30 August 2011

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Venus, Part 2: Lost on Venus

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The parade on the second planet continues in Lost on Venus. This one of the most controversial works that Edgar Rice Burroughs ever published, although it surprises me that enough readers managed to get through the lackluster first book, Pirates of Venus, to want to pick up the sequel and be able to argue about it. But here it is, so get out your anti-tharban gear and be ready to test your genetic purity!

Our Saga: The adventures of one Mr. Carson Napier, former stuntman and amateur rocketeer, who tries to get to Mars and ends up on Venus, a.k.a. Amtor, instead. There he discovers a lush jungle planet of bizarre creatures and humanoids who have uncovered the secret of longevity. The planet is caught in a battle between the country of Vepaja and the tyrannical Thorists. Carson finds time during his adventuring to fall for Duare, forbidden daughter of a Vepajan king. Carson’s story covers three novels, a volume of connected novelettes, and an orphaned novella.

Previous Installments: Pirates of Venus (1932).

Today’s Installment: Lost on Venus (1933)

Secret Origin

Burroughs completed Lost on Venus in early 1932, before Pirates of Venus made its first appearance as a serial in the pulp elder-statesmen magazine, Argosy. Since the first novel hardly “ended” at all, Lost on Venus picks up the story moments later, and with only a short gap between the two serials in Argosy.

The cliffhanger had Carson Napier on the continent of Noobol in the clutches of the Venusan version of communists: the Thorists. The Thorists didn’t do much in Pirates of Venus; will they make up for it here? Oh, someone is apparently going to get lost. Burroughs was superb at getting his characters lost, so this has promise.

By the way, Edgar Rice Burroughs held some controversial views. Just giving you the heads-up on that.

The Argument

The Thorists take Carson Napier to the city of Kapdor, where he is placed in a fiendish death trap. Carson manages to escape using 20% ingenuity and 80% dumb luck, and stumbles upon his Thorist captor, Moosko, who is torturing Duare. He overcomes the fat oligarch, and finds out that the birdman who was supposed to fly Duare to safety changed his mind and flew her to Kapdor and captivity. Carson gets Duare out the city, and immediately gets lost. He and Duare wander and bicker (“I love you!” “You must not say that to me!”) until the savage men of Venus, the kloonobargan, capture them and plan a cannibal feast.

At this point, Carson and ERB decide they are tired of the Amtorian convention of creating plurals with the prefixes “kloo-” and “kl-” and tell us to forget about it. The kloonobargan and the klangan become the nobargans and the angans, and a typesetter somewhere gets paid slightly less.

Carson and Duare escape the nobargans and find an edenic valley. There they meet Skor, the jong (king) of the country of Morov. He is no ally to the Thorists, but when Duare and Carson enter his gloomy castle, they find a greater threat: dead men who walk! Skor has discovered a science that allows him to re-animate the dead and place his commands in their brains; he also experiments on living humans to create his own race. Duare vanishes in the night, and Carson escapes with another prisoner, Nalte, the daughter of the jong of the country of Andoo.

The two fall in with the men of the nation of Havatoo. One of the warriors, Ero Shan, escorts them to their high-tech city of beautiful people and electric power. The citizens follow a strict eugenics program that breeds a rational society that requires no laws. Nalte receives the genetic approval, but Carson fails their psychological test, and the scientists choose to execute him. Carson redeems himself with his knowledge of astronomy unknown on Venus, and the men of Havatoo rescind his death penalty. Carson starts working at developing a flying machine that he hopes to use to return to Vepaja.

The dead men of Morov infiltrate the city and kidnap Nalte. Carson enters the dead city of Kormor through a tunnel under the river and enters the palace of Skor. He finds not only Nalte there, but also Duare. They receive help escaping from an old woman, Kroona, one of the few remaining living people in the city. Carson must make a double rescue, and then face an even more difficult test when the Havatoo scientists decide that Duare is unfit to live.

The Upsides

Lost on Venus is the best book of the series. It moves fast, and even in its poorer sections it keeps the reader hanging on the action in a way that Pirates of Venus never manages. It also contains twisted ideas that spark debate and offer a look into the mentality of the early 1930s, although these concepts will disgust most readers. I’ll phrase it this way: Lost on Venus is an “interesting” book.

Burroughs puts his wild imagination into deadly obstacles for the heroic duo, where in the first novel he used it to create the Amtor background and showed scant interest in imaginative plot devices. The story is the standard “one damn thing after another” as Carson and Duare/Nalte wander lost over unknown regions of Venus and through bizarre cultures, but it at least presents constant momentum.

Carson receives more direction this go-round. It’s the same “get the kidnapped girl back home” (and not always the same girl) patter, but it’s something. With all the Amtorian cultural background established in Pirates of Venus, the new book can get moving right away and pack in more adventuring.

Although Carson still falls prey to lunk-headed decisions, he seems more realistically fallible here. He cannot charge at any attacker and come out victorious, as he finds out during his encounter with the tharban, a leonine carnivore, where he ends up retreating to a tree branch and acting as spectator to the vere and batso (a bison-like beast) smashing it out. Duare has to save Carson at least once, and this is a nice piece of turnabout that I can get behind. If it was Burroughs’s intention to make Carson a realistic hero from the outset, or to make him a parody of earlier indestructible protagonists, then he starts to succeed with him here.

The Room of the Seven Doors, the deathtrap where the rulers of Kapdor place Carson, is a wickedly creative piece of physical and psychological torture. This sort of gonzo inventiveness mixed with action was missing entirely from Pirates of Venus, and seeing something this fun so early in the book makes it feel that ERB has gotten his swagger back. The tharban vs. basto fight is another fine piece of ERB giddiness, and the image has caught the attention of most illustrators of the novel. Frank Frazetta made this moment the cover of his edition of Lost on Venus.

The City of the Dead is also a great concept, and Skor comes the closest to “main villain” status seen so far on Amtor. The dead men are eerie and weird, and much more of the second half should have been built around them instead of exploring Havatoo’s society.

Nalte is the first supporting character on Amtor who can carry her own weight. She seems a better romantic fit for Carson than Duare, but Burroughs rarely permits his heroes to change romantic interests once he established the conflict. The plot arranges to switch Nalte over to Ero Shan, along with some minor confusion so Duare thinks Carson doesn’t love her, but I really wanted Carson to end up with the livelier Nalte.

A surprisingly emotional moment appears near the end with the character Kroona, the first elderly person Carson or any of the other Amtorians have met on the planet. Both Kroona and Duare are amazed at seeing the difference in age, and Kroona’s tears feel like something that the aging Burroughs understood. This is, so far, the most effective use of the “Eternal Life” theme of the Venus novels.

Finally, the “Eugenics Screed.” This is something that is both an upside and a downside to the book. Once Carson arrives in Havatoo, the story turns into an explanation of how selective breeding—which includes the execution or forced sterilization of genetic and intellectual “undesirables”—can create a utopian society. Carson Napier doesn’t flee from this in horror, or try to stop the rulers of Havatoo (as if he were skilled enough to); he instead supports it with enthusiasm, even when the scientists come close to killing him for his perceived psychological aberration. Carson is angrier at one of his male relatives for selecting an inferior bride than he is at the people who wish to kill him because of some mental deficiency.

However, passages like this in the pulp fiction of the 1920s and 1930s are one of the reasons that reading popular literature of the past is important and should not be dismissed because the weltanschauung does not match ours. It provides a window into the thinking of another era that feels more alive than turning to a dry nonfiction book of from the same time. Keep in mind that Burroughs wrote Lost on Venus in mid-1932, a year before the Nazis took power in Germany and most Americans had even heard the name “Adolf Hitler.” It would not be until after World War II that the planet witnessed the horror of what a eugenics program in action could achieve. In the first three decades of the twentieth century, eugenics was a popular topic, even taught in college classrooms; opinions were strong on both sides of the issue, but it didn’t cause the instant revulsion that it does now. Burroughs was solidly in the pro-eugenics camp; he wrote an unpublished essay, “I See a New Race,” that encourages forced sterilization of “criminals, defectives, and incompetents.” The eugenics philosophy of Lost on Venus is therefore the undisguised view of the writer, and it’s more interesting than reading a nonfiction support of the ideas because it tries less to hide behind defensive academic wording.

(And wait a minute . . . is Burroughs implying that the reason the scientists of Havatoo marked Carson for execution is because he is “incompetent” and has a terrible sense of direction? If this is true, then it’s a pretty damn ballsy example of an author slapping his own hero in the face and making a sly bit of self-parody. And Carson is dense enough to agree!)

I find the system that the Havatoo use to run their city to be repugnant, and Carson Napier’s support of it is inexcusable. He doesn’t even turn against it when Duare gets the death sentence; then it’s only a personal inconvenience, not a condemnation of the system. But the pulp scholar in me also finds the eugenics preaching of Lost on Venus a reason for fascination, adding a new layer to what is supposed to be light entertainment. Here is further support of the importance of pulp literature as an avenue of serious cultural studies.

The Downsides

But — ugh. The eugenics system of Havatoo that Carson Napier supports is horrid. Most proponents of eugenics of the time did not see a connection to genocide, but the scientists of Havatoo carry out the cold-blooded murder of the “social misfits” of their society (such as the handicapped and physically weak) to create a so-called utopia, an extreme position that the hero of the story agrees with. They even have a mass-murderer in their past, “Mankar the Bloody,” who they worship for starting the genetic tyranny. “He saw to it that the physically, morally, or mentally defective were rendered incapable of bringing their like into the world; and no defective infant was allowed to live,” Ero Shan proudly explains to Carson. No matter the time period, this is obscene, and the language comes so uncomfortably close to Nazi terms that modern readers unfamiliar with the pulp era might toss the book aside. I would encourage them to keep reading and engage the text as look into 1933 and the major shift that Nazi atrocities would later cause in scientific thinking, but I can’t blame those upset readers from stopping.

(I suggest readers find a copy of Norman Spinrad’s amazing novel The Iron Dream for a fascinating satire on the eugenic ideas of early science fiction. Burroughs certainly wasn’t the only science-fiction author of the time to suggest these ideas.)

The biggest in-story damage that the Havatoo society does is that it undermines Carson’s shaky hero credentials even further. Right when the contemporary reader wants to see the novel’s hero smash apart these dystopian murderers, he instead falls in line with them. He’s supporting a society that to modern eyes looks freakishly like something Heinrich Himmler might have arranged. However, the next novel, Carson of Venus, shows a huge change in attitude (as well as awareness of the Nazis) with an evil fascist group called the “Zanis.” At least we have that to look forward to.

On to the lighter criticism. . . .

There is only so far that the chase formula can carry a tale, and Burroughs had used up most of his tricks by the early ‘30s. The plot moves faster, but the creative possibilities of ERB’s fantasy Venus play small part in it. Most of the time the action is interchangeable with a Tarzan jungle story or a Pellucidar adventure: savage tribesmen, battling wild beasts, lost cities. Some interesting possibilities get hurled aside fast, like the nobargan and a tribe of pygmies. The Thorists are again sidelined; why did Burroughs set them up as the main adversaries and ideological whipping boys in the first place? The people of Havatoo would make great enemies, but instead they become allies and only in the final chapters does Carson have reason to oppose them, and even then he still admires them.

Carson may have the “hapless hero” element in his favor, but it doesn’t always work for him or us. The coincidence that Carson escapes from captivity in Kapdor only to immediately stumble upon Duare, who is in the city because her angan rescuer at the end of Pirates of Venus decided to abruptly turn around and fly the other direction, is a stretch even for Burroughs. In fact, he coincidentally stumbles onto her again later in the novel. Carson’s heroics often depend too much on coincidence, or someone else happening along to save him; he isn’t a hero that offers readers many chances to cheer him on.

Skor’s “City of the Dead” is a great concept, harkening back to some of the strange cities of Barsoom. But Burroughs never takes it anywhere amazing; it’s only a pit-stop where Duare gets separated from Carson so he can go chasing after her. The eventual climatic escape from it happens too easily.

Chapter One contains on of the thickest, widest, tallest, most impenetrable Walls of Exposition I’ve ever come across. As the narrator, Carson seems he can’t spit out the details of the previous novel fast enough. Behold this single paragraph, composed in one breathless sentence:
This country in which we were was almost as strange to Vilor as to me, for he was from the distant mainland of Thora proper, while the party that had assisted in my capture were natives of this land of Noobol who had been induced to join the Thorists in their world wide attempt to foment discord and overthrow all established forms of government and replace them with their own oligarchy of ignorance.
Phew! Everyone got that? Oh, no time—we’ve got ten more pages of this! What is most head scratching about this awkward cramming of information into Carson’s narration is that it’s unnecessary. There’s a Foreword written in the voice the “fictional Edgar Rice Burroughs” describing how he received the telepathic story from Carson. He could have more naturally laid out the catch-up material before Chapter One started.

The hope that maybe the Thorists might, oh, do something in this novel evaporates as rapidly as water on the real Venus. Moosko, set-up in the previous novel as a major adversary, punches out for the rest of the novel after a quick fight in Chapter Two. Once Carson and Duare get lost, the Thorists are out the picture. So, why do we have them around again?

Craziest bit of Burroughsian Writing: “He was a large, gross man, fat and pussy.” I had to read that over four times before I could proceed.

Most Triumphantly Stupid Carson Napier Moment: A split here. First, the subtle indication that Carson believes that he should be executed because he’s incompetent. But maybe that’s not “triumphant” because it isn’t so out in the open. Second, Carson gets five feet outside a city gate and declares that he’s lost. This is indeed the same man who aimed for Mars and ended up on Venus. Carson is the sort of guy who’d read the mall directory to get to Restoration Hardware and instead end up in Darfur.

Best Monster: Definitely the vere, a reptilian nasty that tries to chomp on Carson when he first enters the paradise valley. Massive tusked jaws, far-shooting tongue, venomous breath—the beast is too much for Carson, and Duare has to leap in to save him. I would have loved to see Willis O’Brien or Ray Harryhausen animate this thing.

Most Uncomfortable Moment for the Modern Reader: The whole eugenics lecture that Ero Shan gives in Chapter Twelve will set off screaming alarm bells, but Carson’s reaction is—well, read it for yourself: “I shook my head as I thought of the mess that earth men have made of government and civilization by neglecting to apply to the human race the simple rules which they observe to improve the breeds of dogs and cows and swine. I . . . pray that there might arise in my own world a Mankar the Bloody.” Sorry, I’ve got nothing else on this topic.

Paging John Norman, Paging John Norman: Carson explains to Duare why he admires primitive man: “[He] was not bound by silly conventions. . . . If he wanted a woman and she did not want him, he grabbed her by the hair and dragged her to his lair; it was all very simple.” To offset this, Duare responds that if a man tried that with her, she would kill him. Ah, Romance ERB Style! Hmm, maybe I like Duare more than I thought.

Should ERB have Continued the Series? This book improves enormously over the last in the excitement quota, but I feel content to end here as a duology. The Carson-Duare romance has reached a satisfactory conclusion, and they are on their way back to Vepaja. Burroughs exhausted most of his new ideas for Venus, and one of them was pretty thorny, so I'd rather he got back to working on Barsoom.

Next Up: Carson of Venus