If the universe is infinite, it follows that there may be somewhere real physical worlds that duplicate those of the imagination. And when Tom Carson caught sight of the third planet of 82 Eridani he recognized at once its resemblance to that imaginary Mars called “Barsoom” of the ancient novelist Burroughs.
Of course there were differences, but even so this planet was ruddy, criss-crossed with canals, and its inhabitants were redskinned, fought with swords, and had many things superficially in common with the fantasy Mars of the John Carter adventures.
But there were indeed vital variations that would eventually trip up the self-deceived science-fiction-reading travellers from 24th Century Earth. Therein hangs a tale that will delight and surprise everyone who enjoys the thrill of exploring a new world, especially one that seems peculiarly familiar.
It’s been taken!
Somebody at DAW really went out of their way to make this book seem uninspired, hacky, and appealing to a certain kind of reader who isn’t me. I’m used to misleading jacket copy. It’s almost a given. But this time our darling publisher went so far as to give this book a subtitle. And that subtitle is extremely unrepresentative of the book.
I don’t know how much control David J. Lake had over that. Maybe he was in on it, but I’m willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt.
What I’m getting at, of course, is that this book had very little to do with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom novels. It is not the story of some astronauts who, on the edge of space, discovered a planet that, quite coincidentally, is Barsoom. I’m sure things of that nature have been done before. Hell, about two years after this book we get Heinlein doing exactly that with The Number of the Beast, except that it’s about parallel realities instead of extrasolar planets. I’m guessing that the late seventies was a big Burroughs revival period. I’m totally okay with that. I loved A Princess of Mars and I get that it was a huge influence on a generation of science fiction writers.
Still, the idea of finding a planet that is coincidentally the same as a fictional one has some complicated ramifications. Sure, it’s probably copyright infringement, but I can see somebody arguing that it’s not, that it’s parody or fair use or whatever, because the book isn’t really set on Barsoom/Oz/Tatooine/Narnia, it’s a story about how somebody found something that just so happens to be super similar to that. I don’t think that would stand up in court, but I’m by no means a copyright law expert.
Plus it’s really easy to turn that kind of story into self-insert fanfic, which just isn’t my thing. If it’s yours, that’s cool. More power to you. Follow your bliss. But this particular brand of self-insert fanfic would also have the self-insert character with a good reason to be super savvy about the whole situation. It’s not the story of Mary Sue Wizard going to Hogwarts, it’s the story of Mary Sue Wizard going to an exact copy of Hogwarts with all the knowledge about Hogwarts because they’re super keen Harry Potter fans. And maybe that’s somebody’s jam, too. It’s not mine.
And now that I’ve spent like five paragraphs talking about how I expected this book to be really hacky, I get to tell you again that no, it was not anything like that. Yes, our astronauts find a planet that vaguely reminds them of Barsoom. It is red and deserty, it has canals, and the people are also red. The main character, Tom Carson, who is also a fan of vintage sci-fi, comments a few times on the superficial similarities and even suggests calling the planet Barsoom. He is overridden on that, and the planet ends up being called Ares until they make contact with the natives and learn that the planet is called Xuma.
What we get instead is a novel with a lot of solid worldbuilding, which isn’t surprising considering the author. My other David J. Lake read, Walkers On the Sky, also had some great worldbuilding. The Gods of Xuma was better, both in terms of worldbuilding and storytelling. For one, it had a much more entertaining narrator/protagonist. Tom Carson had a nicely sarcastic-but-likable tone that made the book a joy to read. It felt like I was actually reading a human being’s narration.
The book also defied a lot of standard pulp science fiction conventions. This was the part I liked most about it. The native Xumans are, at first glance, primitive compared to our astronauts. They appear to be roughly Bronze Age in technological progress. It turns out, however, that their culture is millions of years old. They are more advanced than our astronauts in lots of ways.
I was also surprised that the Xumans didn’t have some kind of a one-world monoculture like most alien races would. There are lots of cultures and our hero gets to meet a lot of them. Yes, there is a single language across the whole planet, but that is at least explained. The Xumans are incredible linguists and have made a language that just works for everybody, so everybody uses it. I know that’s not great, but it’s more effort than most authors put in.
Our astronauts arrive on a ship called the Riverhorse. They’re a combination exploration/colonization expedition. They’ve come about twenty light years at relativistic speeds in cold sleep, and now they’re supposed to decide whether this planet can sustain human life. Stuff’s gotten really bad back in the old Solar System. Earth is completely uninhabitable after World War IV. Biological warfare wrecked the planet beyond recovery. The remnants of humanity live on the moon, and they’re divided into factions that are once again threatening the human race with extinction. Our heroes come from the “Euram” folks. Others are the Russians and the Chinese, the later of which are never referred to by anything other than an epithet that I will not repeat here, but I bring it up in case you start to think that I think this book didn’t have anything wrong with it. It had its share.
After kidnapping a native child and learning how to talk with it a little bit, it’s Tom Carson’s time to shine. He’s the ship’s linguist, and its his job to go down to the planet and scout it out a bit. The native child, Saimo, becomes Carson’s friend and our main source of exposition.
And what a lot of exposition we get! It’s most of the story. I didn’t mind all that much, since the world was well-developed and it fascinated me, but I can see that it would be a problem for some people. A large part of the book focused on Xuman gender and sex studies. I know that sounds like we’re going to talk about some typical “Teach me of this human thing you call rimjob” trash, but no, it’s a lot better than that. It’s an honest-to-god exploration of an alien race that has a wildly different setup than we do, and it’s great.
Xuman biology has four sexes: neuter, male, female, and a different kind of neuter. Every Xuman goes through all of those sexes during their lifetime, barring death before they get around to them. They usually start as a neuter child, develop male genitalia, change over to female genitalia and secondary sex characteristics, and then become neuter again, but old this time.
A small segment of the population doesn’t follow that order. They still start and finish as neuter, but the male and female changes are reversed. The different Xuman cultures react differently to the people who do that. Some cultures venerate them, others don’t care much, and still others consider them deviants. The culture that the humans interact with for much of the book is one of the last, but things change as the book does on. It is perhaps notable that our main Xuman guide, Saimo, undergoes this reversed changeover.
The story itself is all about how the humans can manage to settle on this planet. The first plan is to pretend to be gods and then take over the whole planet. This doesn’t work when it turns out that the Xumans are savvy to that thing and work out that the humans are, in fact, mortal just like themselves. All the humans have to their advantage is technology, mostly in the form of lasers. The Xumans are aware that this gives the humans the upper hand, and so they are accommodating to them. They’re also genuinely good, pleasant people, but they’re fully aware of the threat the humans pose.
A faction of the ship wants to just take over by force. Tom is not a part of that faction, but he doesn’t have much choice but to go along with it for a while, since the captain of the ship is a part of that faction. He spends a lot of the book stressing about how the humans are corrupting these decent people.
Tom’s feelings are problematic in their own right. They’re a bit condescending and paternalistic. His mode of thinking is at least kicked around a lot as he learns that the Xumans are not some kind of noble savages. They have a highly advanced culture, more advanced than humans. They simply prefer to use “lower” technology. This all comes to a head when the Xumans announce that they want Tom to help them destroy all the human weapons and technology so that there will be real, actual peace between the two species. They make their point by destroying the orbiting Riverhorse with a giant laser that none of the humans expected them to have. Just to make a point.
Tom and his human friends join with the Xumans, wipe out the colonialist faction of the human ship, and manage to destroy all the “superior” technology that set the humans apart from the Xumans. With all that done, the humans learn to integrate totally into Xuman society, and everything ends happily.
I’m not suuuuper keen on that ending. While large parts of the book seem to have a “colonialism is bad” message, that “happy” ending seems to be a shot across the bow of multiculturalism. The only way that things could end happily is for the humans to cast off their own culture and customs and language and adopt those of the natives. That’s one of those things that seems nice if you’re thinking about, say, Britons landing in India, but comes across as gross if you’re thinking about Hispanics coming to America. Tricky.
Actually, I see here that Lake was born in British India, so I get the feeling that his intentions are good. I can’t read minds, so I can’t say with certainty. And it might have both shades of meaning at the same time.
While the sexual biology of the Xumans was treated with respect, there was one bit that stood out as problematic. Specifically, it was in a description of human sexual biology. Tom was explaining it to one of the Xumans and said something like “we humans are male or female for our whole lives, never changing.” I get what he’s saying there, but in the forty years since this book was written the trans community has finally started to get a little recognition, so that statement made me wince.
Tom Carson was a good protagonist, mainly because he was the very opposite of John Carter. He wasn’t much of a fighter, mainly relying on the fact that his laser gun was unlike any of the native Xuman weapons. He wasn’t super-strong in the Xuman .66g gravity, since he was actually from the moon anyway. Xuman gravity actually made him weaker for a lot of the book. And yes, he does sex up a Xuman princess, but the differences in biology make it a disappointing experience for both parties.
There’s a lot more to this book worth describing but I’m running long and I think the novel is well worth checking out yourself. There’s a sequel, and I have it, and I have no idea what to expect from it. I hope it’s as good as this one.
A tiny bit of research I’ve just done seems to indicate that the books are meant to take a critical approach to Burroughs’s novels, which I can kinda see. It’s been a bit too long since I adventured with Carter and Tars Tarkas for me to think on it clearly. I also see here that this book and its sequel take place in the same series as Walkers On the Sky, so that’s interesting too. I didn’t notice that many similarities.
I guess I’ll have to pay better attention when I read the sequel, Warlords of Xuma.