Monday, May 24, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Swordsman of Mars

I've never made a secret of my love of sword-and-planet stories, starting with Edgar Rice Burroughs's seminal, A Princess of Mars. Likewise, I've long droned on about the importance of this literature to understanding original Dungeons & Dragons. That's why I regularly use the Pulp Fantasy Library series to discuss and promote even the lesser known stories and authors of the genre, such as Martian stories of Otis Adalbert Kline.

Kline is a fascinating fellow. In addition to being a writer, he was also an assistant editor at Weird Tales since its inauguration in 1923. To the extent Kline's remembered today at all, it's either in his role as Robert E. Howard's literary agent or his supposed feud with Edgar Rice Burroughs. Though Richard A. Lupoff thoroughly debunked the feud, it's understandable why it once seemed plausible, since both men wrote about similar characters and situations. 

The Swordsman of Mars was originally published as a six-part serial beginning in the January 7, 1933 issue of Argosy Weekly before being collected in novel form in 1960. The story concerns Harry Thorne, a wealthy young man whose life is thrown into turmoil when his fiancée, Sylvia Thompson, abandons him for another man. Thorne is so distraught that, as he confides to a visitor, Dr. Morgan, he doesn't "care to live any longer." Upon hearing this, Morgan asks him,

"Suppose you were offered a new interest in life. Excitement and adventures beyond your wildest dreams. A chance to view new scenes that no earthly being save one has ever glimpsed. To meet new and strange peoples."

"All that is old stuff to me," replied Thorne. "I've traveled until I'm sick of it. I've hunted big game in Asia, Africa and the Americas. I've been in every important country on the globe. The only adventure I have no tried is death, and just now it is the one adventure that intrigues me."

Thorne intends to kill himself, but Dr. Morgan has no intention of letting him. When he shakes Thorne's hand to bid him farewell, he surreptitiously drugs him with a narcotic and then takes him to a hidden locale, where he eventually awakens. Thorne wishes to know why Morgan has decided to interfere in his affairs.

"You are in a room in my mountain observatory, where I watch the movements of the planets, and where you were brought in my airplane after you fainted. Last night you were ready to take a bling plunge into that unknown region from which no man returns, the state of existence or non-existence called death. Had you succeeded, you would have thwarted forever the plans which I have been at considerable trouble and expense to perfect for you since I saw your picture. Needless to say, I am glad I arrived in time."

Morgan goes on to explain that he has been receiving telepathic messages from a "Martian scientist and psychologist" named Lal Vak. By means of this telepathy, he and the scientist have exchanged "visual and auditory impressions" as well as abstract and concrete ideas. 

"It was Lal Vak who suggested to me that if we could find a man on Mars and one on Earth whose bodies were identical, we could, by astral projection, cause the two individuals to exchange bodies. This Earth could be viewed through Martian eyes, while Mars could be seen at first hand by a man from Earth. Lal Vak projected to me many images of Martians willing to make this exchange, and at last I located a double of one of them … 

That double was not Harry Thorne but a ne'er-do-well named Frank Boyd who made the exchange and quickly proved himself to be a miscreant. On Mars, Boyd "allied himself with a small group of Martians who are working on an invention with which they hope to conquer all of Mars, and eventually the Earth and Venus as well." Therefore, Morgan sought out Thorne to be the second Earthman to switch places with a Martian, so that he might find Boyd and stop him – as well as correct Morgan's past mistake in sending a reprobate to Mars.

Needless to say, Thorne takes up Morgan's offer and thereby begins his adventures on Mars. What's immediately striking about The Swordsman of Mars is that, compared to the Barsoom stories, is how much more detail Kline provides. For example, the method by which Thorne travels to Mars – body exchange – is described at some length, as well as the consequences for its operations. This is in contrast to Burroughs, where John Carter's ability to travel between Earth and Mars is largely unexplained. Likewise, Kline seems to have worked out in his mind the whys and wherefores of Martian history, geography, and ecology and uses them to create a plausibly coherent pulp fantasy setting, again in contrast to Burroughs, which is much more "handwave-y" about such things. This isn't a criticism of Burroughs, whose stories I adore, but I think it's important to highlight the ways that Kline differs from his more well-known contemporary.

The Swordsman of Mars is the first of two novels written by Kline set on the Red Planet and, in my opinion, it's the better the of the two. Even so, they're both worth reading if you have an interest in sword-and-planet fiction. If nothing else, they're good examples of the tales of derring-do and fantastical world building that no doubt influenced Arneson and Gygax in their creation of Dungeons & Dragons. 


  1. I love sword-and-planet and sword-and-sorcery pulps and just purchased the Paizo printing of this story. I have a few of their books and have been really pleased.

  2. Never read Kline but perhaps I should fix that. They're up on Gutenberg Australia, thankfully. I quite like the idea of having to go sort out a villainous Terran playing at the Man Who Would Be King trope as a device for getting the heroic protag to Mars. Sounds like the sequel revolves around a relative?

    Were his Venus books any good?

    1. I have not read the Venus books yet, so I cannot say.

  3. I just bagged an omnibus ebook version on Amazon that combines the Mars books and the Venus trilogy. 700+ pages for under $3.

  4. my southern gentleman blood can defeat an entire planet of swordsmonsters so theres no real reason to read about it