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:

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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.

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.

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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.

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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!!!

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Maza is introduced saving our hero from a tentacular death.

“Maza of the Moon” by Otis Adelbert Kline (First Impressions)

Maza of the Moon is doing all of those things you expect and want a classic pulp sci-fi to do, not the least of which being to put a smile on your face.

In the not-so distant future of the 1950s, solar power has revolutionized the energy industry so that mankind can move away from fossil fuels and toward the much more lucrative promises held by the mighty atom.  Industrial genius Ted Dustin has gone broke pushing the boundaries of technology for the betterment of mankind; the only way that his company can remain solvent is by winning a $1 million prize offered by the united earth governments for landing a projectile on the Moon.  Ted builds a massive cannon, longer than two football fields, from which he fires a giant bullet at the moon.  Unfortunately, firing a ginourmous cannon from a tropical island sets off a volcano, clouding out the sky and obscuring the view of the official scientific observers.  Dustin is ruined!

Ted Dustin is branded a failure and embarrassment to the world community.  Even worse, he’s held responsible when a projectile lands outside of London, doubly so when it becomes apparent that it was not his missile returning to Earth but the Moon launching a counterstrike after Paris, New York, Lake Michigan and the Tyrrhenian Sea are hit, causing massive damage and loss of life.  The quasi-League of Nations tries to do damage control and apologize to the Moon; the first attempt to contact the lunarians reaches a beautiful woman whose signal is quickly jammed out by a Ming the Merciless type who declares that the rulers of earth are obviously far too irresponsible to govern themselves, so earth will be expected to submit to his autocrats or be destroyed.  Though the spoken language is totally alien, the written language is identical to Chinese!  The Chinese interpreters betray the not-League of Nations by writing a declaration of war against the moon so that China can establish a separate peace with the lunarians.  It’s going to be up to Ted Dustin to go to the Moon himself and try to sort stuff out.

Who or what is Maza of the Moon?

She was not large – a scant five feet in height, [Ted] judged – but there was a certain dignity in her bearing which somehow made her appear taller.  The golden glory that was her hair, dressed in a style new and strange to the inventor, was held by a band of platinum-like metal powdered with glistening jewels.  Her clothing, if judged by earthly standards, was not clothing at all.  Gleaming meshes of white metal, woven closely together, formed a light, shimmering garment that covered though it revealed the lines of her shapely breasts, slender waist, and lissome hips, leaving arms shoulders and legs bare.  A jeweled dagger hung from a chain-like belt about her waist, and a huge ruby blazed on the index finger of her left hand.  On her feet were sandals, apparently constructed from the white metal.

She has “a set of small, even white teeth, and a most adorable pair of dimples” and speaks in “clear, flute-like tones”.

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I cannot wait for Ted to get on his spaceship so he can go to the moon and meet this lady!

Where Earth’s Final Citadel was a murky blur, Maza of the Moon is gorgeous HD with surround sound and smellovision.  I’m only 30 pages in and I’m ready to declare this an all-time classic of Sci-fi badassery.

Weekend Micro-Haul

The long weekend allowed me to make some headway in my reading and a harmonious convergence of a thrift-store half-off sale and a bored teenager not wanting to break my twenty meant I grabbed Otis Adelbert Kline’s Maza of the Moon and Earth’s Last Citadel by C.L. Moore & Henry Kuttner for free this weekend.

I finished Sceptre of Morgulan.  The worst thing that can be said about it is that it’s book 2 of 4 (or 3 of 5, depending on how you want to count Drasmyr).  Even though the scope of the book in terms of characters and plot threads is a bit more new-school, the flavor is very retro.  While Children of Lubrochius shows the rise of the titular criminal/necromantic organization (Gimme Shelter playing in the background), Sceptre shows the turning point where the villain’s enterprises begin crumbling.  So, the organized crime venture is falling through with the thieves guild on the rebound, internal squabbles getting out of hand, a botched demon summoning, and the head of the Children coming in to shut Korina’s operation down because of the turf wars she’s started.  Still, the lady has demons, goblins, a couple mages, an ancient vampire and maybe even the Sceptre, if she can track Gaelen to Morgulan’s pocket dimension.

Because I had to drop everything and read Sceptre of Morgulan, I still had about 100 pages left in Hardtack and Coffee.  Overall, it was a great book and full of fun invaluable minutiae for Civil War buff regarding the day to day life of Union soldiers, but I wish that Billings had thought to put in an afterword to bring it all back around.  The book is a bit front-loaded, with most of the best stuff in the early to middle of the book (everything from what daily rations consist of to the various means soldiers would use to try to get out of doing work), and ends rather abruptly with the chapter on signal flagging.

Earth’s Last Citadel was a bit of a disappointment.  An American, a Scot and two American Nazis in Africa happen upon a spaceship that is the vanguard of an alien invasion. They get stuck in time stasis for a million years or something, so that when they come out, the aliens had come, conquered, built and declined so that all that was left on the planet was one lone alien citadel, Carcasilla, inhabited by a race of immortal humans and a crazy giant telepathic wizard face.  The 4 WW2 era humans are caught between the crazy wizard, the immortal quasi-humans in the fortress, the barbarian humans in the caves and the energy alien that will starve if it can’t feed on the remaining humans’ life force.  In something of a script-flip, the morlock-like cave dwellers are the descendants of the humans who fought against the alien overlords and team up with the humans to fight the eloi-like Carcasillians who had been engineered by the aliens as toys and vessels and can therefore be controlled by the alien.  Eventually, the past-humans defeat the wizard (a human controlling a robot face), the alien, get the source of Carcasilla’s power and the Carcasillian’s immortality, use it to power up the ship and restart humanity on Venus.  Sounds awesome, right?  Unfortunately, the weak descriptive language made it difficult to picture any scenes or action at play, leaving one with only a vague sense of what had happened or was going on.  It was like trying to watch something through murky water or a fog.  Or like that time when Elmer Fudd was unicycling down a highwire into a lion’s mouth while wearing dark glasses:

The Time Machine meets Wizard of Oz with hyper-intelligent parasitic alien energy beings should’ve been so much better!

Anyway, I’m reading Leigh Brackett’s Sword of Rhiannon to cleanse the palate a bit.  It is more than sufficiently awesome.