Thoughts on Eric John Stark’s Ethnicity

Recently, Barnes & Noble decided to try something for Black History Month that everyone decided was a Bad IdeaTM. No, that wasn’t a Babylon Bee article, they took characters from classic works [in many cases the villains, ironically] and made them black on the cover art as part of a promotion.

Cover Only JPGLast year, we put out a fully-illustrated edition of Brackett’s Planet Stories-era Stark adventures, and one thing we wanted to be sure to do was portray him on the covers and in the interior the way he’s described: black. No, not ethnically black, but dark-skinned; easily shorthanded as “black”.

Some people take issue with or confuse Stark’s changed nature with the de jour racial politics: “How is pretending Eric John Stark’s sun-blackened skin makes him a different race any better than just straight up race swapping characters?”

Who is Stark? Is he a white man? Is he a black man? Is he a white man with black skin?

His skin is black and everyone calls him a “great black ape.”

He’s stripped of any white ethnic identity by his physical condition as well as his upbringing.

Enchantress Cover for ebookHe’s an eternal outsider.

He identifies as N’Chaka, Man with no tribe.

If Stark was ever “white”, he is no longer–he feels no racial kinship with “white” men of Earth. But he’s not “black” either, in that he is not African, nor would he feel any racial kinship with “black” men of Earth, though given his upbringing, he might feel more sympathetic towards them.

Brackett was a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan, and in some ways Stark may be looked at as an anti-Tarzan.

Tarzan was Nature over Nurture. Burroughs emphasized the importance of his noble Anglo blood that always shone through despite the circumstances of his upbringing; Tarzan was always true to his blood and nothing could change that. When he meets fellow whites, he knows them to be his people.

Black Amazon of Mars Front Only

Stark was Nurture over Nature. His environment changed him physically and mentally; though he was the child of frontier settlers from earth, at his core he is a savage, more kin with the the wild Mercurian indigenous hunters than with the earth men who found him and dragged him back to earth in a cage “to civilize him”. That Stark was at some point in his early childhood a white boy would be immaterial to his ethnic identity as it presents to every other person he comes in contact with, and you can be damn sure he feels no sense of racial connection to “white” people. He’s a character who was crafted to be completely and totally an outsider among any race.

To say “he’s white with black skin” glosses over the experiment Brackett was doing with the character, creating someone with conflicting ethnic signifiers and no racial identity besides “other”.

So, when I say “Eric John Stark is black,” I’m not saying “Eric John Stark is either descended from African American slave stock or is a Sub-Saharan African”; I’m saying he’s literally black.

More details on our 70th Anniversary Illustrated Stark can be found here.

Also, be sure to check out our Spring Issue, available for pre-order now in e-book form [print pre-order coming soon!], out March 13th!

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!

Short Reviews – Vassals of the Lode-Star, Gardner F. Fox

Vassals of the Lode-Star by Gardner F. Fox appeared in the Summer 1947 issue of Planet Stories.

Thor Masterson, Lumberjack, throws the viking axe he found into the back of the evil android priest of Aava who is man-handling the blonde lady he loves.  This depiction is pretty accurate.

Thor Masterson, Lumberjack, throws the viking axe he found into the back of the evil android priest of Aava to save a blonde lady. This depiction is pretty accurate.

Vassals of the Lode-Star is an undeniable mess.  Both the narrative style and writing are along the lines of Axe Cop, resulting in a work that seems both incredibly childish and grippingly awesome.  Characterizations were weak and the science in this sci-fi seemed pulled from a half-remembered article from Scientific American, but for some reason I could not put this down and found it more entertaining than most of what I’d read in the 1970s F&SF.

Thor Masterson is a prince among men: he is lumberjack, a former college football player, and can run like an Indian, all of which conveniently make him the most prepared of prepared dudes for his epic adventure.  Like Frank Baum’s Dorothy, Thor Masterson and his house are ripped from earth and dropped in a strange land.  For some reason, a buxom blonde priestess and an angry dwarf show up in his house.  He beats the dwarf, who becomes his loyal friend and ally, and teaches the blonde how to speak English.  Instead of being met by friendly members of the Lollipop Guild, Thor and his companions are attacked by evil androids.  Thank god Thor is a lumberjack who played football, because he easily wrecks their shit.

Thor meets a thing called the Discoverer who explains a bunch of stuff, teaches him the mysteries of astral projection, and tells him about Aava, the bad guy.  There’s something about a flipped pocket world (think Dark World from Link to the Past), Thor meets a band of weird aliens plus a British guy, who happens to be an archer and says “By Jove” a lot, they fight a lot of androids, rescue the women, fight more androids, and almost all get killed by androids, until finally Thor stops the evil Aava by covering him with sand because he is a silicon-based life-form.

There is more weird random stuff in this than I can even go into.  Viking ships, ape men, evil androids reminiscent of those from Demon with the Glass Hand, astral time travel, illusory cities with hot red-heads, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Axe Cop has the excuse that it was written by a six-year-old; somehow Gardner F. Fox managed to do this on purpose in a serious outing as a writer.  This is not at all characteristic of the style from The Arsenal of Miracles, so, bad science aside, his writing gets substantially better.  But even this garbled primitive style manages to be so fascinating!  Vassals is almost certainly the opposite of message fiction, unless the message is that it is important to be a lumberjack so you can fight androids with the Viking axe you might eventually find (and a club is like an axe with different balance!).   Vassals of the Lode-star feels like story-telling in its most primeval form; it’s like reading the translation of a creation story written by a culture that has only recently discovered literacy but somehow also had popular science magazines.