[originally posted here at Castalia House]
Coming of the Gods by Chester Whitehorn was featured in the Summer 1945 issue of Planet Stories.
One of the many reasons why I’m doing Short Reviews is to share what stories from the pulps were like and what they were about, as many of these have never been collected or reprinted; I feel that it’s important because the on-going meme you hear about the pulps is how sexist, regressive, racist, anti-diversity and pro-colonialist they were and that could not be further from the truth! Coming of the Gods is another piece that shows how people who claim the pulps were just dumb action tripe and should be buried in favor of more ‘serious’ science fiction could not be more wrong.
Coming of the Gods is an interesting twist on the Planetary Romance in which the story is told not from the point of view of some heroic Earth-man arriving on a strange world to save the day but an alien primitive saving the hapless space pioneers from the mess that they inadvertently brought to his world. Kinda like Tarzan, but it should be noted that the hero here is an indigenous African Martian. Again, we have a classic pulp sci-fi story featuring an explicitly non-white protagonist exploring some interesting themes including human commonality and the institution of marriage.
On the jungle planet of Mars (yeah, that Mars), Ro has just returned from a long and dangerous journey to the far north. He looks forward to rejoining his tribe and marrying his love, but he arrives to find that disaster has struck. After rescuing his beloved Na from an Oan, one of the Martian Rat-men, Ro learns what befell his people. In Ro’s absence, a magic flying sphere landed carrying four white-skinned beings; these visitors were able to communicate telepathically and befriended the Martians, but apparently were not too cautious about keeping their ray guns secure, because the Oan managed to get ahold of them, and the result was a massacre.
The first thing our hero does upon learning that the future of his people hangs in the balance is marry his woman in the way of Mars:
He took a pouch from his waist and shook out a gold arm band. This he clasped to Na’s wrist.
“All men will know now that you are the mane of Ro,” he whispered. And he kissed her, as was the custom of his tribe when a man took a wife.
With this important task out of the way, Ro can proceed to look for what has become of his tribe, the white people, and the weapons the Oan Rat-men have stolen from them. Ro quickly finds the white earth-folk (Charlotte’s blonde hair rather sticks out in the Martian jungles), kills the Rat-men guarding them, and frees the visitors. In another interesting subversion of Planetary Romances, the false-romantic lead / love triangle is quickly brushed off following the rescue when Ro mentions they need to find Na:
“Who is Na?” asked the girl.
“She is the one I have chosen for my mate,” Ro answered.
The white girl was silent.
And that’s that.
The crew of the Earth-ship are fairly standard SF fare: the professor, his daughter Charlotte, and Carlson and Grimm, the two square-jawed spacemen. Usually the trope looked for in the Jeffro Test involves the protagonist on one end of the beating; what we get to see in Coming of the Gods is the rivalry over the dame from the outside looking in. After Ro has explained his plan for Na to lure some Rat-men into a trap that he and one other Earth-man will spring while the others go for their ship, during the ‘let’s split up, gang’ Grimm and Carlson get into a fist-fight over who will get to go with Charlotte. Ro breaks it up and tells them to save it for the Rat-men, and Carlson volunteers to go with Ro to set up the ambush.
Carlson explains to Ro that he and Charlotte want to get married when they get back to earth but had been keeping their engagement under wraps until the mission was completed. Ro is perplexed:
“Why don’t you take her for your wife here on Mars? That would end the trouble completely.”
Carlson seemed surprised.
“It wouldn’t be legal. Who would perform the ceremony?”
“Last night I thought that we on Mars were backward. Now I’m not so sure. When we find mates here, we take her. There is no one to speak of ‘legal’ or ‘ceremony’. After all, it’s a personal matter. Who can tell us whether it’s ‘legal’ or not? What better ceremony than a kiss and a promise?” He went back to his work chuckling.
“I could argue the point,” Carlson laughed. “I could tell you about a place called Hollywood. Marriage and divorce is bad enough there. Under your system, it would be a real mess. But I won’t say anything. Here on Mars your kiss and a promise is probably as binding as any ceremony.”
Ro certainly has a rather libertarian view of marriage, and Carlson, the supposedly advanced specimen (one of the “Gods”, if you will) inadvertently admits that the legalistic system of marriage he sees as necessary clearly doesn’t work on Earth!
The plan to recover the stolen weapons succeeds, and the remaining Rat-men are mowed down by the humans’ space ship. Carlson even saves Grimm’s life, and Grimm apologizes for having been such a heel, telling Carlson that Charlotte explained everything to him. During the moment of triumph, with the last of the ray guns recovered from the Oan, Ro turns his weapon on the Earth-men, tells them to get in their ship, take their weapons and go home:
“Perhaps someday my people will grow up. Perhaps you will come again and we will meet you on equal terms. But now, our primitiveness, your science—there can be nothing but trouble. Make the others understand that. I will always remember you as friends. I wouldn’t want our parting to be in anger.”
The Earth-men understand, and Na and Ro wave the alien visitors a tearful farewell as they contemplate the future of their race.
So, here we have a story where there is the specter of colonialism and potential for strife when a more technologically advanced civilization comes in contact with a less advanced one and how even benevolent intentions can, through naiveté, lead to dangerous consequences. I’ve mentioned before how the plight of Martians in 40s pulp fiction is often compared (even sometimes in the text itself) to Native Americans. Though the pulp-style happy ending allows for those who brought the guns and trouble with them to be sent home with a smile and a wave, this story certainly reflects those instances when one tribe was able to come into possession of gunpowder weapons acquired from the ‘alien’ Europeans and were able to use them against their neighbors.
The other significant aspect of this meeting of two seemingly unequal cultures is something reflected in the title, Coming of the Gods. Though their science and weaponry make the Earth-men seem like Gods to the Martians, Carlson and Grimm’s behavior to one another and the failure of institutional marriage on Earth underscore that human foibles are universal. We have more in common with our forebears than we care to admit.
Despite the complaints in the Fall issue’s Vizigraph as to the quality of Vol 2, Issue 11, the Summer 1945 issue was pretty amazing back to front. I may even revisit the letters section to be outraged by how wrong the fans are about quality of this issue! The final issue of 1945 would see Whitehorn would take over from Wilbur Peacock as editor of Planet Stories for a brief 3 issue run. Short Reviews will return next week with some Leigh Brackett and some early misadventures of Eric John Stark in The Enchantress of Venus!