Monday, December 12, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Outlaws of Mars

Otis Adelbert Kline, despite having a very memorable name, is one of those authors of the Golden Age of the Pulps that almost no one remembers today. To some extent, that's understandable, since his most successful stories are often erroneously described as being little more than rip-offs of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The most well regarded of these – the two novels set on Mars – probably also suffer from not sharing a protagonist, unlike, say, the tales of John Carter to which they are unfavorably compared (or, for that matter, Kline's own Venus stories, all three of which feature the character of Robert Grandon). 

I've previously written about the first of Kline's Martian novels, The Swordsman of Mars, and declared it better than its sequel, The Outlaws of Mars. Having just re-read the latter in preparation for today's post, I now wonder if my earlier judgment might have been mistaken. While both novels are breezily written and full of heroic exploits, Outlaw is notable in that its lead character, Jerry Morgan, is notably more fallible (and, therefore, more relatable) than Swordsman's Harry Thorne. Indeed, the initial action of Outlaws rests heavily upon the negative consequences of Morgan's leaping before he looked, as we shall see.

Like its predecessor, The Outlaws of Mars was originally serialized before being collected together under a single cover decades later. Also like its predecessor, the serial appeared in the pages of Argosy Weekly, starting with the November 25, 1933 issue and running for the next six issues. Though Kline was an assistant editor at Weird Tales (and had been since its premiere in 1922), none of his longer serials appeared in the Unique Magazine. I would imagine this was to avoid any appearance of favoritism, though several of his yarns did appear in WT's sister periodical, Oriental Stories.

The novel begins as Jerry Morgan, described as "a tall, broad-shouldered young man with steel-gray eyes and sandy hair," steps off a train at "the diminutive Pineville station." Morgan is in Pineville to visit his uncle (and former guardian), Dr. Richard Morgan, whom readers may remember as the eccentric scientist who enabled Harry Thorne to travel to the Red Planet in The Swordsman of Mars. Jerry believes his visit will be a surprise, but his uncle seems to be expecting him.

Jerry stared in amazement as he took his uncle's proffered hand. "Expecting me? Why, I told no one, and fully intended to surprise you. It sounds like thought-transference, or something."

"Perhaps you are nearer the truth than you imagine," replied the doctor, seating himself.

Setting aside his uncle's cryptic remark, Jerry admits that "I've disgraced the family – dragged the name of Morgan in the dirt." Again, Dr. Morgan claims to know this already and again Jerry boggles at this. Morgan then proceeds to prove that he knows why his nephew has come by recounting, in precise detail, the unfortunate circumstances that led him to his doorstep. The long and short of it is that Jerry had been framed by a romantic rival so as to not only lose the affections of his fiancĂ©e but also to be cashiered from the army regiment in which he had served proudly up to now. 

Needless to say, Jerry is astounded by how much his uncle knows.

"You have said, half in jest, that I appear to read your mind. Without realizing it, you have hit upon the truth. I do and have always read your mind, since the death of your parents placed you under my guardianship. I have never needed your letters or telegrams to inform me of your doings, because since the day when I first established telepathic rapport with you, I have been able at all times to tap the contents of your subliminal consciousness, which contains a record of all you have thought and done."

Rather than dwell on the uncomfortable – to modern readers anyway – implications of this secret telepathic rapport, Dr. Morgan instead reveals that he has recently, thanks to his telepathic contact with "the people of Olba, a nation on the planet Venus," constructed a spaceship that will enable humans to travel to Mars "in the flesh," in contrast to the more mystical means employed in the previous novel, The Swordsman of Mars. While he would like to go to Mars himself, the urgency of his other work has prevented this. Naturally, Jerry offers to go in his stead, to which his uncle readily agrees.

Though Jerry's primary purpose in traveling to Mars is as "a valuable scientific experiment" that will "increase the sum total of terrestrial knowledge," it has the added benefit of giving him "new scenes, new adventures, and forgetfulness – these and a chance to begin life over again." This theme of "starting over," being given the chance to leave behind a shattered past, is a common one in sword-and-planet stories, starting with A Princess of Mars. I suspect it plays a big part in the lasting appeal of the genre and may have held particular resonance with readers during the depths of the Great Depression.

Jerry's transit to Mars is far less interesting than what happens upon his arrival. He finds himself not far from a Martian city, whose inhabitants "did not show any marked difference from terrestrial peoples" beyond "their strange apparel and the fact that their chests were, on average, larger than those of Earth-men," this latter feature being a consequence of the thinner atmosphere of the Red Planet. Jerry observes that many of the city's buildings feature roof gardens. In one of these gardens, he sees an extremely beautiful woman – of course! – with "an ethereal beauty of face and form such as he had never seen on Earth, or even dreamed existed." 

I could not blame anyone for assuming at this point that the criticisms of Kline as a mere Burroughs imitator are correct. Thus far, The Outlaws of Mars is little different from the sword-and-planet material cranked out by the ream after the publication of A Princess of Mars and its sequels. However, that assessment of the novel would, in my opinion, be mistaken. When Jerry introduces himself to the young Martian beauty, she is frightened and looks ready to flee. Confused, the Earthman looks around for an explanation and seemingly finds it in the form of a strange Martian beast leapt from behind the shrubbery of the garden with "a terrific roar" and "a yawning, tooth-filled mouth as large as that of an alligator." 

In an act of chivalry befitting John Carter himself, Jerry slays the alien creature, believing he had saved her from danger.

At the sound of the shot the girl had sprung erect. For a moment she peered down at the fallen beast. Then, her eyes flashing like those of an enraged tigress, she turned on Jerry with a volley of words that were unmistakably scornful and scathing, despite the fact that he was unable to understand them.

Suddenly her hand flashed to her belt and came up with a jewel-hilted dagger. Jerry noticed that the blade straight and double-edged, with tiny, razor-sharp teeth. For a moment, he did not realize what she intended doing. But when she raised her weapon aloft and lunged straight for his breast, he caught her wrists just in time.

We soon learn that the animal Jerry had slain was, in fact, the beloved pet of Junia Sovil, daughter of the emperor of Kalsivar, the greatest kingdom of Mars. Worse still, the slaying of the dalf (as the animal is called) is a capital crime – and the people of Kalsivar believe in swift justice. Thus, our hero has barely stepped foot on Mars and he has already made an enemy of an imperial princess and found himself condemned to death. Jerry Morgan works fast!

Naturally, Jerry does not die only a few chapters into The Outlaws of Mars and indeed soon finds himself entangled in the vicious court politics of Kalsivar, but I was nonetheless charmed by the way that Kline kicked off his adventures on Mars. Jerry's ignorance of Mars and its customs and language cause him no end of headaches early on. Likewise, his headstrong nature and gentlemanly ideals lead him astray almost as often as they aid him. It's almost as Kline were playing with and commenting upon the conventions of the sword-and-planet genre, though I have no evidence that he did so intentionally. 

Regardless, The Outlaws of Mars is a fun, fast read, filled with plenty of pulpy action and dastardly deeds. To call it a classic would be overstating its simple virtues, but virtues they are nonetheless. I was very glad to have had the opportunity to re-read this and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys sword-and-planet stories.

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