Monday, September 10, 2012

The Monster Men The Monster Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review of The Monster Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs are both legion and loyal, as evidenced by the long lasting popularity of his characters.  Tarzan of course is his most famous character, and John Carter of Mars (and Virginia) was the main character of a recent poorly marketed (but I thought still well done) Disney film.   However Burroughs was an extremely prolific author, who wrote a lot more than just Tarzan and Martian stories.  One of his earliest efforts was this adventure story set in the south Pacific near Borneo.  In many ways it can be considered Burroughs take on both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H. G. Wells The Island of Dr. Moreau.  Originally published as “A Man Without a Soul” in 1913 in the Pulp publication  All-Story Magazine, it was later published under the present title as a hardcover book in 1929.
  At the beginning of the story, the reader is introduced to a man who is sadly dismembering corpses and then consigning the body parts to vats of acid.  This is Arthur Maxon, Professor at Cornell, and father of Virginia Maxon, a beautiful young woman who is deeply concerned about her father’s recent strange and distant behavior.  In the first few sentences of the tale, it’s revealed that Maxon had found the secret to the creation of artificial human beings in vats, but that all his creations are monstrously deformed both physically and mentally.  Despairing of succeeding in his attempts at creating the “perfect man” Maxon takes his daughter and lab equipment on a vacation to the East Indies, along with a loyal Chinese cook named Sing Lee, an older but still spry and highly alert retainer.
Virginia thinks the “vacation” will get her father’s mind off of his worries, and help them renew what was a once close relationship, but in Singapore their party is joined by a Dr. Carl von Horn, who Maxon hires as an assistant for his continued work (of which Virginia knows nothing of the details) aimed at the creation of a perfect man, whom he envisions as a the only “fit mate” for his unsuspecting daughter.  Finding a secluded jungle island, Maxon and von Horn set up camp, with a fenced in area for their work.  In fairly typical fashion for Burroughs (as those readers who have read his other works can attest) the action in the story quickly develops as Virginia and the Professor are first menaced by Malay pirates, then Dyak head hunters, and later the first twelve of Maxon’s creations (known only as #!, #2, and so on in order of their creation up through # 12).  In addition to each of these perils, the mysterious Dr. von Horn turns out to not be as trustworthy as the Professor had hoped.  A series of crisis ensues, as Virginian is menaced by each of these dangerous groups in turn, only to be rescued repeatedly by the most recent of the Professor’s creations, the handsome and brave #13, whom Virginia names Jack, but the fearful Dyaks name Bulan. 
The story is perhaps one of the best examples of Burroughs at both his best and his worst.  Burroughs racial prejudices and his overall interest in eugenics permeate the tale, as the Malays and Dyaks are ferocious and treacherous, the Chinese retainer is loyal and wise, but is a caricature of the “good Oriental” archetype, complete with lisp, that appeared in many Pulp stories of the era.  The artificial creatures are presented as soulless and hideous, and the best they can hope for is to either be destroyed or else find some refuge away from humanity, with little sympathy thrown their way, otherwise eliciting only pity or horror and revulsion from the other characters.  There is some moral discussion on the part of #13/Jack/Bulan about what it actually means to have a soul, and how such possession would manifest its self in one’s actions. I also wondered if Burroughs (who was notoriously anti-organized religion in some of his stories) was having some intentional fun with the symbolism of the heroic #13 being followed and assisted by twelve followers, or “disciples” if one preferred, all of whom had the same creator. 
  Still, once the action gets going, it’s fairly exciting stuff, as is usual with Burroughs, however much of the plot relies on coincidence and people wandering into the “right place at the right time” (or wrong place at the wrong time as well) which is also sort of “par for the course” with many of Burroughs works. Also typical of Burroughs is the resolution at the end of the story, which ties up the many loose ends in the story, perhaps in a manner a little too pat for most modern readers.  
After some consideration I gave the story a 3 star ranking.  It is fairly exciting pulp adventure fare, and it does show a different side of Burroughs vast imagination, but the racial stereotypes and the ending are a little too neat for me, even though I still profess a kind of nostalgic love for the story which I first heard about in 1966 and then read about a decade later.  If I were introducing a new reader to Burroughs, I would recommend the Martian trilogy and Tarzan of the Apes, along with underrated western “The War Chief” before I could recommend this one, and that would be simply for the fan that is desirous of sampling the complete Burroughs oeuvre.

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Sunday, September 9, 2012

The SeedbearersThe Seedbearers by Peter Valentine Timlett

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Review of The Seedbearers by Peter Valentine Timlett
The 1970’s was the heyday of the “sword and sorcery” boom that started a decade earlier with the publication of pulp fantasy adventure writer Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories by Lancer Books.  The popularity of Howard’s newly re-discovered (at least to the young fantasy readers such as myself at the time) coupled with the earlier surge of interest in fantasy spearheaded by the mass market paperback editions of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” published by Ballantine Books lead to a decade where mass market paperback fantasy books could be found almost anywhere, grocery stores, newsstands, and of course book stores.  The general plots of most of these works included barbarian warriors, decadent civilizations, beautiful priestesses and queens, and stirring battle scenes.
The decade of the 70’s saw a spate of new authors who were grounded in the sword and sorcery tradition as exemplified by Howard and other authors such as Fritz Leiber, C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner.  Among the newer authors who started their careers in this period were Karl Edward Wagner, Charles R. Saunders, and Roland Green.  One of the newer authors to emerge in this period was British writer Peter Valentine Timlett who wrote a trilogy of novels set in the Atlantis of Theosophical literature and legend rather than the Atlantis of Plato’s writings.  The first book in the series is The Seedbearers, published in Britain in 1974 and then in America by Signet paperbacks in 1976.  The book is still fairly easy to find on the usual used book sites, and has its followers.   Several friends who are fans of the genre recommended it to me as an interesting take on the Atlantis myth as well as a stirring adventure.  I recently read it to see what my own take would be on the novel.
The book opens with a brief preface by the author where he mentions that his novel is based on the Atlantis of “certain Mystery Schools of the present-day Western Esoteric Tradition” which is (of course) different from the Atlantis described by Plato in Timaeus.  Just how the two versions differ is not described by Timlett, leaving the reader to search that information out for him or herself.  The novel starts out with some gruesome action, as a young girl is raped on a beach by fifty warriors, and then has her throat slit.  Similar scenes of rape, pillage, cold blooded murder continue in the first few pages, all apparently committed by a victorious army led by a General known as Vardek the Terrible, whose invading army consists of three races or ethnic groups, red-skinned Toltecs (of whom Vardek is the leader), light skinned Akkadians (sort of a mercenary engineer corps for theToltecs), and dark skinned Rmoahals, who are a subservient race to the Toltecs.  The Rmoahals are ferocious fighters who don’t mind engaging in cannibalism and necromancy.  The mixed army has been sent by the weak King Baralda of the Thousand Isles (of which the “twin islands of Ruta and Daiteya” are apparently the capital and the equivalent of our Atlantis) as a “trade expedition” to the nearby mainland of Amaria, but instead of engaging in commerce, Vardek has simply slaughtered all the Amarians whom his army has come in contact with. Character name after character name come in a flash in the first couple of chapters, as Timlett makes a point of introducing everyone who will have a part to play in the novel as quickly as possible.  At the same time he also makes sure that each character pontificates at length the various political, religious and personal agendas that each of them espouse, so that the reader will have little doubt as to where everyone stands in the highly telegraphed ahead of time apocalyptic armageddon coming up later in the novel.  I personally found this style to be quite off putting.  Similar sounding names (Vardek, Baldek, Melachadek,  Naradek, Khamaradek) caused confusion.  I thought the characters lacked complexity.  They were either brutal, misogynistic sadists or noble, idealistic warriors in the service of all that is good, working towards a climactic conflict between good and evil.  Tolkien and C. S. Lewis pull this off, but I prefer a little more ambiguity in my opposing forces.
I also found Timlett’s prose to be overly dramatic and much too verbose in places.  An example comes early in the book, “For a time the people flourished under the ruling principles of the priesthood, but generation followed generation, and the inherent weakness, fed by centuries of inbreeding, caused the breath of evil once more to waft over the land---and the Sacred Clan, the royal family, became weak and ineffective, and the Sun Temple priesthood grew in pride and arrogance.”  Overlooking the fact that this is one sentence with at least seven comas, the “breath of evil waft(ing) over the land” just struck me as over the top. 
This apparently is some folk’s cup of tea, so to speak, but I found the book virtually unreadable, forcing myself to stick with it so as to be able to give an honest review.  I honestly can’t recommend it to anyone that I normally recommend fantasy to, without at least pointing out my many reservations regarding the novel.  If brutal violence with cruel generals and sorcerers is your thing, Karl Edward Wagner did it better and still introduced shades of moral complexity in his character Kane.  If necromancy in your fantasy is of interest, then Clark Ashton Smith also did it much better in his Xothique stories.  If you’re looking for interesting takes on the Atlantis legend, then I can heartily recommend the works of Robert E. Howard in his Kull, Conan and Skull Face stories, Henry Kuttner in his Elak tales, Larry Niven in his “The Magic Goes Away” series, Manly Wade Wellman’s Kardios and also his Hok stories, along with a host of others, but I failed to find many redeeming qualities in this book.  I’m pretty sure that I won’t be going out of my way to read the next two novels in the trilogy, but I’ll list them in an effort for completeness, The Power of the Serpent, and The Twilight of the Serpent.
I’m afraid a one is all I can give here.

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