
While trudging toward Phundahl, "things" start to happen.
They are attacked and captured by Hormads, synthetically created man-like
creatures under the leadership of a red Martian officer, Sytor (more on
this curious fellow later). They were astride malagors, great winged birds
utilized for transportation and war. Also with this "slaving" party was
a beautiful red women, Janai of Amhor. As hard as it may sound, Vor Daj
falls in love with her almost immediately, while enroute to Morbus. This
is the capital of the Hormads, deep in the Toonolian Marshes. Also, while
flying back to Morbus, one of the Hormads (its head, actually) casually
admits that only fire can destroy their tissue (page 18). Not only was
it stupid of Tor-dur-bar (more on "it" later) to say that, but I wonder,
how did he (it) know that?
While enroute to Morbus the moons of Mars are noted (pages 10 & 103). The rate which Thuria (ah, memories of "Swords of Mars") and Cluros speed across the heavens must be a site to behold! Especially in conjunction with the proximity of these heavenly bodies which renders them huge. The Artolian Hills (page 11) are glimpsed as well and I was a bit surprised to find that they, were snow clad. I seem to remember someone suggesting a while back though, that they were mountains and not hills, possibly depending on which of the Barsoomian novels one is reading.
After Carter and Vor Daj are captured (via nets, not overcome by swordplay, perish the thought ! ), the dwar in charge of the Hormads (Sytor) offers to release their bonds in return for their promise not to attempt esacape, Both Heliumites readily agree (page 17). I understand how important honor is to Barsoomians but I feel this to be carried out to a ridiculous degree. For instance, if John Carter KNEW that Ras Thavas was in Morbus (which he didn't, at this time), then the deal would make sense. Victory and being free to attain ones goals and desires mean much more than a silly promise to an enemy (however honorable he or she may be). Speaking of which, Sytor appears to be just that, an honorable and decent foe. That changes later on, but I feel that later personality to be rather poorly written in.
Once in Morbus The Warlord and Vor Daj discover that they have found the whereabouts of the irrascible Ras Thavas. He is a prisoner (pages 21 & 22) in a "golden cage" (his laboratory actually), of the Hormads, which he created. These creatures are also named by number (page 18). They are presided over by the Council of Jeds (seven of the most intelligent Hormads, who led to the Master Minds overthrow), who had that worthy put their brains into red Martian bodies (page 26).
Vor Daj and John Carter are assigned to help Ras
Thavas with his work (making more Hormads) and to guard him from any danger.
This they do admirably, while plotting to escape!
Ras Thavas has changed his tune since the days of "The Master Mind of Mars". He is now sincerely dedicated to the amelioration of suffering and the betterment of mankind (page 32). His current work in Morbus may seem to contradict this philosophy, but his attitudes towards and beliefs of an "Almighty God" differ dramatically from those of John Carter (page 36). That is why he feels free to "play God", witness his latest dabel, creation of the Hormads. In his mind, if there was an omnipotent Creator he would not have bothered with evolution. He would simply create the perfect race. And as neither of the races on Barsoom and Jasoom are perfect ...
The "fate worse than death" is alluded to but not in those words (page 24). Janai tells Vor Daj that he is lucky to be a man, as the worst that the Hormads will do, is only kill him. Her fate is left unspoken, but the Hormad officers with brains transplanted into human bodies, can obviously feel sexual desire.
Vor Daj decides to have his brain inserted into that of
a Hormad, Tor-dur-bar's to be exact (pages 42 & 43). The Hormad's brain
was transferred to the body of Gantun Gur, the notorious master assassin
of Amhor. Vor Daj does this so he can mingle freely in the palace of the
7 Jeds and try to effect the escape of Janai. This he eventually does,
but at the cost of leaving his real body behind ...
John Carter escapes from Morbus first (with Ras Thavas) and vows to bring a fleet from Helium to rescue Vor Daj and erradicate the Hormad threat. Not only do they want to conquer the world, but something has gone drastically wrong in # 4 Vat Room. It is spewing forth organic tissue with random human parts as well as the main glob. Theoreticaaly, it could continue to expand until it enveloped the planet. No time frame is ever given for how long that would take, but I would estimate thousands of years at least.
Some interesting peoples were met during the escape through the unforgiving Toonolian Marshes. Among them, the Goolians (named after their village), from the island of Omt (pages 111 & 112). These savages have the honor of being marsupials. The human dwar Sytor has joined in the escape but seems to have evolved a personality change. He hung back during their fight for freedom and foments rebellion against Vor Daj (or Tor-dur-bar as he is thought to be), with whispered deceptions. I have wondered why he never escaped from his Hormad patrols while on his malagor. It would seem to be simple enough. Also, on page 48, Vor Day hurls another Hormad to the ceiling and knocks him out. On page 51, the guardsman of the Jed's harem, tells Vor Day that he had killed that Hormad. Maim, perhaps, but not kill. After all, we know that only fire can totally kill them!
Another discrepancy is that when Ras Thavas and Vor Daj are finally reunited (page 150, he is told of the disaster in # 4 Vat Room. The Master-Mind expresses concern but seems to forget that he already knew of the problem, before fleeing Morbus with John Carter. In addition, Vor Daj roars his indignation "I, a noble of Helium!" (page 129). I thought he was an officer (Dwar), not a noble. Lastly, Vor Daj resolves to let Janai know his true identity, but Sytor interferes by abducting Janai and fleeing with her. Yet, when next they meet and have a chance to talk (pages 96, 97, 108, & 109), he does not, leaving the young lady from Duhor to figure everything out herself. Oh yea, what ever happened to the caged Okarian during another escape (page 140), in Amhor?
Janai begins (inevitably) to fall for Tor-dur-bar and even hints that he could rival Vor Daj for her affections (pages 152 & 154). She has even suggested that Tor-dur-bar have his brain transplanted into the body of Vor Daj (if his brain had been destroyed). Well, to sum up the finale, Vor Daj and Janai escape Morbus only to be picked up by hostile forces from Amhor (who she had been fleeing from originally, when captured by Sytor and his Hormad patrol). They escape and while being pursued (by fliers), they are rescued by the returning and avenging John Carter, Warlord of Barsoom and Ras Thavas. They continue to Morbus where Vor Daj is restored to his body and an aerial bombardment destroys the growimg tissue monstrosity. Delia is healed (off stage for this book), and Janai guesses Vor Daj's role and identity during all the adventures. On the last page she claims ownership of his brain (translate to heart) and everyone is happy. Even the Goolians learned to fight and stop paying tribute to surrounding savage tribes.
Do not be deceived into thinking that the (two paragraphs up) above (apparent) discrepancies translate into displeasure from my reading of "Synthetic Men of Mars". Far from it! These were trivial things and absolutely did not detract from this marvelous interplanetary adventure story. I found tremendous scenes, phrases, and whole chapters that reflected the genius of E.R.B. To some, he may be perceived as going through the motions, using previous plot formulas, to me this was a grand journey down the road, as painted by The Master!
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