Monday, September 28, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: Warriors of Mars

I am exceptionally fond of sword-and-planet stories. As I have discussed in numerous posts over the years, it's in these tales of heroic Earthmen transported to other worlds – most often Mars but far from exclusively – that so many of the conventions we now associate with both fantasy and science fiction first appeared. Despite that, the sword-and-planet genre fell into disfavor long ago, coinciding, at least in part, with advances in technology that enabled us to learn much more about planets beyond our own. It seems that writers and readers alike could no longer take seriously the idea of an inhabited Moon, Venus, or Mars, leading to a precipitous decline in the amount of fiction of this sort after the 1950s.

An intriguing exception is Warriors of Mars, the first book in a engaging sword-and-planet trilogy written by Edward P. Bradbury in 1965. I won't feign ignorance of the fact that Bradbury is a pseudonym of Michael Moorcock, though, as I understand it, this information was not well known at the time (in part to distance his public utterances as editor of the magazine, New Worlds, a proponent of the burgeoning field of new wave sci-fi). 

Warriors of Mars, like much of Moorcock's work at the time, was written very quickly, over the course of a single weekend and this might explain its breakneck, almost feverish pacing. In this particular case, I think it works to the novel's benefit. The narrative doesn't take time to linger over details or, in many cases, fully flesh out its characters or situations. Instead, it simply barrels along, following the exploits of its protagonist on "Old Mars" and the reader is left with little time to ponder how far-fetched Moorcock's tale actually is.

Warriors of Mars is quite deliberately a pastiche of and commentary upon the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. For example, its protagonist, Michael Kane, is, like John Carter, an American, but hails from stolid Ohio rather than romantic Virginia and, rather than being a fighting man by profession, he is a professor and scientist attached to the Chicago Special Research Institute. The novel begins with a prologue, told in the first person, of Edward P. Bradbury's meeting with Kane in Nice, France, paralleling the foreword to A Princess of Mars, where Burroughs claims that he is sharing a strange manuscript composed by his "Uncle Jack." Such parallels abound in Warriors of Mars.

In the prologue, Kane explains that he was "doing top secret research on matter transmitters," which he tested on himself, resulting something wholly unexpected.

"I went through space – and time as well, I think. I went to Mars, my friend."

"Mars!" I was now even more incredulous. "But how could you have survived? Mars is lifeless – a waste of dust and lichen!"

"Not this Mars, my friend."

"There is another Mars?" I raised my eyebrows.

"In a sense, yes. The planet I visited was not, I am convinced, the Mars we can see through our telescopes. It was an older Mars, eons in the past, yet still ancient. It is my theory that our own ancestors originated on the planet and came here when Mars was dying millions of years ago!"

I think that short section gives a good sense of the general feel of the novel: brisk and full of exclamation points. It also reveals the way that Moorcock is playing with the template established by Burroughs. He is attempting to find ways to address some of the latter day criticisms of the plausibility of the sword-and-planet genre. Whether one agrees with his approach or not, Warriors of Mars is a fun read, particularly for fans of Burroughs. As I mentioned above, there are many deliberate echoes of Barsoom here, such as the giant blue Argzoon occupying a place similar to that of the Warhoon and Princess Shizala standing in for the incomparable Dejah Thoris. It's an unashamed pastiche but a well executed one. It's a reminder, too, that Moorcock's criticisms of his elders' work was often rooted in affection and respect rather than contempt. I think his appreciation of Burroughs is on display here and I therefore highly recommend Warriors of Mars (and its sequels) to anyone who feels similarly.


  1. Seems like a perfect setting for a game of Hypertellurians.

  2. Even at his most rushed, Moorcock's a fantastic writer. These books are a blast. And kudos is deserved for his plot device of having it set on Mars millions of years ago, when it *could* have been habitable.