Sympathy for Martian beasts

A number of friend and blog-related influences married with a certain malaise I’ve been feeling lately about contemporary fiction have effected in me a Great Awakening of sorts, albeit one involving far less Protestantism than the other Great Awakening usually referred to.

It’s difficult to put my finger on it. I’m a big Harry Potter fan, which brings me to occasional blows with Kaiju (my attempts at proselytization have thus far been evenly matched against his trollish disdain for the Boy Who Lived and associated IPs). That’s still contemporary, right? Maybe it’s all the hype surrounding Name of the Wind? Don’t get me wrong – I hold no animus toward Patrick Rothfuss and indeed found him largely more palatable in Acquisitions Incorporated than Will Wheaton. But some time ago I attempted to read his book and just…couldn’t get into it. I had high hopes, but the first few chapters weren’t enough to draw me in or invest me in the story. Maybe I’ll try again sometime.

That hasn’t been a problem for me with the likes of Conan. In nearly every Conan story I’ve read, Robert Howard’s writing style has sucked me in from almost the get-go. The pacing has been excellent, and despite being a rogue of sorts, Conan is a likable character. Women want him and men want to be him.

Like so many others of my age (I imagine), I haven’t spent much time on the SFF classics. Thankfully I’ve familiarized myself with many of the big names – love Asimov, and Herbert’s Dune is one of my favorite books. Heinlein, Dick, Clarke, Bradbury, Tolkien and Lewis – without having delved too deeply into their full bodies of works, I’ve at least gotten a taste of their distinctive flavors.

But there are other names. Names like Howard, Burroughs, and Vance were until recently just that – names I’d heard. The authors of books I’d seen and passed over. Pulp SFF? Wasn’t that just the nomenclature for mass-produced, low quality fiction with poor cover art?

I was young and not yet ready for such awesomeness.

I was never so foolish or arrogant as to voice these misconceptions, but I hope my elders and peers will forgive me nonetheless. It’s become clear to me lately that “pulp” is not a bad word, and the lines between pulp fiction and classic fiction are not always clear or distinct.

Over the past few months I’ve been slowly reading my way through the Conan stories. “Slowly” because there are so many things competing for my time and also because I’m in no great rush to be out of Conan stories to read. I’ve now become acquainted with Vance and will without a doubt explore his universe further. Currently, then, the other. Yes, I’ve begun reading Burroughs, who apparently wrote more than Tarzan. Kaiju gifted me a collection of the first five Barsoom novels for my birthday earlier this year, and the time has come.

I’m not very far in yet, but I do have a couple of thoughts. First, there is worth to be found in reading texts from older times, even if just a few generations removed. In this particular case I am referring to use of the English language. Expressions and slang go in and out of style and popular use. So do certain words and phrases. It takes a touch of effort to adjust to reading an older application of your native tongue, but this discomfort is a good thing. I’ve noticed it with Burroughs, though it’s not nearly so extreme as when reading someone like Stoker.

Second, good stories make you feel something. In Conan stories, it’s often the same excitement one feels when watching a movie hero thrash a villain or get the girl. Sometimes it’s a sense of shared anger at some wrong committed. In the Harry Potter series, Rowling possessed a knack for crafting interesting, often sympathetic characters. When you kill off your cast, it should hurt or at least shock, and in those books more often than not it did. I suppose I’ve become less patient with entertainment over as I grow older and lose more of my lifeforce; if your story doesn’t make me care, doesn’t make me feel something within the first few chapters, I’m gone. Sorry Name of the Wind!

Only about 20 or 30 pages in, and a Princess of Mars is on track so far. Our hero John Carter has been assigned some Martian monstrosity as a guard (at one point he compares it to a dog but says it is too ugly to so name it). He decides to test the beast’s role to determine whether it’s playing prison guard or bodyguard. Unfortunately, while experimenting with the boundaries of his freedom, he is pulled into a melee against two ape men. The Martian dog-beast-thing rushes in to help him and takes a severe beating as a result. Carter is about to flee, but decides that he cannot leave his new friend to die. See, this is good writing. Burroughs’ description of the beast carries and invokes feeling. Look how pitiful it is! How can our hero abandon it to its fate after it did its best to save him?


I really felt for the beastie-thing. And so I will keep reading.





10 thoughts on “Sympathy for Martian beasts

  1. Honestly, sometimes you think “Those writers can’t possibly be that good; they’re probably old and kludgy and hard to read because of it.” And then you finally read them and are embarrassed you ever thought that in the first place. It doesn’t help, either, that you tend to hear people say stuff like how their writing is stodgy or racist or dull hackery, even though those things could not be further from the truth.

    And dawwww, Woola.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed! Perhaps part of it is that so much SFF is derivative these days that it may not make sense to some people to go back and read the progenitors when you feel like you’ve already read the same stories a hundred times. But in truth the wellspring is usually fresher than the tributaries. You get to a point where everything old is new again, and I’m hoping that time is approaching for SFF.

      You bring up an excellent point with the criticisms of some older works as being racist or intolerant, or some might say “on the wrong side of history.” It’s irksome to no end to hear people judging our forebears and their works without the lens of historical context. Leftists are the worst at this – they are quick to condemn people who hold traditional views on same sex marriage (which were mainstream views not 10 years ago), so of course they have absolutely no tolerance for historically different views on other aspects of sexuality, gender roles, or race relations. And it doesn’t even matter to them that in this context we’re talking fiction. Wrongthink must be stamped out, even when we’re talking long-dead authors and made-up settings.


      1. I do think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of gender roles in older SFF that involves a lot of contemporary projection. I’m really looking forward to being able to finally share the Liana Kerzner article later this year in which she discusses the female roles and feminine power and empowerment in the Barsoom books.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I look forward to reading it!

        I don’t recall which posts of the top of my head, but JC Wright has put out some excellent essays about strong women characters and how they differ from strong male characters. Chiefly, female heroes often provide courage and succor, and though they usually lack in physical strength, they often possess an emotional strength lacking in men. It’s sad that in our current day and age this is seen as an inferior and undesirable role. The sexes are different, with different strengths and weaknesses, but certain parts of modernity reject this truth.


    2. If you have not seen the recent John Carter movie, finish the books and do so.
      While it made several errors of marketing, it is a wonderful vision and I tell this story:

      I saw it the first week it was out, on a Thursday as that was the only day I could get to it. In a giant 200 person theater there were perhaps 20 people. It is a long-ish movie – 2 hours 12 minutes, and while it takes a little time to get going and get into the characters the last 1.5 hours is a non-stop thrill ride with just enough time to breathe and learn between excitements.

      At the end of the film, of 20 participants, all 20 including me desperately went to the restroom simultaneously because we simply could not leave the seats for a second during the movie.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I didn’t really hear much about the film either way, other than it got mediocre reviews and changed a few things (which isn’t surprising). I am curious to see how it turned out, though, so if I do catch this on TV or one of the streaming services I think I’ll check it out!


  2. @PCB: Keep in mind that APoM was ERB’s first novel and practically his first story PERIOD. It’s full of — for the time — absolutely mind-blowing imagination. His GODS OF MARS was a definite leap forward in his writing skills, though, and just as imaginative. Virtually everything ERB wrote in those first 10-15yrs is worth a read, and I would say nearly everything he wrote throughout his career had at least some spark of imagination or some wry, Swiftian observation on the human condition. That’s one important thing to keep in mind: while entertainment was foremost in ERB’s mind, he liked to use outlandish situations and cultures to hold a mirror to mankind’s foibles.

    @ Cirsova: Very much looking forward to that Kerzner article! ERB gets very unfairly hammered for his heroines not being “empowered” enough. That’s just wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

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