Guest Post – Craters of Doom: A review of Barbarians of Mars/Masters of the Pit by Michael Moorcock

Guest Post by J. Comer.

The genre of sword-and-planet, popular in the decades after 1912’s A Princess Of Mars, `was showing its age by 1965.  Increased telescopic resolution had failed to show the fabled canals on Mars, and Venus seemed less likely to resemble the Mesozoic below its clouds.  Leigh Brackett framed her 1950s Martian tales as colonial critiques, and Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet had showed terraforming as necessary.  Finally Kenneth Bulmer (Transit to Scorpio), L. Sprague de Camp (the Viagens Interplanetarias series) and Brackett would move their sword-and-planet tales out of the Solar System entirely.

Yet it was in this Solar System setting that Michael Moorcock paid homage to Burroughs with his early Sojan the Swordsman and the much better Kane of Old Mars series.  Moorcock had already debuted his best-known hero, Elric, in 1961, but had not completed the Elric series.  The three Kane books were homages to Burroughs’ sword-and-planet material: an Earth hero is transported to another world, has swashbuckling adventures with a native pal, and wins the love of a human-like princess.  Moorcock, writing as “Edward P. Bradbury”, imagines that Michael Kane, his hero, travels to the Mars (“Vashu”) of the Cretaceous era, since by 1965, it was clear that the Mars of our era is inhospitable (as Otis Adelbert Kline had noted in The Swordsman of Mars).  Time travel seemed better, probably, than abandoning Mars entirely.

The third book, Barbarians of Mars, is representative of the Kane series.  Kane appears and tells his story to Bradbury, Moorcock’s “fictional author” persona.  In the tale, Kane sets out on an adventure with his Tars Tarkas- like friend, Hool Haji, a Martian ‘blue giant’.  A plague is ravaging Mars, and has driven the folk of Cend-Amrid to destroy their machines.  Kane seeks a cure amidst the ruins of the ancients, and is captured by pirates. He fights them and wins the help of the cat people.  The machines prove useless as disease-ridden Martians advance to spread the plague, which like the lancet fluke can control the mind of its host.  Finally the hero, whose home city evacuates for fear of the plaguey horde, finds a man with a cure. But will there be time? The book is an enjoyable light read.

The ending is written to suggest a sequel (and a villain’s return?), but the summer of 1965 brought the end of fifty-three years of Barsoom-like adventure novels.  The photos sent back by Mariner 4 showed neither cities nor canals, but a cratered, Moon-like world.  (Likewise, Lin Carter’s Callisto series ended in 1978, with the arrival of Voyager 1  at Jupiter). Moorcock wrote no more Kane of Old Mars novels.  Sword-and-planet gave way, in Moorcock’s work, to the apex of his career, with the Eternal Champion meta-series, in which Kane was included retrospectively. For Moorcock, Mars  may have cratered, but adventure is eternal.

By NASA/JPL/Dan Goods – NASA Photojournal, Public Domain, Link

J. Comer is a writer and teacher. His story “The Wooing of Etroklos” appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Cirsova.



3 responses to “Guest Post – Craters of Doom: A review of Barbarians of Mars/Masters of the Pit by Michael Moorcock

    • I may end up checking them out someday; I think Schuyler may have sent me one of these that he rescued from a library pitch bin.

      I loved Moorcock when my dad read him to me as a kid, but some of his nihilism and moral relativity got kinda tiresome (and is a big reason why I always tell anyone who asks ‘should I read Elric’ to read in publication, rather than chronological, order.

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