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Thursday, November 6, 2008

“The Swordsman of Mars” by Otis Adelbert Kline (Reviewed by Fábio Fernandes)

Order “The Swordsman of MarsHERE

Otis Adelbert Kline. Who ever heard of that name? (If you are a pulp fiction buff, that question doesn´t apply to you, smartass. :-)

Imagine, if you will (and now I know you all will, because you all are SF/Fantasy buffs, as I am), an alternate Earth where Edgar Rice Burroughs never existed. It would be a poorer universe for sure, because we would never have Tarzan of the Apes, or John Carter of Mars, or Pellucidar for that matter.

We would still have Sword and Planet stories though of course, because at his time, Burroughs was hardly the only one to write them—and to write them well. We had C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, and Henry Kuttner as well: the cream of the crop of space opera and the Golden Age of science fiction.

But, even so, our universe was still a poorer one. At least until now, with the reprinting of the classic Kline novel “The Swordsman of Mars”.

Written in 1933, that is, after most of the Burroughs´s Barsoom novels had already been written, “The Swordsman of Mars” follows the then already classic Burroughs formula of picking a man from Earth and basically catapulting him to the red planet, but at the same time taking the utmost care not to disrupt any laws of physics. Which is not to say they couldn’t circumvent them through “psychic laws”, using telepathy, for instance, as a means of transportation to another planet.

That’s what happens to former adventurer Harry Thorne. Bored, after having roamed the entire world in search of thrills, he was engaged to a girl who caused him to be disowned by his family and then left him to elope with his best friend. Deciding to commit suicide, Harry is approached by the strange Dr. Morgan, who offers him “a world of romance and un-dreamed of adventure.” That is, swapping minds with a Martian warrior by means of telepathy!

The prospect intrigues Thorne, who considers that there is nothing else for him on Earth. So he accepts. And he is transported (and us with him) to a fantastic Mars where danger is always close, and death is at hand at all times. Soon he gets involved in a plot of war, love, lust, intrigue, and fighting (mostly with swords). Blood and romance: it can’t get much better than this. Especially when you simply can’t stop reading the book!

The few people who had any knowledge of Kline until this new edition of “The Swordsman of Mars” believed, for the most part, that Kline and Burroughs had a kind of “novelistic feud”, because it’s impossible not to think of John Carter when you read the exploits of Harry Thorne. In his introduction to the novel, however,
Michael Moorcock explains that this feud probably never happened, and the dispute over the market niche was greatly exaggerated by Sam Moskowitz in his accounts of early science fiction.

Burroughs and Kline died a few years from each other (Kline in 1946, Burroughs in 1950), but Kline wrote much less than Burroughs—approximately ten novels and one short story collection, which is a drop in the ocean compared to the cyclopean production of Burroughs (he wrote eleven Barsoom stories, not to mention the Tarzan novels, the Pellucidar, the Venusian cycle, the western stories and many others).

According to Moorcock, Burroughs was, even in his time, considered the best of the two because of the quality of his prose. Point taken—but come on, we’re talking Sword and Planet here! Fast-paced, hi-octane adventure! Who really wants style?

Even though those last sentences may be also an exaggeration, when one opens “The Swordsman of Mars” and starts reading the great adventure lived by bored, heart-broken adventurer Harry Thorne, you simply can’t help but keep turning the pages. Why? Because it is so good! For one, Kline has taken great care to explain to the reader everything he can in scientific terms for the common man. (His theory of mind-exchange through telepathy is better than the transmigration hypothesis Burroughs offered for explaining the presence of John Carter in the red planet in A Princess of Mars.)

Also, the action is non-stop, and the characters (not only the humanoid Martians but also the monsters, like bird-beasts and marsh serpents) are very much believable, inasmuch as any Lovecraft, Howard, or Burroughs character can be believed.

Planet Stories edition is the first complete one since 1933; it is the original version of the Weird Tales serial, as opposed to the first Ace book edition, which is an abridged version, cutting many of the political undertones of the book (as, for instance, a bitter criticism of Communism).

Moorcock is absolutely right in his introduction: it would be a shame if Kline remained unknown to today’s readers—he is really a good writer, and his prose, though not so stylish as Burroughs, is almost mesmerizing: “The Swordsman of Mars” is an honest-to-God page-turner. Real fun, and more than that: it makes us want to write—and, naturally, makes us want to read more of Kline´s novels. (We will have the chance of reading at least one more next February with The Outlaws of Mars.)


Anonymous said...

Pulp fan though I am, I'd never actually heart of Kline before. I'll have to check him out; I've enjoyed Burroughs's work very much, and am always eager for more in the same general vein. And page-turners of any ilk are always nice to find!

SciFiGuy said...

Great article. I remember reading the Ace edition. Good to know there is an unabridged version available (who could afford to get their hands on original Weird Tales). Used to love this stuff.

Booker said...

I've read most of the Barsoom novels. If this guy is a step down, then how in the world did these stories survive? Barsoom puts me to sleep!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing this author to my attention. I'd never heard of Otis Adelbert Kline, but I adore Burroughs, so I went to goodreads and put this book on my list. I hope I enjoy it as much as you predict.

Anonymous said...

Memory, being a pulp fan you can imagine how befuddled I was when I first heard of Kline. Not wanting to sound corny, but it was as if a new world has opened its doors to me. I felt almost the same thrill I felt as a teen and I found some strange old book in my parent´s bookshelves (not porn, mind you, just adult writers as Jean Genet, for instance). But this is much better! :-)


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