Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Outlaws Of Mars by Otis Adelbert Kline (1933)
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 31.)
Here's a Wikipedia passage regarding Otis Adelbert Kline that's much more interesting than most of this week's book, The Outlaw Of Mars:
Kline is best known for his purported novelistic feud with Edgar Rice Burroughs. In 1929, long before planetary romance became a conventional genre, he wrote Planet Of Peril, a novel set on the planet Venus and written in the storytelling form of Burroughs' Martian novels. He followed this with two sequels. In response to Kline's "poaching" on his territory, Burroughs began writing his own Venus series. Kline's rejoinder was an even more direct intrusion: He boldly set two novels on Mars. He also wrote of white jungle adventurers quite reminiscent of Burroughs' Tarzan. However, the evidence of the feud itself is indirect, and the feud was not proposed to have existed until after both writers were dead. No comment from either writer acknowledging the feud is documented. Whether or not the feud actually existed or is merely a literary theory concocted after the fact is unknown.
Poaching! Secret feuds! Now that's exciting. Whether the rivalry existed or not, it's clear that Kline owed a debut to Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan and John Carter Of Mars, even to those who, like me, have never read Burroughs. (That will get corrected in the next entry.) The space adventurers of Kline's two Mars novels (this one and Swordsman Of Mars) and three Venus novels (Planet Of Peril, Prince Of Peril, The Port Of Peril) are all, like Carter, master swordsmen, or at least that's what I surmise from descriptions of the book. Jan Of The Jungle features the adventures of a boy raised by apes. Tam, Son Of The Tiger features a boy raised by tigers. Clearly, Kline's head swam with ideas that weren't his own. So was there a feud? Who knows? This podcast featuring a convention speech by late Burroughs expert Sam Moskovitz, assumes a rivalry and suggests that Burroughs was bothered less by the imitation than the success of Kline's imitation. But, again, there's a lot of inferring going on. Indisputably, what little fame Kline's writing continues to enjoy comes from the Burroughs association. Burroughs fan sites mention him from time to time, and one contains some information on OAK Leaves, a Kline fanzine that appears to be the labor of love of one man, David Anthony Kraft. Even the packaging of Kline's own books, or at least my 1961 Ace edition of The Outlaws Of Mars, emphasizes the resemblance. It's right there on the front cover and the back (though the latter doesn't get his name right):
The Ace edition also contains a tribute from Camille Cazedessus, Jr., editor of the Burroughs-dedicated magazine ERB-dom. "Burroughs," he writes, "has never had a peer. [ ] Yet there was one who came so close that many consider him to have equaled the old master himself." Leaving aside the dodgy logic of a man with no peers but one equal, that pretty much translates as, "We're out of Coca-Cola, kid. Enjoy the RC." I'm afraid I found the RC pretty flat. Kline writes breathlessly of adventurous doings, but they never really come alive. Words come cheap, and you can't always make them do what you'd like. You can describe a Martian animal "[w]ith a yawning, tooth-filled mouth as large as that of an alligator, a furry black body fully as big as that of a lion, short legs, and a hairless, leathery tail, paddle-shaped and edged with sharp spines," but those adjectives strung together don't form a vivid picture. That's my biggest problem with the book. Kline wants to create a world-spanning vision of a danger-rich Mars, but it just never comes to life for him. It doesn't help that the plot is filled with pulp magazine and movie-serial clichés in the making.
Young Jerry Morgan is an earthman who, having somehow disgraced himself and resigned from the military–Kline is sketchy with the details–takes up his uncle's offer to send him to Mars' ancient, human-populated past via a fantastical scientific device. "We found," Morgan's uncle explains, "that personalities could be exchanged between certain Martians and Earthmen who were nearly doubles physically, and whose brain-patterns were similar." (Dr. Morgan knows this because he's done it three times before, sending Earthmen, all excellent swordsmen, best I can tell from online plot summaries, to Venus and Mars in Kline's previous books.) "I am prepared to send you on a journey through time and space in the flesh," Dr. Morgan says. Never one to miss a step, Jerry replies, "Then you must have some sort of space-time vehicle."
Indeed he does. And before long, young Jerry is sword-fighting his way through Mars' ancient past. After falling for a princess, he winds up on the wrong side of some palace intrigue. Later, he runs afoul of an evil warlord called The Torturer whose name comes from his love of, well, guess. There are also some crazy critters and some weird racial politics I could never quite figure out. Mars has white people, black people, and brown people, with the whites on top of the hierarchy. More or less. Kline's sympathies are mostly with the mixed-race crew his hero falls in with, but any political subtext is pretty sub. I took the use of race here to be an interesting touch. Apparently it comes form Burroughs as well, as does Jerry's ability to use his earth-trained muscles to make tremendous leaps in Mars' gravity. (Although Kline seems to forget about that skill through much of the book.)
As with the Martians' various races and skin colors, Kline creates a world that's simultaneously complex and thin, filled with rival political factions, but no real tension. For me, the whole book comes down to one paragraph near the climax:
Tarjus looked out of the window for a moment, then cried out in dismay. "We are in for it now, Deza help us!" he exclaimed. "A force the size of that one can be none other than the combined armies of Numin Zil and Manith Zovil!"
My tolerance for this combination of unearned excitement and stock science-fictiony names is pretty low. But maybe it's catnip to others.
A footnote: Kline phased out writing as he phased into a second career as a literary agent, most notably for Robert E. Howard. The man had great taste, even though he had a habit of presenting the things he loved as his own.
Real Burroughs in the form of The People That Time Forgot Then:
The original Buck Rogers novel, Armageddon 2419 A.D., by Philip Francis Nowlan