Monday, August 17, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Pirates of Venus

Although better known for his stories of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs returned to the sword-and-planet genre he helped to establish with the 1934 novel Pirates of Venus. This novel is the first of five in a series following the adventures of Carson Napier who accidentally winds up on Venus when his rocket ship is thrown off-course -- its original destination was Mars, ironically -- by failing to take into account the effect of the Moon's gravitation pull. Once on Venus (or Amtor, as its inhabitants call it), Napier discovers the planet to be inhabited by a wide variety of humanoid cultures, the most important of which is Vepaja, from which Princess Duare, the protagonist's love interest, hails.

Readers familiar with the Barsoom novels will find a lot of similarities between them and Pirates of Venus and its sequels, especially in the personality of Carson Napier, who is every bit as courageous and resourceful as John Carter, often using his Earthling ingenuity to invent devices or stratagems that the benighted Amtorians never considered before. Moreso than Barsoom, Amtor's cultures are generally quite hostile and belligerent, with Napier frequently in danger of death at the hands of one or the other of its factions. Likewise, local technology is a strange mish-mash, with longevity drugs and atomic-powered ray guns existing side by side with swords and long-distance communication by semaphore. Until Napier builds an airplane, the Amtorians had never conceived of one, despite having other vehicles and devices equal to or more advanced than those of Earth.

Pirates of Venus is a fun read, but it feels a bit more cartoonish than the Barsoom novels, almost a caricature of Burroughs's earlier work. There's a definite "Flash Gordon" vibe to the whole thing that, while not unenjoyable, somehow seems out of place compared to the slightly more sober John Carter novels. This feeling is made even more clear when contrasted with the social commentary and real world allusions that Burroughs makes throughout the novel. The villaninous Thorists, for example, are clearly Communists. There are also references to fascists, the Ku Klux Klan, eugenics, and other contemporary socio-political topics of the 1930s. The end result is an uneven goulash of ideas wrapped around a pulp adventure tale. It's not Burroughs's best work, by any means, but it still has a lot to offer anyone interested in the sword-and-planet genre. Plus, even when he's not at his best, Burroughs is still a remarkably compelling writer and that's very much in evidence here, despite its flaws.

6 comments:

  1. I LOVED these books.

    Course I loved the John Carter novels as well.

    But, having just read many of the ERB Mars books, I found the different take he used in his Venus novels fascinating.

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  2. I'm pretty much with you: my memory as that there was slightly a quality of going through the motions. But I enjoyed them, as much for the framing device as anything else. The framing device is always one of my favorite things in an ERB story.

    Have you read the Moon books (Moon Maid, Moon Men, and I'm blanking on the last). The anti-Communism gets hot and heavy there.

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  3. I'm afraid I've only got the 3rd one in this series and I stopped reading it once I realised that it was no. 3.

    The villaninous Thorists, for example, are clearly Communists. There are also references to fascists, the Ku Klux Klan, eugenics, and other contemporary socio-political topics of the 1930s.

    You see, now I find that sort of thing in old pulps (and literature in general) fascinating, whether I agree with the author or not.

    Pulps like comedy, pop music etc are relics of time and the social commentary and allusions sometimes add a kind of unique flavour I think.

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  4. That reminds me of Beyond the Farthest Star. It had an allusion to the German Blitz. I was rather disappointed with Farthest Star, because both sides where equally 2-dimensional, the lake of intrigue left the story dry and predictable, and it took itself a little too seriously. Burroughs died before he could finish it.

    The Lost Continent was an outright commentary to the US neutrality back in WWI, but to a far-fetched extreme! I dont know how anyone could top spending 200+ years of keeping one's own heads in the sand. That story was awesome!

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  5. Have you read the Moon books (Moon Maid, Moon Men, and I'm blanking on the last). The anti-Communism gets hot and heavy there.

    I have never read them that I can recall, but I plan to correct that oversight soon.

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  6. The Moon Men was actually written as a straight-up tale of a future where Communists take over America. ERB later revised it to make them Moon-Communists. :)

    @ChrisT--I agree, but ERB, Master of Adventure that he was, was pretty bad at allegory.

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