Tuesday 8 July 2014

Under The Moons Of Mars

Dejah View

Under The Moons Of Mars: New Adventures On Barsoom
Edited by John Joseph Adams 
Simon And Schuster
ISBN: 978-1-4424-2029-8

It’s been a while, over two decades in fact, since I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic tales of life on the planet Mars/Barsoom and its various inhabitants both native (Dejah Thoris, Ras Thavas) and alien (John Carter, Ulysses Paxton). Even so, while I was thrilled at the idea of a collection of short stories by various writers utilising characters found in Burroughs’ tales, I’d have to say that I found this book to be a little less than a worthy addition to the original body of work and more of a parody in homage, rather than something comparable to the real thing.

To be fair, most of the writers, asides from Joe R. Lansdale and Chris Claremont, were unknown to me and so I don’t know how much these people have had to bend their natural style to get something which is closer in flavour to the Burroughsian charm and sentence construction but... I think the stories in here gel less with the original material than I would personally have liked. I think Lansdale’s opening story, The Metal Men Of Mars, probably comes to the closest to the spirit of the source tales.

Not all the stories focus on John Carter and, to be fair, not all of them are deliberately trying to ape the style (or even great white ape the style for that matter... sorry) of the originals. A Sidekick Of Mars by Garth Nix, for example, is very much a satire of the stories in that it gives John Carter an assistant who doesn’t appear in the original tales and, told from that character’s point of view, you can make up your own mind as to whether the character is telling a fictional truth or whether his recollection of events leaves you in any doubt as to his credibility as a person. So that one was kind of fun.

Other characters such as John Carter and Dejah Thoris’ daughter, son and grandson also take up some stories and the fluctuating character focus from tale to tale might be somewhat off putting to some readers, as they probably were when Burroughs was writing his original series, I suspect. In fact, one of my all time favourites of the original Edgar Rice Burroughs tales, The Master Mind Of Mars, focuses on another earth man, Ulysses Paxton, and his arch nemesis, the evil scientist Ras Thavas... with Carter and co only making a brief cameo near the end. Thavas also makes an appearance in these new tales but, like I said, I did find most of the stories in this volume underwhelming and less than copacetic with the style of the original narrative structure, although some obvious attempt has been made by the writers.

Having said that, some of the writers have gone out of their way to either satirise or make critical judgments which allow you to question the basic tenets of the viewpoints and attitudes of the original characters being portrayed. This is very much a double edged sword, however. For example, Peter S. Beagle’s The Ape-Man Of Mars, in which Edgar Rice Burroughs’ other famous character, Tarzan Of The Apes, is transported to Barsoom and stays as a guest of John Carter and Dejah Thoris in Helium, gives the Carter character an almost xenophobic attitude towards Greystoke’s British inheritance. While it’s true a certain amount of wariness on Carter’s part may possibly be understandable in terms of the apparent lack of English involvement in the American Civil War... an interesting idea... the John Carter character is very much portrayed as the villain of the piece, so to speak, and even his incomparable Dejah Thoris’ affiliations are called into question at one point. This, for me, was pushing things a bit too far. Carter is very much a hero of all ages and portraying him with a duplicitous and villanous brush is something I found hard to accept.

On the other hand, a story about the treacherous Thark called Sarkoja, who was in Burroughs’ first martian tale, A Princess Of Mars (originally published as Under The Moons Of Mars, the title of this volume), is an interesting take on the consequences of “things left unfinished” and a tale told from the point of view of John Carter’s pet hound, Woola’s Song, is a welcome break from some of the other ideas in the book. There are also some nice illustrations included, one for each story, by a variety of artists and many of these, I think, are more succesful... perhaps partially because there is nothing too valid in terms of authenticity, due to the nature of illustration, with which to draw a comparison to.

Ultimately, I wouldn’t personally recommend these additional Barsoomian tales to many folks. I think if you are a fan of the original works and have a relationship to those, then you will probably raise the same kinds of mental barriers that I probably did when I read these. If, on the other hand, you have no emotional investment in the original stories and have never read them, then taken in their own right you’ll probably get a lot more out of them and, who knows, it might encourage you to seek out the real goldmine of Burroughs own works set in the Barsoomian landscape... which certainly isn’t a bad thing. Or you could just bypass this volume altogether and read the original tales. The choice is yours.

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