A couple of years ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing more than 75 vintage science-fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 75.
When I first started this project, I had a few goals and hopes. I wanted a better understanding of a chunk of 20th-century genre fiction, and I hoped to find some gems among the seemingly randomly chosen selection of James Bond novels, science-fiction classics, and obscurities thrown into the box. I also hoped I’d find books that shed some light on the times and places that made them. I’ve come back disappointed as often as pleased, and I didn’t have high hopes for this double offering from a writer whose name meant nothing to me. But Empress Of Outer Space and especially The Alternate Martians delivered everything I’d hoped to find in the box. They’re science-fiction books written by someone as in love with the genre as those devouring every Ace Double offering in the 1960s.
A few words about A. Bertram Chandler: Born in England in 1912, he’d already had a relatively full career as a merchant marine by the time he published his first novel in 1961. By then, he’d also immigrated to Australia, where he lived until his death in 1984. Chandler’s background is pretty evident in the two novels collected in Ace Double M-129. Both concern men and women serving in intergalactic navies, and both feature alien races subjugated by the colonizing forces of more technologically advanced cultures, areas of concern no doubt inspired by Chandler’s life and surroundings. But two other less-expected themes poke through in each: the role strong women could play in traditionally male-dominated cultures, and the push and pull between the fictions we consume and the world around us.
Of the two, Empress Of Outer Space is the more straightforward, even though it gives its middle section over to a dream sequence. That’s no spoiler; the novel’s dedication reads “To all the excellent storytellers who, as well as affording hours of enjoyment, have provided inspiration for the Dream Sequence.” Said “Dream Sequence,” as Chandler puts it, arrives as our hero, one Commander Tafford, travels with the eponymous Empress Of Outer Space, also known as Empress Irene, in pursuit of a rogue officer named Mortimer Jones, who’s used superior technology to set himself up as a god on less-advanced planets.
This, of course, will not stand, particularly in a world dominated by the Empress, a strong-willed woman who isn’t the all-powerful ruler her name suggests. She’s the top political figure in a system that combines elements of democracy and monarchy, albeit one with little use for kings. No mere figurehead, Irene is a take-charge sort of Empress, one who fills Tafford with admiration and more than a little desire. As luck would have it, he gets to act on that desire toward the end of a long adventure on a planet ruled by Jones.
Well, sort of. Irene and Tafford’s adventures together are part of the Dream Sequence, a long, sleepy fantasy inspired by the books and movie Trafford consumes during his journey. Having apparently never seen a film or read a novel before, he’s feasted on James Bond, The Wizard Of Oz, and the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and he winds up wandering a land inspired by all of the above. It’s equal parts silly and inspired, creating an Emerald City on a distant planet and giving M a home there. It’s a fun bit of fan fiction, albeit from a professional writer, before fan fiction had a name.
Bertram wrote two more Empress Irene novels and at least one more novel connected to The Alternate Martians, a predecessor called The Coils Of Time. I had no trouble catching up with the action, however, which Chandler summarizes neatly at the novel’s opening. Having lost his fiancée Vanessa in a space accident, Christopher Wilkinson travels to an alternate-universe version of Venus to retrieve an alternate-universe version of her. This apparently worked out just fine, thank you. If anything, his new/not-dead Vanessa is better than her old/dead predecessor. She’s certainly tougher, insisting on accompanying him on his subsequent adventures and not taking “no” for an answer. Chandler likes his women strong, and likes his men to pause in admiration at their willfulness.
Said adventure involves traveling to an alternate-universe version of—take a moment to guess—yes, Mars. And here’s where it gets interesting: The Mars resembles the Barsoom of Burroughs’ John Carter novels and the Earth-attacking planet of H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds, but it isn’t exactly either. Turns out Burroughs and Wells were half-remembering past lives spent on the actual Mars. As science goes, that’s pretty shaky. But it allows Chandler to offer a clever, vicious revisionist version of fictional Mars pasts.
It’s akin to what Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill pull off with their League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen books. There’s less depth and reflection here than in the League books, but they aren’t exactly absent, either. Chandler has clearly spent a lot of time immersed in Burroughs’ version of Mars, an experience that’s left him admiring the master and imagining a darker, more dangerous version of that world. The nudity used to titillating effect in Burroughs books, for instance, turns up here, but the naked humans are overfed and unattractive, kept in pens and used as livestock. It’s a world where the weak exploit the strong, and the haves feast on the flesh of the have-nots.
Chandler writes in a brisk, economical style that propels the book along. (I find him a lot more readable than Burroughs, frankly.) But he’s clever, too. Before leaving for his alternate Mars, Wilkinson and his superior joke about looking for Dejah Thoris, the beautiful, top-averse heroine of Princess Of Mars. Instead, he finds her analogue, a warrior woman named Delia Doris who lives as part of an underground resistance group. Asked about her, he replies without thinking:
“You didn’t miss much,” said Wilkinson, and immediately regretted the words. Delia Doris had been scrawny to unloveliness, and sour—but she had been far more than a storybook princess. She had been tough, as had all her people.
And they’ll need all their toughness, Wilkinson thought.
She’s no male fantasy. She’s the woman she has to be to survive in a world of constant peril. By the end, Chandler’s hero has abandoned dreams of worlds waiting for consequence-free adventure, and the willing women who populate them. His alternate Mars is clouded by the darkness of the planet whose inhabitants first looked up and fantasized about what they might find there.
The end of the Box Of Paperbacks Book Club draws ever nearer. Next:
Philip José Farmer, A Private Cosmos
Ian Fleming, Thrilling Cities / O.F. Snelling, 007 James Bond: A Report
Robert Heinlein, The Puppet Masters