Monday, May 17, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Moon Maid

Edgar Rice Burroughs is easily one of the most successful and influential creators of fantasy and science fiction of all time. His works, from the stories of Tarzan to the adventures of John Carter, have inspired generations of writers, including Robert E. Howard, whose personal library possessed more books by ERB than any other author. Despite this, neither he nor his literary creations are especially well known nowadays. I think that's a great shame for many reasons, not least of which being that he told fun and engaging adventure stories that still hold up decades after their first publication.

A case in point is The Moon Maid, which almost no one remembers anymore, especially when compared to the Barsoom or Amtor series. Originally serialized in the pages of Argosy All-Story Weekly, starting with the May 5, 1923 issue, all of its constituent parts were eventually collected into novel form and published in 1926. The story The Moon Maid tells of its protagonist, Julian, is, in some ways, quite similar to the story of John Carter or Carson Napier: an Earthman travels to another world, faces innumerable alien threats, and wins the heart of a princess. In other ways, though, it is unique and it is that uniqueness that makes it well worth reading.

Unlike the Barsoom or Amtor stories, which are set, more or less, in "modern" times, The Moon Maid is set in the future – two futures, as it turns out – of when it was published. The first future is the year 1967, a few years after the conclusion of a decades-long Great War that began in 1914. The conclusion of that war established peace and world government, just in time for "that historic day," June 10, 1967 when 

Earth received her first message from Mars, since which the two planets have remained in constant friendly communication, carrying on a commerce of reciprocal enlightenment. In some branches of the arts and sciences the Martians, or Barsoomians, as they call themselves, were far in advance of us, while in others we had progressed more rapidly than they. Knowledge was thus freely exchanged to the advantage of both worlds. We learned of their history and customs and they of ours, though they had for ages already known much more of us than we of them. Martian news held always a prominent place in our daily papers from the first.

 As you can see, The Moon Maid takes place in the same universe as the adventures of John Carter, who still lives on the Red Planet. This information is related to the reader by an unnamed narrator who meets the story's true protagonist, the aforementioned Julian, while traveling on a transoceanic liner. Julian is "a fine looking chap, lean and bronzed" and serves as an officer of the Air Corps of the International Peace Fleet. He is also, or so he claims, an immortal being who is continually reincarnated as his own descendants, a process that also leaves him with knowledge of the future, which is to say, the second future depicted in the novel. This second future is 2024, when Earth's first interplanetary vessel is preparing to travel to Mars.

Julian then recounts to the narrator the story of this voyage, which he "remembers" even though it takes place in the future and involves his own grandson, also named Julian. The bulk of The Moon Maid consists of Julian's memories of what happened when the Earth ship, named the Barsoom in honor of its ultimate destination. Accompanying Julian aboard the Barsoom was an officer named Lieutenant Commander Orthis, whom he described as "one of the most brilliant men I have ever known, and at the same time one of the most unscrupulous, and, to me at least, the most obnoxious." Orthis is responsible for the scientific breakthrough that enables the Barsoom to travel successfully between planets, but he is noted for having "married a nice girl and abandon[ing] her," as well as being rumored to be "affiliated with a secret order that sought to overthrow the government." This, of course, is in contrast to Julian, who is courageous, upstanding, and honest, as are all Burroughs's heroes.

Shortly after the Barsoom has traveled past the Moon, Orthis comes to dinner in the messroom "noticeably under the influence of liquor." Julian, as his superior officer, sends him back to his quarters, which Orthis resents. He grows angry and rants at Julian, claiming that it was his labor and intellect who made this journey possible and he would not be upstaged by anyone. This scene allows Burroughs to talk briefly about the inefficacy of Prohibition – remember this was published in 1923, when the Eighteenth Amendment was still in force – and how it had been repealed. In any case, Orthis takes perverse revenge on Julian by destroying the Barsoom's engines, sending the vessel careening toward the Moon. 

Needless to say, the Barsoom and its crew, including Orthis, survive the crash into the Moon, where the main action of The Moon Maid takes place. I say into, not onto, because Julian and his comrades discover that the Moon is in fact hollow. Its interior is quite habitable, filled with plants and animals, and illuminated by the glow of radiocative rocks. There are also two intelligent species. The first are the savage Va-ga, cannibalistic centaur-like people, who are an early foe of Julian and his shipmates. The second are the U-ga, who look very similar to Earthmen and whose princess, Nah-ee-lah, Julian considers alluringly beautiful. As one might expect, Nah-ee-lah, as the titular Moon Maid, figures prominently; the travails of her people at the hands of a revolutionary group known as the Kalkars is the central conflict of The Moon Maid.

Reading through this, what most impressed me was not any individual element of the tale Burroughs tells but rather the way that he is able to mix and match elements from his previous stories to create something that is somehow distinctive. One might reasonably expect The Moon Maid simply to be a retelling of A Princess of Mars with elements of At the Earth's Core. That it isn't is, I think, a testament to Burroughs's storytelling ability. The "futuristic" setting, the element of reincarnation, and the French/Russian revolution plotline (with the Kalkars standing in for the Jacobins/Communists) all work together to create an action-packed escapade that doesn't read like just another chapter in the adventures of John Carter or Carson Napier. The Moon Maid is a fun story; I wish I'd read it sooner.

13 comments:

  1. So the novel was published in 1923, years after the 1918 ending of World War I, but in the novel World War I lasted until 1967? Seems odd.

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    1. It's a bit unclear, actually. The story makes mention of an armistice in 1918, but it also talks about the Great War continuing until the 1960s. There's also talk about how warfare was sporadic and punctuated by periods of peace. Make of that what you will.

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    2. Considering the history of the 20th century, this isn't too inaccurate.

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  2. Brings back fond childhood memories of how excited I was when I first read this and discovered it was explicitly set in the Barsoom universe. I'd finished the last of the Carter and Carson books the year before and thought I'd seen the last of the (very loosely) connected stories in that setting, and here I found another. These days the idea of crossovers and shared universes is commonplace thanks to things like the MCU, but as a kid in the early 1970s it was still a pretty fresh concept.

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  3. ". . . neither he nor his literary creations are especially well known nowadays. I think that's a great shame for many reasons . . . ."

    Umm, probably a lot to do with the rampant racism and white supremacism . . . .

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    1. May I suggest that you try reading some of ERB's work before accusing him of "rampant racism and white supremacism"? Unless you assume that any author of that time must be guilty of those crimes by default, which does seem to be fairly common these days.

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    2. Oh, I don't know, Lovecraft is fairly explicitly racist and he's pretty popular.

      @John E Boyle, as for "rampant racism and white supremacism" it is pretty evident in some of the Tarzan books, where they are treated more or less like the First Nations people in Disney's Peter Pan. For instance, the "Black men want to rape our women" trope is pretty evident in this passage from Return of Tarzan, which I picked more or less at random:

      "The natives seemed to have forgotten her existence—no one came near the hut, not even to bring her food. She could hear them at the other end of the village laughing and yelling and knew that they were celebrating with food and native beer—knowledge which only increased her apprehension. To be prisoner in a native village in the very heart of an unexplored region of Central Africa—the only white woman among a band of drunken [Black men]! The very thought appalled her. Yet there was a slight promise in the fact that she had so far been unmolested—the promise that they might, indeed, have forgotten her and that soon they might become so hopelessly drunk as to be harmless."

      And while I haven't read it I gather the essay "I See A New Race" isn't exactly egalitarian.

      I'm not saying there is no value to these books, but you do have to be willing to navigate some unfortunate attitudes from time to time. And I don't think pretending they don't exist is really the answer.

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    3. Kind of a big leap there, assuming he hasn't read ERB's work despite no evidence of that.

      I have been reading Burroughs's work, and while I love it, I won't shy away from the fact that, yes, it DOES pour on the racism. It's more subdued in the Barsoom stories (worst of it is Princess's prologue), but it's VERY overt in Tarzan of the Apes. Read basically any description of a black person in that novel, and you'll see what I mean. Guy writes his Martians with more humanity than he does humans with a little extra melanin.

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    4. Boyle: I've read _Tarzan of the Apes_ and this to confirm it wasn't just a one-off:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Rice_Burroughs#Reception_and_criticism

      I've also read some of the Barsoom series. The right-wing stuff isn't as overt as it is in Tarzan, but it's there.

      Beoric: Oh, yes: Lovecraft's racism is there, but it's not all that overt often (much like Robert E. Howard's works); it's usually in the background with tropes of racial decadence (usually through race mixing eg Deep Ones), white technical and scientific excellence vs. non-white religious fanaticism, etc. However, it's been a long time since I saw it stocked so much in book stores. Like the Burroughs stuff, you can find it nowadays if you go looking for it in major book stores, but you won't find whole shelves devoted to it (except maybe the Disney version in the kids' section), maybe a collection with a handful of copies.

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    5. If anyone has reached this point in this thread and is still curious about the work of Burroughs, ignore us and go read one of his books and then make up your own mind.

      Paphvul - not much of a leap at all really, as I've been seeing drive-by defamation of authors from the pulp era for a very long time, both online and in print. When I see someone make a blanket statement regarding the work of a man who wrote dozens of novels over a 35 year period, I tend to ignore what they say unless they provide examples. That is why I appreciate the courtesy shown me by Beoric and DominusCaveaVulpes in providing me with written explanations although I still disagree with them. I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "a little extra melanin" but Burroughs made Dejah Thoris's race red in large part because of his respect and admiration for American Indians, in particular the Apache. What a racist bastard.

      Beoric - that excerpt you provided isn't in The Return of Tarzan; are you thinking of one of the later books in the series or something by another author?

      DominusCaveaVulpes - when did this become a political discussion? Or do you assume that anyone who you see as racist must be of the right-wing? If so, you might be surprised if you ever have to work with someone from the Peoples Republic of China.

      Most people have had their sense of outrage so exquisitely tuned that they seem to demand that any and every author whose work they read be aware of their feelings or else.
      Look at the limits that writers in the pulp era had to work with: they had to keep it short (most novels of the time are 40-60k words) and they had to move and carry the reader along with the story. Within that frame, how do you write an antagonist or supporting character so that they engage the reader and pull them into the story yet could never EVER possibly offend any reader from the date of publication to the end of time?

      It's harder than it looks. Yet that is what many people seem to demand from both past and present writers.

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    6. I think we can learn a lot about earlier eras by reading the fiction that was produced. Societal attitudes and prejudices are captured, like flies in amber.

      Anyone who reads enough Burroughs soon realizes that his attitudes regarding race are more nuanced and progressive than he is often criticized for.

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    7. Paleologos: "his attitudes regarding race are more nuanced and progressive than he is often criticized for." Do tell. Bear in mind, though, that "progressiveness" means something somewhat different now than it meant in early 20th-century America. I very much doubt "progressive" people nowadays would be calling for executing "criminals" as well as their families to prevent their inherent criminality from degenerating "the superior race".

      Boyle: "Burroughs made Dejah Thoris's race red in large part because of his respect and admiration for American Indians, in particular the Apache." Leaving aside how you know this to be the exact truth, ERB also wrote what has been called a fairly realistic short series "The War Chief" and "Apache Devil" about what seems to be an Apache man who turns out, in the end, to be the kidnapped son of white parents. Inexplicably, the man refrains from some aspects of traditional Apache culture including scalping (finding out he's really white also allows him to advance his suit for his white love-interest). According to one of ERB's biographers, John Taliaferro, "blood always tells" in nearly all of ERB's stories. Do you think, maybe, ERB had some idealized image of Native North Americans that he wanted to put forward? Like it or not, that's racism, too. European culture was full of this "Savage Devil/Noble Savage" bullshit in the 19th and 20th centuries.

      "when did this become a political discussion?" The personal is political. And racial hierarchies has been a part of right-wing ideology in America since long before ERB.

      "you might be surprised if you ever have to work with someone from the Peoples Republic of China." This means little: first, the PRC has been turning into a bourgeois republic since about the time Deng Xiaoping came to power; to call it communist now is a bad joke. To assume that anyone coming from there must be some wild-eyed commie verges on willful ignorance. Second, countries and cultures, especially those considered "official enemies" like the PRC and Iran, just aren't monolithic in this deliberately oversimplified way put forward in North American mainstream culture, and they never have been. Not even American culture and people are this overdetermined.

      "sense of outrage" I don't know about you, but, if I read something I find offensive in a book, it detracts from my interest in the book and author; the more it pops up, the more my dislike grows. If it gets to a certain point, I simply stop reading the shit and never read that author again unless I have a _seriously_ compelling reason. If someone else asks my opinion about the work or author or makes some comment suggesting they're not aware of this issue, I make it a point to mention my dislike and its reason; why should I stay silent?

      "writers in the pulp era" Please. You make it sound as though ERB had _no choice_ but to write like a racist or risk getting ignored, when there were other successful writers who simply didn't write white supremacist shit because it didn't appeal to them or they opposed it.

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  4. I read the trilogy recently and liked it a lot, although I preferred the second story. I don't think it can hold a candle to the Mars series but I still found it very special; definitely worth it! And then the Va-ga are a great starting point for a tribe of wild humanoids.

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