Aimless Ambling Around Amtor: The Venus Series by Edgar Rice Burroughs

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.

Edgar Rice Burroughs is the author of some of my favorite summer reading ever. In my youth, reading his novels was a rite of passage for youngsters, especially boys. The books are full of nonstop action and adventure, whether you are reading the adventures of Carson Napier of Venus, John Carter of Mars, or Jason Gridley of Pellucidar. The books are certainly a bit dated by today’s standards, but are largely fun and easy to read. Last summer, I revisited the first book in his Venus series, and this year decided to read the rest of the books in the series back-to-back. This approach made his books’ strengths evident, but unfortunately also emphasized their quirks and shortcomings.

Last fall, I reviewed Pirates of Venus, the first book in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Venus series (also known as the Amtor books, reflecting the inhabitants’ name for the planet). Afterward, I hunted the rest of the books down but didn’t read them immediately, tucking them away for a sunny summer day. Unfortunately, I’ve now learned that reading a lot of Burroughs books in short succession tends to highlight their flaws. While they were fun reads, I think Burroughs, then in the prime of his career, could have done a bit better, with a few major quibbles jumping out at me repeatedly during the reading:

  1. There is too much reliance on improbable coincidences. This starts with Carson’s off-course rocket just happening to follow a perfect trajectory toward Venus. It continues when almost everyone Carson runs into turns out to be royalty or in a position of power. And Carson even runs into old friends halfway around the world from where they first met.
  1. The characterizations are painfully thin. While Carson is better developed as a character than the enigmatic John Carter of Mars, his personality is still pretty sketchy. While we are told that he is in love with Duare (and eventually she with him), we never really see what attracted them to each other. And an “I love you, but I hate you” dynamic, with all sorts of misunderstandings and mix-ups, keeps the lovers apart for most of the series—another trope overused by Burroughs.
  1. The books’ narratives seem to have a short attention span: Characters and settings are introduced, but quickly abandoned in favor of something new. Or abandoned so Burroughs can revisit some of his favorite situations, themes, or tropes. There is no real arc to give the narrative shape, only a long, ambling sequence of independent events.
  1. Speaking of revisiting tropes, people in these books find themselves getting captured way too often. If I got a dime for every time Burroughs uses this plot device to create jeopardy, I might not be able to fund my own mission to Venus, but I bet I’d have more than a few dimes in my pocket. I’ll keep track of the number of time people are captured throughout the review, and give you a tally of dimes at the end.


About the Author

Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) was one of the most popular authors of the early 20th century, making an indelible mark on both science fiction and adventure fiction. I’ve looked at his work in this column before, not only the first Venus book, Pirates of Venus, but also Tarzan at the Earth’s Core and A Princess of Mars. All those reviews contain more biographical information on the author.


Pirates of Venus

I reviewed Pirates of Venus last year, but if you don’t want to follow the link, here’s a recap: Rich but bored Carson Napier commissions a spaceship to travel to Mars. Establishing a framing device for the subsequent tales, he visits author Edgar Rice Burroughs, initiates a telepathic rapport with him, and makes Burroughs promise to publish his adventures. Carson fails to take the moon into account when calculating his trajectory and finds himself catapulted toward Venus. He bails out, landing in a jungle of gigantic trees. He encounters the people of Vejpa, an aristocracy exiled by the communistic Thorists. (Carson has already run into royalty.)

He is given quarters near the home of the beautiful royal maiden Duare. Carson is smitten, but Duare snubs him. While an adult by our standards, she is banned from contact with males until her official coming of age. Carson and Duare are kidnapped by Thorists (earning me my first two dimes, since both are captured) and taken aboard a warship. Carson leads a mutiny, becomes a pirate, and frees Duare. She is captured again by Thorists (earning another dime) who are trying to take her ashore. Carson frees her, but as she is being flown to safety by an airborne humanoid, Carson is captured himself (dime for me), but hears Duare call out a profession of love. This first book was chock-full of wild adventures, and is definitely the best of all the Venus books.


Lost on Venus

The book opens with Carson placed in an elaborate torture chamber seemingly inspired by the old story, “The Lady, or the Tiger?”…but with the volume cranked up to 11. Instead of two doors to choose from, there are seven, with six leading to deadly threats. Plus, most of the food and drink is poisoned, chairs are covered with spikes so there is no place to rest, and a noose hangs in the middle of the room for occupants who lose hope. And then poisonous snakes are released. It’s touch and go, but the resourceful Carson soon escapes, follows the sound of a woman screaming, and immediately finds Duare, who has been recaptured (another improbable coincidence, and another dime for me). Duare has decided she shouldn’t love Carson after all, but accepts his help.

The pair are almost immediately captured by ape-like cannibals (another two dimes go in the kitty). They escape, and spend pages wandering through a jungle filled with deadly beasts and plants. They are captured (another pair-o-dime shift) by the cruel Skor, leader of an army of reanimated followers in a city of the dead. Duare escapes, and Carson thinks she is lost forever. Rescuing a girl named Nalte, Carson escapes to the city of Havatoo across the river, and is captured (dime again) by the inhabitants, who put him on trial. Havatoo is ruled by eugenicists who execute those whose genes don’t live up to their standards. (Regrettably, other than Carson caring when he or a friend might be executed, Burroughs does not condemn or criticize this philosophy.) Helped by an advocate named Ero Shan, Carson convinces them he has unique and useful knowledge, and is spared. Of all the things Carson tells them about, they are most interested in aircraft, and commission him to build one. He hopes to use the craft to find Duare.

But then Nalte, who has fallen in love with Ero Shan, is again captured (dime) by Skor’s undead minions. Carson and Ero Shan travel to the city of the dead to rescue Nalte, and also find Duare in captivity (another coincidence, and another dime). But upon returning to Havatoo, the eugenicists take Duare into custody (which counts as another capture, and earns a dime), find Duare deficient, and condemn her to death. But with the help of Ero Shan, Carson and Duare flee in his recently completed aircraft. The book features a lot of exploits and adventures, but completely abandons the first book’s focus on exiled Vejpans versus the Thorists. This proves to be standard for the series. Carson encounters new civilizations, new creatures, and new threats, but all are quickly abandoned as Burroughs has his attention captured by yet another bright shiny object.


Carson of Venus

As they fly above the landscape, not sure where to go next, Duare finally admits she loves Carson. As their love is forbidden, they decide not to return to Vejpa. They land in order to hunt for food, but are captured (two dimes) by warriors from a civilization where women rule. After Burroughs makes some sexist observations about female-led cultures, the two escape. They reach Sanara, capitol of Korva, a city under siege by the Zani, and nearby find the noble Taman. The city is currently being led by an unlikeable acting jong, Muso. This being written in the 1930s, the connection to the Nazis and Mussolini is not hard to miss, and you know Muso is up to no good. Carson uses his plane to help the city, and Muso soon sends him off on a mission to deliver a message to an enemy dictator, Memphis. He thinks Carson cannot read the message, which tells Memphis that Muso is willing to help the Zani, and urges Memphis to kill Carson.

Carson hides his aircraft, does not deliver the letter, poses as a Zani officer, and eventually befriends some revolutionaries. After some secret agent skullduggery—during which Carson discovers that Duare’s father, Mintep, is a prisoner of Memphis (another dime, and another colossal coincidence in a book full of them)—Carson returns to Sanara just in time to rescue Duare from being forcibly married to Muso and reveals him as a traitor. Duare and Carson rescue Mintep, and being a dutiful daughter, she leaves to take Mintep home to Vejpa. Taman becomes jong of Korva and Sanara, Carson saves Taman’s daughter, and Taman designates Carson as his heir. The book ends with Carson going to Vejpa to rescue Duare from imprisonment and execution for marrying him without permission (dime waits for no man). They fly back toward their new home of Korva, and the book ends without the usual cliffhanger.


Escape on Venus

This book is even more episodic than the other books in the series, being stitched together from four shorter works first published in the magazine Fantastic Adventures. It opens with the sun breaking through the clouds, which on Venus creates disastrous storms. Carson and Duare, flying toward Korva in what they now call their anotar (sky-ship), are blown far off course. They are captured by the fish-men of Mypos (another couple of dimes), and auctioned off as slaves. Carson tells everyone they will die if they touch his pistol, and the gullible fish-men fall for his tale hook, line, and sinker. Duare becomes servant to the jong Tyro’s wife, and attracts his lustful attention. Carson kills Tyros, and they escape with a fellow slave, the noble Kandar (if you are betting, always bet Carson’s new friends will be royalty), and they return to Kandar’s home city. Upon arriving, they find there has been a revolution, Kandar barely escapes back to the anotar, and they flee to a nearby village. Returning to the city, all captured (three dimes this time). But they are able to kill the revolutionary leader, and Kandar leads the successful defense against an attacking army from Brokol (where the heck did they come from?), unifying the people behind him.

Carson is captured by the retreating plant-like people of Brokol (earning me a dime), and is taken to their mysterious and beautiful queen, the Fire Goddess. Suddenly, the long-lost Duare swoops in with the anotar, rescuing Carson from these unpleasant captors. This sequence reads like a short story, because it relies on a twist at the end—the Fire Goddess is an Earth woman who has been transported to Venus by some sort of astral projection.

Duare and Carson are again trying to head home when their propellor flies off, and they glide to a landing in Voo-ad, where they are (in case you couldn’t guess) captured (yet another pair of dimes). The strange inhabitants have no visible gender and reproduce by splitting in two, with each part growing a new half. They take Carson to a museum to become a wall hanging, paralyzing him from the neck down, but leaving him able to speak so he can be interviewed by visiting scholars (at this point, my suspension of disbelief broke down entirely). And in another of Burrough’s trademark coincidences, Carson hangs near his old friend from Havatoo, the captured (dime!) Ero Shan. Duare is then kidnapped (yet another dime) by a person named Vik-yor, who is attracted to her because he has male characteristics his fellows lack. He hijacks the anotar, but she eventually gets the upper hand and returns to rescue Carson and Ero Shan.

On the trip back to Korva, they are flying over some massive land-based, ship-sized war machines, and an unlucky shot brings their anotar down. Someone kidnaps Duare (earning another dime), and to find her, Carson and Ero Shan volunteer to serve on a scout ship. The battle scenes in this sequence are lots of fun, as giant war machines are always cool (even when they violate the square-cube law). And Burroughs seems to enjoy writing about them, as these scenes have an energy previous passages lacked. Carson and Ero Shan end up captured by their foes (two dimes), but as they don’t have a dog in this particular fight, volunteer to change sides. This doesn’t go well, and they jump ship and head over the mountains toward Havatoo. They are captured (ca-ching, two more dimes) by a mountain tribe, and who should they run into but Duare, who is also a prisoner (a dime, and in the rough). They escape, get involved in one more land-ship skirmish, and make their way through the mountain passes, finding the land of Korva, and safety, just beyond the mountain range.


The Wizard of Venus

The last Venus tale is a short novella found in Burroughs’ papers after his death. It recounts how Carson is building two new anotars with Ero Shan: one to carry his friend back home to Havatoo, and another for the armed forces of Korva. During a test flight, they are blown off course and land in a far-off valley where a “wizard” is terrorizing the inhabitants, mostly by the power of suggestion. Carson decides to try the mental powers he previously only used to communicate with Burroughs back on Earth, and is able to break the wizard’s hold on the locals. His mental powers also help keep him from being captured, making this book unique in the series.

The story makes the reader wonder why Carson never thought of using these abilities during his previous adventures (which perhaps, by eliminating all the constant capturing, could have turned all the books in the series into shorter novellas). Burroughs, who was living in Hawaii, completed the story only a few months before the Pearl Harbor attack, after which he volunteered for service as a war correspondent. And for whatever reason, even after his return from war, the story was never published, and Carson of Venus ended his adventures there (although there have been some comics and books written by others over the years).


Final Thoughts

Edgar Rice Burroughs was brilliant at writing action sequences and keeping the reader engaged in the narrative. Read one of his books on a summer day, and whole hours disappear as you find yourself transported to another world. But read too many of his books in quick succession and you also start to see the flaws and redundancies. The times I awarded myself a dime for someone being captured totaled thirty-three, at least enough to purchase myself a big cup of coffee (and it might have been more, as I think I missed a few times his friends or acquaintances were captured).

But with all their faults, I still enjoy these books. Burroughs’ adventures have an energy and vitality many have tried and failed to emulate. His books may not be part of a balanced diet, but for all their shortcomings, they make a mighty tasty snack from time to time. And now I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Venus series, on any other Burroughs books you might want to discuss, or on planetary adventure in general.

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.


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