In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Later in his career, after creating a host of memorable characters like Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs decided to create a new character, Carson Napier, and send him to the planet Venus, to journey through planetary and literary territory Burroughs had not yet explored. Some people feel this new planetary adventurer didn’t measure up to his predecessor, John Carter, but Carson Napier was a unique character whose adventures I always enjoyed. And when you are looking for a good summer reading book, you can’t go wrong with one about pirates…
Sibling rivalry often drives young people to compete over their likes and dislikes. This drives arguments about whose favorite characters are the best (arguments that tend to look quite pointless, in retrospect). In my family, my older brother liked Tarzan and John Carter, so while I read and enjoyed those characters as well, I decided I had to find my own Burroughs characters to enjoy, which would be better than the ones he liked. And I found them in the interior world of Pellucidar, and the Venus or Amtor of Carson Napier. It seems silly, looking back on it—with all we had in common, I was determined to find something to bicker about. I wish I could say we all grow out of this type of behavior, but you often see signs of the same competitiveness playing out within science fiction fandom.
Those Carson Napier paperbacks had some great illustrators, including the incomparable Roy Krenkel (1918-1983), whose work includes the cover of the copy I read for this review (as shown above). Krenkel was an influential painter and illustrator who won the Best Professional Artist Hugo Award in 1963. Other editions of the series bore covers from the seminal artist Frank Frazetta (1928-2010). Famous for illustrating the Lancer Books re-issues of the Conan series, Frazetta was a favorite of many fantasy and science fiction fans, and widely recognized for his evocative work.
My favorite illustrations of Carson Napier, however, came from comic book artist Michael Kaluta. In the early 1970s, in the back of the DC comic Korak, Son of Tarzan (issues 46 to 53), there was a shorter feature that serialized Pirates of Venus, which was unfortunately never completed. The art was starkly different from the superhero comic book art of the era, ornate and rich in detail, and I was absolutely captivated by it. Other comic versions of Carson’s adventures were released by Dark Horse Comics, and a new comic series is currently underway from American Mythology Comics, who also republished the short lived Kaluta-drawn series.
About the Author
I have looked at the work of the prolific Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) before in this column. I reviewed Tarzan at the Earth’s Core here, examining a crossover between his most famous character and his tales of adventure in the land of Pellucidar. And I reviewed the seminal planetary romance A Princess of Mars here, looking at hero John Carter and his adventures on the Red Planet. Both of those reviews contain biographical information on the author.
His two greatest characters, John Carter and Tarzan, were created in 1912. His Pellucidar series started in 1914. His Carson Napier series was begun in 1932, later in his career, when he was the well-established author of dozens of books. Some suggest that he was inspired to write a new series set on Venus because his planetary romance competitor, Otis Adelbert Kline, had just done so. Again, there are critics who feel that the Carson Napier books are weaker than the earlier Mars series, but the later series has its strengths as well. Napier is a much more well-rounded character than the enigmatic John Carter; the series has a lighter, tongue-in-cheek tone, and there is also some social commentary that adds variety to the series. Burroughs has been criticized for some racist attitudes that appear in his work, and unfortunately, these attitudes were prevalent in the work of many writers of the time.
As with many authors who were writing in the early 20th century, a number of works by Burroughs (which unfortunately, do not yet include Carson Napier’s adventures on Venus), can be found free of charge on Project Gutenberg.
Under the Clouds of Venus
The planet of Venus has long been an enigma. Even after astronomers had access to telescopes that allowed them to observe features on other planets like Mars and Jupiter, Venus appeared as a featureless ball, shrouded in clouds. In the pulp magazines like Planet Stories, a rough consensus emerged: The planet had perpetually cloudy skies, was warm and humid, and was covered with vast swamps and broad seas. Authors of planetary romances like Otis Adelbert Kline, Edgar Rice Burroughs, C. L. Moore, and Leigh Brackett, among many others, imagined all sorts of cultures and creatures existing under the featureless clouds of Venus.
The fact that Venus was named after the goddess of love sometimes inspired interesting tales, as did the idea of horrible creatures and carnivorous plants lurking in its jungles. Among my favorite tales of the planet were the works of Stanley G. Weinbaum, whose wildly creative ideas of life on other worlds are always enjoyable. Robert A. Heinlein used Venus as a setting in a number of his stories and books, most notably the juvenile tale Between Planets, where the young protagonist becomes a guerilla resistance fighter against Terran oppression—probably the most violent juvenile novel I ever encountered.
As space probes revealed Venus to be a hellish furnace with a toxic and corrosive atmosphere, the planet grew less interesting to science fiction authors, especially those who were looking for possible venues for adventure stories. A few more recent stories have capitalized on the fact that the more benign upper atmosphere could be home to dirigibles kept aloft with Earth-normal atmosphere inside them. This would allow colonists to live within the air bags themselves, an intriguing concept. But even with that possibility for colonization, and recent reports suggesting some sort of microbial life might be present in Venus’ upper atmosphere, that’s a long way from the beautiful princesses living in trees that were imagined in the past.
Pirates of Venus
I will say right up front that although I enjoyed revisiting this book, and found it to be an enjoyable adventure story, it read a lot better when I was 12 than it did when I was 65. Flaws I had missed in my youth were harder to ignore. The novel opens from the viewpoint of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who is talking to his friend Jason Gridley about his recent dirigible mission to Pellucidar with Tarzan. This delighted me as a kid, because Tarzan at the Earth’s Core was one of my favorite Burroughs adventures. Burroughs then receives a cryptic message from Carson Napier, who tells him about a planned mission to Mars.
Carson appears at Burroughs’ office twice, the first time through some sort of astral projection. He has had training in advanced mental powers from an ancient mystic in India, and wants Burroughs, as an established author, to chronicle his adventures by communicating with him telepathically. Burroughs agrees, although he doubts Carson will be successful. This framing device established, nearly the entire narrative from this point is written in first person, from Carson’s viewpoint.
Carson relates his life story. He is a well-educated child of wealth and privilege, whose parents died while he was young, leaving him an enormous fortune. He went to California, where he worked as a Hollywood stunt man, but soon grew bored. He had always been fascinated with life on other worlds, and decides to spend his fortune on a rocket to Mars. There will be no opportunity for a return trip, as he will have to parachute from his craft to survive (I imagine I am not the only reader who found this mission profile more than a bit foolhardy).
Carson’s journey immediately goes awry because he forgets to take the Moon into consideration, and a close encounter with that lunar body reshapes his orbit, changing his course toward the sun. That error is, unfortunately, believable—a great many probes to Mars have failed to make the journey successfully (as recounted here), sometimes because of mistakes as simple as mixing up metric and English measurement systems. What is more difficult to believe is his slingshot encounter with the Moon putting him on a direct course for Venus. And the fact that, without any course corrections or rocket burns, his ship enters the atmosphere at a speed permitting it to survive reentry, deploy its parachutes, and allow Carson to bail out.
It turns out there is a breathable atmosphere and a land of lush forests under Venus’ clouds. Carson finds bridges built between the trees, and after being attacked by a hideous forest creature, is captured by men with spears who take him to their arboreal dwellings. Carson soon learns the language of these people, who call their world Amtor. They wear minimal clothes because of the heat, but do not go around naked like the natives of Barsoom (Burroughs had perhaps given into complaints of artists over the years who could not portray his characters as they were described in the Barsoom books without being censored). Carson meets the king, but is unable to convince anyone he is from another world because the people of cloud-shrouded Amtor have no concept of astronomy.
Then, from his quarters, Carson sees a beautiful girl in a nearby garden and is immediately smitten. He has never been interested in romance before, but decides he had just not met the right girl until now. He later sees armed men lurking around her garden, and challenges them. He kills three (using fencing skills learned in Hollywood), and then hides as the king’s guards move in and kill the others. Carson finds he is living among the Vepajans, who were once the elite ruling class of their country, but were expelled by Thorists, proletariat working-class revolutionaries named after their leader, Thor. Carson decides to visit his new true love, and is surprised when she not only rebuffs him, but slaps him.
The king decides to accept Carson into the society, but he must contribute by hunting with his new friend, Kamlot. Their first expedition goes awry, and to make a long story short, after battling some dangerous forest denizens, the two are captured by klangan, or bird-men, and pressed into service on a Thorist warship. The dark-skinned klangan are unfortunately described using some racist stereotypes. Carson finds that while the Vepajans do not have access to the resources that support it, there is high technology on Amtor. The Thorists use ray guns as both handguns and naval weapons, and use atomic reactors to power their ships (while the scientific explanations may have been innovative in the 1930s, it is best for modern readers simply to smile and move on).
Carson and Kamlot find that Princess Duare of the Vepajans has also been captured, and is being held on another ship. Kamlot insists they must save her. Carson learns about the Thorists while onboard, and it becomes clear that they are an analog for the Leninists of the Earth, who in the 1930s were consolidating their power over the Soviet Union. Carson (and author Burroughs) is dismissive of the ability of the proletarian Thorists to rule themselves without the enlightened leadership of the Vepajans, and what is meant as satire becomes a bit heavy handed. Carson leads the mutiny, complete with a thrilling sword fight with the captain, and convinces the crew to turn to piracy, with their first target being the ship that holds the Princess. That battle is also a success, and Duare is rescued. Carson is stunned to find that she is the beautiful girl from the garden.
Carson and Duare have a couple of conversations where he finds that, while she is 18 and an adult by our standards, in her long-lived culture, anyone under 20 is considered a minor, which explains her shock at his romantic statements. There is also a bit of the unsavory “her lips say no, but her eyes say yes” trope that passed for romance in men’s fiction of that era (although Burroughs does explain that, because of his advanced mental powers, Carson can accurately tell how she really feels).
The pirates take a third ship, but a Thorist leader from that ship conspires to kidnap Duare and take her to a nearby land. Carson heads out in pursuit, and is able to send Duare back to the ship on the wings of a klangan. But while she finally admits she loves him, Carson falls into the hands of his enemies, and the book closes with a cliffhanger ending (I assume revealing an inconclusive ending does not really qualify as a spoiler. If I am mistaken, please accept my apologies).
The book is short by today’s standards, and the narrative gallops right along. The social satire may be a bit heavy-handed, the romance a bit clumsy, and the characters a bit thin, but the fights, monsters, and adventure keep the pages turning quickly. I enjoyed it enough that I searched my basement for the other volumes, and ordered the ones I couldn’t find. There are only five books in the series (Pirates of Venus, Lost on Venus, Carson of Venus, Escape on Venus, and The Wizard of Venus), so I expect to go through them rather quickly.
John Carter’s adventures on Barsoom almost single-handedly created the subgenre of the planetary romance, and had a huge impact on the field. But while the adventures of Carson Napier were not as influential, they find Burroughs at the top of his game as a writer, and are enjoyable and fast-paced. If you haven’t read them, and are prepared for a few clumsy anachronisms and some dated attitudes, you can find much to enjoy here.
And now, I’m finished, and it’s your turn to chime in: Have you read Pirates of Venus, or the other tales of Amtor? If so, what did you think? Did you enjoy the stories and their setting as much as I did?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.