MAD SCIENTISTS OF MARS:
The Fifth Runner-Up in the Seven Wonders of Barsoom
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
Ras Thavas, The Mastermind of Mars, who was not a megalomaniac, there are
several other great inventor scientists on Barsoom who are not only megalomaniacs
but have their own individual grand delusions of being the Master of the
Universe. The first one that we meet is Phor Tak of Jahar in A Fighting
Man of Mars; the second and third are Fal Silvas and Gar Nal of
Zodanga, both in Swords of Mars. ERB's change in subject
matter from the farthest extreme of religion to the farthest extreme of
science can be noted with the growing advance in the critical acceptance
of the literature of science fiction as a valid genre.
Not long after this period, circa 1927-1934, any science
fiction story by a non-scientist had the tendency of being viewed as cheap
romance and fantasy pulp fiction by the more science oriented sci-fi writers.
In the Thirties ERB was competing with the dawn of this trend and was not
faring well among the critics as he swam upstream against a swift current
of scientific change
and the prevalence of modern writing styles, exemplified
by Robert Heinlein.
One of the methods in which ERB used to compete was the
character of the Mad Scientist. Using the Mad Scientist as an archetype,
ERB not only got to critique the threats of unbounded experimentation lacking
any human sentiment in Earth society, but it also enabled him to critique
the arrogance overtaking the genre of science fiction by the scientists
When the Science Fiction Writers of America finally came
out in 1970 with a Hall of Fame of the greatest science fiction stories
of all time, ERB noticeably didn’t make the list. The oldest story chosen
was Stanley G. Weinbaum’s A Martian Odyssey, published in 1934. (See, Science
Fiction Hall of Fame: the Greatest Science Fiction Stories of All Time,
ed. by Robert Silverberg [Avon:NY, 1970].)
A Martian Odyssey, published in the July 1934 issue
of Wonder Stories, marked a period in the history of the genre which Isaac
Asimov termed the second "nova"; the first nova being the publication of
e.e. "Doc" Smith's, "The Sklylark of Space" in the August 1928 issue
of Amazing Stories; the third nova being Robert Heinlein's "Life-Line,"
in the August 1939 issue of
Astounding Science Fiction. (See, The Best
of Stanley G. Weinbaum, with an introduction by Isaac Asimov [Ballantine:
NY, 1974] pp. vii-x.) Asimov discounts the possibility of there ever being
a fourth nova because "since 1939, when the third nova appeared, the field
has surely grown too large and too diverse to be turned in its path by
any single story by any new writer."
(Id., p. vii.) This last quote alone demonstrates the
arrogance at issue.
To me, many of the Hall of Fame stories chosen in 1970
could have been written by one of ERB's Mad Scientists – especially Tom
Godwin's chilling "The Cold Equations" – because these stories lack
human sentiment! In fact, Godwin uses human sentiment as his foil in
his sadistic masterpiece. However, if we add the ingredients of sentiment,
with a dash of adventure, the first nova in the history of Twentieth Century
science fiction is strikingly obvious to me, and should be to everyone
not under the bias of some current fad: ERB's, A Princess of Mars!
published in the February-July 1912 issues of All-Story magazine
under the title, "Under the Moons of Mars."
At the time of Asimov’s second nova – July 1934 – ERB
was still in the saddle and competing equally, as demonstrated below, with
Stanley G. Weinbaum. The same kind of creative joy that Weinbaum caused
in the readers of 1934, ERB had equally created – if not more so – with
the readers of 1912.
Asimov’s three novas need serious revision. I am not saying
that some of the stories in the 1970 Hall of Fame don't deserve to be there:
every one of them is truly great. But the list must be cast into doubt
without a representative story by ERB. While ERB's Barsoom is more fantasy
than fact, he presents a first rate anthropological study of the Green
Martian culture at the beginning of A Princess of Mars. Perhaps
the dichotomy is really between the hard and soft sciences, but those that
reject anthropology as genuine science are truly missing the flier. Now,
some really great early science fiction from the First Nova: ERB!
Tul Axtar, the Jeddak of Jahar, has world conquest plans
all of his own and a mad scientist, Phor Tak, at his disposal to aid him
in implementing his scheme. This scheme is related to Hadron of Hastor
by Nur An of Jahar, whom you will recall shared the horrors of the Spider
Kingdom of Ghasta (see ERBzine
#3312.) After Hadron remarks that Tul Axtar must not have a single
virtue, Nur An responds:
“‘He has none,’ said Nur
An. ‘He is a cruel tryrant, rotten with corruption and vice. If any of
the great powers of Barsoom could have guessed what was in his mind, Jahar
would have been reduced long ago and Tul Axtar destroyed.’
Thus, we are introduced to the role of the mad scientist,
Phor Tak. But before we get on with the story, let me take a slight detour
to comment on Martians being oviparous. ERB leaves it up the reader to
guess that if each Martian female brings forth 13 eggs a year, the reader
must assume that this means that each egg when brought forth would either
be fertilized or unfertilized. That is, it takes a male to fertilize the
female egg through an act of copulation before a Martian is conceived in
the egg. The two main allusions to this in the corpus are to the fact that
both Carthoris and Tara bear some of Carter’s “Virginia blood,’ and thus
he must have, therefore, fertilized them through copulation with Dejah
Thoris; and from the passage above, inferring that all Jaharians, except
the nobility, are involved in mandatory state-sponsored fornication as
a program promoting fertilization.
“‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
“‘For at least two hundred years
Tul Axtar has fostered a magnificent dream, the conquest of all Barsoom.
During all this time he has made manpower his fetish; no eggs might be
destroyed, each woman being compelled to preserve all that she laid. (Note:
Martians are oviparous.) An army of officials and inspectors took a record
of the production of each female. Those that had the greatest number of
males were rewarded; the unproductive were destroyed. When it was discovered
that marriage tended to reduce the productivity of the females of Jahar,
marriage among any classes beneath the nobility was proscribed by imperial
“‘The result has been an appalling
increase in population, until many of the provinces of Jahar cannot support
the incalculable numbers that swarm like ants in a hill. The richest agricultural
land upon Barsoom could not support such numbers; every natural resource
has been exhausted; millions are starving, and in large districts cannibalism
“During all this time Tul Axtar’s
officers have been training the males for war. From earliest consciousness
the thought of war has been implanted within their minds. To war and to
war alone do they look for relief from the hideous conditions which oppress
them, until to-day countless millions are clamoring for war, realizing
that victory means loot, and that loot means food and riches. Already Tul
Axtar commands an army of such vast proportions that the fate of Barsoom
might readily lie in the palm of his hand were it not for but a single
“‘What is that?’ I asked.
“‘Tul Axtar is a coward,’ replied
Nur An. ‘Having fulfilled his dream of man-power, he is afraid to use it
lest by some accident of fate his military plans should fail and his troops
meet defeat. Therefore he has waited while he urged on the scientists of
Jahar to produce some weapon that would be so far superior in its destructive
power to anything possessed by any other nation of Barsoom that his armies
would be invincible.’” (FMM/5.)
There may be some kind of joke here about married people
getting it on less because this is just the way things are – maybe a clue
to the current state of marital bliss ERB was sharing with Emma – or because
the married people of Jahar were so burdened by the state of things that
another mouth to feed was not an option, making copulation less desirable.
Anyway, the situation in Jahar is a kinky one, made crystal clear later
in the story when we get to the women of Tul Axtar and some of the practices
of the Jeddara.
When we consider the actual multiple cases of decadence
and sexual deviance on Barsoom, we can see how tongue-in-cheek are the
comments ERB constantly makes as to the Martians being overall a chaste
and virtuous people. But, back to the story. Nur An continues:
“‘For years the best minds
of Jahar labored with the problem until at last one of our most eminent
scientists, an old man named Phor Tak, developed a rifle of amazing properties.
The success of Phor Tak aroused the jealousies of other scientists, and
though the old man had given Tul Axtar what he sought, yet the tyrant showed
no gratitude, and Phor Tak was subjected to such indignities and oppressions
that eventually he fled from Jahar.’” (FMM/5.)
The first thing we learn about Phor Tak psychologically is
that he is not a team player and he holds a grudge if not given the credit
that he believes he deserves. Hadron desires to know more about the rifle
and Nur An doesn’t hesitate to tell him:
“‘This new rifle,’ he continued
after a moment’s silence, ‘would render all the other armies and navies
of Barsoom impotent before us. It projects an invisible ray, the vibrations
of which effect such a change in the constitution of metals as to cause
them to disintegrate. I am not a scientist; I do not fully understand the
exact explanation of the phenomenon, but from what I was able to gather
while the new weapon was being discussed in Jahar, I am under the impression
that these rays change the polarity of the protons in metallic substances,
releasing the whole mass as free electrons. I have also heard the theory
expounded that Phor Tak, in his investigation, discovered that the fundamental
principles underlying time, matter, and space are identical, and that what
the rays projected from his rifle really accomplish is to translate any
mass of metal upon which it is directed into the most elementary constituents
It is said that Nicolas Tesla experimented with such a device
when he lived in New York City, causing buildings to shake; but there is
still a veil of secrecy over many of Tesla’s experiments. As the story
progresses, Hadron and Nur An are sentenced to die the Death, are thus
plunged into the river Syl, enter and finally escape from the Spider Kingdom
of Ghasta in a
“‘But be that as it may, Tul Axtar
had the manpower and the weapon, yet still he hesitated. He was afraid,
and he sought for some excuse further to delay the war of conquest and
loot which his millions of subjects now demanded, and to this end he hit
upon the plan of insisting upon some medium of defense against this new
rifle, basing his demands upon the possibility that some other power might
also have discovered a similar weapon or would eventually, by the use of
spies or informers, learn the secret from Jahar. Probably greatly to his
surprise, and unquestionably to his embarrassment, a man who has been an
assistant in Phor Tak’s laboratory developed a substance which dissipated
the rays of the new weapon, rendering them harmless. With this substance,
which is of a bluish color, the metal portions of the ships, weapons and
harness of Jahar are now painted.
“‘But yet again, Tul Axtar postponed
his war, insisting upon the production of an enormous quantity of the new
rifles and a mighty fleet of warships upon which to mount them. Then, he
says, he will sail forth and conquer all Barsoom.’” (FMM/5.)
balloon constructed from spider silk, then inadvertently
discover the hiding place of Phor Tak:
“As we topped a low hill,
passing over it by a scant fifty sofads [4.875 Earth feet, a sofad equalling
1.17 Earth inches], we saw below us a building of gleaming white. Like
all the cities and isolated buildings of Barsoom, it was surrounded by
a lofty wall, but in other respects it differed materially from the usual
Barsoomian type of architecture. The edifice, which was made up of a number
of buildings, was not surmounted by the usual towers, domes, and minarets
that mark all Barsoomian cities and which only in recent ages have been
giving away slowly to the flat landing stages of an aerial world. The structure
below us was composed of a number of flat-roofed buildings of various heights,
none of which, however, appeared to rise over four levels. Between the
buildings and the outer walls and in several open courts between the buildings
there was a profusion of trees and shrubbery with scarlet sward and well-kept
paths. It was, in fact, a striking and beautiful sight, yet having so recently
been lured to near destruction by the beauties of Hohr and the engaging
allurements of her beautiful women we had no mind to be deceived by external
appearances. We would float over the palace of enchantment and take our
chances in the open country beyond.” (FMM/9.)
Of course, just then the wind abates, and they end up landing
on one of the flat roofs, and the head of old man soon pops out of an aperture
on the roof, a rare sight on Barsoom:
“The head was followed
by the body of a man, whose harness was so scant as to leave him almost
nude. He was an old man with a finely shaped head, covered with scant,
Nur An swiftly informs Phor Tak that he too suffered from
the villainy of Tul Axtar and both he and Hadron are recruited to help
Phor Tak fulfill his life’s work at his palace in Jhama, the ancient city
that he has inhabited. Hadron asks him what his life’s work is:
“At sight of him, Nur An voiced
an exclamation of pleased surprise. ‘Phor Tak!’ he cried.
“‘Heigh-oo!’ cackled the old man
in a high falsetto. ‘Who cometh from the high heavens who knows old Phor
“‘It is I – Nur An!’ exclaimed my
“‘Heigh-oo!’ cried Phor Tak. ‘Nur
An – one of Tul Axtar’s pets.’
“‘As you once were, Phor Tak.’
“‘But not now – not now,’ almost
screamed the old man. ‘The tyrant squeezed me like some juicy fruit and
then cast the empty rind aside. Heigh-oo! He thought it was empty, but
I pray daily to all my ancestors that he may live to know that he was wrong.
I can say this with safety to you, Nur An, for I have you in my power,
and I promise you that you shall never live to carry word of my whereabouts
to Tul Axtar.’” (FMM/9.)
“‘Revenge upon Tul Axtar,’
said the old man. ‘I gave him the disintegrating ray; I gave him the insulating
that protects his own ships and weapons from it, and now someday I shall
give him something else – something that will be as revolutionary in the
art of war as the disintegrating ray itself; something that will cast the
fleet of Jahar broken wrecks upon the ground; something that will search
out the palace of Tul Axtar and bury the tyrant beneath its ruins.’
Their time with Phor Tak is not all fun and games; he flies
into a perfect frenzy of rage every time Hadron brings up the subject of
his departure so that he can rescue Sanoma Tora. After about ten
days, he and Nur An begin to notice a nervousness in Phor Tak’s manner:
“We had not been long at Jhama before
both Nur An and I became convinced that Phor Tak’s mind was at least slightly
deranged from long brooding over the wrongs inflicted upon him by Tul Axtar;
though naturally possessed of a kindly disposition he was obsessed by a
maniacal desire to wreak vengeance uponthe tyrant with utter disregard
of the consequences to himself and to others.” (FMM/9.)
“‘But I am helpless,’ he
almost screamed at last. ‘I am helpless because there is no one to whom
I may entrust my secret, who also has the courage and intelligence to carry
out my plan. I am too old, too weak to undergo the hardships that would
mean nothing to young men like you, but which must be undergone if I am
to fulfill my destiny as the savior of Jahar. If I could but trust you!
If I could but trust you.’
If Phor Tak’s annoying use of the term “Heigh-oo” is starting
to get on your nerves – or you have an irresistable urge to complete it
with, “it’s off to work we goo” – wait until you see what he has in store
for the armies and navies of Helium. He thus demonstrates:
“‘Perhaps you can, Phor Tak,’ I
“The words or my tone seemed to
soothe him. ‘Heigh-oo!’ he exclaimed.
‘Sometimes I almost think that I
“‘We have a common aim,’ I said;
‘or at least different aims, which converge at the same point – Jahar.
Let us work together then. We wish to reach Jahar. If you can help us,
we can help you.’
“‘He sat in silent thought for a
long moment. ‘I’ll do it,’ he said. ‘Heighoo! I’ll do it. Come,’ and rising
from his chair, he led us toward the locked doorway that barred the entrance
to his secret laboratory.
“Phor Tak’s laboratory occupied
an entire wing of the building and consisted of a single, immense room
fully fifty feet in height. His benches, tables, instruments and cabinets,
located in one corner, were lost in the great interior. Near the ceiling
and encircling the room was a single track from which was suspended a miniature
cruiser, painted the ghastly blue of Jahar. Upon one of the benches was
a cylindrical object about as long as one’s hand. These were the only noticeable
features of the laboratory other than its immense emptiness.
“As Phor Tak ushered us within he
closed the door behind him and I heard the ominous click of the ponderous
lock. There was something depressing in the suggestiveness of the situation,
induced, perhaps, by our knowledge that Phor Tak was mad and accentuated
by the eerie mystery of the vast chamber.
“Leading us to the bench upon which
lay the cylindrical object which had attracted my attention, he lifted
it carefully, almost caressingly, from its resting place. ‘This,’ he said,
‘is a model of the device which will destroy Jahar. In it you behold the
concentrated essence of scientific achievement. In appearance it is but
a small metal cylinder, but within it is a mechanism as delicate and as
sensitive as the human brain, and you will perceive that it functions almost
as though animated by a mind within itself, but it is purely mechanical
and may be produced in quantities quickly and at a low cost. Before I explain
it further I shall demonstrate one phase of its possibilities. Watch!’”
“Still holding the cylinder
in his hand, Phor Tak stepped to a shallow cabinet against the wall, and
opening it revealed an elaborate equipment of switches, levers and push-buttons.
‘Now watch the miniature suspended from the track near the ceiling.,’ he
directed, at the same time closing a switch. Immediately the flier commenced
to travel along the track at considerable speed. Now Phor Tak pressed a
button upon the top of the cylinder, which immediately sped from his extended
palm, turned quickly in the air and rushed straight for the speeding flier.
Slowly the distance between the two closed; the cylinder, curving gradually
into the line of flight of the flier, was now trailing directly behind
it, its pointed nose but a few feet from the stern of the miniature ship.
Then Phor Tak pulled a tiny lever upon his switchboard and the flier leaped
forward at accelerated speed. Instantly the speed of the cylinder increased
and I could see that it was gaining in velocity much more rapidly than
the flier. Half-way around the room again its nose struck the stern of
the fleeing craft with sufficient severity to cause the ship to tremble
from stem to stern; then the cylinder fell away and floated gently towards
the floor. Phor Tak opened a switch which stopped the flier in its flight
and then, running forward, caught the descending cylinder in his hand.
Nur An protests that the ships will see the torpedoes coming,
giving them opportunity to organize a defense. He suggests that even gunfire
could destroy the devices:
“‘This model,’ he explained, as
he returned to where we stood, ‘is so constructed that when it makes contact
with the flier it will float gently downward to the floor, but, as you
have doubtless fully realized ere this, the finished product in practical
use will explode upon contact with the ship. Note these tiny buttons with
which it is covered. When any one of these comes in contact with an object
the model stops and descends, whereas the full-sized device, properly equipped,
will explode, absolutely demolishing whatever it may have come in contact
with. As you are aware, every substance in the universe has its own fixed
vibratory rate. This mechanism can be so attuned as to be attracted to
the vibratory rate of any substance. The model, for example, is attracted
to the blue protective paint with which the flier is covered. Imagine a
fleet of Jaharian warships moving majestically through the air in battle
formation. From an enemy ship or from the ground and at a distance so far
as to be unobservable by the ships of Jahar, I release as many of these
devices as there are ships in the fleet, allowing a few moments to elapse
between launchings. The first torpedo rushes towards the fleet and destroys
the nearest ship. All the torpedoes in the rear, strung out in line, are
attracted by the combined masses of all the blue protective coverings of
the entire fleet. The first ship is falling to the ground, and though all
its paint may not have been destroyed, it has not the power to deflect
any of the succeeding torpedoes, which one by one destroy the nearest of
the remaining ships until the fleet has been absolutely erased.’” (FMM/10.)
“‘Heigh-oo! But I have
thought of that,’ cackled Phor Tak. He laid the torpedo upon a bench and
opened another cabinet.
Hadron and Nur An stare in disbelief. Phor Tak takes Nur
An’s hand and makes him feel the invisible model so he will believe it
is really there. Nur An protests that Phor Tak didn’t even touch the model
“In this cabinet were a number of
receptacles, some tightly sealed and others opened, revealing their contents,
which appeared to be differently colored paints. From a number of these
receptacles protruded the handles of paint brushes. One such handle, however,
appeared to hang in mid-air, a few inches above one of the shelves, while
just beneath it was a section of the rim of a receptacle that also appeared
to resting upon nothing. Phor Tak placed his open hand directly beneath
this floating rim, and when he removed his hand from the cabinet, the rim
of the receptacle and the handle of the paint brush floating just above
it, followed, hovering just over his extended fingers, which were cupped
in the position that they might assume were they holding a glass jar, such
as would ordinarily have belonged to a rim like that which I could see
floating about an inch above his fingers.
“Going to the bench where he had
laid the cylinder, Phor Tak went through the motions of setting a jar upon
it, and, though there was no jar visible other than the floating rim, I
distinctly heard a noise that was identical with the sound which the bottom
of a glass jar would have made in coming in contact with the bench.
“I can assure you that I was greatly
mystified, but still more so by the events immediately following. Phor
Tak seized the handle of the paint brush and made a pass a few inches above
the metal torpedo. Instantly a portion of the torpedo, about an inch wide
and three or four inches long, disappeared. Pass after pass he made until
finally the whole surface of the torpedo had disappeared. Where it had
rested the bench was empty. Phor Tak returned the handle of the paint brush
to its floating position just above the floating jar rim, and then he turned
to us with an expression of childlike pride upon his face, as much as to
say, ‘Well, what do you think of that? Am I not wonderful?’ And I was certainly
forced to concede that it was wonderful and that I was entirely baffled
and mystified by what I had seen.” (FMM/10.)
“‘But I did touch it,’
insisted Phor Tak. ‘The brush was there, but you did not see it because
it was covered with the substance which renders the Flying Death invisible.
Notice this transparent glass receptacle in which I keep the compound of
invisibility, and all that you can see of it is that part of the rim which,
by chance, has not been coated with the compound.’
Hadron is astonished by the simplicity of the explanation
and muses about somehow convincing Phor Tak to turn the weapon over to
the forces of Helium to guarantee peace.
“‘Marvelous!’ I exclaimed. ‘Even
now, although I have witnessed it with my own eyes, I can scarce conceive
of the possibility of such a miracle.’
“‘It is no miracle,’ said Phor Tak.
‘It is merely the application of scientific principles well known to me
for hundreds of years. Nothing moves in straight lines; light, vision,
electro-magnetic forces follow lines that curve. The compound of invisibility
merely bows outward the reflected light, which, entering our eyes and impinging
upon our optic nerves, results in the phenomenon which we call vision,
so that they pass around any object which is coated with the compound.
When I first started to apply the compound to the Flying Death, your line
of vision was deflected around the small portion so coated, but when I
coated the entire surface of the torpedo, the curve of your vision passed
completely around it on both sides so that you could plainly see the bench
upon which it was resting precisely as though the device had not been there.’”
“‘Phor Tak,’ I said, ‘you
hold here within your grasp two secrets which in the hands of a kindly
and beneficient power would bring eternal peace to Barsoom.’
Hadron realizes he must stop Phor Tak but they agree to help
him if he aids them in constructing an invisible flier so that they can
arrive in Jahar undetected to rescue Sanoma Tora. When the ship is complete,
Phor Tak balks, refusing to let Hadron go unless Nur An remains behind
as a hostage. Before Hadron leaves, however, he steals some of the invisibility
compound. Hadron proceeds to have many adventures in Jahar, devising a
cloak covered with the compound, rendering him virtually invisible in the
palace of Tul Axtar. Tul Axtar’s bodyguard is comprised of butched-out
beautiful women with masculine haircuts and makeup.
“‘Heigh-oo!’ he cried. ‘I do not
want peace. I want war. War! War!’
“‘Very well,’ I agreed, realizing
that my suggestion had not been in line with the mad processes of his crazed
brain. ‘Let us have war then, and what country upon Barsoom is better equipped
to wage war than Helium? If you want war, form an alliance with Helium.’
“‘I do not need Helium,’ he cried.
‘I do not need to form alliances. I shall make war – I shall make war alone.
With the invisible Flying Death I can destroy whole navies, whole cities,
entire nations. I shall start with Jahar. Tul Axtar shall be the first
to feel the weight of my devastating powers. When the fleet of Jahar has
tumbled upon the roofs of Jahar and the walls of Jahar have fallen about
the ears of Tul Axtar, then shall I destroy Tjanath. Helium shall know
me next. Proud and mightly Helium shall tremble and bow at the feet of
Phor Tak. I shall be Jeddak of Jeddaks, ruler of a world.’ As he spoke
his voice rose to a piercing shriek and he trembled in the grip of the
frenzy that held him.’” (FMM/10)
Wearing the cloak of invisibility, he stumbles into a
room in the women’s quarters and finds some of them engaging in lesbian
acts. Next he stumbles into the Jeddara’s bedchamber and finds her servicing
a male slave. Eventually he rescues several women, and with the help of
the Warlord, returns to save Tavia and Nur An. He enters Phor Tak’s compound
“‘As I approached the bottom
I heard a voice. It was coming from the direction of Phor Tak’s laboratory,
the door of which opened upon the corridor at the bottom of the ramp. I
crept slowly downward. The door leading to the laboratory was closed. Two
men were conversing. I could recognize the thin, high voice of Phor Tak;
the other voice was not that of Nur An; yet it was strangely familiar.
The floor falls away beneath Hadron’s feet and he finds himself
down in the pits. He escapes and rescues Tavia from Tul Axtar, then returns
to the laboratory with Nur An.
“‘– riches beyond your dream,’ I
heard the second voice say.
“‘I do not need riches,’ cackled
Phor Tak. ‘Heigh-oo! Presently I shall own all the riches in the world.’
“‘You will need help,’ I could hear
the other man say in a very pleading tone. ‘I can give you help; you shall
have every ship of my great fleet.’
“That remark brought me upstanding
– ‘every ship of my great fleet!’ It could not be possible, and yet –’
“Gently I tried the door. To my
surprise it swung open, revealing the interior of the room. Beneath a bright
light stood Tul Axtar. Fifty feet from him Phor Tak was standing behind
a bench upon which was mounted a disintegrating ray rifle, aimed full at
“Where was Tavia? Where was Nur
An? Perhaps this man alone knew where Tavia was, and Phor Tak was about
to destroy him. With a cry of warning I leaped into the room. Tul Axtar
and Phor Tak looked at me quickly, surprise large upon their countenances.
“‘Heigh-oo,’ screamed the old inventor.
‘So you have come back! Knave! Ingrate! Traitor! But you have come back
only to die.’
“‘Wait,’ I cried, raising my hand.
‘Let me speak.’
“‘Silence!’ screamed Phor Tak. ‘You
shall see Tul Axtar die. I hated to kill him without someone to see – someone
to witness his death agony. I shall have my revenge on him first and then
“‘Stop!’ I cried. His finger was
already hovering over the button that would snatch Tul Axtar into oblivion,
perhaps with the secret of the whereabouts of Tavia.
“I drew my pistol. Phor Tak made
a sudden motion with his hands and disappeared. He vanished as though turned
to thin air by his own disintegrating rays, but I knew what had happened.
I knew that he had thrown a mantle of invisibility around himself and I
fired at the spot where he had last been visible.” (FMM/16.)
“I led him to the laboratory.
‘There is no use searching there,’ he said, ‘we have looked in a hundred
times to-day. A glance will reveal the fact that the laboratory is deserted.’
They do so and with one last rifle and one last shell, Hadron
fires into the pile, destroying the weapons of mass destruction that threaten
his planet, leaving only a surviving rifle with no shells. Thus closes
the exciting adventures of A Fighting Man of Mars.
“Wait,’ I said. ‘Let us not be in
too much of a hurry. Come with me; perhaps yet I may disclose the whereabouts
of Phor Tak.’
“With a shrug he followed me as
I entered the vast laboratory and walked towards the bench upon which a
disintegrating rifle was mounted. Just back of the bench my foot struck
something that I could not see, but that I had expected to find there,
and stooping I felt a huddled form beneath a covering of soft cloth.
“My fingers closed upon the invisible
fabric and I drew it aside. There, before us on the floor, lay the dead
body of Phor Tak, a bullet-hole in the center of his breast.
“‘Name of Issus!’ cried Nur An.
‘Who did this?’
“‘I,’ I replied, and then I told
him what had happened in the laboratory as the last night waned.
“He looked around hurriedly. ‘Cover
it up quickly,’ he said. ‘The slaves must not know. They would destroy
us. Let us get out of here quickly.’
“I drew the cloak of invisibility
over the body of Phor Tak again. ‘I have work here before I leave,’ I said.
“‘What?’ he demanded.
“Help me gather all of the disintegrating-ray
shells and rifles into one end of the room.’
“‘What are you going to do?’ he
“‘I am going to save a world, Nur
An,’ I said.” (FMM/17.)
Unfortunately, Hadron's dream of saving Barsoom didn’t
take into account the mad inventors of Zodanga: Fal Silvas and Gar Nal,
both survivors of the Old Zodanga which was cruelly sacked by the Green
Hordes. The New Zodanga is a dreary place, controlled by the Assassins
Guilds. These guilds are so old and well-entrenched, Carter can not drum
up enough support to stamp them out, so he has become Batman:
“Certain types of killings
upon Mars are punishable by death, and most of the killings of the assassins
fell in such categories. So far, this was the only weapon that I had been
able to use against them, and then not always successfully, for it is was
usually difficult to prove their crime, since even eyewitnesses feared
to testify against them.
If there was ever a John Carter novel that deserves a James
Bond soundtrack, it is Swords of Mars, where the story of
the rival Zodangan Mad Scientists unfolds. Carter decides to infiltrate
the Zodangan guilds to show them they are not smarter than him. Carter
dons his red pigment and enters Zodanga as Vandor the Panthan, and he almost
immediately finds employment with Fal Silvas through the aid of an assassin,
Rapas the Ulsio. Silvas has hired Rapas as his personal assassin to protect
him from the head of the assassination guild, Ur Jan. Carter uses Rapas
as a contact to introduce him to Fal Silvas.
“But I had gradually evolved and
organized another means of combatting them. This consisted of a secret
organization of super-assassins. In other words, I had elected to fight
the devil with fire.
“When an assassination was reported,
my organization acted in the role of detective to ferret out the murderer.
Then it acted as judge and jury and eventually as executioner. Its every
move was made in secret, but over the heart of each of its victims an ‘X’
was cut with the sharp point of a dagger.
“We usually struck quickly, if we
could strike at all; and soon the public and the assassins learned to connect
that ‘X’ over the heart as the work of the hand of justice falling upon
the guilty; and I know that in a number of the larger cities of Helium
we greatly reduced the death rate by assassination. Otherwise, however,
we seemed as far from our goal as when we first started.
“Our poorest results had been gained
in Zodanga; and the assassins of that city openly boasted that they were
too smart for me, although they did not know positively, they guessed that
the ‘X’s upon the breasts of their dead comrades were made by an organization
headed by me.” (SM/1.)
Carter as Vandor soon learns what his employer has to
fear. Vandor is hired and shown to his quarters. On his first night he
is visited by a runaway slave girl, Zanda, who has just escaped Fal Silvas’
desire to operate on her. She informs him about the real Fal Silvas:
“‘You know nothing, then,
of Fal Silvas?’ she demanded.
Zanda then tells him the story of how she and another slave
girl were elected for experimentation and how she slipped by him after
he tripped. Fal Silvas soon comes knocking, looking for her. Carter hides
Zanda on his bed under some silks and furs, then lets Fal Silvas inside.
Fal Silvas then tells Carter about Gar Nal and his spaceship:
“‘Only that he is a wealthy inventor
and fears for his life.’
“‘Yes, he is rich; and he is an
inventor, but not so great an inventor as he is a murderer and a thief.
He steals ideas from other inventors and then has them murdered in order
to safeguard what he has stolen. Those who learn too much of his inventions
die. They never leave this house. He always has an assassin ready to do
his bidding; sometimes here, sometimes out in the city; and he is always
afraid of his life.
“‘Rapas the Ulsio is his assassin
now; but they are both afraid of Ur Jan, chief of the guild of assassins;
for Ur Jan has learned that Rapas is killing for Fal Silvas for a price
far lower than charged by the guild.’
“‘But what are these wonderful inventions
that Fal Silvas works upon?’ I asked.
“‘I do not know all of the things
that he does, but there is the ship. That would be wonderful, were it not
born of blood and treachery.’
“‘What sort of a ship?’ I asked.
“‘A ship that will travel safely
through interplanetary space. He says that in a short time we shall be
able to travel back and forth between the planets as easily as we travel
now from one city to another.’
“‘Interesting,’ I said, ‘and not
so very horrible, that I can see.’
“‘But he does other things – horrible
things. One of them is a mechanical brain.’
“‘A mechanical brain?’
“‘Yes, but of coures I cannot explain
it. I have so little learning. I have heard him speak of it often, but
I do not understand.
“‘He says that all life, all matter,
are the result of mechanical action, not primarily, chemical action. He
holds that all chemical action is mechanical.
“‘Oh, I am probably not explaining
it right. It is all so confusing to me, because I do not understand it;
but anyway he is working on a mechanical brain, a brain that will think
clearly and logically, absolutely uninfluenced by any of the extraneous
media that affect human judgments.’
“‘It seems rather a weird idea,’
I said, ‘but I can see nothing so horrible about it.’
is not the idea that is horrible,’ she said; ‘it is the method that he
employs to perfect his invention. In his effort to duplicate the human
brain, he must examine it. For this reason he needs many slaves. A few
he buys, but most of them are kidnaped for him.’
“She commenced to tremble, and her
voice came in little broken gasps. ‘I do not know; I have not really seen
it; but they say that he straps his victims so that cannot move and then
removes the skull until he has exposed the brain; and so, by means of rays
that can penetrate the tissue, he watches the brain function.’
“‘But his victims cannot suffer
long,’ I said; ‘they would lose consciousness and die quickly.’
“She shook her head. ‘No, he has
perfected drugs that he injects into their veins so that they remain alive
and are conscious for a long time. For long hours he applies various stimuli
and watches the reaction of the brain. Imagine if you can, the suffering
of his poor victims.
“‘Many slaves are brought here,
but they do not remain long. There are only two doors leading from the
building, and there are no windows in the outer walls. The slaves that
disappear do not leave through either of the two doorways. I see them today;
tomorrow they are gone, gone through the little doorway that leads into
the room of horror next to Fal Silvas’s sleeping quarters.’” (SM/2.)
“‘I am perfecting a ship
that will traverse space. So is Gar Nal. He would like not only to have
me destroyed, but also to steal the secrets of my invention that would
permit him to perfect his; but Ur Jan is the one I most fear, because Gar
Nal has employed him to destroy me.’” (SM/2.)
Carter promises to hunt Ur Jan down to see what he can find.
Fal Silvas gives Carter a slave and he chooses Zanda. After some adventures
worthy of James Bond, Vandor is eventually shown Fal Silvas’ laboratory.
“He led me from the room,
along the corridor past my quarters, and up the ramp to the forbidden level
above. Here was passed through a magnificently appointed suite of living
quarters and then through a little door hidden behind hangings, and came
at last into an enormous loft that extended upward to the roof of the building,
evidently several levels above us.
Fal Silvas rambles on giving Vandor a Dr. Jekyll and Mr.
Hyde mental impression and then Fal Silvas invites him to see the inside
of the ship.
“Supported by scaffolding and occupying
nearly the entire length of the enormous chamber, was the strangest looking
craft that I have ever seen. The nose was ellipsoidal; and from the greatest
diameter of the craft, which was just back of the nose, it sloped gradually
to a point at the stern.
“‘There it is,’ said Fal Silvas
proudly; ‘the work of a life-time, and almost completed.’
“‘An entirely new style of ship,’
I commented. ‘In what respect is it superior to present ships?’
“‘It is built to achieve results
that no other ship can achieve,’ replied Fal Silvas. ‘It is designed to
attain speed beyond the wildest imaginings of man. It will travel routes
that no man or ship has ever traveled.
“‘In that craft, Vandor, I can visit
Thuria and Cluros. I can even travel the far reaches of space to other
“‘Marvelous,’ I said.
“‘But that is not all. You see that
it is built for speed. I can assure you that it is built to withstand the
most terrible pressure, that it is insulated against the extremes of heat
and cold. Perhaps, Vandor, other inventors could have accomplished the
same end. In fact, I believe Gar Nal has already done so, but there is
only one man upon Barsoom, doubtless there is only one brain in the entire
Solar System that could have done what Fal Silvas has done. I have given
that seemingly insensate mechanism a brain with which to think. I have
perfected my mechanical brain, Vandor, and with just a little more time,
just a few refinements I can send this ship out alone; and it will go where
I wish it to go and come back again.
“‘Doubtless, you think that impossible.
You think Fal Silvas is mad; but look! watch closely.’
“He centered his gaze upon the nose
of the strange-looking craft, and presently I saw it rise slowly from its
scaffolding for about ten feet and hang there poised in mid-air. Then it
elevated its nose a few feet, and then its tail, and finally it settled
again and rested evenly upon its scaffolding.
“I was certainly astonished. Never
in all my life had I seen anything so marvelous, nor did I seek to hide
my admiration from Fal Silvas.
“‘You see,’ he said, ‘I did not
even have to speak to it. The mechanical mind that I have installed in
the ship responds to thought waves. I merely have to impart to it the impulse
of the thought that I wish it to act upon. The mechanical brain then functions
precisely as my brain would, and directs the mechanism and operates the
craft precisely as the brain of the pilot would direct his hand to move
levers, press buttons, open or close throttles.
“‘Vandor, it has been a long and
terrible battle that I have had to wage to perfect this marvelous mechanism.
I have been compelled to do things which would revolt the finer sensibilities
of mankind; but I believe that it has all been well worthwhile. I believe
that my greatest achievement warrants all that it has cost in lives and
“He concentrated his attention
again upon the nose of the ship, and presently a door in its side opened
and a rope ladder was lowered to the floor of the room. It was an uncanny
procedure – just as though ghostly hands had performed the work.
The scene where Fal Silvas caresses the brain in perfectly
captured by J. Allen St. John, and can viewed at ERBzine #0736. Vandor
tells Fal Silvas that he can help on a last engineering problem and thus
gains acceptance to the laboratory area at his convenience:
“Fal Silvas motioned me to precede
him up the ladder. It was a habit of his to see that no one ever got behind
him that bespoke the nervous strain under which he lived, always in fear
“The doorway led directly into a
small, comfortably, even luxuriously furnished cabin.
“‘The stern is devoted to storerooms
where food may be carried for long voyages,’ explained Fal Silvas. ‘Also
aft are the motors, the oxygen and watergenerating machines, and the temperature-regulating
plant. Forward is the control room. I believe that that will interest you
greatly,’ and he motioned me to precede him through a small door in the
forward bulkhead of the cabin.
“The interior of the control room,
which occupied the entire nose of the ship, was a mass of intricate mechanical
and electrical devices.
“On either side of the nose were
two large, round ports in which were securely set thick slabs of crystal.
“From the exterior of the ship these
two ports appeared like the huge eyes of some gigantic monster; and, in
truth, this was the purpose they served.
“Fal Silvas called my attention
to a small, round metal object about the size of a large grapefruit that
was fastened securely just above and between the two eyes. From it ran
a large cable composed of a vast number of very small insulated wires.
I could see that some of these wires connected with the many devices in
the control room, and that others were carried through conduits to the
after part of the craft.
“Fal Silvas reached up and laid
a hand almost affectionately upon the spherical object to which he had
called my attention. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is the brain.’ Then he called my
attention to two spots, one in the exact center of each crystal of the
forward ports. I had not noticed them at first, but now I saw that they
were ground differently from the balance of the crystals.
“‘These lenses,’ explained Fal Silvas,
‘focus upon this aperture in the lower part of the brain.’ and he called
my attention to a small hole at the base of the sphere, ‘that they may
transmit to the brain what the eyes of the ship see. The brain then functions
mechanically precisely as the human brain does, except with greater accuracy.’
“‘It is incredible,’ I exclaimed.
“‘But, nevertheless, true,’ he replied.
‘In one respect, however, the brain lacks human power. It cannot originate
thoughts. Perhaps that is just as well, for could it, I might have loosed
upon myself and Barsoom an insensate monster that could wreak incalculable
havoc before it could be destroyed, for this ship is equipped with high-power
radium rifles which the brain has the power to discharge with far more
deadly accuracy than may be achieved my man.
“‘I saw no rifles,’ I said.
“‘No,’ he replied. ‘They are encased
in the bulkheads, and nothing of them is visible except small round holes
in the hull of the ship. But, as I was saying, the one weakness of the
mechanical brain is the very thing that makes it so effective for the use
of man. Before it can function, it must be charged with human thought-waves.
In other words, I must project into the mechanism the originating thoughts
that are the food for its functioning.
“‘For example, I charge it with
the thought that it is to rise up ten feet, pause there for a couple of
seconds, and then to come to rest again upon its scaffolding.
“‘To carry the idea into a more
complex domain, I might impart to it the actuating thought that it is to
travel to Thuria, seek a suitable landing place, and come to the ground.
I could carry this idea even further, warning it that if it were attacked
it should repel its enemies with rifle fire and maneuver so as to avoid
disaster, returning immediately to Barsoom, rather than suffer destruction.
“‘It is also equipped with cameras,
with which I could instruct it to take pictures while it was on the surface
of Thuria.’ (SM/6.)
“He led me to a door at
one end of the hangar and, throwing it open, followed me into the room
A little later, Vandor wanders back inside the hangar to
experiment, to see if his own mind can control the mechanical brain. It
responds to his activating thoughts. Fal Silvas amost catches him and then
asks Vandor to see if he can do it, but Vandor pretends that he cannot,
which pleases Fal Silvas into a sense of false security.
“Here, and in a series of adjoining
rooms, I saw the most marvelously equipped mechanical and electrical shops
that I have ever seen; and I saw something else, something that made me
shudder, as I considered the malignity of this man’s abnormal obsession
for secrecy in the development of his inventions.
“The shops were well-manned with
mechanics, and every one of them was manacled to his bench or to his machine.
Their complexions were pasty from long confinement, and in their eyes was
the hopelessness of despair.
“Fal Silvas must have noted the
expression upon my face; for he said quite suddenly, and apropos of nothing
else but my own thoughts, ‘I have to do it, Vandor; I cannot take the risk
of one of them escaping and revealing my secrets to the world before I
“‘When will that time come?’ I asked.
“‘Never,’ he exclaimed, with a snarl.
‘When Fal Silvas dies, his secrets die with him. While he lives, they will
make him the most powerful man in the universe. Why, even John Carter,
Warlord of Mars, will have to bend the knee to Fal Silvas.’
“‘And these poor devils, then, will
remain here all their lives?’ I asked.
“‘They should be proud and happy,’
he said, ‘for are they not dedicating themselves to the most glorious achievement
that the mind of man has ever conceived?’
“‘There is nothing, Fal Silvas,
more glorious than freedom,’ I told him.
“‘Keep your silly sentimentalism
to yourself,’ he snapped. ‘There is no place for sentiment in the house
of Fal Silvas.’” (SM/6.)
“He appeared vastly relieved.
‘You are a man of intelligence,’ he said. ‘If it will not obey you, it
is reasonably safe to assume that it will obey no one but me.
Fal Silvas is too much of a coward, like Tul Axtar, to actually
accomplish anything. In the meantime, in order to check Carter’s vigilante
fever, Ur Jan kidnaps Dejah Thoris, has her taken to Gar Nal’s spaceship,
and then transports her to Thuria. Vandor flies to Helium too late to save
his princess, then returns to Zodanga to steal Fal Silvas’ spaceship to
pursue his princes to Thuria. As he enters the laboratory area, he has
a brief chat with Fal Silvas, which is soon interrupted:
“For several moments he was lost
in thought, and then he straightened up and looked at me, and his eyes
burned with demoniac fire. ‘I can be master of a world,’ he said; ‘perhaps
I can even be master of the universe.’
“‘With that?’ I asked, nodding toward
“‘With the idea that it symbolizes,’
he replied; ‘with the idea of an inanimate object energized by scientific
means and motivated by a mechanical brain. If I but had the means to do
so – the wealth – I could manufacture these brains in great quantities,
and I could put them into small fliers weighing less than a man weighs.
I could give them means of locomotion in the air or upon the ground. I
could give them arms and hands. I could furnish them with weapons. I could
send them out in great hordes to conquer the world. I could send them to
other planets. They would know neither pain nor fear. They would have no
hopes, no aspirations, no ambitions that might wean them from my service.
They would be the creatures of my will alone, and the things I sent them
to do they would persist in until they were destroyed.
“‘But destroying them would serve
my enemies no purpose; for faster than they could destroy them, my great
factories would turn out more.
“‘You see,’ he said, ‘how it would
work?’ and he came close and spoke almost in a whisper. ‘The first of these
mechanical men I would make with my own hands, and as I created them I
would impel them to create others of their kind. They would become my mechanics,
the workmen in my factories; and they would work day and night without
rest, always turning out more and more of their kind. Think how rapidly
they would multiply.’” (SM/7.)
“Just then I heard a cry
from the room behind him, and a woman’s voice calling, ‘Vandor! Vandor,
Carter rescues Zanda, they kill the guards sent to kill Vandor,
Fal Silvas is left unconscious and bound at the scene, and then Vandor
steals the spaceship, which is one of the scenes where I imagine the James
Bond guitar riff playing in the background:
“Fal Silvas went livid and tried
to dash into the room and close the door in my face, but I was too quick
for him. I leaped to the door and pushed him aside as I stepped in.
“A terrible sight met my eyes. On
marble slabs, raised about four feet from the floor, several women were
securely strapped, so that they could not move a limb or raise their heads.
There were four of them. Portions of the skulls of three had been removed,
but they were still conscious. I could see their frightened, horrified
eyes turn toward us.
“I turned upon Fal Silvas. ‘What
is the meaning of this?’ I cried. ‘What hellish business are you up to?’
“‘Get out! Get out!’ he screamed.
‘How dare you invade the holy precincts of science? Who are you, dog, worm,
to question what Fal Silvas does; to interfere with the work of a brain
the magnitude of which you cannot conceive? Get out! Get out! or I will
have you killed.’” (SM/12.)
“This done, I told Zanda to follow me and went
at once to the hangar where the ship rested on her scaffolding.
Vandor demonstrates his mental power on the mechanical brain,
the door opens, they enter the ship, and then he directs the spaceship
to rise from the scaffolding and move out of the hangar through the doorway.
Once out into the Zodangan night, Zanda throws herself all over Carter,
vowing to be his love slave forever. This is doubling amusing since Carter
struggles to be faithful and because Zanda has pledged to kill John Carter
any way she can if she ever meets him because of the devastation he brought
to Zodanga with the sacking of the Green Hordes.
“‘Why did you come here?’ asked Zanda. ‘We ought to be
getting out of the building as quickly as possible – you are going to take
me with you, aren’t you, Vandor?’
“‘Certainly I am,’ I said; ‘and we are going out of the
building very shortly. Come, perhaps I shall need your help with these
doors,’ and I led the way to the two great doors in the end of the hangar.
They were well hung, however, and after being unlatched, slid easily to
the sides of the opening.
“Zanda stepped to the threshold and looked out. ‘We cannot
escape this way,’ she said; ‘it is fifty feet to the ground, and there
is no ladder or other means of descent.’
“‘Nevertheless, we are going to escape through that doorway,’
I told her, amused at her mystification. ‘Just come with me and you will
see how.’” (SM/13.)
They pick up Jat Or, one of Carter’s palace guards – who
has been instructed to call Carter Vandor – and speed off for Thuria. On
the way there, they discuss the mechanical brain and how it operates:
“The padwar stood gazing
at the thing in silence for several moments. ‘It gives me a strange feeling,’
he said at last, ‘a helpless feeling, as though I were in the power of
some creature that was omnipotent and yet could not reason.’
Carter could not but laugh at her fear, but we must remember,
this story was written 35 years before Hal the computer terrorized the
Jupiter Expedition in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We will leave the story
of Thuria to another runner-up wonder. In the end, Ur Jan slays Gar Nal
for treachery, but somehow Fal Silvas is allowed to live and, from future
John Carter stories, it appears his spaceship disappears, like the Ark
of the Covenant, from the public record.
“‘I have much the same sensation,’
I admitted, ‘and I cannot help but speculate upon what it might do if it
“‘I, too, tremble to think of it,’
said Zanda, ‘if Fal Silvas has imparted to it any of the heartless ruthlessness
of his own mind.’
“‘It is his creature,’ I reminded
“‘Then let us hope that it may never
originate a thought.’
“‘That, of course, would be impossible,’
said Jat Or.
“‘I do not know about that,’ replied
Zanda. ‘Such a thing was in Fal Silvas’s mind. He was, I know, working
to that end; but whether he succeeded in imparting the power of original
thought to this thing, I do not know. I know that he not only hoped to
accomplish this miracle eventually, but that he was planning also to impart
powers of speech to this horrible invention.’
“‘Why do you call it horrible?’
asked Jat Or.
“‘Because it is inhuman and unnatural,’
replied the girl. ‘Nothing good could come out of the mind of Fal Silvas.
The thing you see there was contrived for the satisfaction of such characteristics
in Fal Silvas. No enobling or lofty thoughts went into its fabrication;
and none could emanate from it, had it the power of original thought.’
“‘But our purpose is lofty and honorable,’
I reminded her; ‘and if it serves us in the consummation of our hopes,
it will have accomplished good.’
“‘Nevertheless, I fear it,’ replied
Zanda. ‘I hate it because it reminds me of Fal Silvas.’
“‘I hope that it is not meditating
upon these candid avowals,’ remarked Jat Or.
“Zanda slapped an open palm across
her lips, her wide eyes reflecting a new terror. ‘I had not thought of
that,’ she whispered. ‘Perhaps this very minute it is planning its revenge.’
“I could not but laugh at her fear.
‘If any harm befalls us through that brain, Zanda,’ I said, ‘you may lay
the blame at my door, for it is my mind that shall actuate it as long as
the ship remains in my possession.’” (SM/14.)
As we noted in the introduction, ERB is not given the
credit he is due for founding American science fiction, a genre he single-handedly
created out of nothing domestically. After all, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells,
and H. Rider Haggard, were all foreigners. I believe with Asimov that 1934
was indeed the year of the second nova, but not for Stanley G. Weinbaum’s
A Martian Odyssey, but for ERB’s A Fighting Man of Mars
and Swords of Mars. Behold ERB's creative mind at work: cruise
missiles, computer controlled space ships, stealth aircraft. MRI’s, robot
armies, and on the moon of Thuria, Umka, a comical creature that can give
the comical creature Tweel of A Martian Odyssey a run for
As an example of the denigration of ERB, we have to look
no further than A Readers’s Guide to Science Fiction, by
Baird Searles, Martin Last, Beth Meacham, and Michael Franklin (Avon: New
York, 1979), where the authors write under the ERB entry:
“Romances they were – in
the old sense of the word. Scientific romances really; Burroughs used the
popular scientific theories of the day for his speculation, and, well,
if they’re scientific nonsense now, his tales simply slide gracefully into
being fantasy rather than s-f, and are still delightful.” (Id., p. 31-32.)
The authors seem almost embarrassed to even give ERB an entry
at all. Recalling that this critigue was written in 1979, at the end of
Disco, it can be taken with a grain of salt. I have seen several shows
on the History Channel dealing with the science in Star Wars in a serious
manner, which is absolutely no different from ERB’s in essence. In “The
Wonder of Weinbaum,” an introduction to A Martian Odyssey,
Sam Moskowitz writes:
“His first published science
A Martian Odyssey, appeared in the July, 1934 WONDER
STORIES and was the most popular story in the distinguished literary history
of that magazine. Instantly hailed as a science fiction ‘classic,’ the
author, on the strength of A Martian Odyssey, found himself
elevated to the genre’s unofficial Hall of Fame....
Moskowitz wrote this fifty years after A Princess of
Mars was released and must have forgotten that 75% of his praise
for Weinbaum was the same kind of praise received by ERB at the beginning.
And ERB did his best to keep up with the trend exemplified in the Moskowitz
critique, creating beings like “Umka”, who are just as fascinating in their
sociology as the Green Martians, the Plant Men, the Great White Apes, were
when ERB first created them. As a valid comparison, take two of the Martian
stories from the Hall of Fame:
“The legacy of A Martian Odyssey
to the science fiction field was so great that it would serve as the basis
for an entire classroom lecture on the development of science fiction,
though from the standpoint of plot, it was merely a travelogue.
A space ship from Earth lands on
Mars and one of the crew proceeds to explore the planet. Suspense is created
by relating the story in the form of flash-backs, always a difficult narrative
procedure but in this case handled with consummate skill.
“A variety of alien life forms encountered
during the exploration are presented with such imaginative appeal that
they literally become unforgettable. Previous to A Martian Odyssey,
it had been especially popular to invest the manlike aliens or horrendous
monsters of other worlds with human-like motivations. The humanoids would
either be endowed with utopian concepts to contrast with those of the homo
sapiens or contrarily would display the full retinue of mortal compulsion
toward murder, lust, deceit, theft, power and conquest.
“The monsters were bent on either
eating the earthmen or coveting their women. The likelihood that a diet
of human flesh might contain the proper balance of vitamins and minerals
for a growing alien monster was rarely evaluated nor were the possible
differences in aesthetics or anatomy considered in their undeniable predilection
for females of the human species.
“Weinbaum’s life forms, to the delight
of the readers, display a psychology and sense of values if not incomprehensible,
then frequently antipodal to that of earthmen. They thought differently
and were motivated differently. Their entire philosophy of life was completely
out of the range of human experience. In delineating the superficial aspects
of these differences, Weinbaum permanently changed the mode in science
fiction and inaugurated the most delightful zoology of life forms since
L. Frank Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz.” (Lancer Books: New
York; 1934; intro 1962; p. 5-6.)
Weinbaum’s A Martian Odyssey and Ray Bradbury’s
chilling classic, “Mars is Heaven.” Both stories deal with a dying
planet, once inhabited by superior living beings, now decadent. The ostrich
like creature Tweel comes from a race once worshipped in Egypt as the great
In Bradbury’s story, the Martians use telepathic suggestion
to take on the personas of the Earth astronauts’ deceased loved ones in
order to lure them into the delusion that Mars is Heaven, before they kill
them. Weinbaum uses a telepathic rope monster who has the same kind of
Well, I think you get the picture: all of these ideas
are in ERB's Martian corpus, and almost passe by the time of Asimov’s second
nova. But there is something more telling in what both Greenbaum and Bradbury
have in common: the romance of ERB’s Barsoom. This is the same kind of
romance found in
Star Wars, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, the
Land of Oz,
Frank Herbert’s Dune, in Heinlein’s Future
Histories – especially Stranger in a Strange Land – and in
Martian Chronicles. I am quite sure that both
Heinlein and Bradbury – who never forgot their roots – voted for an ERB
story to be in the Hall of Fame, although I have only hunch to support
Thus, by the imaginary powers invested in me, I hereby
appoint ERB to the Science Fiction Hall of Fame on the grounds that he
is the undisputed King of Pulp Fiction and inspired almost every single
writer of science fiction – and almost every writer of every kind of genre
– in the Twentieth Century. He reached more readers across the planet than
anyone did till the day he died. I am not embarrassed about the writing
style of ERB, or his subject matter. I mean everything I say when I herald
this long neglected genius as the undisputed King of Pulp Fiction.
If one wishes to hear the classical rhythm of ERB’s language
as spoken voice – which demonstrates my point – one only has to go to www.panthanpress.com,
and listen to Episodes 5, 8, 23, & 24 in the Dateline Jasoom’s podcast,
to experience the actual audio performance of Steven Schroer’s Hardcover
Theater’s 2006 performance of ERB’s A Princess of Mars on
stage in Minneapolis. This play perfectly adapts the story into a minimalist
stage production that is faithful to the story in an awesome way. When
I heard it, I heard the true romance of Barsoom in the words of John Carter,
Dejah Thoris, Sola, and Tars Tarkas. God forbid that the true romance of
Barsoom is ever lost due to a movie adaptation. I thank Jeff “Elmo” Long
for taping and posting it on his podcast, thus preserving its historical
value of being the first stage production of the novel since it was published
No one should see the Disney movie coming out in the summer
of 2012 until they hear how the Barsoom of A Princess of Mars can
be dramatically recreated without major deviance from the original story.
I only hope that Elmo can post the video as well as the audio in the future,
for it deserves its place in the historical record.
Because this upcoming movie, John Carter of Mars,
will be produced by Disney and PIXAR, and maybe in 3D, we may be enamored
away from the original story as we were in the Asylum production. But at
least that production had a sexy Sola and an excellent Tars Tarkas. Traci
Lords was adequate as Dejah Thoris, but she would have been great if she
would have showed a lot of skin, but she didn’t. As it was, it was what
it was. Like the cartoon Tarzan, it had its high and low points. If the
Disney movie deviates too much from the original romance of Barsoom, we
will be left with toy figures and another attraction at Disneyland; and
the average viewer, being confronted with ERB for the first time in a science
fiction, non-Tarzan, context, will be deprived of the genuine creative
brilliance and romance of the original Barsoom.
This last point can't be underestimated. These literary
creations take on a life of their own and the fact is that if it hadn’t
been for ERB’s Barsoom, we may never have gone to the Moon. As Carl Sagan
“I can remember as a child
reading with breathless fascination the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
I journeyed with John Carter, gentleman advernturer from Virginia, to ‘Barsoom,’
as Mars was known to its inhabitants. I followed herds of eight-legged
beasts of burden, the thoats. I won the hand of the lovely Dejah Thoris,
Princess of Helium. I befriended a a four-meter-high green fighting man
named Tars Tarkas. I wandered within the spired cities and domed pumping-stations
of Barsoom, and along the verdant banks of the Nilosyrtis and Nepenthes
Think of it this way: if ERB would never have written A Princess
of Mars, then the likelihood of us ever launching a manned mission to Mars
in the next twenty years would shrink to almost nothing. ERB’s Barsoom
has everything to do with such sentimental things as the romantic human
imagination to explore the strange and unknown, and of course, the quest
for adventure and destiny.
“Might it really be possible – in
fact and not in fancy – to venture with John Carter to the Kingdom of Helium
on the planet Mars? Could we venture out on a summer evening, our way illuminated
by the two hurtling moons of Barsoom, for a journey of high adventure?...John
Carter got there by standing in an open field, spreading his hands and
wishing. I can remember spending many an hour in my boyhood, arms resolutely
outstretched in an empy field, imploring what I believed to be Mars to
transport me there. It never worked. There had to be some other way.” (Cosmos,
by Carl Sagan [Random House: NY; 1980] pp. 110-111,)
And let us not forget ERB's superb use of the English
language in a way that mesmerizes the average intelligent reader into the
willingness to accept any absurd theory as the premise for any story, knowing
full well that once he or she accepts the premise, no matter how absurd
it is, a fully created world of the impossible lies ahead that is a wonder
to read and experience.
Take for example the space ratio concept ERB uses to shrink
the occupants of Fal Silvas’ spaceship in Swords of Mars
so that they will be in proportion with the curvature of the small size
of the moon Thuria. The idea is so absurd that the reader stops abruptly
and says, “Hey, no way am I buying this,” yet dares not put the story down,
knowing full well that on the next page wonderful adventure lurks ahead
like the scent of fresh prey on the hot African savannah. The science fiction
historian James Gunn, a past president of the Science Fiction Writers of
America, was aware of all this:
“Burroughs is important
to the development of science fiction not so much because of the excellence
of his writing or for his innovations in idea, theme, or technique, but
because he was so prolific and so successful, and because his brand of
romantic adventure was so appealing to succeeding generations of readers
that his influence must be reckoned with. Almost every author of science
fiction and many readers credit Burroughs with their introduction, at an
early age, to ‘the sense of wonder.’” (The Road to Science Fiction #2:
from Wells to Heinlein, ed. by James Gunn [Mentor Book: NY; 1979] p. 68.)
I sense that Mr. Gunn voted for an ERB story to make the
Hall of Fame too; don’t you? He included chapters 2 and 3 from The
Chessmen of Mars as ERB’s contribution to science fiction history.
Most fans, I am sure, would have chosen something else more representative,
but at least this was a major step in the right direction. But, lets face
it: Tara of Helium has that affect on most men so I cannot blame James
Gunn for his weakness.
And there you have it,
ERB’s Mad Scientists of Mars: the Fifth Runner-Up
in the Seven Wonders of Barsoom!
Click for full-size splash bar
ERB honored at the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in
Seattle near the Space Needle.
Photos by Nancy Miller and Bill Stadnyk
Denny "Tarzan" Miller: Film/TV Actor and Author points
to ERB's picture etched in glass