Pirates of Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Bison Books, 2001
First serialized in Argosy, 1932
First published in book form by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., 1934
Price I paid: Hooray for public libraries
The shimmering, cloud-covered planet of Venus conceals a wondrous secret: the strikingly beautiful yet deadly world of Amtor. In Amtor, cities of immortal beings flourish in giant trees reaching thousands of feet into the sky; ferocious beasts stalk the wilderness below; rare flashes of sunlight precipitate devastating storms; and the inhabitants believe their world is saucer-shaped with a fiery center and an icy rim. Stranded on Amtor after his spaceship crashes, astronaut Carson Napier is swept into a world where revolution is ripe, the love of a princess carries a dear price, and death can come as easily from the blade of a sword as from the ray of a futuristic gun.
Pirates of Venus is the exciting inaugural volume in the last series imagined and penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This commemorative edition features new illustrations by Thomas Floyd, the original frontispiece by J. Allen St. John, an afterword by Phillip Burger, a glossary of Amtor terms by Scott Tracy Griffin, a map of Amtor drawn by Edgar Rice Burroughs that appeared in the first edition, and an introduction by acclaimed science fiction and horror novelist F. Paul Wilson.
It’s against type for me to go after someone who stands quite as high in the pulp canon as Edgar Rice Burroughs, but hear me out: I felt like it.
It’s a tiny bit more complicated than that. Truth is, after the last review took place mainly on Mars, I got into a sort of a Mars kick. And then Perseverance landed successfully and that redoubled it.
Whenever I get to thinking really hard about Mars lately, I go in one of two directions. Either I re-read The Martian, or I play a video game called Surviving Mars by Paradox Interactive. If you’re not familiar, it’s a strategy game about building and managing a Martian colony and, if you’ve purchased the requisite add-on pack, eventually terraforming the planet. It’s a great game to kill a good, oh, week with. And that’s the option I took.
So I’m spending all my waking non-working hours watching a mostly-orangish-red screen turn slightly more green and blue over time, and on a whim I decided to start naming my colony’s domes things like “Tars Tarkas” and “Dejah Thoris.” And right around then I decided that I should read the Barsoom novels. I’ve read the first, uh, two or so already, but it’s been many years.
And then basically out of nowhere my buddy John mentions that he’s been thinking about another ERB book, Pirates of Venus, a lot lately. I remembered him reading it because I think we were roommates at the time, and after a few days of ruminating I figured maybe I’d give it a read myself. After another bit I decided it might be worth reviewing, so here we are.
My figuring was that it would be interesting to take a close look at somebody who had such a huge hand in forming the modern science fiction pulp adventure novel, but through the lens of one of his lesser-known works. I also figured it would be fun to gently prod Burroughs for, apparently, running out of ideas and deciding to just do John Carter again, but it turns out I was pretty wrong about that part, and I’ll get into that a little bit more later.
So right up front, the main takeaway from this read is that pulp sci-fi basically took ERB and said, here, run with it forever! Everything about this book was extremely familiar, from the hypercompetent protagonist to the magnificent setpieces to the wild-ass technology to the lovely alien lady to the extreme right-wing politics.
I’m not going to jump straight to calling ERB a fascist, but this book is almost entirely about his reactionary politics.
Our hero is Carson Napier. In many ways he is, yes, in the same vein as John Carter. He’s strong, talented, smart, a Natural Leader, extremely white, etc., etc. He’s a guy who was born into wealth and now, after the loss of his parents, has become unfettered by obligations and just roams around the world getting into stuff. Now bored, he decided that the only thing left to do is to travel to Mars.
Yeah, you heard me right.
One thing I don’t know is whether this book takes place in the same universe as the Barsoom novels. It does reference Pellucidar and Tarzan as real things, but whether Carson would go to Mars and find John Carter up there waiting for him must remain a mystery. You see, Carson makes intricate plans and designs his own rocket, calculating exactly the moment he needs to launch in order to drift to Mars. The problem is, he screws it up.
Carson Napier is, generally speaking, much more of a screw-up than either Tarzan or John Carter. The screw-up to kick this whole thing off is that he forgets that Earth’s moon exists, and as he’s flying up into space, its gravitational pull warps his flight plan, causing him instead to plunge toward the Sun. Fortunately, Venus gets in the way and catches him, and thus we get the adventure of a lifetime.
I should note that, in standard Burroughs style, this entire adventure is Definitely Something That Really Happened, and is being recounted to us by the author. In this case, it’s less about some notes that were found somewhere or an old man approaching our author to tell his story. Carson Napier shows up at the beginning of the book and demonstrates his proficiency with the telepathic arts, which he learned as a child in India. This adventure is therefore being transmitted, in real time, to Burroughs via telepathy, whereupon he dictates it into a recording device for later publication.
Napier lands on Venus, expecting to die one way or another based on the scientific understanding of the day, which is largely the same as that of today. He does not expect there to be oxygen, or water, or livable temperatures. So then he’s surprised when he bails out of his spaceship and lands in a giant tree, runs into a kind of spider-lobster creature, and then meets some people who take him in.
The book is pretty exposition-heavy at this point and we learn that the native Venusians call their planet Amtor. Napier learns their language in about three weeks. One thing I found interesting is that Burroughs tells us a few of the rules about this language and sticks to them consistently whenever native Amtorian words come up. It’s certainly not Tolkien-level stuff but I did appreciate it.
The Amtorians that Napier meets are all beautiful nearly-naked specimens in perfect health. Later he learns that this is because of a serum that they have perfected that grants eternal youth. Some of the folks he meets are hundreds of years old. He is gradually accepted into their society and makes friends with a number of them.
It’s not too long before we learn that this marvelous planet has a dark side. And that dark side is COMMUNISM.
The history of Amtorian society is thus: Once it was a high-tech paradise with, like, a king and stuff. It was a highly stratified society of social classes that we are assured were not a hierarchy but rather separate-but-equal. Sure. One day, however, a guy named Thor decided that this setup was, in fact, pretty crappy, and that the working classes were being subjugated and exploited by the others. He gained some followers and toppled the government, thus establishing Thorism across the planet.
This, of course, turned out to be a ruse to get Thor and his followers into power themselves so that they could be the exploiters instead, because if there’s one thing reactionaries love to do, it’s to point at Communism and say that it’s very bad and then describe things that happen in Capitalist countries all the time.
A small number of the ruling and intellectual classes managed to escape and set up a land named Vepaja. This is where Napier has found himself. You wanna know what’s funny? Vepajan rulers, having learned their lesson, decided to turn their society into a classless one where people just do the work that needs to be done to maintain infrastructure and live in peace and joy. Also there’s a magic potion that defeats all disease and aging, which is given completely free of charge. That sounds pretty socialist to me, buddy!
Oh, also they live in trees.
All of this kind of thing was, to me at least, mostly just funny. But there was one moment, quite a bit later, that made me roll my eyes so hard I detached a retina.
At some point Napier meets a beautiful young woman and falls in love with her, although she tells him that she hates him and runs away. It starts gross and gets grosser!
But he also makes a lot of friends, notably a fella named Kamlot. One day, Kamlot takes Napier on his first hunting trip, for a substance called tarel, which turns out to be secreted by the very spider-lobster thing that he met when he first arrived on the planet. It’s called a targo.
Things go badly and Kamlot is killed, although Napier kills the targo in return. He tries to carry his friend’s body back to the city, but gets lost and finds himself on the ground. He goes to bury Kamlot but discovers that he’s not really dead, just unconscious, and wakes him up. Together they fight a big animal called a basto for its meat, but in the confusion they end up being abducted by bird people called klangan.
It’s just one thing after another in this book, rapid fire, and I think a lot of that is because of the way it was originally serialized. Every chapter ends hanging on a cliff, and that usually means some big revelation or introduction of another weird concept.
The klangan end up working for a bunch of Thorists, who take our guys and make them slaves on their sailing vessel, the Sofal. While there, Napier rallies together a bunch of the other prisoners into a group he calls the Soldiers of Liberty, and here’s where the absolutely eye-rolly gross moment comes into play, one that threatens to ruin ERB for me.
“Sit close to us, Zog,” directed Kiron; “I have something to say that no one but a Soldier of Liberty may hear.”
He did not say Soldier of Liberty, but “kung, kung, kung,” which are the Amtorian initials of the order’s title. Kung is the name of the Amtorian character that represents the k sound in our language, and when I first translated the initials I was compelled to smile at the similarity to those of a well-known secret order in the United States of America.pg 100
It took me a moment to parse, but when it hit, I was furious. Edgar Rice Burroughs, you dead racist asshole, how dare you have your character think fondly on the fucking Klan?
I mean, a lot of the signs are there anyway. The klangan are all “dark skinned” with “low brows.” So you know what he’s getting at. The Thorists are a bit more subtle, but they still “look stupid” and “vicious,” in that way that makes sense to fucking racists. He goes out of his way to say that while the Vepajans have dark skin, it’s just tanned, not black! Dear God no!
And there’s more explicitly some eugenics at play here. After the Vepajans boogied out of Thorist territory and set up their own society, it turned out to be a major brain drain, so the Thorists have resorted to kidnapping Vepajans for breeding purposes, because all the good and smart genes left, I guess.
I won’t brook any “it was a different time” arguments here, either. There were plenty of people who hated the Klan, eugenics, and scientific racism even in the thirties. Burroughs made a choice to have sucky opinions.
I know this shouldn’t surprise me considering the way Tarzan shakes out a lot of the time, but I dunno, something about this exact moment hit me pretty hard. It’s the difference between a sort of generalized racism versus actively having your main character smile when thinking about murderous piece of shit terrorists.
Anyway, Napier and his bullshit Klan buddies take over the ship and become the titular Pirates of Venus, which actually took me a while to realize even as it was happening. They roam the Venusian ocean and learn about another ship with Vepajan prisoners on board, so they raid it and rescue them. One of the prisoners there turns out to be a young woman named Duare, of whom the other Vepajans speak in awe and wonder and gravity. Napier is quite surprised to learn that it’s the woman he met earlier in the book and fell in love with!
We get a lot of blah blah about why he’s not allowed to love her. She’s the daughter of the jong, the ruler of the Vepajans. Princess of Venus, kind of! But she’s also, uh, not legal yet. Napier, true to form, doesn’t give a crap about royalty or the age of consent and declares his love to her, which causes her to freak out, and I don’t know why but I just got some serious deja vu writing this sentence.
The pulps, everybody!
More piracy, crew ends up capturing another ship, this one has some kind of bigtime Thorist on it. A traitor among Carson’s crew frees the guy and kidnaps Duare and they fly off with some klangan bird people to a nearby island.
Right about that point, a storm comes up and Napier gets washed overboard. He is very much a protagonist to whom crap happens. I reckon we could call him a schlimazel protagonist, in a way. He is the one on whom the soup is spilt. I’m going to have to think about this categorization some more.
Napier lands in the ocean and starts swimming to the nearest landmass, an unexplored place populated by “hairy savages,” which was not unexpected. He makes it and finds Duare, as well as one of the klangan (incidentally, klangan is the plural form angan. ERB enjoys breaking the action to explain the finer points of Amtorian vocab to us). They fight off some of these savages, called kloonobargan (another word explained at great length but I won’t bother you with that) and escape, but then the Thorist bad guys show up again. The book ends on another cliffhanger, with Carson sending Duare and Bird Fella back to the ship as she tells him, finally, that she loves him.
So there we go. A book that was perfectly entertaining, even as it was a kind of silly anti-Commie polemic, right up until the point when I realized just how damned racist the author was. Like, actively racist. Not just run-of-the-mill racist.
Does this ruin everything about Burroughs for me? Will I throw the Barsoom books into the trash? I don’t know. I don’t think so. He’s long dead, for one thing. If I buy a book, it’s not like he’s going to benefit from it. But I’m going to have to think long and hard about it.
I guess he’s not quite as explicitly racist as, say, H.P. Lovecraft, but it’s a similar boat. I don’t think we meet any questionably-named cats in a Burroughs book, but I’m prepared to be wrong. On a historical level, I can recognize that these guys were huge influences on their genres, and I can appreciate them for that. Folks like Clarke and Asimov and Bradbury and Heinlein all cite Burroughs as a huge influence. They are the Giants. What would the genre be like without him paving so much of the way?
But then there’s the fact that so many other authors were also influenced by Burroughs, and not just in terms of his adventuresomeness and cool space ideas, of which there is much to enjoy. This book itself was a hell of a good adventure story if you ignore the shitty stuff. But there’s also the fact that so much of the pulps, down into the sixties and probably beyond, were generally on a spectrum running from righty-tighty to faschy-waschy. We touched on this a lot in my review of The Iron Dream, and Spinrad made that point a lot better than I can.
But then we get to ask that other question, what if ERB hadn’t paved the way, but rather someone who wasn’t a racist shithead did? What might science fiction have become? I wanted to say that maybe the New Wave would have happened earlier, or maybe it would have gained a bit more general appreciation instead of being the domain of a particular fandom, or we might have skipped John W. Campbell and his fashy tendencies, but I don’t know. I think maybe the genre would be unrecognizable today, and as much as I love it, I have to wonder if maybe it couldn’t have been better after all.
Suppose instead we cited somebody like Olaf Stapledon, ERB’s contemporary, as a founding figure of the genre. I mean, some people do—I do—but not on the same level as Burroughs. It’s hard to imagine Stapledon having that same level of influence and fame, for one thing, but it’s an interesting idea to pick over and dream about.
I’m gonna go re-read Star Maker.