Barsoom | Pellucidar | Moon | Venus | Caspak | Historical
For 30 years between 1912 and 1944, Edgar Rice Burroughs was one of 20th Century America's most prolific and successful novelists. In this period he wrote the equivalent of 91 novels1, not only standalone stories but also many series. Although literary critics looked down on him, with his work published in cheap pulp magazines, he was incredibly popular with the public. One of his key achievements was to encourage many who would not otherwise have read to read regularly.
I had desired adventures; but recently I had had little else than misadventures, and I must admit that I was getting pretty well fed up on them; so... I made up my mind then and there that we were to have no more adventures or misadventures.
Carson Napier is the 27-year-old hero of the Venus series. The son of a British army officer father and a wealthy Virginian mother, he was raised in India by a wise Hindu mystic who helped him develop telepathic powers. Apart from as a method of dictating his adventures, these are only used in the final novelette. He has blonde hair and blue eyes, both of which are unknown on Venus. After the deaths of his parents he spent much of the 1920s in Germany. There he spent his time fencing as well as financing the development of rocket cars3 and building aircraft. He then decided to use his experience to build a space rocket near California that would take him to Mars. He had considered visiting Venus only to be put off by (real scientist) Sir James Jeans' description of it, quoting:
The evidence, for what it is worth, goes to suggest that Venus, the only planet in the solar system outside Mars and Earth on which life could possibly exist, possesses no vegetation and no oxygen for higher forms of life to breathe.
In the stories, Venus is an inhabited world, known to its inhabitants as Amtor, with much smaller oceans (joram) than Earth and numerous large islands. Most of the people of Venus, called Amtorians, appear identical to Earth humans. They carry swords, and guns called R-Ray guns, with their cannon-sized equivalent called T-Rays. Conveniently these never need to be reloaded. There are numerous other sentient lifeforms, many of which are half-human and half various other animals or even plants, such as the Angan (plural Klangan) bird-men.
Animal life on Venus includes the Targo, a giant 15ft wide four-legged spider the size of a puma that spins Tarel, a much-prized material similar to silk that can be used to make extremely strong and lightweight ropes. Another animal is a basto, which has bison-like horns and a face like a wild boar and, despite being a herbivore, is extremely aggressive. The Tharban is a carnivore similar to a large tiger while the gantor is larger than an elephant and used as a pack animal and to heave heavy loads.
Venus is surrounded by two incredibly thick cloud layers, the outer and inner. These are so thick that they block out all trace of stars and even the sun, the existence of which is all-but unknown. On the extremely rare occasions that a small synchronous gap occurs in both cloud envelope layers big enough to allow sunlight to shine directly through, as Venus is so much closer to the sun than Earth, the effect is devastating. The sun's heat causes oceans to boil and any ground beneath is instantly incinerated.
The people of Venus not only have no sense of astronomy, they also have no useful knowledge of geography, believing that Amtor is saucer-shaped and floats on a sea of lava rather than being a globe in space. The southern hemisphere is called Trabol and the people of Trabol refuse to believe in the existence of a northern hemisphere, as they assume Strabol (meaning 'hot country'), the land north of the tropical equator, is uninhabitable and predominantly lava. They believe the equator to be the very centre of the saucer while the South Pole and surrounding arctic region, or Karbol (cold country), is believed to be the saucer's equator. This contradiction with the physical reality and what is on their maps was rectified by a scientist called Klufar who:
expounded the theory of relativity of distance and demonstrated that the real and apparent measurements of distance could be reconciled by multiplying each by the square root of minus one.
1. Pirates of Venus (1932, 1934)
"If a female figure in a white shroud enters your bedchamber at midnight on the thirteenth day of this month, answer this letter, otherwise do not."
- Pirates of Venus, opening line (and punctuation).
Pirates of Venus begins inauspiciously, explaining away a plot hole from Burroughs' Pellucidar series of novels, and referencing Tarzan, and characters including Jason Gridley who are mentioned in the Mars series. The story actually begins on page three, presented as real events, with Burroughs stating he had received a letter from Carson Napier containing the quote above. After Burroughs sees a shrouded female figure, Napier tells Burroughs that he used his telepathic ability to give Burroughs a vision. Napier is planning on travelling to Mars by rocket and will dictate telepathically what happens on his journey to Burroughs. Just as in Burroughs' earlier Moon stories, this attempt to travel to Mars ends in failure as the hero lands on a completely different body in the solar system, in this case Venus.
On Venus, Carson discovers he has landed4 on the island of Vepaja, the last remaining settlement of the former rulers of much of the southern continent of Venus/Amtor. On Vepaja, which is 4,000 miles by 1,500 miles in size, enormous trees grow that are as wide as cathedrals. The people of Vepaja make their homes among and inside the treetops. Carson has landed in the treetop capital city of Kooadd. Identical in anatomy to humans, the people of Vepaja are all physically perfect and beautiful, though each is unique. They all appear to be in their 20s or 30s as they have developed an immortality serum which prevents ageing and disease, with individuals living for thousands of years being commonplace.
A larger island nearby called Thora is home to their enemies, the Thorists. The people of Vepaja used to rule over a thousand islands on Venus under the wise guidance of their king or 'Jong' until a criminal named Thor founded a secret order and led a revolt using propaganda. The Thorists have since conquered most of the southern hemisphere of Venus, or at least all the lands mentioned in the first book of the series, but curiously nowhere that is visited in the rest of the books.
The Vepajans and Thorists are the same species with the only difference being political ideology; the Vepajans are monarchists, the Thorists are communists. Yet the Thorists are portrayed as a lower sub-species, and are described as 'similar in color and physique to the Vepajans, but their countenances were heavy and unintelligent; very few of them were good-looking'. They capture Vepajan men as slaves and women as wives to improve their breeding.
Novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs usually feature a princess as the hero's love interest who is often captured by the villains and endangered by vicious animals trying to eat her, and the Venus series is no exception. An unbreakable tradition dictates that Duare, the janjong or princess of Vepaja, cannot speak to or be spoken to by any unrelated male or appointed members of her household prior to her 20th birthday. Instead she must be put on a pedestal and held to be sacrosanct. Any man who attempts to talk to her is to be put to death instantly. If she falls in love, she too must be executed. After the age of 20 she must marry a man appointed by her father. These laws make it rather difficult for Carson Napier to regularly rescue the 18-year-old janjong Duare and pursue a romantic relationship with her. Her father, Jong Mintep, does not appear to be under any similar restriction with regards to spending time with members of the opposite sex; we are informed that he had tried to conceive a son with over 100 women. However, Duare is his only child.
Hopelessly in love despite the rules and regulations, Napier appoints himself the self-proclaimed princess protector. He foils one Thorist attempt to kidnap Duare, but he is captured when the next attempt succeeds. Taken on board one of the ships of the Thorist fleet, will his plan to mutiny, capture the ship, rescue the princess and begin a life of piracy succeed?
Pirates of Venus was first serialised in Argosy magazine in 1932, and published as a novel two years later.
2. Lost on Venus (1933, 1935)
That [I am a princess] I have known always, but I have just learned above all things else I am a woman.
- Duare's last words in Lost on Venus
Lost on Venus begins immediately where Pirates of Venus ends, with Carson and Duare lost on the vast, unexplored island of Noobol. Captured by Thorist allies in the city of Kapdor and separated from Duare, Carson escapes the Room of the Seven Doors. He rescues Duare and they flee the city, intending to reunite with his ship. However, once again Carson proves he does not have a very good sense of direction, as his landing on Venus when heading for Mars had previously shown. After travelling for several weeks through a dense forest, Carson discovers that they not only have been heading in completely the wrong direction, but are also now in the wrong hemisphere - Strabol, the northern hemisphere, and not Trabol, the southern, as they had assumed.
After encountering Skor, Jong of Morov, they are imprisoned in a castle inhabited by the Dead. Skor experiments on everyone he encounters as he seeks to learn how to resurrect the dead, creating a kingdom of mindless corpses. Fortunately Nalte, a beautiful 19-year-old princess, rescues Carson from confinement in the castle's high tower and, knowing that Duare has already escaped, Carson and Nalte flee together. How Duare managed to escape and what she does over the next few weeks is never revealed.
Next visited are the cities of Kormor and Havatoo, lying on opposite sides of a great river. This river is called Gerlat Kum Rove, meaning River of Death. Kormor on one side is a city populated by the Dead, who have been resurrected by Skor. Havatoo on the other is a beautiful city and home to a beautiful people. It is soon revealed that everyone there is the result of a selective-breeding campaign, so that only those who have genes worthy of being passed on may reproduce. The city is ruled by a council of five, the Sanjong, which comprises a biologist, psychologist, chemist, physicist and warrior, and matches the divisions the city is split into. There Carson befriends Warrior Biologist5 Ero Shan, who is soon enamoured of the beautiful princess Nalte. The Sanjong conclude that Nalte's genetic make-up makes her suitable only to scrub the city's floors, while Carson is declared genetically defective and sentenced to be euthanised in order to prevent his genes from being perpetuated. Only his unique knowledge of the sciences of astronomy, aerodynamics and aviation are able to save him. He agrees to teach his knowledge and uses the city's workshops to design and built Venus' first aircraft which Duare later calls an Anotar, meaning 'bird ship'. This is a lightweight four-man amphibious nuclear-powered aeroplane capable of staying airborne for 50 years without the need for maintenance or refuelling.
Who will win Carson's heart, 19-year-old janjong Duare of the island of Vepaja or 19-year-old janjong Nalte of the mountain kingdom of Andoo? Will there be misunderstandings, jealousy and more than one love-triangle? Will everyone be regularly imprisoned, seized and somehow manage to escape? What will happen in the city of the dead, and does Duare carry defective genes that will doom her to death?
Lost on Venus was first serialised in Argosy magazine in 1933 and published as a novel two years later.
3. Carson of Venus (1938, 1939)
By the third novel, the series settles into a perpetuating pattern. Carson rescues Duare, or vice versa, from doom using the Anotar, but whenever they land to gather food and drink they end up being attacked or captured and need to rescue each other again. First they land near the Caves of Houtomal, home of a tribe of warrior-women, for a short and largely irrelevant adventure6. They then decide that they need to find a safe home.
They fly by Duare's homeland of Vepaja, which they realise they cannot return to without both being executed. Duare has become Carson's ooljaganja or 'lovewoman', a crime punishable by death. So they decide to fly to the next continent, called Anlap. In the land of Korva a civil war has erupted. The people of Korva used to be ruled by the wise guidance of Jong Kord until a criminal named Mephis founded a secret order and, using propaganda, led a revolt, capturing and imprisoning Kord. The Zanis have since conquered most of Korva, including the capital Amlot, except for the besieged city of Sanara. Wishing to find somewhere safe to settle down, Carson and Duare naturally decide on Sanara.
On first landing in Korva they, unusually, are neither kidnapped nor immediately bump into a princess, instead meeting a man named Taman. Fortunately it turns out that his wife Jahara is a princess, being a daughter of Kord, and their daughter Nna is also a princess. Taman is royalty, and second in line to the throne as Jahara and Nna apparently do not count in the line of succession. However, Sanara is being ruled in Kord's absence by first-in-line Muso, Kord's unpopular nephew, who wishes to consolidate his power. After seeing the beautiful Duare he is determined to make her his queen.
After swearing allegiance to Sanara, Carson is sent on a suicide mission into the Zani heartland of Amlot. Here the story focuses on mocking the Zanis and their duplicitous ally Muso in a strong and prescient spoof of the Nazis and Mussolini. The Zanis believe in killing Antorians 'because of their large ears' and Carson is shocked to witness a man being beaten to death simply because his great-grandmother was wet-nursed by an Antorian woman. The Zanis begin and end every sentence with the salute 'Malto Mephis!' and march in a ridiculous fashion:
The entire company took three steps forward, hopped once on the left foot, took three more steps forward, leaped straight up to a height of about two feet, and then repeated.
The story becomes one of intrigue with Carson never knowing who to trust. In Amlot he meets Zerka, but is she a Zani femme fatale or freedom fighter? Disguised as a Zani, can Carson infiltrate their most feared prison in order to rescue Duare's father Mintep, who has been captured by the Zanis? Or will he get lost?
Carson of Venus is the strongest, clearest novel in the series. After the brief distraction at the start it settles down to become the most focused and least episodic adventure. While it is true that the background of how the Zanis came to power is a rehash of the earlier Thorists, the Zani culture and threat is much greater and far more effective a menace than the Thorists ever were.
4. Escape on Venus (1941-42, 1946)
This is a series of four connected novelettes7, each published in issues of Fantastic Adventures. To help connect the novelettes, a foreword states that both Carson and Duare had been condemned to death by her father Mintep, who was prepared to sacrifice his only child for talking to and falling in love with Carson. This seems unfair as Carson, despite his poor sense of direction, had proved himself a worthy suitor by rescuing Duare from certain death on numerous occasions, was presumably of a suitable background having been appointed heir to the throne of Korva, and had even saved Mintep's life.
Escaping over the sea, their Anotar is blown off course when the sun breaks through the cloud layer. The ocean is vaporised by the sunlight, causing unearthly storms that carry them thousands of miles off course.
Whenever they land they are captured by strangers, have an adventure and escape back to the Anotar, which is usually left exactly as it was when they landed. As a novel, however, the four stories are far too repetitive to be an integrated whole and this is definitely the weakest of the series.
Slaves of the Fish Men (March 1941)
Landing the Anotar next to a lake, Carson and Duare are captured by Myposians, people with gills, webbed feet, and great big bushy black beards. The fish people of Mypos, one of whom is called Kod, begin life as eggs, become tadpole-like and slowly develop into humans. With Duare enslaved in the palace and Carson sentenced to be a galley slave, will he be able to befriend other slaves and orchestrate Duare's release?
Goddess of Fire (July 1941)
Having escaped from the fish people, Duare and Carson travel to Japal, home of the Myposan's enemies, where they warn of the Myposan attack. Despite this, Carson gets himself captured by the green plant people of Brokol whose young grow in orchards on trees. He is sentenced to be sacrificed to the fire goddess, who had one day mysteriously appeared among the Brokolians as an adult, yet was as ignorant of the Amtorian language as a baby. Known as Loto-el-Ho-Ganja, meaning 'most high more than woman', what is her background and why does she understand English words? Will Duare come to Carson's rescue once more?
The Living Dead (November 1941)
After Duare rescues Carson from Brokol they fly towards Sanara, but are forced to land outside the city of Voo-ad. There they are welcomed by the Vooyorgans as honoured guests, but are poisoned and paralysed. This enables the Vooyorgans to put them on display on the walls of a living Natural History Museum, next to the similarly paralysed Ero Shan, their friend from Havatoo. He had built his own Anotar, but it was destroyed in the storm that blew Carson and Duare off course. They discover that the Vooyorgans are amoeba-people, who multiply asexually by splitting in half. One amoeba, Vik-yor, develops an unhealthy interest in Duare and promises to free her if she will go with it. Will Duare be able to seduce an amoeba, manipulate it and be able to return to free Carson and Ero Shan?
War On Venus (March 1942)
After Duare rescues Carson and Ero Shan from Voo-ad they fly on towards Sanara, but encounter two fleets of giant tracked dreadnought battleships crawling across the plains, firing at each other. As the Anotar flies overhead, it is shot down and they are all captured. They learn that they are in the middle of a war between city-states Falsa and Panga to get grazing land, with a third city-state, Maltor, taking advantage of the war by raiding both sides' cattle. It doesn't take Carson and Ero Shan long to be captured by all three sides in turn, while Duare escapes the first lot of captors by knifing the guard who had planned to assault her. Will they all be able to reunite and escape? Will they learn the secret of the unpassable mountains to the south of the country, inhabited by the cannibalistic Cloud People? How will they fare against this, the final barrier between them and Sanara, without their Anotar?
5. The Wizard of Venus (1964)
The Wizard of Venus is a novelette written in Hawaii shortly before Pearl Harbor was bombed. It was abandoned and remained unpublished until 19648. The Wizard of Venus was first published in the Tales of Three Planets collection along with Savage Pellucidar and Tangor Returns. Since 1970 it has regularly been paired with Burroughs' 1932 eugenics-themed novella Pirate Blood, in which a group of school friends discuss their ancestors (years later, the character whose ancestor was a pirate becomes a pirate, while the characters who have criminals and madmen in their family tree inevitably become insane criminals).
Having all returned to Sanara, Carson decides to build another Anotar to take Ero Shan back home to Havatoo. Carson, being known for having no sense of direction, naturally first takes him on a test flight a few thousand miles in the opposite direction. They find themselves forced to land in the land of Gavo, an unexplored area on the continent of Donuk. The land is ruled by Morgas, a mad magician who can turn people into pigs. Will Carson use his remarkable telepathic abilities for the very first time to escape?
Unpublished Paragraphs of Venus
In Richard A Lupoff's 1965 book Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure he teasingly wrote:
Burroughs had started another cycle of Carson novelettes, completing one and barely beginning a second when the United States entered World War II. He put the stories aside and never returned to them, and the new novelette, 'The Wizard of Venus', lay forgotten for twenty years. It was discovered in the same cache that produced 'Savage Pellucidar' and published in 1964 in 'Tales of Three Planets'.
This announcement revealed the existence of a further novelette that Burroughs is described as 'barely beginning'. By all accounts, Burroughs began writing this on 2 December, 1941, five days before he personally witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor from his home in Hawaii. This experience caused him to completely abandon writing fiction for two years. When he finally returned to storytelling, he wrote a small fraction of the amount per year he had written before the war, and he never finished the untitled story he had begun.
The Edgar Rice Burroughs Official Fanclub Website states that the story he 'barely began' is only two pages long, almost all of which recap the events of Wizard of Venus. The only sentences hinting at what may happen next mention that Carson and Ero Shan flying in their Anotar see 'gargantuan beasts' and also a ship sailing on the ocean.
Carson Napier, unlike most of Burroughs' heroes, is not a world-conquering hero. Instead of shaping his destiny and that of the world around him he is shaped by events beyond his control, and spends most of his time fleeing.
The predominant view among Edgar Rice Burroughs fans is that the Venus series is largely disappointing, lacking the freshness and enthusiasm of his earlier work. While Burroughs had long written to a formula, these books appear even more formulaic than usual. Most of what happens, the events and characters encountered, are recurrences and variations on events and characters from earlier novels. Carson's journey to Venus at the start of Pirates of Venus, in which he expects to be burnt up in the sun, is very similar to Innes' journey to Pellucidar, in which he expects to be burnt up at the Earth's molten core.
While every woman in a Edgar Rice Burroughs novel is inevitably a young, beautiful princess, there is little to distinguish Duare from previous heroines. Like Nah-ee-lah in The Moon Maid, she is the last princess of a monarchy that used to rule much of the world until an oppressive communist movement revolted and conquered all but one last city, destroying civilisation's technology and art in the process, with the communists portrayed as a lower, sub-species with a bestial appearance.
Burroughs was always a writer whose work moved in unpredictable directions, but in this series this is taken to an extreme. It sometimes seems that he is losing interest in the tales he is telling and consequently is constantly changing them, making the narrative at each novel's end have little in common with the story at the start.
The novels do provide far more satire than other works by Burroughs, and show his contemporary concerns in the 1930s. These include the rise of Communism (via the sickle-phantic Thorists), the popularity of the Flat Earth Society, and the rise of the Nazi party.
The satire may well extend to the character of Carson Napier himself, who, far from being the domineering character of Tarzan, David Innes or John Carter, is all-but unable to put one foot in front of the other without getting completely lost. Even on the few occasions he does know where he is, he is lost with what is going on. On one occasion he is faced with the villain and armed with a sword and pistol, but decides to be honourable and fight the villain with the sword, only to be outclassed. He would have been killed if the young child princess he was attempting to rescue hadn't shot the baddy. There is no doubt that he is Burroughs' least proactive hero.
Yet is it clear cut what is and isn't being satirised?
There are definitely passages in the novels that are discomforting to a modern audience. In Pirates of Venus Carson plans a mutiny. His men call themselves 'Soldiers of Liberty' which, in the Amtorian alphabet, is abbreviated to 'KKK'. When Carson realises this, he 'was compelled to smile at the similarity they bore to those of a well-known secret order in the United States of America'. Yes, the word used is 'smile' and not 'recoil in horror'.
Lost on Venus features the then-popular pseudoscience of eugenics. In the city of Havatoo, which owes its current existence to a mass-murderer called Mankar the Bloody who 'saw to it that the physically, morally, or mentally defective were rendered incapable of bringing their like into the world, and no defective infant was allowed to live', criminals are called 'a menace to the race and are not permitted to survive and transmit their characteristics to future generations'.
Both the hero and heroine are condemned to death by a panel of Havatoo's scientists, so surely Burroughs was opposed to such a concept? No – Mankar is renamed 'Mankar the Saviour'. Carson states:
I thought of the mess that Earthmen have made of government and civilisation by neglecting to apply to the human race the simple rules which they observe to improve the breeds of dogs and cows and swine.
If this is intended to be satire, it is very well hidden - possibly because reprints of the text have heavily edited and/or whitewashed the Havatoo section, despite claiming to be 'Complete and Unabridged'. For example, they remove Carson's conclusion:
I could not but think of these very conditions on Earth that had been brought about by ages of inequality of breeding, and pray that there might arise in my own world a Mankar the Bloody.
In other words, Carson believes that it would benefit mankind for a genocidal maniac to wipe out Earth's 'surplus population'. This was a widely-held view in America in the 1920s. The American Eugenics movement began in 1903 and spread during the rise of Nativism and xenophobia in America during the 1920s, with the official 1911 United States Immigration Commission (also known as the Dillingham Commission Report) concluding that New Immigrants were 'inferior, uneducated and posed a serious threat to American society'. In 1907 Indiana passed a Eugenics-based sterilisation law, the first of 33 states to do so9. One influential American author was Madison Grant, whose book The Passing of the Great Race led to Adolf Hitler committing genocide using California's Eugenics programme as a blueprint.
Burroughs' views in the 1920s and 1930s are easy to find. He was in favour of the death penalty, not as a punishment for a violent act, but as he wrote in the Los Angeles Examiner in 1928 because:
If we hang [a murderer] we have removed... a potential menace to peace and happiness and safety of countless future generations, for moral imbeciles breed moral imbeciles, criminals breed criminals, murderers breed murderers just as St. Bernards breed St. Bernards.
Eugenics also appears in Tarzan, with Tarzan and the Last Empire (1929) also featuring an empire based on Eugenic principles. There in the Roman city of Castrum Mare, a former ruler called Honus Hasta, like Mankar the Bloody of Havatoo:
...made laws so drastic that no thief or murderer lived to propagate his kind. Indeed, the laws of Honus Hasta destroyed not only the criminal but all members of his family, so that there were none to transmit to posterity the criminal inclinations of a depraved sire... the laws of Honus Hasta prevented the breeding of criminals.
Burroughs believed in eugenic hereditary in an era before the discovery of DNA. He thought that those with noble ancestors inherit nobility and so his character Tarzan becomes lord of the jungle because he has superior, aristocratic ancestors. He further believed that criminals caused crime, and criminal behaviour was inherited from criminal ancestors. Therefore he felt that if criminals were prevented from breeding, crime would be wiped out in the future.
This view, of course, has no scientific validity; the eugenics programme was instead used to persecute people with different backgrounds from those making the decisions. Despite this enthusiasm for eugenics for criminals, Burroughs expresses genuine repugnance for how the Zanis euthanise based on ethnicity and ancestry in Carson of Venus (1938).