Edgar Rice Burroughs' first Martian trilogy, featuring John Carter on Barsoom, was a huge hit in the 1910s. How could he top it? With a series about Carter's kids, apocalyptic cities, floating heads with tentacles, and an ordinary Barsoomian soldier.
Taking his hero John Carter from humble stranger in a strange world to Warlord of all Mars over the course of the first three books of the Barsoom series left Burroughs with a problem: what to do for an encore? Like so many serial fiction authors before and since, he gave his hero a rest and put the kids to work as the series settled in a pleasant, if repetitive and somewhat dull middle age.
Thuvia, Maid of Mars could very well been entitled Son of John Carter. It follows John Carter and Dejah Thoris's son Carthoris's pursuit of the enticingly-named Thuvia, a totally hot enslaved princess introduced in Gods of Mars. Unfortunately for Carthoris, not only is she betrothed to another, she is a target of a complicated kidnapping plot designed to plunge Helium into war with three other city-states.
The plot goes awry, leaving the pair captives in Lothar, the first and one of the best of the lost cities that pepper the landscape of Burroughs' Mars. The Lotharians are survivors of the days when vast oceans covered the now-arid planet. Time has reduced their number to less than 1,000. By inclination thinkers, not fighters, they keep the ubiquitous green Martian hordes at bay by mentally conjuring up "The Bowmen of Lothar," vast armies of imaginary bowmen that belie their origins by exacting real and substantial casualties on those not in on the joke. With the help of Kar Komak, a bowman of Lothar "imagined" so vividly he becomes real, Carthoris escapes, and after the usual round of captures, sword fights, and rescues, obtains Thuvia's release from her betrothal and returns to Helium in a manner befitting that of a son of John Carter.
In Chessman of Mars, John Carter and Dejah Thoris's daughter Tara's takes center stage as she is not unwillingly pursued by Djor Kantos, a prince of Gathol. Although the capture/rescue/escape plot is a virtual rehash of Thuvia, Burroughs maintains interest with a bizarre Martian race and another excellent lost city in perhaps the best book outside of the original trilogy.
In the land of Bantoom, Tara and Djor Kantos encounter the rykors and the kaldanes. The kaldanes are intelligent animated heads that live symbiotically with the rykors: dumb, near insensate animals resembling headless human bodies. The kaldanes have evolved tendrils that allow them to latch onto the rykors' necks and control their motor functions; when a rykor is injured or tired, the kaldane simply latches on to another. As one kaldane sneers at Tara, "You are the slave of a mass of stupid flesh, bone and blood." Burroughs makes clear that kaldanes freely switch between male and female rykors; sadly, like all other sexual possibilities in the series, he left this angle unexploited.
After escaping Bantoom, Tara finds herself imprisoned in the lost city of Manator, a city obsessed with jetan, the Martian chess. Not only is half the city named for various jetan pieces and terms, the inevitable local gladiatorial contests feature jetan games played with living pieces fighting to the death over contested squares. In a refreshing change from the usual Christian/lion arena scenarios, an undercover Djor Kantos captains a jetan side in a Mantorian arena with Tara as the prize. Such was Burroughs's attention to detail he includes rules for what proves to be a very playable chess-like game in an appendix.
With the Carter kids all safely married off, Mastermind of Mars follows the escapades of Ulysses S. Paxton, a World War I US Infantry captain transported from the trenches to Mars a la John Carter. He is taken in by Ras Thavas, a brilliant Martian surgeon blessed with a Mengelian sense of ethics. He makes his living transplanting the brains of old and rich Martians into the bodies of young and hot slaves. He is motivated, not by greed but by the desire to finance his pure research devoted to answering such questions as do you get when you transplant half of a Martian's brain into an ape? (answer: a very smart ape.)
Paxton falls in love with Valla Dia, a hot princess whose body is purchased by a cruel queen. Accompanied by an assassin, another one of Ras Thavas's subjects looking to retrieve his own body, and that really smart ape, Paxton sets out on a the standard Burroughsian Martian odyssey. After a standard series of battles, escapes, and some surgery, everyone's brain is swapped out for better or for worse, and Paxton winds up with the right girl with the right body.
In A Fighting Man of Mars, Burroughs uses an ordinary Martian as his protagonist for the first time. The titular fighting man is Hadon of Hastor, a humble lieutenant in the Helium armed forces. In a slow moving story, he goes on a quest to rescue the object of his infatuation and undergoes the usual cycle of capture and escape. The usually vivid, exotic backgrounds are below Burroughs's usual standard. The sadistic city of Ghasta goes by in a blur, the cannibals of U-gor are more pathetic than menacing, and the fearsome fate known only as The Death proves to be anything but. Luckily, the book features an authentically mad scientist cackling in his laboratory and concocting doomsday weapons he plans to use to (what else?) conquer the planet. The book is almost redeemed by the climactic full scale aerial battle, the first since Gods. Hadon personally saves the Heliumatic fleet from being destroyed by metal disintegrating rays and winds up with the hot little slave girl who, of course, turns out to be princess.
At this point, Burroughs was plainly running out of gas. But while he would continue to churn out increasingly bad Tarzan novels more or less annually as well as some truly appalling entries in his other series, he still had a few flashes of his old Martian form ahead.
Tune in for further installments in the Reading Barsoom series!
John Marr is the editor and janitor of the zine Murder Can Be Fun. He blogs at the Murder Can Be Fun Library.
Top image by Michael Whelen.