The Nomad of Mars

by Arthur B

Edward P. Bradbury's Mars novels are actually pretty good by Michael Moorcock's standards.
In 1964 Michael Moorcock managed to complete Stormbringer, the astonishing conclusion of the Elric series, and began a now legendary run as the editor of SF periodical New Worlds, a position he used to inject massive doses of J.G. Ballard, Norman Spinrad, Harlan Ellison, Thomas Disch, John Brunner and M. John Harrison into the bloodstream of the science fiction scene, helping to kickstart a delirious, Naked Lunch-esque bender of experimentation and rules-shattering which would come to be known as the New Wave of SF once everyone sobered up.

The publishers of New Worlds also operated Compact Books, a fairly cheap and cheerful pulp publisher who were more than happy to crank out books by the New Worlds crowd to fill out the SF/fantasy section of their line. Most Moorcock books published in 1965 and 1966 came out through Compact Books - the bulk of them being fix-up novels lashed together from stories published in various magazines - and on top of that Moorcock was more than happy to supplement his income by ghostwriting a quick novel or six when Compact thought they needed to cover a particular niche.

By the mid 1960s, the planetary romance subgenre - and in particular the sword and planet niche of it - was experiencing a brief spurt of revival. After the genre's golden age in the pre-War years, during which it was invented by Edgar Rice Burroughs with A Princess of Mars and perfected by Leigh Brackett's work, it had faded from view for a while, the revival coming about due to a generation of writers who grew up reading sword and planet stories finding a number of publishers willing to toss them out to satiate the growing SF/fantasy market. Aside from a few outliers, this brief resurgence was the last gasp of the subgenre. Many ascribe the blame for the death of planetary romance on the piles of data from interplanetary satellites which seemed to confirm that even if there was any life on other planets of our Solar System, there was little to no odds of it producing anything that even mildly resembled a human being. The general hostility of alien worlds to human life made the whole John Carter of Mars deal seem too counterfactual for science fiction, whilst fantasy fans were (thanks to the Tolkien boom) beginning to feel a general preference for secondary creations and full-on mystical forces as opposed to planet-hopping and "magic" that's actually the workings of high technology.

Personally, I think the fall of the genre can be summed up in one word: Gor, John Norman's series whose debut in 1967 (Tarnsman of Gor, as if you care) represented the beginning of an apparently never-ending shower of shit sprayed all over the subgenre, to the point where most of its hallmarks would remind people of Gor as much as (if not more than) Burroughs and Brackett. When a broad and adaptable canvas of wish-fulfillment becomes primarily associated with one man's very specific variety of very specialised wish-fulfillment, it becomes that much harder for writers to convince readers and publishers alike that their sword and planet story isn't going to descend into bondage and butt-branding by volume four.

Still, in 1965 Burroughs nostalgia was in and Compact Books were more than willing to indulge it. Although most of the New Worlds crowd were more interested in the William Seward flavour of Burroughs (with its salty tang of opiates, old rope, undifferentiated tissue and semen), Moorcock had long had a fondness of the Edgar Rice variety, with its classic mix of arid Martian deserts, humid jungle paradises, and manly, manly sweat. At the age of 16 he became the editor of Tarzan Adventures, most of his pre-Elric work consists of ERB pastiches, and in 1965 his deep (but not uncritical) appreciation of Burroughs made him the ideal candidate to write a few quickies to help Compact Books jump on the sword and planet revival bandwagon. Moorcock duly cranked out three short novels in nine days and handed them over to Compact, who issued them under the pseudonym of "Edward P. Bradbury".

To Moorcock's great surprise, the books sold, and sold, and kept selling, and have continued to sell well whenever they have been reprinted. At points, they have been his best earners, and of all Moorcock's stories these were his father's favourites. It's somewhat to Moorcock's credit, then, that unlike many of his other series he has never felt the urge to write a belated sequel to this Martian trilogy. Nor has he ever gone back and revised the text to slip in a spurious Von Bek here, a needless Jerry Cornelius cameo there. Perhaps, since the books were written primarily for fun, Moorcock doesn't want to detract from that by trying too hard to incorporate them into his more serious body of work. Or maybe, since they were written on a whim, the desire to write further volumes vanished once the mood that created them passed. Either way, the books remain an interesting entry in Moorcock's bibliography, if only because they are the only Burroughs pastiches of his that he isn't completely embarrassed by; the pre-Elric stories of "Sojan the Swordsman" have been reprinted, but this is arguably more due to public curiosity about Moorcock's development as a writer than any inherent quality in them.

City of the Beast (AKA Warriors of Mars)

Much like Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, each book in the trilogy consists of two first-person narratives: the bulk of the novel consisting of the protagonist's accounts of his adventures, and a framing story from the point of view of the author describing how they came by the hero's totally true and not at all fictional narrative. In this case, our author is the pseudonymous Edward P. Bradbury, who as an independently wealthy traveller who indulges in occasional literary dabblings is almost entirely unlike Moorcock himself. His framing story narrates how in the summer of 1968 (which, remember, would be the near future when the book was written) he was holidaying in Nice and made the acquaintance of Michael Kane, a man who came to his attention for three reasons: he was a fellow American, he was big and muscly and handsome, and he was clearly haunted by some mysterious tragedy in his past.

Kane, naturally, is to be our protagonist for the series, and naturally after Bradbury buys him a drink he agrees to tell our author his incredible story. A genius physicist and master fencer whose academic career was interrupted by a quick tour of duty in Vietnam, on returning home from the war Kane landed a job on a project intended to develop a functional matter transmitter. The time eventually comes for the researchers to attempt to teleport a live human being, and Kane is chosen to be the test subject. But a malfunction causes Kane to be teleported not to the waiting receiver pad in the other lab, but to Mars - and not the dead, arid Mars of today, but the Mars of an impossibly ancient past, when Earth is ruled by the dinosaurs and Mars is home to various races of human beings, blue giants, and other even more fantastical creatures.

The first person he encounters is Shizala, princess of Varnal, City of the Green Mists. It transpires that the various societies of Mars are at a curious stage in their technological development - by and large, they enjoy a Bronze Age level of scientific and engineering prowess, but they enjoy access to a limited number of products of a far more advanced science that is bestowed upon them from time to time by the Sheev, the mysterious and insular survivors of a nuclear conflict between the Sheev and the Yaksha in times long past. Through one such gift from the Sheev, Kane is able to learn the language of Mars rapidly, and learns more of his host; it transpires that Shizala is currently ruler of Varnal and the land of Karnala because her father, the last king, went missing after a battle with the feared Argzoon, a nation of blue giants who live beneath the mountains of the far north, in which he broke the forces they had sent to conquer and pillage the lands of the south. She is also betrothed to Telem Fas Ogdai, prince of the land of Mishim Tep, a pairing arranged by her father which she is resolved to see through for the sake of honouring the wishes of the probably-dead and of cementing the alliance between Karnala and Mishim Tep.

Kane has little time to mope over some girl he likes dating some guy he doesn't like, however; he is interrupted mid-sulk by the marching hordes of Argzoon, coming south for a rematch. Can Michael Kane save the city? Will he rescue Shizala after she is kidnapped by the enemy forces? Will he resist the temptations of the sinister Horguhl, the mysterious human woman who exerts a mysterious control over the nation of Argzoon, and will he discover the terrible secret that gives her power over the blue giants? Predictably, the answer to all those questions is "yes", but it's a yes that's delivered competently and with panache.

Although Moorcock wrote the series mostly for fun, he did have a couple of somewhat more serious intentions in writing the Michael Kane stories. One of them was to depict Kane as a character who held a moral code similar to the one supposedly espoused by John Carter of Mars, but who differed from his inspiration by the fact that he actually stuck to that code. For instance, there's an incident when Kane intervenes in a situation where Telem seems to be mistreating Shizala, and she reveals that Telem is her fiance and gets angry at Kane for interfering. Kane's reaction is to get really upset and go off riding until he can calm down enough to face the pair again. Conversely, in A Princess of Mars when John Carter discovers that his beloved Dejah Thoris is engaged, he immediately starts plotting to kill him and is only dissuaded when Dejah points out that murdering fiances is a serious social taboo on Barsoom. Southern gentleman, my ass, John Carter's just a brute.

The other of Moorcock's agendas was to try and write a Barsoom-flavoured story which wasn't horrifyingly, appallingly racist. I was a little concerned that he'd fail when it came to the whole blue giant thing, and as a white guy I'm not really the man to stamp Moorcock's "not a colonialist" card, but I do think he gives it a fair shot. In later novels it transpires that the Argzoon are not the sum total of the blue giants - there are other nations of them further north - but more importantly, in City of the Beast the culture of Argzoon is not utterly demonised. In A Princess of Mars, Burroughs portrays the culture of the Green Martians as being inherently corrupt; in arranging their society along communistic lines, the Green Martians have degenerated into becoming loathesome savages, not entirely unlike the Native Americans that John Carter gets into a scrap with at the start of the novel. There are "good" Green Martians to be found, but those tend to be the ones who reject the tenets of their society wholesale and essentially want to be just like the Red Martians (the human culture on Barsoom). Conversely, in City of the Beast we have Movat Jard, the Argzoon who ends up helping out Michael Kane because he is seeking to reclaim his culture, rather than to assimilate with some other culture. The aggression shown by the Argzoon is not shown to be an inherent feature of their tribal culture, but an unusual and unwanted imposition by Horguhl, who has enslaved them essentially by hijacking their superstitions and turning them into a cult centred around herself and her control of Raharumara, the creature which stalks the Argzoon caverns preying upon them.

The religion thing is a common feature between Moorcock's Mars novels and those of Burroughs and his imitators; the use of Mars (or Gor, or wherever) as a sandbox for setting forth utopian ideals of how life should be on Earth. Invariably, the protagonists of these stories find in Mars a society which is far more suited for them than Earth, and this often comes across as being something that the authors themselves advocate for Earth. John Carter finds in Barsoom a society where manliness and being willing to kill gets him ahead, and you do get the feeling that Edgar Rice Burroughs really felt that Earth society would be much improved by the extermination of a large number of Communists and lesser races. Tarl Cabot of the Gor series found a society where his sexual fantasies could run wild and free, and John Norman is an enormous creep. And Kane finds a world where organised religion is almost entirely nonexistent, as are political ideologies of all types; people's relationship with God are their own business, people reason out their political stances for themselves, and by and large the folk of Mars are free from being manipulated or pushed around by dark forces out of their control, at least in the more well-balanced societies. (Slavery exists on Kane's Mars, just like it does on Gor, but at least on Kane's Mars it's a practice taken up mainly by brigands and cutthroats and has no place in most peaceful societies as opposed to being a woman's natural place.)

It's here where the largest overlap between the Kane series and the rest of the Eternal Champion saga exists: not in explicit references to characters and places and artifacts and incidents, but in the theme of humanity struggling to be free from the forces that seek to control it. Over and over again, in the Elric stories, in the John Daker stories, and in here, Moorcock's heroes muse how wonderful it would be to live in a world free of Gods, whether those Gods are actual supernatural forces or overarching dogmas. In City of the Beast and its sequels Moorcock depicts a society that is most of the way there, but still has a little way to go, and constantly needs to watch out for backsliding, the cogent example here being the Argzoon's beliefs surrounding the monster they share their caves with being hijacked and turned into an organised system of control by Horguhl.

But even though Burroughs-inspired sword and planet stories have a dash of utopian fiction about them, they incorporate a far larger portion of adolescent wish-fulfilment and titillation, on which score Moorcock delivers. Michael Kane strides across Atlantis having adventures and getting into fights. As you can see from the front cover there, he and his companions do this almost entirely naked; whilst the blue giants do wear armour from time to time, Kane and the other humans literally walk around stark naked all the time except for the occasional swooshy cloak or leather harness. And look at that buttock, you could ricochet a quarter off that buttock and kill a man where he stands. Just about everyone on Mars is all sexy and muscular and statuesque and look like refugees from a Boris Vallejo painting. It's as though Moorcock decided that if he was going to do Burroughs pastiche he might as well go all the way and throw in the most cartoonish aspects of the sword and planet genre and be proud of doing so.

Which isn't to say that it's a sex-filled romp with a heavy emphasis on leather and slaves like Gor is. If Gor is the seedy sex club of the sword and planet universe, Michael Kane's Mars is the nudist colony; everyone just goes about their business naked like it's no big deal. Michael Kane's business, in this case, is getting out there and kicking some (firm, muscular) ass, and that's exactly what Moorcock delivers. The novel is extremely short but packs a surprising amount of incidents into its page count, all fine-tuned to be entertaining to the thirteen year old boy in you. Unfortunately, as in most things designed with the sensibilities of thirteen year old boys in mind this does lead to the odd flare-ups of sexism - Shizala gets kidnapped, predictably, and Horguhl is the tired old "manipulative seductress" stereotype turned up to 11 - but then again at least before getting kidnapped Shizala plans the defence of her city and steers an airship on a daring mission to get Michael Kane behind enemy lines, so we're just talking typical thoughtless mid-60s fantasy sexism as opposed to deliberate Goresque misogyny.

Either way, as far as cheesy page-turners full of swords, monsters, and glistening hunk rump go, City of the Beast is pretty neat. It's no Elric, but it was never intended to be - this was an attempt to follow an established formula whilst redeeming it as much as possible rather than an effort to completely turn a formula on its head - and it's far more interesting than other efforts to revive the sword and planet genre from the same time. I'd say it's even a better read than A Princess of Mars - as hard as he tries, Moorcock just can't drag his prose down to that level.

Multiverse bollocks: Edward Powys Bradbury may be related to Simon Powys of The Winds of Limbo, and some of the Martian guns might be related to Jerry Cornelius's needle gun but beyond that there are pretty much no connections. (In fact, there aren't really any connections for the rest of the trilogy either, for the next two books I'll give the "multiverse bollocks" section a rest.)

Lord of the Spiders (AKA Blades of Mars)

This book automatically gets a thumbs up from me because it's got an orangutan-spider on the cover. But I suppose some people might not consider that a good reason to recommend a book so I'd better get to covering the content.

After returning to Earth at the end of City of the Beast as a result of his colleagues working out how to recapture his signal, Kane found that none of them would believe his wild stories about Mars. After hearing his sob story, Bradbury agreed to help Kane fund and produce their own private matter transporter in order to beam him back to Mars. No sooner has Bradbury sent Kane on his way that Kane suddenly returns - but he is naked but for the garb of a Martian warrior! Elatedly informing Bradbury that he has been able, after some adventures, to produce a matter transmitter on Mars, enabling him to come visit Bradbury to drop off the next manuscript tell him about his latest adventures on Mars whenever he likes.

The adventures he relates this time begin from the moment of his return to Mars. Materialising somewhere north of the Argzoon's mountain range and not entirely sure whether he's even returned to Shizala's time period, Kane has a bad scare from a local monster before running into Hool Haji, a blue giant and the rightful king of the nation of Mendishar. Hool has been ousted from his position by the Priosa - the palace guard of Mendishar who are essentially fascistic militarists, who have concocted a new religion in order to cement their hold on power. Moved by Hool's story, Kane agrees to accompany him on his mission to make contact with the resistance and overthrow the Priosa tyranny. A disastrous betrayal forces Hool, Kane, and Hool's surviving allies to flee into the desert - and, through a stroke of luck, they end up discovering an ancient Yaksha bunker from before the atomic war.

Discovering that its survivors are little more than wild, feral creatures, rendered insane and physically warped by generations of inbreeding in their deep underground world, they make their escape utilising a blimp which Kane is able to construct utilising the materials and technology left behind by the underground city's Yaksha builders. After accidentally flying into the course of a powerful air stream which their primitive balloon is not capable of resisting, the party are blown to the western continent, where the actual Lord of the Spiders is encountered and dispatched in the space of about a chapter. From there, Kane and Hool return to Mendishar to deal with the Priosa - and then Kane heads south to meet up again with Shizala, to discover that the villainous Horguhl has manipulated the aftermath of the last novel in order to create a very real threat of war between Karnala and Mishim Tep. Although he is an accomplished warrior, Kane realises if Karnala and Mishim Tep come to blows it will result in a horrendous loss of life on both sides, and will destabilise all the southern nations; once again, Kane realises he needs to resort to ancient super-technology to dissipate the lies that bring Mars to the brink of of war.

On my first reading, Lord of the Spiders didn't seem to hang together as well as City of the Beast, mainly because it seemed to have two main plots; it's almost as through Moorcock wrapped up the whole Priosa thing, and then suddenly realised he hadn't quite hit the page count he needed so he cranked out a bit of material tidying up loose ends from City of the Beast. On mulling it over, though, I think the two plots have more commonalities than I at first gave them credit for. Both of them involve different persons - the Priosa on one hand, Horguhl on the other - exploiting superstition, deceit, rumourmongering and manipulation to manipulate the public. (The Priosa, in particular, are another rendition of Moorcock's theme that Nazism, Stalinism, and other totalitarian systems with a strong cult of personality or ideological doctrine are essentially secular superstitions; Moorcock uses the idea in a low-key way in a lot of his fiction, and invokes it in a particularly heavy-handed way in The Dragon In the Sword.) And both of them involve Kane defeating them using technological means.

Granted, in the first case it's using technology that Kane fully understands and which he's pieced together with his own hands, and in the latter case it's using pseudo-magical super-technology from before the atomic war. But in both cases, Kane resorting to technological means to solve his problems arises from his background as a scientist, which is relevant here to an extent which it wasn't in City of the Beast. This is part of Moorcock's hope expressed here and in Masters of the Pit that advance of science and technology will not just give us cool new toys, but will also make it more difficult for charlatans and deceivers to pull the wool over our eyes; here Kane is essentially the Amazing Randi, pointing out the tricks of cold readers and table-rappers and liberating the public from their deceit. Of course, things aren't as simplistic as that - and to Moorcock's credit, he realises this, and develops the idea further in Masters of the Pit.

Aside from bringing this theme to the fore, Lord of the Spiders is essentially more of the same, but since City of the Beast (like the other books in the series) was really quite sort "more of the same" is likely to be exactly what you're in the mood for if you've enjoyed the first book. Moorcock's introduction of the nation of Mendishar furthers his attempt to be less racist than Burroughs by emphasising that the different races of Mars do not have one single monoculture each. On the gender front, the story is still written with thirteen year old boys in mind, and sexism is occasionally the consequence. There's a bit where Ora Lis, a starry-eyed female admirer of Hool Haji, betrays Hool's forces to the Priosa; although it is made clear that this is to a large extent Hool's fault for leading her on in a careless manner, the subplot still carries a mild subtext of "girls are sometimes emotional and do silly things if you don't handle them carefully". On the adventure front, they fight an orangutan-spider. On the thews front, everybody is still naked. In short, Lord of the Spiders stays the course whilst including a bit more thoughtfulness about Kane's technological outlook and the impact his tinkering could have on Martian culture.

Masters of the Pit (AKA Barbarians of Mars)

In the framing story to this volume, Edward Bradbury recounts how Kane, materialising through the matter transporter in his cellar, is eager to tell about the technological boom he has inspired on Mars; Karnala now has an entire fleet of airships based on Kane's designs, and they and Mendishar mount regular expeditions to the Yaksha dungeon bunker to scavenge further gear and knowledge. In one such expedition, Hool Haji and Kane make a stopover at the city-state of Cend-Amrid, a place well known for its technological and engineering prowess. They discover the city has been afflicted by a horrendous plague, and as an emergency measure appointed a board of technocrats with sweeping powers to combat the spread of the plague. The board, as a consequence of being forced to consider people in terms of numbers and disease vectors as opposed to seeing them as individual human beings, has ended up treating them exactly like machines; a new dogma has taken root, in which people are nothing more than biological machines and if they malfunction, they should be thrown out without sentiment.

Horrified both by the danger posed by the plague (especially considering that the peoples of Mars have little prior experience of truly dangerous infectious diseases) and by the dangerous ideology that has been spawned in Cend-Amrid in response to it, Hool and Kane resolve to spend this expedition to the Yaksha bunker hunting for a cure to the plague, reasoning that it's most likely some sort of horrendous bioweapon from the Sheev-Yaksha war. But when they reach the bunker, it turns out that the Bagarad, a gang of roving brigands from the western continent, have shown up, vandalised the place, and taken anything which even resembles a super-weapon. Captured by the Bagarad, Hool and Kane try to prevail on Rokin the Gold, their leader, not to idly meddle with technologies that are well beyond his comprehension. Things only get more dangerous when Rokin, Hool and Kane are captured by the Hounds of Hahg, dog-people on the western continent who serve the First Masters, bird-people who in long-ago ages created both the dog-people and their cat-people adversaries by tinkering with Sheev technologies.

In City of the Beast Moorcock set his pen against superstition and ideology; in Lord of the Spiders, he expressed the hope that technology and science could provide tools to defeat the hold of rumours and deceit on the human psyche. Here, he develops the point by playing on the theme that it's not enough simply to have access to cool toys; what's also vitally important is to understand the implications of those technologies, and for the public as a whole to have a sufficient level of scientific understanding to put new innovations in their proper context. The mechanistic ideology of Cend-Amrid arises from a failure to keep reductionist empiricism in its box, to a point where interpersonal interactions end up being treated just like gears in a machine - it's a warning about how a little scientific knowledge combined with a lack of perspective on what technology can and can't explain or provide can lead you somewhere ridiculous, or even dangerous. Both the First Masters and the Bagarad have an entirely black box understanding of technology; they are broadly aware that these cool Yaksha machines can do neat stuff, but they have no idea how it works, no idea of the dangers, and severely underestimate how hard it is to make them function properly; in both cases, they stab at buttons randomly until they get exploded. The success with which Moorcock brings his argument over the course of the trilogy to a head in this volume, especially compared with the heavy-handed way he lays out his arguments in more recent works such as The Revenge of the Rose and The Dragon In the Sword, is to me what makes Masters of the Pit the best volume of the series, as well as making the Kane trilogy as a whole worthy of being considered alongside Moorcock's other work, even though it is written in a style which isn't representative of his usual approach.

Another cool thing about the book is the way it presses the point that Kane is a genuinely principled person rather than someone we are meant to accept is principled but then gets to go kill and sex his way across an alien planet to his heart's content without really considering his actions. There's a part late in the book where a cult from Cend-Amrid has started travelling from city to city across Mars spreading the plague to as many people as possible. On learning that they are heading towards Varnal, Kane, Shizala and the rest are faced with pondering how to respond to a horde of disease victims who are acting all irrational due to their illness and are determined to get into the city. Whilst, in principle, the refugees aren't going to be especially good at fighting and will take a long time to successfully breach the city's defences, and whilst the city is in a reasonable position to hunker down for a long, drawn-out siege, the fact is that this will cause an enormous number of the disease-characters to die horrible, violent deaths in the course of the fighting.

Now, if Edgar Rice Burroughs were writing this story, he'd probably have the main character square his jaw and settle down for a siege, with a tear in his eye for the poor irrational souls flinging themselves to death against the walls of Varnal. If one of your current generation of grimdark uber alles fantasy authors were writing this story it'd be much the same, sans the tear. But as it is, Moorcock has Kane order the complete evacuation of Varnal, effectively abandoning it to the disease carriers until a cure can be found and Varnal can be reclaimed. Darnad, Shizala's brother, argues that this is cowardice, and that the citizens of Varnal have a right to defend themselves against aggression, as with the Argzoon's aggression in the first book, but Kane points out that (as far as they knew in the first book) the aggression of the Argzoon was based on a rational decision to invade and plunder Karnala's riches, with no attempt on the part of the Argzoon to negotiate. Here, negotiation had at least succeeded in working out the motivations of the disease-carriers - the problem is that their motivations are irrational and influenced by their feverish delirium, and they can neither be held responsible for their actions nor be effectively negotiated with. There's no way to safely restrain them, so Kane decides that the moral, correct thing to do is to step back and avoid conflict rather than getting in their way. It might be cool and edgy to read about Elric or some Abercrombie protagonist having a bunch of refugees exterminated for the greater good, but it feels more fulfilling to hear about Kane convincing the people of Varnal to put doing the right thing above their claim to their city.

The series ends in an open-ended manner; like any good author of sword and planet pastiche, Moorcock makes sure that he can go back and write a sequel or twelve if he feels like it. One can imagine a parallel universe in which Stormbringer fell flat, Jerry Cornelius never found a publisher, and Moorcock was reduced to cranking out Michael Kane stories ad nauseum, the novels eventually descending into merciless trolling of John Norman once Gor hits the market. But as it stands, I don't really want more - I'm happy with the less than 400 pages we have. Ultimately, Kane's destiny is pretty clear: he's going to help spark a new technological renaissance on Mars, bringing the benefits of his scientific knowledge to the Martian people whilst carefully making sure that public understanding of technology matches technological development and new inventions are carefully integrated into society, and eventually he will sow the seeds for the Martians migrating to Earth once Mars enters a terminal decline so that they eventually become our own ancestors. As for Edward P. Bradbury? Well, maybe he's sat in his study for over forty years wistfully waiting for a big naked man in a leather harness who's never going to show up again, but I like to think he eventually went to Mars himself to join Kane in his adventures. And then Moorcock stole his notes and sold them to Compact for a quick buck.

The Picky Buyer's Guide

For the first time in this series I'm able to give a 100% thumbs up to all the books in the Michael Kane series. As a pastiche of Edgar Rice Burroughs, as an effort to reclaim Burroughs' formula and purge its horrendous racism, and as a just plain fun collection of adventure stories, it succeeds on pretty much all counts, and it manages to be interesting and thoughtful without becoming preachy and heavy-handed, a trick Moorcock seems to have lost the knack of recently.

For a while, it was quite hard to track down the Kane books, with even the omnibuses going out of print. Recently, however, Paizo - better known as the publishers of Pathfinder, the fantasy roleplaying game for those who say "no" to Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition - have reissued the books as part of their ongoing "Planet Stories" line, a series of reprints of classic out-of-print planetary romance and sword and planet fiction. I, for one, salute their courageous sallying forth against the barbaric hordes of Gor that have overrun the subgenre, even if it does kind of come across as a desperate last stand against impossible odds.

To summarise my recommendations so far, arranged in order of the protagonist in question's debut:

     The Stealer of Souls*
     Stormbringer (post-1977 edition)*
     The Eternal Champion (the novel, not the omnibus)
Michael Kane:
     City of the Beast (AKA Warriors of Mars)**
     Lord of the Spiders (AKA Blades of Mars)**
     Masters of the Pit (AKA Barbarians of Mars)**

* Collected in Elric or the Del Rey edition of Elric: the Stealer of Souls.

** Collected in Warrior of Mars or Kane of Old Mars.

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Comments (go to latest)
Michal at 02:35 on 2011-06-19
I feel like giving this a shot. Moorcock writing straight up Edgar Rice Burroughs pastiche sounds preferable to Moorcock writing "serious business" any day. 'Cause when Moorcock writes "serious business", he often fails, and the interest in seeing how spectacularly so. Also, it's just so nice to see something by Moorcock where the Eternal Champion cross-references don't become more important than the plot.

Agreed on John Norman ruining the sword-and-planet subgenre forever. He bound it up in his whips and chains and kept it as a slave for eternity.
Arthur B at 03:31 on 2011-06-19
Agreed on John Norman ruining the sword-and-planet subgenre forever. He bound it up in his whips and chains and kept it as a slave for eternity.

But that's OK because it is in its nature to be emotionally fulfilled by servitude, just as it is in John Norman's nature to master it, and really if we extrapolate this point from the bedroom to the rest of society we'll have a wonderful utopia where graaaaaaah damn it I can't write it with a straight face.

But yeah, Paizo's doing fine work with their Planet Stories line of trying to rehabilitate the genre, I really ought to dip into more of their stuff. They've even got Leigh Brackett reprints where Eric John Stark is depicted on the cover art (accurately) as a black man, for the first time evar.
Steve Stirling at 07:18 on 2011-07-13
Norman didn't wreck things forever, just for a while. He's largely forgotten except by genre geeks (*).

There's been quite a bit of Planetary Romance written lately. I did a bit myself.

(*) I met him once. He -really believed- that stuff.
Arthur B at 11:40 on 2011-07-13
Glad to hear it; I've really not encountered any but I suppose the tidal wave of grimdark is still drowning it out. Any recommendations?
Steve Stirling at 22:50 on 2011-07-13
Glad to hear it; I've really not encountered any but I suppose the tidal wave of grimdark is still drowning it out. Any recommendations?

-- well my own stuff, of course: THE SKY PEOPLE (Venus) and IN THE COURTS OF THE CRIMSON KINGS (Mars.)

PANGAEA is good (not the one by Mason).
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