Monday, August 10, 2009

L. Sprague de Camp's Viagens Interplanetarias, the Krishna Stories

"Tarzan" was nothing short of an extraordinary creation. No wonder he was so popular: he went down a feral path that made him different from the rest of the human race. A lot of effort was spent by Burroughs getting us into Tarzan's inner life, his attitudes and prejudices to mankind, animals, religion. When I was a kid, I ate and drank Tarzan; his stories were pure romance and adventure, with hordes of Arabs, spy saboteurs, Tarzan hunting beside beasts, and images like Tarzan smoking cigarettes and drinking absinthe while going to art galleries in Paris, just before tossing aside his fancy duds to swing on a streetlamp to escape police.

John Carter of Mars, on the other hand, was a dud; a boring 11th-level Fighter with a nonexistent personality besides alpha male valor, an irritating Gary Stu. It's no wonder Tarzan went on to fame and fortune as a pop culture icon, whereas the duller J.C. is far less famous.

It wasn't just that John Carter was a total bore, but that his world of Barsoom was downright insane. Guns were available, but everyone fights gallant duels with cutlasses and sabers. There were a few occasions where it was just a little too "Duck Dodgers in the 24th and a half Century" to possibly be taken seriously: for instance, the idea that to avoid intrusion, at night houses on Mars have giant columns that raise their homes up hundreds of feet into the air (!) and how the mass transit system of Martian cities were based on shooting people out of giant guns (!). There was even one scene where, God help me, I couldn't stop laughing at the mental image: in Warlord of Mars there's a tower that turns into a giant magnet, which despite the best efforts of Burroughs's baroque prose sounds like nothing quite so much as a gigantic free-standing dildo. The giant tower magnet, when turned on sweeps a whole fleet from the air, all the battleships stuck to the surface like fridge magnets!

As a Heinlein-loving kid (Heinlein being a guy that, like all good science fiction writers, realized suspension of disbelief had to be earned and so he concerned himself with science and plausibility), I always had a feeling there was something screwy about John Carter's world and physics. For instance, his improbable hundred-foot leaps into the air "under Martian gravity." This is the kind of misunderstanding that happens when you barely hear an idea, like how when you were a kid, you heard that you would only weigh 1/5th your current weight on the Moon, and you actually thought you would lose weight! Not to mention the absence of armor from Martial society; even Stone Age people use coconut husks and tortoise shells for shields! And finally, most implausibly of all, John Carter had a baby (an egg!) with his Martian wife. Ask any genetic scientist and they'll tell you it's easier to cross a human with a geranium than an extraterrestrial.

So, along comes one of the most talented writers of science fiction's Golden Age, L. Sprague de Camp, with the determination to do a "Sword & Planet" story, but to "get it right," without technological or biological absurdities, a world that is every bit as exciting as Barsoom but which actually makes sense. And lo, the Krishna stories were created! While reading the Hostage of Zir, I have to say I was delighted for nearly every moment.

Krishna is a planet with technology in the Middle Ages range, whose primary inhabitants are antennaed green-skinned humanoids. Because of the dangers of exposing a warlike, primitive planet high technology, explorers and other human visitors are limited to the local weaponry, bows and armor and sailing ships. It's interesting to note that FTL travel is impossible in the universe of Krishna; it takes eleven years (in "real time, " though not relativistically) to jaunt to the planet and back, although because of the increase in the human lifespan that isn't a catastrophic absence. I always thought this was a great touch of realism; in many ways the freewheeling ability to zip through the cosmos in a lot of space opera really makes you forget how huge and overwhelming space actually is.

My all-time favorite of the Krishna stories is the Hand of Zei. In it, Dirk Barnavelt, a ghost writer ruled over tyrannically by his aged mother, is sent by the publishing company to find the actual explorer their works are based on, who disappeared on the low-tech world of Krishna while searching for a group of pirates that smuggle janru, a narcotic that makes men subservient to women.

What's especially interesting is that the planet Krishna has actually changed as a result of contact with human beings. At dive bars on Krishna, the singer was heard performing earth songs like "Jingle Bells" and the latest pop hits. Worse, one of the more popular games on Krishna is Chinese Checkers, although the natives call it "Chanichekr" or "Chanichekash."

To reach the legendary Sunqar, a floating island made entirely of giant mats of seaweed like the Sargasso, Dirk Barnavelt traveled in disguise as a legendary to Qirib, a country ruled by amazon warriors, with a horrible old virago of a queen that reminds Dirk of his domineering mother. In one memorable scene, he rides the mass-transit rail system linking cities and countries, which instead of locomotives, on the low-tech world are instead pulled by gigantic bishtars, two-trunked alien elephants.

The Princess Zei of Qirib is captured by the pirates, which means Dirk has to rescue her whether he likes it or not. I love the Princess Zei. She has a big nose, talks with her mouth full, and gets off on men telling her what to do, and yet somehow she is far more fascinating and loveable than the flawless and boring Dejah Thoris.

Dirk Barnavelt leads a ship into the Sunqar, a pirate realm nearly the size of a kingdom who live on a floating island of giant ship choking seaweed mats. Someone call Doc Savage, that's the plot of the Sargasso Ogre! What's interesting is that as an American raised with ideas of equality, he has real moral problems with being the kind of brutal, authoritarian disciplinarian sort of sea captain that is required in that kind of society in order to maintain order. In addition to possible mutiny, he has to face a gvam, a hideous sea monster that is a cross between a swordfish and an octopus.

When he arrives at the Sunqar, Barnavelt finds the leader of the pirates is an alien from the planet Osiris, a giant velociraptor like creature with mental hypnotic powers, who far from being a sinister mentalist, is portrayed as a nervous, high strung hypochondriac. Dirk is able to rescue the Princess, only to find his ship beached in an escape attempt against a haunted island. The origin of the haunted stories are revealed to be brutish tailed men, who are related to Krishnans the same way Neanderthals are related to Homo sapiens.

(This is another thing I like about the Krishna books: L. Sprague de Camp's broad knowledge of everything, including paleontology. Krishna, unlike other Sword & Planet worlds, had a definite prehistory. Indeed, Krishnans themselves have a taxonomic category: Krishanthropus Sapiens, and the tailed men are Krishanthropus koloftus. There is even a Linnean explanation for why some creatures on the planet have six limbs and others four, as both families left the sea at different times.)

What I find most interesting about the burgeoning relationship between Dirk Barnavelt and the Princess Zei is, the problems that keep them from being together are real problems. One of the more irritating thing about Burroughs females, especially that useless pain in the ass Jane, is their tendency to do things that are illogical and wildly out of character for no other reason than to create the requisite conflict for the story. By contrast, in Zei's amazonian country, the husband of the queen rules for a year and then is ritually cooked and eaten. This could have just been another little side-gag to emphasize this planet's barbaric exoticism, along with the Krishnan love of attending public executions, but it is actually a major obstacle to their relationship. In fact, when the two are stuck in the Sunqar without food and are starting to starve, Dirk looks at his Princess and starts to shudder. When the two are necking, Dirk laughs and asks her if she's trying to get a little taste of him first.

In the end, Dirk returns with Zei a hero and leads a gigantic fleet against the Sunqar pirates, all of which will wear skis so they can run over the terpahla seaweed. Krishnan warfare is a beautiful thing: reconnaissance is done with hang-gliders given temporary boosts by explosive chemicals, who land on a flat-topped ship rather like a modern-day aircraft carrier with a rubber band like device for launching the gliders.

Dirk leads the army of amazons and gliders to victory, causing the pirates to honorably surrender. But when the virago Queen Alvandi, the mother of Zei who only wanted to go after the pirates as they cut into her percentage decides to maroon them, Dirk switches sides and teams up with the pirates. He thereafter discovers that his lovely Princess Zei is - surprise! Also an earthling in disguise, captured by the Queen Alvandi from slavers in disguise. The Princess knew Dirk was an earthman all along too. How? He had a belly button! As the people of Krishna lay eggs, nobody on Krishna has a navel.

Dirk Barnavelt in the end leads the pirates against the Qirib monarchy and restores equal rights for men. By standing up to Queen Alvandi, it's like he's stood up to his own mother too and declared his personal emancipation. Shortly thereafter he takes Zei, and forms a company in the Sunqar dedicated to soap production.

There's even a little sarcastic aside where Dirk Barnavelt's buddy, Tangaloa, a grossly overweight, tail-chasing Polynesian Anthropologist, warns him about the dangers of his Warlord of Mars dreams, which might as well be a chastising tut-tut to fans of all Sword & Planet stories:
"Ahem, Dirk, you know these earthly adventurers who run around backward planets exploiting the natives tend to be inferior types that can't compete with their own kind back home. They take advantage of earth's more sophisticated culture, which they themselves do nothing to create... " "Oh, foof! I've heard that lecture too. Call me an inferior if you like, but here I'm quite a guy. npt a shy schizoid Oedipean afraid of his Ma."

My summary above doesn't quite get across the marvelous sense of humor the stories have. I wouldn't be comfortable calling them parodies, the way some other analysts have, because they are first and foremost very boyish, fun adventure stories. But they do reverse expectations in a very amusing and wonderful way, and set about breaking the formula of the Burroughs narrative. The alien leader of the pirates that rules over them with mind control powers is a nervous, easily excitable velociraptor hypochondriac.

One of my favorite parts was when, as Barnavelt returns from the land of the tailed beast-men, his anthropologist friend chastises him for the destruction he wrought on a society anthropologists would like to study. Barnavelt rightly points out they were cannibals about to eat him. Tangaloa says that many Polynesian tribes in the South Pacific only became "savage to outsiders" because they were preyed on by slavers. This is an interesting observation since many tailed Krishnans were in fact, seen in the book series as slaves!

That's what I like about L. Sprague de Camp. Any other writer would have just stuck in some savage cannibals because that's what the story needs. He thought through exactly why these guys are such jerks, what would lead them to be this way historically. That's why Krishna fascinates me: this is obviously written by someone that is a world traveller, that has undergone the experience of going to a bar in Asia and then hearing the latest Top 40 song on the intercom, who knows what they're talking about when it comes to weapons and antique sailing ships.

The chapter where Dirk Barnavelt reconfigures his sails is so full of antique sailing terms that it is nearly incomprehensible jargon. Still, you can't help but be impressed, just as you would be with Tom Clancy's rapid-fire use of military acronyms and terms, because it shows this guy knows what he's talking about and has clearly thought it through.

I can't mention the Hand of Zei without mentioning how the interior illustrations are done by master pulp illustrator Edd Cartier, who also did most of the art for the original Street & Smith Shadow magazine. I tried looking for some Edd Cartier Krishna art, but none of it was online, so I scanned some from my copy and put them up here.

Man, mentioning Edd Cartier's name has got to at least double my google hits. So, here goes: Edd Cartier. Edd Cartier. EDD CARTIER.

The other Krishna stories are hilarious, full of eccentric, weird kings with unusual hobbies like clockwork toys. One of the best was the king of Kalwm in The Prisoner of Zhamanak.

In it, a big black Nigerian named Percy Mijpa hears of an earth girl xenologist held prisoner by a Krishnan. Despite being a black African, he looks down on Krishnans like a Victorian Englishman does on "the natives," and vows to rescue Alicia Dykman.

In one of the best scenes of the book, Percy and Alicia are captured by the ruler of Kalwm like zoo animals, wondering if the Caucasian and African races on earth can interbreed together. He even has their clothes removed as they're placed in the cage. This is made all the funnier by Percy's natural uptightness and attitude of devout monogamy to his fat, jolly little wife that he left back at the spaceport. Obviously the sheer awkwardness of this scene makes it to nearly every single cover of every single edition I've seen.

All in all, the Krishna works are science fiction classics and worth reading. In the words of Reading Rainbow's Levar Burton: "You don't have to take my word for it...but I'd be pretty pissed if you didn't."


Eduardo M. said...

I remember when you used to sing the praises of John Carter and his adventures in our conversations. What happened? Did the John Carter series sleep with a girl you liked?

Julian Perez said...

Well, even when I was a teenager I never liked J.C. more than I liked Tarzan...

Though GODS OF MARS still blows me away, an amazing adventure story. In fact, while Tarzan got boring and repetitive in the later books, the Mars series always had something there that was kind of cool, like SWORDS OF MARS, which was John Carter of Mars infiltrating the Martian underworld, which come to think of it, was the Barsoom book that in plot and spirit was the most like de Camp's Krishna series.

(The exception is SKELETON MEN OF JUPITER, which was as b-movie bad as the title suggests, and the fixation in the later books with Rav Thavas, who is nowhere near as interesting as ERB seems to think he was.)

Reading PRINCESS OF MARS is a necessary evil to get to GODS OF MARS, and WARLORD is just plain anticlimactic. Princess has a style so baroque at first I thought ERB was writing a parody of some kind, sort of like when people use words like "indubitably."

I don't think my thinking on it has really changed. Even when we used to chat about the series I used to get a good chuckle out of the dildo-tower-magnet, the insanely harebrained ecology, and what a big fat nothing of a personality J.C. of Mars had.

Julian Perez said...

Even at something like age thirteen...when I first read the John Carter series, at that scene at the end of Warlord where they declare Carter Warlord of Mars, even at the supposedly unsophisticated age of thirteen I rolled my eyes and did the jack-off hand gesture. I didn't know the term Mary-Sue, but I was thinking just that.

Also, I was always - ALWAYS - irritated by what an utter crazy bitch Dejah Thoris was, and amazed by the heroism of Thuvia, who seemed like the coolest chick ever: she had lion buddies, was self-sacrificing, and even rescued Dejah Thoris at the end of GODS. The single book I looked forward to the most in the entire series was THUVIA, MAID OF MARS. Alas, that book made her every bit as incompetent Burroughs female as Jane and D.T.

DCM said...

Burroughs' females aren't insipid in general. Most of them are simply objectives to be gained. Their behavior is irrational to a degree because most women are irrational to a larger degree.
However, everybody overlooks the inspirational and not totally helpless Stellara from "Tanar of Pellucidar" -- also an objective worth attaining.

See my blog: