Going to Mars Word By Word via a Time Slip

Published in 1964, Martian Time Slip by Phillip K. Dick (PKD) is a dark, moody story of tricks of the mind: delusions, hallucinations, power, and a time slip. It is simply told, but dated by socially unacceptable gender, racial, and ethnic descriptions. Despite the language, it has characters you want to succeed and characters you want to see get their comeuppance. Join me for the next book review in my Going to Mars Word by Word series.

Time slip, book review, Lynette M. Burrows author action-suspense fiction

WHAT IT’S ABOUT

There are multiple colonies on Mars, each dominated by a different nationality or workgroup (plumbers, farmers, etc.) The colonies are officially run by the UN, but each settlement is controlled by the appropriate union boss. They are interdependent and separate communities connected by a series of canals. It is the scarcity of water that gives the plumbing union boss a stranglehold on Mars.

Jack, a ‘recovered’ schizophrenic and a repairman, left earth to escape the pressures of an overpopulated Earth. Arnie Kott, the plumbing union boss, found the power and wealth on Mars that he would never have been able to achieve on Earth. These two men are brought together by the UN announcer’s emergency notification that a party of Bleekmen, in the open desert, were dying of thirst and exposure.

By law, all nearby helicopters had to respond and help the UN-protected Martian natives. Jack went willingly, wishing he could do more. Arnie would have preferred his pilot ignore the notification, but his pilot feared the fine he’d have to pay only a little more than he feared Arnie.

Arnie visits Camp B-G, a home for ‘anomalous children,’ one of whom is his own. There he meets Manfred Steiner, a functionally mute, autistic boy born on Mars. After Manfred’s father commits suicide, Manfred falls under Arnie’s power.

Arnie believes that people with mental disorders live and perceive time differently than regular folk. He believes they have knowledge of the future. Certain he can use this knowledge to gain more money and power, he wishes they could communicate their knowledge to him. He hires Jack to create a mechanical device that will enable Manfred to perceive ‘real’ time and communicate his knowledge of the future.

Jack studies Manfred, keeping the boy at his side most of the time. Soon, Jack has hallucinations and slides into his former schizophrenic state. When Jack confesses to Arnie that not only can he not make the mechanical device for Manfred, but that Jack’s father bought most of the mountain real estate that the UN will soon buy for development, Arnie becomes enraged. Arnie blames Jack for financial losses he assumes he will have because of his lack of knowledge about the pending development.

Manfred finally finds someone he can communicate with, Arnie’s Bleekman servant, Helio. Helio tells Arnie that the sandstone and volcanic glass projection of rock in the so-called Dirty Knobby is sacred to the Bleekmen. It’s a time portal. Activating the portal requires Manfred’s presence. Arnie conceives a plot to kill Jack. He takes Manfred to Dirty Knobby, forcing Jack to fly his helicopter overhead during their pilgrimage for ‘safety’ reasons.

At Dirty Knobby, Arnie uses Manfred to open the time slip and travels to the past. He plans to kill Jack at their first meeting so Jack won’t be his ruin. Instead, he enters into a degenerating time loop, his perceptions more and more confused until he returns to his present where he is shot by an aggrieved victim of his. Arnie dies convinced he’s in the fantasy of a schizophrenic.

With Arnie dead and Manfred with the Bleekmen, Jack realizes that the worlds of the schizophrenic, the autistic, and the ‘normal’ are not absolutely distinct, but a question of degree. He returns home, to competence, and to his family.

HOW THE RED PLANET IS PORTRAYED

I was a bit disappointed in PKD’s portrayal of the planet. Despite the set-up that water is scarce, water is wasted by those who have enough money. The settlements in Martian Time Slip resemble suburbia in the USA: there are the rich and the poor. The rich have landscapes with roses and other earth imports; the poor struggle to maintain a garden for food. The air is cold but breathable. The F.D.R. mountains are the one place where it seems like Mars. It’s arid and largely unexplored.

The native Martians were disappointing also. The Bleekman, a dark-skinned aboriginal race, are either living on their own away from the settlements and dying of exposure and thirst (for no discernible reason) or they are slaves or servants. They speak a kind of pidgin-English and trade and barter with the Earther-immigrants. Arnie’s servant speaks to Manfred in English and somehow perceives Manfred’s answers. Some reviewers say this is telepathy. The Bleekmen appear to be spiritual but the ‘priest’ at the sacred Dirty Knobby does not come across as a spiritual leader.

Though I was disappointed in the setting, PKD’s point was not the “where” of this story.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author of 44 published novels and more than 100 short stories, Phillip Kindred Dick (1928-1982) and his twin sister, Jane, were born prematurely. Jane died just six weeks after their birth. The loss of his twin had a profound effect on PKD.

By seventh grade, he began suffering extreme bouts of vertigo. Multiple physicians and psychiatrists examined him. The differed in what caused his symptoms. Some called it schizophrenia, others identified other illnesses, and one even declared him quite sane. Regardless of the diagnosis, PKD experienced what he called “nervous breakdowns” throughout his life

He often cited two questions as encompassing his work: What is Reality? And What is Human? Those questions reflect his experiences, from the death of his twin to the nervous breakdowns.

He published his first story in 1951 and worked full-time as a writer from then on. His first novel was published in 1955.

He won the 1963 Hugo award for his novel, The Man in the High Castle, the 1974 John W Campbell Memorial Award for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.

PKD spent most of his career in near-poverty. He began to see more financial success when he sold the rights to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which became Blade Runner. He died of heart failure, at the age of 53, before he could see the finished movie.

After his death, a number of his stories were made into movies: Total Recall; Minority Report; Screamers; Next; Imposter; Paycheck; A Scanner Darkly; The Adjustment Bureau; Radio Free Albemuth; and Confessions d’un Bario, a French film based on his mainstream novel, Confessions of a Crap Artist.

PKD wanted recognition as a literary writer, however, few of his mainstream novels were ever published. Still, PKD loved to read and to write science fiction.

The SF writer sees not just possibilities but wild possibilities. It’s not just ‘What if’ – it’s ‘My God; what if’ – in frenzy and hysteria. The Martians are always coming. – Phillip K. Dick

CONCLUSION

Martian Time Slip is full of uncomfortable language and attitudes, inconsistencies, and lacks the story logic that readers often demand today. Does this mean I would not recommend this book? Not at all. As an exploration of tricks of the mind (delusions, hallucinations, and reality) it creates powerful emotions. Was it PKD’s intention to make the reader think deeply about race, gender, and ethnic issues? Possibly. I do believe he intended to stir deep thoughts about reality and mental illness.

It’s not an easy book to read because of the subjects and its flaws, but it will make you think. That’s part of the reason I read science fiction. Isn’t that part of the reason you read science fiction?

Learn More About Phillip K. Dick:

The official author’s site.

Wikipedia

Internet Movie Database

Why do you read science fiction? If you don’t read science fiction, do you read books that make you think? I’d love to hear from you.  Please share some examples. Thank you for reading!

Going to Mars Word by Word with an Optimistic Knight

We’re going to Mars today via the words of one of the “Big Three*,” Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars. Clarke said, “I have a special fondness for Sands, as it was my first full-length novel”. Published in 1951 it is an optimistic story of the early days of colonizing Mars. So hop aboard, let’s explore Mars with an Optimistic Knight.

Illustration of the Ares space-liner as it approaches Deimos and Mars, Going to Mars word by word with a optimistic knight, lynettemburrows.com

I read an omnibus edition paired with The City and the Stars. Warner Aspect published the omnibus in 2001.

In the introduction, Clarke makes wry note of the year, and says, “When I tapped out ‘The End’ on my Remington Noiseless (ha!) Portable in 1951, I could never have imagined that twenty years later I would be sitting on a panel with Ray Bradbury and Carl Sagan at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory waiting for the first news of the real Mars to arrive from the Mariner Space Probes. . .”. Nor could he imagine the Mars we’ve come to know through modern telescopes and NASA rovers.

Clarke does not romanticize the harsh conditions he imagined the colonists would have to survive. He used the best scientific information available at the time but admits there are errors in his speculations. Like many other science fiction authors, Clarke did not imagine the miniaturization of electronics. Nor did he imagine the development of personal electronic devices that resulted in a proliferation of computers and cell phones. His protagonist takes a manual typewriter on the spaceship. He faxes articles back to Earth. Faxes! And the crew of the space-liner smokes cigarettes. (Secondhand smoke was not an acknowledged issue in 1951.)

I am delighted that a multiple award-winning, best selling author like Clarke re-released this novel with all of its warts. The story is entertaining, though much slower paced than today’s novels. It suffers from stiff prose, weak conflicts, and internal story inconsistencies. All of which are fairly typical of a first or second novel. Personally, I can forgive and overlook those blunders if I enjoy the characters.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT

The first half of the book deals with the flight to Mars. The protagonist, a well-known science fiction author, rides a rocket ship into space. Martin is going to Mars on assignment. He is to report on what the colony is doing with the millions of Earth dollars spent on it.

Stricken with space-sickness, Gibson fears he’ll be sent back to Earth in shame. Fortunately, the space-sickness resolves quickly and he boards the next ship on his journey.

Ares is on her maiden voyage, a test run with a stripped down crew consisting of Captain Norden, an experienced space pilot; his engineer, the Scottish astrogator; the cynical electronics officer, the medical officer, and Jimmy Spencer, a Master’s degree student hoping to pilot his own spaceship someday. Jimmy, the junior member of the crew, must assist their only passenger, Gibson. Over the course of the three-month trip, Gibson discovers a link between Jimmy and Gibson’s own unpleasant college days.

When he first arrives on Mars, the spartan lifestyle in the small, claustrophobic settlement disappoints Gibson. As he explores the domed city and its surrounds, Gibson learns about the challenges of surviving on the planet. The weekly articles he writes and sends to Earth become more and more pro-Mars as his ideas about the colony change. He meets and grows to respect and like the locals, even his antagonist Warren Hadfield, Chief Executive of Mars. Finally, during one of Gibson’s excursions, a severe sandstorm forces his aircraft off course and he makes discoveries vital to the success of the colony, or so he thinks.

I found the ending satisfying, but in case you’d like to read this novel for yourself, I’ll keep that information to myself.

HOW THE RED PLANET IS PORTRAYED

Clarke’s vision of Mars is more scientific and less descriptive than some. During the trip to the planet, the electronics officer confesses that he can’t see why anyone would want to go to Mars. “It’s flat, it’s cold, and it’s full of miserable half-starved plants looking like something out of Edgar Allan Poe”. The cities and scientific centers are contained in clusters of circular domes. Oxygen is ‘cracked’ from the iron oxide that tinted the soil a dark red.

Clarke does a remarkable job of evoking the orbiting moons, Deimos and Phobos, and the size of Mars. However, he speculates that lush brilliant green plants fill areas of the planet, though much of the planet was barren, red dirt and rocks. Infamously, he has his protagonist, Gibson, declare, “There are no mountains on Mars!” (That was true as far as anyone knew in 1951.) Finally, Clarke disables his protagonist and strands him in a deep trench. (In 1950 Clyde Tombaugh a member of the Lowell Observatory and discoverer of Pluto, proposed that the ‘canals’ of Mars were actually fissures radiating from craters which were the result of cosmic impacts.*)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Born in southwestern England, Arthur Charles Clarke (1917 – 2008) enjoyed stargazing and reading American science fiction magazines as a child. So much so, that he was active in science fiction circles before World War II. During the War he joined the Royal Air Force, serving as a radar instructor and technician. It was during that time he published his landmark scholarly paper, “Extra-Terrestrial Relays Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage,” where he set out the first principles of global communication via satellites in geostationary orbits.

His first science fiction story professionally published was “Loophole” for Astounding in 1946. Listing all of Clarke’s accomplishments as a scientist and author is not possible in this short blog post, but I’ll hit the major points.

Besides having been a radar instructor and technician, Clarke earned a first class honors degree in Physics and Mathematics in 1948 and served two terms as the British Interplanetary Society president.

He developed a keen interest in undersea exploration when he visited Sri Lanka (called Ceylon at that time) and moved there in 1956. He created a diving school. In 1962 a diagnosis of polio curtailed his diving activities. (The 2004 tsunami that hit Sri Lanka and Indonesia did not harm Clarke, his staff, or his home. It did destroy his diving school.)

Regarded as one of the chief prophets of the space age, he joined CBS newsman Walter Cronkite and astronaut Wally Schirra in narrating the 1969 Apollo lunar landing and returned for coverage of Apollo missions 12 and 15.

Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, and 2001: A Space Odyssey are among Clarke’s best-known works. His body of work includes more than 70 books of fiction and nonfiction.  He’s known for an optimistic view of the future of space exploration. Histories have accurate technical details and philosophical themes. He’s won Hugos, Nebulas, and the SFWA Grand Master. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1997 and was knighted in 1998.

CONCLUSION

I would recommend reading this novel. Its characters are engaging. The argument of should we explore and colonize Mars is pertinent today. Finally, it’s fascinating to read the first novel of one of the best-known science fiction writers of all time. Go ahead, go to Mars in the words of Arthur C. Clark’s The Sands of Mars.

REFERENCES

There are numerous websites where you can learn more about Sir Arthur C. Clarke. My references include the Clarke Foundation, arthurcclarke.net, and sf-encyclopedia.

If you’d like to read a Mars discovery timeline to make your own comparisons of the facts known in 1950 go to astrodigital.org

*science fiction authors, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein

I love it when you share your thoughts with me!

What do you think? Would you read a book with known inaccuracies?  

Will there be a colony on Mars one day?

Are exploration and colonization worth it?

Going to Mars, Word by Word: Bradbury and Unintended Consequences

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury is not a story in the traditional sense. In Bradbury’s own words, it is a series of “Martian penseés, Shakespearean ‘asides,’ wondering thoughts, night visions, predawn half-dreams.” So hop aboard for a lyrical ride with Bradbury and Unintended Consequences.

Bradbury and unintended consequences, mage of Martian in his Machine, from Martian Chronicles, lynettemburrows.com

Bradbury scribbled a dozen different tales of Mars and its folk before 1947, then filed them in a drawer. The tales might have languished there except for an editor at Doubleday. The editor suggested Bradbury had woven an unseen tapestry of Mars. Bradbury wrote an outline stitching his earlier writing together with new tales. The collection was published as Bradbury’s second book in 1950.

If you are the type of reader who needs to have a primary character to follow from one action to another, this may not be the book for you. But if you can ride the words, you’ll soar through the “Rocket Summer,” walk through a house of crystal pillars, hear ancient voices sing, and feel the Martian winds. You’ll take a ride like none other.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT 

It’s difficult to write a summary that does Bradbury’s words justice. The penseé, or chapters, range from a single page expressing a vision, an emotion, or tone to true stories that are many pages long. It’s like an annotated timeline of the history of Mars. Each annotation represents a different slice of time.

Throughout, there is a visceral understanding of the loneliness of a new frontier and the passing of a dying culture. You sympathize with many of the characters who cherish and pursue a dream, usually a variation of the “American Dream.” But, because man brings his darkest fears and brightest hopes with him to Mars, there is a price, some unintended consequence, to be paid.

Not even the Martians are immune to this. In “February 2030: Ylla” we observe Mr. and Mrs. K, true Martians, once happy but not happy now. Mrs. K is haunted by dreams of a man from the sky and hums a foreign tune. She feels compelled to wait for an event to happen, for the man from the sky. Mr. K finds her obsession with this dream very unsettling. So he attempts to distract her, to take her away. When that doesn’t work, he tricks her into staying in the house on the very day she senses that the man from the sky will arrive. And though he doesn’t quite believe, Mr. K arms himself and goes hunting. When two shots ring out, though neither we nor Mrs. K witnesses it, we are convinced he has killed the astronaut and we mourn with Mrs. K.

There are many memorable scenes and characters:

Benjamin Driscoll, in “December 2032: The Green Morning,” arrives on Mars barely able to breathe its thin air. He refuses to be sent home. Instead, he creates more oxygen by planting trees and grass, becoming a “Johnny Appleseed” of sorts. While planting trees, he becomes aware that his chest and lungs are adapting to the Martian atmosphere. And the reader wonders if he will pay an unintended consequence.

In “August 2033: Night Meeting” Tomás Gomez meets a Martian he cannot touch in the “hills between time” and learns not to ask what is future and what is past.

The owner of the food stand at the crossroads misunderstands what the Martian in his machine is trying to tell him. And when he makes a decision based on that misperception, he pays the price.

While some of the characters in the book are genuinely trying to do the right thing, others are out for vengeance. Everyone is powerful. As a whole, the book evokes a hauntingly mournful, yet hopeful, feeling that stuck with me long after I finished reading.

How the Red Planet Is Portrayed

Don’t expect detailed description in the Martian Chronicles. The planet is hot and dry and mostly barren. Houses of crystal pillars, fossil seas, canals, and distant mountains are usually unimportant except as props. The emotional resonance is what matters in this book. And Mr. Bradbury delivers plenty in that area. You feel how ancient Mars is, how time is different there, and how silently the planet waits. You understand that man will renew Mars . . . for a time. You also understand man’s time on Mars is just a piece of the planet’s history, that it will wait, silently, for all time.

About Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury (August 1920 – June 2012) ended his formal education when he graduated from high school. He began selling newspapers by day and writing at night. During almost seventy years of writing, he had more than five hundred works published. But he didn’t just write novels, short stories, and essays, he produced an animated film, wrote plays and screenplays, was a creative consultant for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and created interior metaphors for the Spaceship Earth display at Epcot Center, Disney. Other iconic titles by Ray Bradbury include The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. You can find a complete list of his books here.

Bradbury’s accomplishments, publications, and awards are too numerous to include in the blog. Please go to his website at raybradbury.com or read Sam Weller’s authorized biography, The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury, to learn more about him.

# # #

Whew! That was some trip! I hope that if you haven’t read The Martian Chronicles, you’ll give it a try.

 

Have you read the Martian Chronicles? What did you think? If you haven’t read the Chronicles, I’d love to hear about what book you’ve read that affected you long after you finished.

 

Going to Mars Word by Word: C.S. Lewis style

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis is the third in my Going to Mars Word by Word series. It offers a fascinating view of Mars. So hop on board and enjoy the ride C.S. Lewis style.

The C.S .Lewis style, original illustration of the hross from Out of a Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, lynettemburrows.com

The Book

C.S. Lewis first published this book in Britain in 1938 and in 1943, in the United States, this novel shows its age in some of the now out-dated language, writing style, and societal views. Its pacing is not like the action-packed novels of today, but if you persevere, the meat of the story yields imaginative delights and insights.

In this first book of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy (also known as the Cosmic Trilogy), the protagonist, Dr. Elwin Ransom, a professor of philology, is on a hiking trip in the English Midlands. Looking for lodging, Ransom arrives at the home of a Mr. Devine, whom Ransom realizes is a former schoolfellow whom he “cordially disliked.” His arrival interrupts Mr. Devine and friend, Mr. Weston, as they struggle to force a mentally handicapped young man into the wash house. Grudgingly, Weston agrees to release the young man and share a meal and drinks with Ransom. But the after meal whiskey and soda causes Ransom to lose consciousness. When he awakens, he slowly realizes that he’s in a spherical spaceship, a captive of Devine and Weston who plan to turn him over to the inhabitants of Malacandra as a sacrifice in exchange for gold.

As the story progresses Ransom escapes from Devine and Weston and he begins an exploration of the planet Mars, called Malacandra by its inhabitants. Ransom’s terror is eventually replaced by a sense of wonder and appreciation for its landscapes and inhabitants.

The Planet

As Lewis describes it, Mars, aka Malacandra, is a delicious blend of color, texture, and size. “His first impression was of a bright, pale world – a watercolor world out of a child’s paint box . . . .” The air was cold and thin, but breathable. The water of the lakes wasn’t blue in certain light, as it was on Earth, but really blue. Stirred by a faint breeze its waves were something like “turreted waves,” impossibly tall and narrow. Rose-colored, cloud-like mass of vegetation in the background looked like “the top of a gigantic red cauliflower.” There was a forest of purple vegetation “about twice the height of English Elms, but apparently soft and supple” with smooth stalks and nearly transparent leaves the size of lifeboats.

The People

The hrossa (singular hross), are the first people of Malacandra that Ransom meets. They are six or seven feet tall and too thin for their height. “It was something like a penguin, something like an otter, something like a seal; the slenderness and flexibility of its body suggested a giant stoat.” Fishermen and farmers, they live in the lowlands. They are the poets, the storytellers of Malacandra. Ransom lives amongst them, learning their language and of the eldil, and the ruler of Malacandra, Oyarsa.

The eldil are almost invisible creatures of light. They are the messengers of Oyarsa and according to the hross, must be obeyed. The hrossa can see eldil and are surprised to discover that Ransom can only see a disturbance in light and hear the eldil whispers. When an eldil tells Ransom that Oyarsa has summoned him, the hross insists he be on his way.

The séroni (singular sorn), whom Ransom grew to fear while on the spaceship, are “spindly and flimsy things twice or three times the height of a man” with pale feathers and seven-fingered hands. They are peaceful and kindly, the scientists of the world. They live in the high country through which Ransom must pass as he travels to meet Oyarsa. It is a Sorn who supplies Ransom with an oxygen bottle and carries the human on his shoulder during the difficult part of Ransom’s journey to Meldilorn, the home of Oyarsa.

In Meldilorn, Ransom meets the third species of Malacandra, the pfifltriggi (singular pfifltrigg). The pfifltrigg’s face was hairless like a man’s, “pointed like a shrew’s, yellow and shabby-looking.” It was “much more insect-like or reptilian” than any other creature Ransom saw on the alien planet. These creatures are the builders, the technicians, miners, and the artists. What a sorn can think up, a pfifltrigg can build.

Finally, Ransom meets Oyarsa. Oyarsa is a being of light, an eldil, but older and wiser. The conversation between these two characters reveals the novel’s theme. There is a retelling of Lucifer’s rejection from heaven, his isolation on Earth (the silent planet), and how Lucifer ‘bent’ man. Ransom speaks for mankind and Oyarsa passes judgment.

I’m not going to reveal the judgment and ending of this novel.   Instead, I hope you’ll read it.

The Author

Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis was a novelist, poet, scholar, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian, and a Christian apologist born in Belfast, Ireland on November 29, 1898. His love of fantasy literature was evident even as a young boy. He created an imaginary world, Boxen, where animals talked and had adventures. He was educated at Oxford where he became friends with another student, J. R.R. Tolkein.

In 1917 Lewis left his studies to fight in World War I. He became a commissioned officer with the Sumerset Light Infantry and fought in France until he was injured in April 1918. After the war, he returned to his studies He became a member of the English faculty of Oxford. It was at Oxford that a group of writers, the Inklings, began weekly meetings. They met for more than thirty years. During their meetings, they would talk, ‘share a beverage,’ and discuss their work. Several of the writers in that group produced work that is well known today. Lewis became an internationally recognized writer and was featured on the cover of Time magazine in September 1947. Read more about Lewis at the C.S. Lewis Foundation and on Wikipedia.

C.S. Lewis Style or Realistic?

I must confess I had a bias against Lewis due to what I view as the heavy-handed Christian metaphors and allegories he used in his writing. I chose this book as a representative of the decade in which it was written and because Lewis, as an author, has an impact on people even today. There are blatant metaphors and allegories in this novel, an expression of Lewis’ belief that much of the suffering on Earth is due to evil choices people make. Yet, there are also delightful and thoughtful passages and fascinating descriptions that create something like an impressionistic-style mental painting of Mars.

C.S. Lewis knew, even when he wrote Out of the Silent Planet, that Mars was not as he described it. Yet, he chose to create a painting in his reader’s mind rather than re-create reality as he knew it. For this reader, it worked.

Next in this series: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

How about you? Would you go to Mars C.S. Lewis Style? Do you prefer imaginative interpretations of Mars or realistic ones?

Going To Mars: Word By Word – Northwest Smith

This is my second GTMWBW* post.  You can read the first one here. Come along on this trip to Mars via the words of C.L Moore in her Northwest Smith stories.

Illustration of Northwest Smith by Robert Burrows, lynettemburrows.com
by Robert Burrows © 2012

The Northwest Smith stories belong firmly in the pulp era of science fiction and fantasy which began in the 1930s. The term ‘pulp’ came from the paper and format these magazines were published in. They were printed on cheap paper with ragged edges at a total size of approximately seven inches wide by ten-and-a-half inches tall. And they were filled with adventure stories featuring buxom damsels, bug-eyed monsters, and dashing heroes set on other planets that had only minor differences from Earth.

Catherine Louise Moore (January 24, 1911 – April 4, 1987) was a prolific writer probably best known to many SF and fantasy readers for writing stories and novels in collaboration with her husband Henry Kuttner. Moore used her initials because the science fiction market in the 1930’s didn’t have much room for female authors. More also used other pseudonyms both as a solo author and in collaboration with Kutner. Learn more about Catherine here

Moore achieved fame in 1933 with her first story, Shambleau, a vampiric femme fatale story set on Mars. She continued relating the adventure stories of Northwest Smith, the legendary hero of the spaceways, in Black Thirst © 1934; The Tree of Life © 1936, Scarlet Dream © 1934, Dust of the Gods © 1934, Lost Paradise © 1936, Julhi © 1935, The Cold Gray God © 1935, Yvala ©1936, and a very short postscript-type of story Song in a Minor Key ©1957. I read them in the collection Northwest Smith published in 1981.

Not all the stories in this collection are set on Mars. Two were set on Earth and two on Venus. But if the pulp era stories of science fiction and fantasy were supposed to invoke a sense of wonder, I would have to say Moore definitely achieved that.

Despite the 1930’s romanticism and general mentality, I found much to enjoy in these stories. Sf-encyclopedia.com describes Moore’s style as possessing a “lyrical fluency, emotional intensity, and the power to evoke a sense of wonder in the past-haunted interstellar venues.” I have to agree. The language usage is rich and multi-layered. An English teacher would have a field day with the classical references and the themes of Moore’s work. The Shambleau, a Gorgon or Medusa-like being, says dark and light are the same to her. Not so in Moore’s books. Light and dark, white and black, represent good or evil, sometimes in unexpected ways. Even the series protagonist, Northwest Smith, is not all one or the other.

Northwest Smith is a wary man with a past. His ruthless, steel pale eyes stare out of a face scored with marks from a knife, and talon, and ray-burn. An adventurer-for-hire in spacer’s leathers, he is wise in the dangers of the spaceways and travels from adventure to adventure. He kills when necessary and without remorse. And yes, true to pulp story traditions, nearly every adventure has at least one beautiful woman and an evil monster. His sidekick is Yarol, the Venusian, who calls him NW.

The Mars in the Northwest Smith stories is red and dusty. Like Barsoom, there is a low, red vegetation and there are canals. These Martian canals only have water during the spring thaw of the polar caps. Also like the Mars in Burroughs’ tales, this Mars has a long history. Once Mars had been green. Now it’s dry and dotted with thousand-year-old half-collapsed temples and ruins of ancient civilizations.

There is no reference to Martian gravity nor to the atmosphere in these stories. The Mars of the Northwest Smith looks and behaves much like the American southwest. Except for its people.

Instead of two races ala Barsoom, there are innumerable races on Moore’s Mars. There are Martian drylanders, canal Martians, Venusian swamplanders, “and strange, nameless denizens of unnamed planets.” Additionally, there are gods and goddesses, and beings of light and black, unnamed things. Moore’s universe appears to be a crowded place.

The reader follows Northwest from the stalls and stands of the Lakkmanda Markets, the greatest marketplace in the universe, to places where ancient wells are gateways to another dimension, and caves hold secret asteroids. He walks warily through endless hallways, dark caves and underground rooms where he battles soul-sucking monsters. The monsters sometimes have a physical form, sometimes a kind of quasi-physical being appearing man-shaped, and sometimes tendrils of darkness, as insubstantial as fog or light.

So again, it’s not the physical planet that enthralls us in the stories of Northwest Smith. Rather the fascination lies with the adventures, the battles between good and evil, and the fascination with the people who are not, but maybe could be.

Alas, in the real world, the rover Curiosity has not found a Martian. But it found evidence of water, lots of water! Perhaps Burroughs and Moore weren’t so far off after all.image of Mars' water worn rock, lynettemburrows.com

Who knows? Maybe the rover will find evidence of Martians before our next trip to Mars on November 5th via Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis.

*GTMWBW = Going to Mars: Word-by-Word

I am so glad you’ve come along with me on this adventure, Going to Mars: Word by Word. Please, won’t you take a moment to share with me? Have you read any of the Northwest Smith stories? If not, what is your favorite book set on Mars? See my other posts reviewing science fiction books on Mars: