Lords of Atlantis by Wallace West
Airmont Publishing, 1963
Originally published by Avalon Books, 1960
Price I paid: 90¢
In the dim past, men had fled to Mars for refuge, but now the red planet was a dying world, and the Martians returned to colonize Earth and rule over the Titans―descendants of those who had stayed behind at the time of the now-legendary catastrophe.
But the rulers of the Titans, retained by the conquerors on their ancestral thrones, grew restless under the benevolent progress of the Lords of Atlantis, looked back to a so-called “golden age,” and plotted rebellion.
Here is a thrilling novel of what might have been the basis of the Great Legends that have come down to us: of the “gods,” of Atlantis, of Zeus, Hermes, Hephaestus, Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, Jason, Medea―and of a mighty empire which was weighed in the balance and found wanting!
It’s probably because of Star Trek that I find this kind of narrative both entertaining and trite. The idea that the “ancient gods” were some kind of advanced space aliens will likely never cease to be a source of amusement to me.
I find it interesting that this book predates Chariots of the Gods? by almost a decade!
It turns out I’ve read Wallace West before. He wrote The Bird of Time, which also featured Mars and had a few small things in common with Lords of Atlantis. This week’s book was better, at least, although it also left me vaguely disappointed. It turns out that while I like this kind of narrative, it’s also one that doesn’t lend itself to any major surprises.
I’m struggling to figure out what to call this kind of story. A “Shaggy God Story” is one where, for instance, some aliens land on a garden planet named “Ee-dhen” and it turns out their names are “Ahdham and Eeveh.” The term was coined in ’65 by Brian W. Aldiss.
I’d say that Lords of Atlantis falls under this trope, although I think there are some differences. The point of a Shaggy God Story, at least in my opinion, is to surprise the audience with the twist at the end, the reveal that these aliens are the source of a creation myth. Think Twilight Zone. LoA doesn’t do that. It’s pretty clear from the get-go that we’re dealing with mythological figures. Folks aren’t named things like “Zeehoos” or anything. The ruler of Atlantis is unambiguously Zeus. A significant majority of the Olympian gods are also represented, as well as a large number of heroes like Heracles, Jason, Castor, Pollux, etc.
I also hesitate to call this an SGS since most of the definitions I see of it refer explicitly to stories that have to do with the Abrahamic religions, and since this book is more about Greek mythology, it doesn’t seem to fit.
Although! There is a tower in this book called Bab El, so there you go.
The story’s hero is a guy named Teraf. He’s the prince of Hellas, and the son of Zeus Pitar, king of Atlantis.
The “Pitar” part of Zeus’s name is a title. He’s often referred to as just “the Pitar.” I find this interesting because the title of nobility in the other West novel I’ve read was something like “Pitaret.” Nothing wrong with re-using words across your titles, although it does make me wonder if these two books share a universe?
Teraf has been hanging out on Mars for a few years. Recently I’ve become more aware of the ways an author might make it so that the point of view character is an outsider to the story and justify the need for expository dialogue. This book uses the “has been away for a while so the characters he meets are familiar and he gets to talk about how things have changed for a while” sort.
Mars is dying. It’s not the homeworld of our characters, it’s something a little more interesting than that. At some point in the distant past, some humans got advanced enough to go to Mars. So they did. They stayed there for a while, but then it turned out that Mars started dying, so they came back. The Martians then became the Atlanteans, ruling benevolently over the folks descended from those who stayed behind. A lot of the familiar ancient cultures are represented in this book―Greeks, Egyptians, Mayans, Norsemen―and there’s no indication at all of when this whole shebang is supposed to be taking place.
An Egyptian Pharoah named Plu Toh Ra has designs on overthrowing the Atlanteans. He figures that before the Martians showed up again, Earth was undergoing a Golden Age. He wants that back. He also feels that the Martians don’t respect Earth’s gods in the right way.
He has a daughter named Pan Doh Ra. Yeah. I guess this book wasn’t supposed to be subtle, although I did wonder for a while just how she’d live up to her mythological namesake. It turned out to be in a way I didn’t like.
Plu Toh Ra has ensnared Teraf’s brother, Refo, in his insidious plans. Refo is the king of Hellas, one of the ten kingdoms ruled over by the Empire of Atlantis. Refo’s treachery is revealed pretty early on and Teraf is supposed to become the new king of Hellas. It doesn’t work out all that well.
Alongside all this political intrigue, the first quarter or so of the book is concerned with an inbound comet. I say comet because the book does, but the thing is the size of Earth. No one seems to know whether it’ll hit the Earth or not, since apparently these spacefaring Martians don’t know how to calculate orbits. Whatever. The comet misses the Earth but explodes, becoming a ring of asteroids. This asteroid belt situates itself between the Earthical and Martian orbits, thus preventing the Martians from sending reinforcements when things get sticky in the narrative.
As a side note, it’s established that the asteroid belt is moving outward at a snail’s pace, and that it will, at some point in the far future, stabilize its orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Just so you know.
Teraf and Pan Doh Ra become fast friends. They sneak into a cave where there’s some gas that makes people have prophecies, just because they’re curious. The cave is supposed to be out of bounds. They get in there and then pass out from the fumes, eventually to be rescued by Hermes, the resident newspaperman.
At least three times that I can think of―maybe more―the scene transitions from Teraf passing out for some reason to him waking up with people hovering over him so they can tell him what happened. It’s an interesting way of moving the plot forward without having to make the protagonist interact with it.
Refo assumes that Teraf and Pan Doh Ra were doin’ the nasty in that cave, and since he was supposed to be betrothed to the woman, he gets pretty mad at his brother. There’s a fight. I think the fight was interrupted by the comet exploding.
Plu Toh Ra declares war on Atlantis and has pterodactyls drop bombs on it.
Why are there pterodactyls in this book? It’s stated that only the Egyptians have access to them, and they’re wiped out near the end of the novel, but the mere fact of their existence makes the timeline even more confusing. To make matters worse, there are saber-toothed tigers around, too.
Pan Doh Ra’s role in the novel is to be that kind of character where you don’t know if she’s a good guy or not. Is she a scheming traitor? Is she just faking so that our protags can get into a better position? Is she a double agent? It takes most of the book to find out. Teraf, for his part, tends to think she’s on his side, but he wavers a lot, and with fair reason.
The Egyptians bomb Atlantis’s great radio tower, the Tower of Bab El. It’s a power transmitter in the style of Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower. It has a global reach, powering factories and homes and vehicles the world over. Its destruction means that the Atlanteans lose a great deal of their ability to run and defend the world, but it also means that the people who were living under their benevolent rule are without power and jobs.
To make matters even worse, the Egyptians have managed to steal part of Atlantis’s supply of orichalcum. Readers of Plato and players of any fantasy game with a crafting system might recognize that name as a fictional precious metal, probably more valuable than gold. This book puts a spin on that. Instead of just being expensive and cool, the orichalcum in this novel is radioactive. It’s also the power source for Atlantis. A brief mention of getting some more by mining pitchblende reveals that orichalcum is, in fact, uranium, although it’s never called that by name.
There’s a lot of drama and back-and-forth and it’s eventually established that none other than Aphrodite helped the Egyptians steal the stuff. She is rapidly forgiven because, after all, she’s pretty.
Teraf hitches a ride with Jason and the Argonauts to Egypt, where they get captured. They’re helped to escape by Medea, who turns out to be Plu Toh Rah’s sister.
Most of this book is bouncing around from situation to situation in a way that becomes more understandable once you realize this novel is a fix-up of four novellas. I was unaware of that fact as I read it, so I was a bit annoyed. I will say that the book felt like less of a fix-up compared to some of the others I’ve read before. At least these four stories felt somewhat connected, and did form a continuous narrative, it just felt like that narrative went all over the place before deciding what to do with itself.
The climax of the novel comes when it’s revealed that Plu Toh Ra has gotten some orichalcum and has turned it into a bomb. This bit confused me until I came to a realization.
See, it turns out that I was misplacing Atlantis for the entire duration of the book. I, like most people I’m sure, assumed it was somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. That’s where most stories tend to put it. For reasons that I think have something to do with H.G. Wells, Wallace West placed his Atlantis in the Mediterranean. It’s not an island, though. It turns out that in this universe, the Mediterranean is a dry basin, or at least part of it is.
It’s mentioned somewhere near the middle that Heracles has just finished work on a dam at the Strait of Gibraltar. Ocean levels are rising, it’s pointed out, and there’s a chance that the Atlantic will spill into the Mediterranean Valley and turn it into a sea, which would be bad for Atlantis but would at least enable the entire development of Western Civilization.
Plu Toh Ra is going to use his new nuclear bomb to blow up that dam and flood the valley, destroying Atlantis. Refo is there and is suddenly overcome with remorse. Teraf and Pan Doh Ra (now good) also show up and there’s a showdown. Plu Toh Ra is completely mad, it seems, which lets his daughter off the hook in case she has anything to do with his demise. One way or another, the bomb falls into the ocean and explodes, breaking the dam. Teraf, Refo, and Pan Doh Rah escape on a pterodactyl named Sonny, who carries them back to Atlantis before they’re overwhelmed by the flood. I think Sonny dies of exhaustion at this point, and he was the last pterodactyl.
The flood is a few days away from Atlantis, so there’s time to evacuate some of the people. Not everybody makes it out, but the high court does. There’s a last little bit of drama when Teraf and Co. have to stick around until the last minute because of some plot element, but all the nobility makes it out except Hephaestus, who goes down with the city. The Atlanteans set themselves up at Olympus.
There’s a postscript in the form of a letter from Hermes to Teraf. It’s been ten years since everything went down. The Olympians are doing okay, although it turns out that without high Martian technology everything kind of sucks. The entire world is falling into a Dark Age. The Atlanto-Olympo-Martians have been staying out of the way generally and are considered a pantheon of gods of yore.
Now, you might be thinking what I was thinking for a while in this book. I don’t know any gods or heroes named Teraf or Refo. Those don’t sound much like Greek names. So what happened to them, you might ask?
They just sort of randomly got renamed into Prometheus and Epimetheus. At least Pan Doh Ra got to keep her name.
It turns out, though, that Refo is the one who gets to be Prometheus. After his change of heart it turns out that he’s a good ruler. Teraf and Pan Doh Ra just sort of stayed out of the way for, I guess, the rest of history.
The only reason I’m disappointed with the ending of this story is that it was pretty hacky and not at all surprising. I suppose that’s unfair. I mean, the idea that the Atlanteans would set themselves up as gods was an obvious one. It would have been weird for West to have done anything differently. We all knew it was going to happen, and there’s a certain joy in reading a book where you know exactly what’s going to happen. I mean, you don’t go into an Avengers movie thinking that the bad guys will win and Black Widow will get swallowed by a giant fish, right? You know how it’s gonna end. The joy is in getting there.
This book did manage to give me a little joy in the journey. I’ll say that. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but it did its job okay. I knocked the book out in about five hours and I didn’t even take a nap.
Note: My naps-as-quality idea might have to be rethunk now that I’m on some new medication.
The book was quite readable, and that’s in spite of the damn zero-point Times New Roman that the publisher decided to run with. I know it probably saved money on paper, but saints alive it made me squint.
The chief disappointment in the ending was the tacked-on “Oh it turns out that these guys are Prometheus and Epimetheus, even though their names don’t sound anything like that so there was no reason for you to guess at any time that this might happen.” I wasn’t thrilled by that.
In the end, I think this was a pretty good book. It satisfied my fondness for sci-fi/mythological tie-together narratives in that it went exactly where I expected it to. Would I have enjoyed it better if there had been more surprises in store? I don’t know. There was already enough that made me go “That’s not how the mythology went at all” that it was distracting.
Behind the curtain: When other kids were into dinosaurs and airplanes and stuff, I was reading about mythology. I’ve been into this kind of thing since I was seven, and I have never gotten tired of it. Maybe I should have been a classicist, but there you go.
I liked this book, but I’m not sure if I’d recommend it. I found it fun. Maybe you will too. It was inoffensive, so maybe give it a shot.
See if you can find an edition with a larger font, though.
One thought on “Lords of Atlantis”
I remember thinking this one was quite fun too, ‘way back in the far yonder. At a guess I must have been in my mid-teens, so I was probably wowed at my own sophistication!
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