The Tough Sword-Fighting Space Dame

I’ve given Disney a lot of shit for their “Hurr durr, we’re finally getting a woman with a light-saber” marketing, because ass-kicking women with swords and light-sabers are kind of Otis Adelbert Kline’s thing:

maza

From the cover of the 1929 issue of Argosy serializing Maza of the Moon.

A few weeks back, Anthony did a post on how to make good Strong Women characters. He hit in a few good points, even if he didn’t pick a great example. Even “good” Strong Women characters like the one he references are actually figures of fun within their stories; note that he even points out that there are constant references to how unwomanly she is and won’t find a man. I disagree with his take that “They need to suffer some sort of loss related to their femininity” to be a good strong female character, but his point that “They need to be paired up with a male character equally strong or stronger” has merit.

I’ve noted that women in the pulps may suffer from The Worf Effect–if the male hero can’t hold his own against the toughest dame on the planet, he’s not gonna be much help to said dame when they’re really in a pinch. On the other hand, you know a dame is tough when she can give the guy who’s gonna topple a space dictatorship with his sword a run for his money.

It’s a shame that the new kids feel they have to reach for anime for their examples of tough women in sci-fi, when they’ve been hanging out in the pulps all along.

Take for example this great scene from Swordsman of Mars–Thorne has just met Thaine, the childhood friend of the Martian who he’s traded places with. At her camp, the pair are attacked by a band of hostile Martians, and a couple of them pull Thaine into her hut and briefly out of sight of the hero.

He was about to spring through the opening when he saw the girl framed in the doorway, dagger in one hand and sword in the other, both dripping blood. Behind her, barely visible in the dim light of the interior, lay one dead and one dying foeman.

“Why – why, I thought…” stammered Thorne, lowering his point.

The girl smiled amusedly and stepped out of the hut. “So you believed these clumsy Ma Gongi had cut me down. Really, Sheb, I gave you credit for a better memory. Have you forgotten the many times Thaine’s blade has bested yours?”

So her name is Thaine, mused Thorne. Aloud he said: “Your demonstration has been most convincing. Yet I have not lost my ambition to improve my swordsmanship, and I should be grateful for further instruction.”

“No better time than now. Still, I have you at a disadvantage, since you hold an inferior weapon.”

“It is a handicap which a man should accord a girl,” Thorne replied.

“Not one this girl requires.”

She sheathed her dagger and extended her blade. Thorne engaged it with his captured weapon which, though more heavy and clumsy, was somewhat similar to a saber.

He instantly found that he had to deal with the swiftest and most dexterous fencer he had ever encountered, and time after time he barely saved himself from being touched.

“It seems your stay at the military school has improved your swordsmanship,” said the girl, cutting, thrusting, and parrying easily – almost effortlessly. “In the old days I would have touched you long ere this. Yet, you but prolong the inevitable.”

“The inevitable,” replied Thorne, “is sometimes perceptible only by deity. For instance, this” – beating sharply on her blade, then catching it on his with a rotary motion – “has often been known to end a conflict.”

Wrenched from her grasp by his impetuous attack, her sword went spinning into the undergrowth.

Instead of taking her defeat badly, Thaine actually beamed.

“You have developed into a real swordsman, old comrade! I am so glad I could almost kiss you.”

“That,” Thorne answered, recovering her weapon for her, “is a reward which should fire any man to supreme endeavor.”

“It is evident that you have mastered courtly speech as well as fencing. And now I will prepare your favorite dish for you.” She called the brute. “Here, Tezzu,” indicating the bodies. “Take these away.”

There are a number of things in effect here:

Thaine’s able to remain boastful to rib her childhood friend, but the hero wasn’t deprived of his moment in “saving her”; alone, either of them might have been overtaken, but Thaine can hold her own. It’s important to note that this wasn’t a case of the hero showing up and the woman has done all of the work and didn’t need any help at all.

Thorne gets a chance to both size up Thaine’s fighting skills and judge how good he’s supposed to be, since at this point, he’s new to Mars and new to filling in the shoes of the young Martian viscount he’s stepped into. Ultimately, it’s his lack of proper Martian table manners that gives him away to Thaine.

Now that Sheb/Borgen Takkor (actually Harry Thorne) has been shown to have taken a level in badass, the girl can be impressed by his growth. She no longer sees him as an inferior, regards him as someone who she could genuinely rely on when pressed and is prepared to reward him with her affections as a strong woman who’s found a stronger man.

Food. A lot of women like to cook for a man. And being promised that you’ll be cooked your favorite meal is a hell of a thing. An unbelievable amount of human behavior is predicated on doing things that will get you your favorite meal cooked for you by a lady and the endeavors undertaken to earn such a privilege. So, you want a beautiful Martian lady to cook you tasty bug-steaks? You’d better be able to kill AT LEAST as many evil Martian swordsmen as she can when you guys get attacked by them.

Sometimes You Just Need an Excuse to Get to Your Implausible Action

I’m reading The Swordsman of Mars, my 5th planetary romance by Otis Adelbert Kline, and the 4th in his Dr. Morgan series. As with all of the Doc Morgan stories, we are briefly introduced to the concept of telepathic exchange of minds across space and time–a process which he discovered with the help of Lal Vak, a Martian scientist living a million years in Earth’s past, which allows for individuals with similar enough physiques and thought patterns are able to transfer personalities with the help of their devices.

Dr. Morgan finds bored or down on their luck highly capable individuals and sends them off to implausible adventures on alien worlds, with the promise of thrills and romance and assurances that they’ll probably do just fine once they get there and learn the language.

It’s a silly concept, one which Kline even lampshades in the author’s foreword of the second Dr. Morgan book, The Prince of Peril:

Dr. Morgan had worked on telepathy for many years in his spare time, when he was in practice; but on his retirement, he tried a different track. “I had to amend the theory,” he explained. “I decided that it would be necessary to build a device which would pick up and amplify thought waves. And even this would have failed had my machine not caught the waves projected by another machine, which another man had built to amplify and project them.”

Now I had been a devotee of imaginative fiction for many years, and had often thought of turning my hand to writing it. I prided myself on having a better than usual imagination; yet, I did not think of the implications of the theory of telepathy when Dr. Morgan told me that the man who built the thought-projector was on Mars. While I deferred to no one in my fondness for Edgar Rice Burroughs’s stories of John Carter and others on Barsoom, I was well aware of the fact that what we knew of the planet Mars made his wonderful civilization on that planet quite impossible. I said as much, going into facts and figures.

“Of course, we won’t really know for sure about the exact conditions there unless we land on Mars. But still we know enough to make Burroughs’s Mars probability zero,” I concluded.

Dr. Morgan nodded. “Entirely correct,” he said. “There is no such civilization on Mars.”

He then explained his own incredulity when his machine picked up the thoughts of a man who identified himself as a human being— one Lal Vak, a Martian scientist and psychologist. But Lal Vak was no less incredulous when Dr. Morgan identified himself as a human being and scientist of Earth. For Lal Vak was certain that there could be no human civilization on Earth, and cited facts and figures to prove it.

Interestingly enough, with the exception of the third Venus book, the Dr. Morgan books have all been prequels to the first one–the second Venus book recounts the adventures of a character who hooked up with Grandon for the climactic battle at the end of Planet of Peril (a “you wouldn’t believe what it took for me to get here in time, remind me to tell you someday!”), and this first Mars book I’m reading is actually the account of Harry Thorne, the guy Dr. Morgan tells Grandon about at the start of Planet as his first successful experiment with Lal Vak.

And it is the task of this first successful experiment to stop the first failed experiment. The first guy Doc Morgan sent to Mars, Frank Boyd, turned out to be an asshole and set himself up as a strongman to take over the world.

In barely more time than it took to you to read this post, Thorne gets sent to Mars, where he is attacked by a stirge-like insect, which he quickly dispatches… however his loss of blood has made him weak, so when Lal Vak brings him back into town and he’s bumped into by an arrogant oaf who demands satisfaction–he falls faint before the first sword-blow! The engineer of his disgrace? None other than Frank Boyd, the man Thorne was sent to stop! And because he de facto lost the duel, he may not honorably challenge him again and is bound to accept any and all humiliations that Boyd may subject him to!

That’s as far as I’ve got, but if it’s like any of Kline’s other stories, it’ll be cram-packed with sword-fight, wild monsters, and hot action dames.

Argosy-1933-07-01

I think that thing is supposed to be his pet flying duck-bat mount. DIFFERENT FROM WOOLA, I PROMISE!

More Maza!

I was originally going to try to come up with some clever and trolly title about how Maza is more badass than Leia (she is) and how Star Wars looks pretty weaksauce when put side by side with this book (it does), but instead I’m going to just use the above throwaway title and dive right in.

0601521h-01

Space ships, lasers and televisions?  A Strange Novel of the Future indeed!  Frazetta’s cover was actually a lot truer to the titular character’s description, but hey! Space flappers!

Unlike some pulps with completely indistinguishable characters (Captain So and So, Lieutenant That Guy, Private The Other One and Doctor Doctor), Kline does a decent job of putting together the oft-seen heroic triumvirate, with the brilliant man of action(Ted), the guy with organizational know-how and follow-through(Roger), and the trusted scientific sounding board (Professor Ederson).  I know I’m underselling it here, but each of these characters is split up and given their own action-packed thread in the story that, once woven together, ties up nicely at the climax to show that each played an integral part in the resolution of the crisis.

 

At the heart of the story is a tragic war between two races, the “white” Martians and the Asiatic Lunarians.  At one time, the races had been at peace and even had colonies on one another’s worlds, but a dispute whose origins are so old as to be almost forgotten led to the near destruction of both Mars, whose atmosphere was stripped off by Lunarian ray weapons, and the Moon, which had its atmosphere stripped off by use of the ray weapon and was bombarded into Earth orbit by Martian guided asteroid assault.  The survivors of the war on the Moon were forced to live underground and in domed cities at the bottom of canals and craters.  One of the Lunarian Princes returned to find the surface of the Moon obliterated and in his sorrow spent the rest of his days on earth (thereby explaining the Asian races and the Chinese written language).  Early on, Kline teases at the Evil Chinaman trope, especially with the betrayal of Doctor Wu and the plan for China to establish a separate peace with the Lunarians, but the heroes are proven wrong!  The Chinese people rise up against their leaders and refuse to bow to Lunar tyranny!  Even many of the Lunarians are opposed to their despot and, once freed from the dungeons of political prisoners, help in the fight against the P’an-Ku.

Maza of the Moon gives us a very early incarnation of Light Saber fights.  Since lasers would not be invented for another 30 years, Kline is somewhat limited in his ability to describe them, but what else could you call “fencing” with green and red rays?  The rays themselves are versatile in their purpose, as they can be used as close range weapons (the fencing) or long range fired weapons, either as side-arm or shipboard.

The degravitator devices Ted Dustin develops are monstrous: they are able to cause protons to lose their charge, setting electrons loose and destroy matter at the atomic level.  Whether it’s Lunar dragons, space tigers the size of draft horses, or the space fleet of the P’an-Ku, these things can make short work of anything!  One of the neatest tricks, though, is when they get modified into a diffuse beam as part of the space warship that is built to be the vanguard of the counter attack against the Moon, it acts as a deflector shield that will instantly annihilate any projectile or disperse any ray-beam attacks that would otherwise hit the ship.  Perhaps the most jarring aspect of this entire story is that no one takes a moment to really appreciate how freaking scary dangerous the stuff Ted can make is, but when Roger is flying this ship through a fleet of Lunarian globe ships, you really don’t care because it is way more awesome than that time when Han Solo killed that one TIE Fighter.

Oh, yeah, I said that Maza was better than Leia.  Well, with New Star Wars coming out, we’re hearing about how Leia’s not just a Space Princess, she’s a Space General.  Well, back in 1929, Maza was a Space Princess and a Space General.  Maza leads, from the front, an army of over half a million Lunarian infantry and Lunar-dragon riders.  She is no damsel.  Sure she gets saved a couple times after saving Ted once, but after she learns that the P’an-Ku has captured Ted, she is ready to put her life on the line for him, and there are OVER HALF A MILLION of her subjects ready to lay down their lives for her.  How many dudes did Leia have who would do that?  Two?  The Rebels would make anyone a General, and when did Leia ever lead anybody into battle?  Some of Leia’s Space Princessness is kind of wrecked by her homeworld being destroyed, but she is not as good an Action Princess either.  Get a load of this:

At ray fencing, the Princess[Maza] was the equal of any trained soldier in her army, but her opponent, she found, was the most skillful she had ever encountered.  His tactics, however, were purely defensive except as he tried to destroy her projector.  Evidently his orders had been to bring her in alive.  He would feint, swinging his ray as if he meant to strike her down, but never in direct line with her body.  Noticing this, she resolved to stake everything on one long chance.  Accordingly, she held her projector away from her – a tempting bait.  He swung for the lure, leaving his guard open for but an instant.  But in that instant her red ray struck him full in the chest, and he was no more.

Yeah, that’s right, THIS Space Princess is a master at fighting with light sabers!  Tell me again about how regressive the pulps were, while I try to think of any modern Space Princesses this awesome.

batman diversity

Ignore the middling reviews of this; they’re wrong.  Kline’s Maza of the Moon is one of the best action sci-fi stories EVER.  I give 5.5 Death Stars of out of 5.55 out of 5

Kline is stuck in Burroughs’ shadow, with many either accusing him of ripping off Barsoom or his other writings, to the point where fandom fabricated a non-existent feud between the two.  I liked a Princess of Mars, but I absolutely loved Maza of the Moon.  I suppose if you love Burroughs and aren’t going to go into it with the “Burroughs is better so this will be crap” attitude, you could do a lot worse than Kline.  As for me, he’s on my list of writers to look out for.

I bet Kathleen Kennedy hasn’t read Maza of the Moon…

Later this week or next, more Gardner F. Fox and other Planet Stories.

Addendum: ZOMG!  There was a comic adaptation!!!

SP12-A-MOMENT-LATER

Maza is introduced saving our hero from a tentacular death.