Monday, April 12, 2021

Utopia & Dystopia in Weird Tales-Part Nine

Mars, Red to Blue

For simplicity's sake, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) and his works are thrown into a big bucket called "science fiction." We like to categorize and we want our categorizing to be easy. But Burroughs began writing before there was a well-formed thing called science fiction--"Under the Moons of Mars" was in The All-Story on this day 109 years ago--and by our standards and our current categories, stories of John Carter on Barsoom are more properly called science fantasy*, planetary romance, or swords and planets. I would say that, like Star Wars, Burroughs' Mars books are not science fiction.

And now I take it all back. (But maybe not really.)

By our current categories, Burroughs' Mars books may not be science fiction, but before the Great War and even early in the interwar period, there may not have been any more popular, influential, or pertinent example of the genre, at least on this side of the pond. (On that topic, there are still things to come.) They were the state of science fiction at the time, and they were so powerful in the imagination that they endured for decades, in their pure, original, science-fantasy form, perhaps more deeply and intensely in science fiction, space opera, and space fantasy. (There are swords and sabers--airships, too--on both Barsoom and Tatooine. See the images below.) Even into the Space Age, some people imagined Mars to be the way Burroughs had imagined it. Even some scientists still thought of Mars as a dry but habitable planet (and Venus as wet but also habitable). Canals still webbed the Red Planet's surface. Ruined or dying cities might still be found at their nodes. Decadent or moribund peoples might still haunt those cities and their engulfing, pitiless deserts. Maybe there were or once had been other people in our solar system. Maybe someday we would come upon their artifacts and ruins, like a forlorn and windswept City on the Edge of Forever.

That popular image of Mars persisted even after the mid-sixties Mariner 4 mission showed the planet to be not just mostly dead but all dead--persisted, that is, in the popular imagination if nowhere else. Even in the 1970s, there were artists' images of Mars showing a patchwork of green and red, the green parts tied to each other by ligamentous canals, the two colors waxing and waning, warring with each other within the wider cycle of the Martian year. We so wanted there to be life on Mars. We wanted the green to exist and for it to be plant-life, even if it was just simple moss or lichens. You might look at the Viking missions of a decade after Mariner as acts of quiet desperation, as a kind of grasping at the straws of the idea that the Red Planet was once alive and vibrant and that life might still be found there. The views from a space-borne Mariner weren't enough. We needed a close-up view of things. We needed to touch the surface: the arm of the Viking lander would extend like the forefinger of God, but instead of bestowing life upon Mars, it would detect it. Carl Sagan (1934-1996), an ardent childhood reader of Burroughs, was instrumental in the Viking missions. Although a scientist, Dr. Sagan seems to me to have been more than anything a hopeless romantic. I think he went to his grave believing in life on other planets.

But there would be no Barsoom.

There wasn't even a bacterium.

In January 1980, a little over three years after the Viking landers set down, NBC-TV broadcast The Martian Chronicles, based on stories by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) and with a screenplay by his friend, Richard Matheson (1926-2013). Both men had been young contributors to Weird Tales. Bradbury loved Burroughs' Mars books so much that as a child he wrote a sequel to The Warlord of Mars (1919). Even in 1980, we were holding on to romantic notions of Mars. But instead of being red, Mars in our imagination had turned blue, not only for the terrible sadness and melancholy of The Martian Chronicles, but also for the cyanotic lack of oxygen in its rarefied air. Red planet, blue mood.

By 1990, when Total Recall was released, Mars had become a kind of cyber-corporate-dystopia. In seven decades, the -topia of Red Planet had seemingly gone from Burroughs' U- to a Philip K. Dick-inspired Dys-. But in the climactic scenes of the movie, the hero Quaid reactivates the ancient Martian atmosphere factory, the vivifying plant in the original Mars books, and the blue of sadness and cyanosis gives way to a cyan sky: Mars is suddenly terraformed and Burroughs' vision is redeemed: Dystopia is banished and Utopia returned to Mars.

To be continued . . .


*I still want to hold on to there being a close connection between science fantasy and Lost Worlds: I think of Burroughs' Mars novels as science fantasy/Lost Worlds set not on a closed Earth but in an open--and limitless--universe. With that being the case, it's a short step from science fantasy to science fiction, and the doors of the universe are thrown open to every kind of story.

The Gods of Mars & The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the Nelson Doubleday edition of 1971. Frank Frazetta's cover illustration is a tour de force of action and painterly technique. I suspect he finished it in a day or less. The Thark's red cloak is reminiscent of the one worn by the ape-creature on the cover of Frazetta's cover for the Lancer edition of Conan.

A rear view of this wraparound cover will show a rear view of Dejah Thoris, too. Frazetta had his proclivities. But his choice in depicting the female figure in such a way wasn't just about showing a good shot of her fanny. Or at least I don't think it was. By turning her away from us and posing her the way that he did, I think he heightened the mystery and peril of the situation in which the lovers find themselves. She is firm in the grip of the ape-creatures and is rapidly being carried away by them. John Carter had better do something, and fast, before she disappears from this tableau. (Winslow Homer did the same kind of turning away in his picture-making. I think his purpose was to depersonalize, and thus universalize, his figures.) By the way, if you look quickly enough, you will see the same kind of rear view and split, gray-toned, feminine anatomy in the climactic scenes of Total Recall.

Frank Schoonover (1877-1972) was one of the original John Carter artists. Here is his cover for The Gods of Mars, from 1919. His protagonist is a little goofy-looking. My reason for showing this image is to point out the similarity between Burroughs' desert airships and those run by Jabba the Hutt's gang in Return of the Jedi (1983): George Lucas--just like seemingly everybody else in twentieth-century American fantasy and science fiction--was almost certainly influenced, directly or indirectly, by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, April 9, 2021

Utopia & Dystopia in Weird Tales-Part Eight

Arcadian Utopias

Dejah Thoris upbraids and implores the Tharks of Barsoom:

"Why, oh, why will you not learn to live in amity with your fellows. Must you ever go on down the ages to your final extinction but little above the plane of the dumb brutes that serve you! A people without written language, without art, without homes, without love; the victims of eons of the horrible community idea. Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common. You hate each other as you hate all else except yourselves. Come back to the ways of our common ancestors, come back to the light of kindliness and fellowship. The way is open to you, you will find the hands of the red men stretched out to aid you. Together we may do still more to regenerate our dying planet. The granddaughter of the greatest and mightiest of the red jeddaks has asked you. Will you come?" (A Princess of Mars, Nelson-Doubleday, 1970, pp. 52-53)

This passage is as clear and succinct as any in illustrating Edgar Rice Burroughs' conservatism. It seems to me, though, that his views were not reactionary so much as a uniquely Burkean/American version of conservatism. This version might not be easily portable except perhaps into the Lost Worlds of the imagination. Maybe fictional conservative utopias are possible after all.

* * * 

In this blog, I have made distinctions and emphasized dichotomies:

  • Progressive vs. conservative
  • High culture vs. low or folk culture
  • Science fiction vs. fantasy and weird fiction
  • Utopia vs. Dystopia
  • The intellectual-elite vs. the popular

These distinctions don't always hold up very well. They are, after all, attempts to impose an architecture upon things that are wholly natural and organic. Science fiction author Jack Williamson (1908-2006) made distinctions, too. He considered the dystopian tradition older than the utopian. He found the origins of Dystopia in the ancient, G_d- or gods-centered, Egyptian/Hebraic past. Utopia, on the other hand, is from Greek humanism, still ancient, but more derived, and in our age more prevalent.

There are more distinctions to make. Here is an important one I think, from Utopian Fantasy: A Study of English Utopian Fiction Since the End of the Nineteenth Century by Richard Gerber (McGraw-Hill, 1973):

In a sense every utopia is scientific. [. . .] All the same, though most utopias show signs of scientific detachment, it is well to distinguish between scientific and arcadian utopias. For in the arcadian utopia the scientific method, the thought applied to the building of utopia, is used to abolish every kind of scientifically rigid construction within utopia. Anarchy and a sublimated state of nature are proclaimed. [. . .] Both myths are significant, but the scientific clockwork utopia possesses a higher degree of reality, embodying modern man’s real hopes and fears. The arcadian Utopia nowadays has hardly any other function than reactionary wish-fulfillment [. . .]. (pp. 46-48)

It's clear that Mr. Gerber is coming at things from the left, but his point is a good one: that in the genre of Utopia, there is a distinction to be made between the scientific (and progressive) type versus the arcadian (and conservative, or as he calls it "reactionary") type. If there is such a distinction, then a seeming contradiction--Edgar Rice Burroughs as a conservative utopian--becomes instead a possibility. You might boil it down this way:

Scientific Utopia vs. Arcadian Utopia (or the Utopia of Escape)
Science Fiction, Dystopia, and Apocalypse vs. Science Fantasy and Lost Worlds
H.G. Wells vs. H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and Edgar Rice Burroughs

So where does that leave weird fiction, the catchall category that filled the pages of Weird Tales? Well, I think a little falls on one side and a little on the other. I'm kind of surprised at how this is turning out . . .

* * *

Here is another paper hidden behind a paywall, "The Lost World as Laboratory: The Politics of Evolution between Science and Fiction in the Early Decades of Twentieth-Century America" by Marianne Sommer (2009). Only the abstract appears on the Internet at no cost:

The essay focuses on the writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950)--the creator of Tarzan--and his contemporary and president of the American Museum of Natural History, Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935). These historical figures are of interest as multimedia-versed shapers of collective fantasies of human evolution. [. . .] Osborn and Burroughs engaged in "interesting experiment[s] in the mental laboratory which we call imagination" when they made different races, sexes, and national types compete in prehistoric struggles for existence. The laboratory setups were to reveal natural hierarchies, but they were also intended to transform the reader/viewer. The verbal and visual reconstructions of lost worlds served Burroughs's and Osborn's conservatism: the true American/Anglo-Saxon type had to be preserved, if not recovered.

Again, the drift of the paper seems towards emphasizing Burroughs' conservatism except that now there appear to be elements of social Darwinism and racial theory thrown into the mix. But this leads to another important point, and it's in regards to the utopian/science-fictional/science-fantasy hero versus his dystopian/weird-fictional counterpart . . .

To be continued . . .

Thuvia, Maid of Mars & The Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Nelson-Doubleday, 1972), with cover art by Frank Frazetta. What you can't see is a banth on the back cover, a multi-legged lion-creature that threatens John Carter but doesn't seem to bother very much his pink princess. I guess we have all seen this proud and haughty look on the face of a real-life woman.

A Barsoomian city looms large in the background. One distinction I haven't made yet is that Dystopia and the scientific Utopia would seem strictly urban phenomena: the perfectly orderly society--good or bad--requires mass living, urban density, urbanized order. Has anyone ever written a rural Dystopia? Is such a thing even possible? If Richard Gerber is right, then an arcadian Utopia is a possibility, and I guess the Mars novels might fall into that category. But do Tharks inhabit Dystopia? I sense that they don't. Their society is simply primitive, too primitive to reach the level of development needed for a perfectly orderly, perfectly controlled, and perfectly awful dystopian society.

A long time ago, I had a book called The Intellectual Versus the City by Morton Gabriel White and Lucia White. I never read this book, but the title is intriguing. You would think that the intellectual would favor the city. Intellectuals certainly do today. At some point, though, there must have been a flip, but I don't know when or why that would have been. Anyway, characters in dystopian stories often seek to escape from the city and into nature. It happens in THX 1138 (1971) and Logan's Run (1976). In We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924) and The World Outside by Robert Silverberg (1971), a green and natural world surrounds the dystopian city. These seem to me examples of the divide between the scientific Utopia (aka Dystopia) and the arcadian Utopia, which might as well be called by a different name.

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Utopia & Dystopia in Weird Tales-Part Seven

The Red Utopia in the Sky

Gentleman John Carter journeyed to Mars, there to fight and befriend Tharks, all before Tarzan swung on his vine. Like James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) a century before him, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) got his start by believing that he could pen something better than what he was reading in the popular press. He set out in 1911 to write his story. The first place his imagination went was not to the jungles of Africa but to the red planet Mars. John Carter was projected bodily from a mystical Arizona cave. Burroughs made the journey in his mind.

We might think of Utopia as a socialist or progressive genre, perhaps as a sub within the larger genre of science fiction. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887 (1888) would seem an exemplar of the socialist Utopia. In their book The Politics of Utopia: A Study in Theory and Practice (1982) Barbara Goodwin and Keith Taylor used the passive voice to pose a sideways question:
It may well be asked why so many 'modern' utopias are socialist--indeed, the two categories almost became coextensive during the nineteenth century.

The authors went on to suggest some answers. The point is that in the nineteenth century, utopianism and socialism were seemingly joined, perhaps with other elements into a nascent science fiction. (Perhaps into a progressive Scientism, too.) We might still think of them that way. The Lost Worlds fantasy, about which I have been writing, might be the conservative's answer to the progressive/socialist Utopia, an exploration into new lands but without all of the abstruse and ultimately murderous theorizing. Instead of going into the glorious future, the Lost Worlds hero ventures into the nostalgic past.

In "Utopias Beyond Our Ideals: The Dilemma of the Right-Wing Utopia" (1991), Peter Fitting, in an epigraph, quotes from Ms. Goodwin and Mr. Taylor's work--

Since the revival of utopianism and utopian scholarship in the 1970s, there has been a growing realization that there are also utopias which eschew and even reject socialist ideals.

--before setting off on his own discussion. Mr. Fitting posits the existence of what he calls "right-wing utopias" (I believe him) and promises to look at some of them. Unfortunately, all but the first page of his paper is hidden behind a paywall. Darned capitalists!

Ditto for Michael Orth's paper "Utopia in the Pulps: The Apocalyptic Pastoralism of Edgar Rice Burroughs" (from Extrapolation, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1986). We might not think of Burroughs as having been a utopian thinker or writer, but the late Mr. Orth made a good start to his case in his opening sentence:

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote more than seventy books, and at least fifty of them contain elements of utopian thinking--that is, they offer more or less detailed presentations of imaginary cities, peoples, or nations which the author clearly wishes his readers either to admire or detest; and they express a conservative vision of history and possibility.

(Mr. Orth's citation here is to a previous work by Mr. Orth.) And he went on from there, writing: "The conservative vision has always been strong in utopias"--and placing Thomas More's original Utopia, as well as Looking Backward, in the category of conservative utopias. Interesting. Unfortunately again, you can't read very much more before reaching the end of the free part. Double-darn them!

I might agree with Mr. Orth. I have already written that the utopian/progressive/socialist program is essentially conservative in orientation, though of a fiercely reactionary type: it dreams and strives and yearns for a return to the Middle Ages, in which the Progressive/Socialist imagines the monarchy, aristocracy, and clerisy to be few and powerful; the masses of serfs to be static and powerless; and the middle classes, whom he or she derisively calls the bourgeoisie--"bougies" to two-bit Marxists like the Great Bronx Dingbat--to be non-existent.

There are a couple of distinctions to be made here, though. First, if it's a detestable place, then I would call it Dystopia rather than Utopia. Second, conservatives--being essentially non-intellectual or even anti-intellectual--are more likely to write non-intellectual stories of adventure rather than dry, intellectual utopias or even drier and overly intellectualized scholarly works. If it's an adventure story, it was probably written by a conservative, and if it's a Utopia, it was probably written by somebody else. But if Mr. Orth is correct and many utopian stories are essentially conservative, then maybe that distinction falls apart.

One more distinction: the people tend to read popular fictions and forms. If you want them to read it, you've got to make it interesting. There has to be love and car chases. Utopias and scholarly works are more for the intellectual √©lite. People like that don't mind being bored by prose as long as their little ideas are turning in their heads. Or, as another of Peter Fitting's epigraphs reads:

. . . the freedom of writing implies the freedom of the citizen. One does not write for slaves. The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy.

That quote is from Jean-Paul Sartre--and he was a Marxist and an intellectual. (So maybe we don't trust it after all.)

So is Utopia essentially a conservative genre? And did Edgar Rice Burroughs write of conservative or "right-wing" utopias? Maybe so. I'd like to read the papers by Mr. Fitting and Mr. Orth in order to learn more. But here we are. Anyway, maybe my line of inquiry has been wrong. But these things might actually fit together pretty well: That the original Utopia and stories like it led to the Lost Worlds fantasy. That the Lost Worlds fantasy, once it could no longer be set on a fully mapped and explored Earth-of-the-present, had to take place somewhere else--or sometime else. And that some of the resulting genres would find a warm and natural home in the pages of Weird Tales.

To be continued . . .


Note: My title, "The Red Utopia in the Sky," is a paraphrase of an expression in Stephen Baxter's sequel to The War of the Worlds, called The Massacre of Mankind (2017). His original phrase is "their arid utopia in the sky" (p. 148), "their" meaning the Martians'. Thanks to Mr. Baxter.

A Princess of Mars was originally entitled "Under the Moons of Mars." If you were reading The All-Story one hundred and nine years ago this month, you would have found yourself halfway through it. You would also have encountered Dejah Thoris' takedown of her Thark captors' primitive socialistic society:

"Why, oh, why will you not learn to live in amity with your fellows. Must you ever go on down the ages to your final extinction but little above the plane of the dumb brutes that serve you! A people without written language, without art, without homes, without love; the victims of eons of the horrible community idea. Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common. You hate each other as you hate all else except yourselves. Come back to the ways of our common ancestors, come back to the light of kindliness and fellowship. The way is open to you, you will find the hands of the red men stretched out to aid you. Together we may do still more to regenerate our dying planet. The granddaughter of the greatest and mightiest of the red jeddaks has asked you. Will you come?" (pp. 52-53)

The illustration is of course by Frank Frazetta, who was a great fan of Burroughs in his youth. In contrast, Conan and Robert E. Howard were mostly or wholly unknown to him before he landed assignments for which he is so well remembered, his covers for the Conan series published by Lancer Books in the 1960s and '70s.

Original text and caption copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter from Tellers of Weird Tales!

(The only Easter-themed pulp cover I could find.)

Terence E. Hanley, 2021

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Another Swipe

. . . or maybe this belongs in the category of reduce, reuse, and recycle. After all, both Amazing Stories and Fantastic were published by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company. Maybe Leo Summers (1925-1985) was just handed a five-year-old magazine and told to recycle the damsel in distress on its cover. The original artist was Harris Levey (1921-1984), who had previously drawn comic book stories under the names Lee Harris, Leland Harris, and Harris Levy. His technique and his handling of color, texture, and the human figure are superior in this case. His villains are more interesting, too. Even in 1958, the Little Green Man was a clich√© in science fiction.

Amazing Stories, March 1953, with cover art by Harris Levey.

Fantastic, July 1958, with cover art Leo Summers.

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, March 28, 2021


I have been caught up in my regular work and have fallen behind in my writing. There are always family things, too, and the tragicomedy of life to deal with. Anyway, I was reading this morning and came upon a striking thing. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you will see and hear this kind of thing all the time now--now that we live in a science-fiction world. From an interview by Sean Illing of author Martin Gurri:

Sean IllingHave elites--politicians, corporate actors, media and cultural elites--lost control of the world?

Martin Gurri: Yes and no. It's a wishy-washy answer, but it's a reality. They would have completely lost control of the world if the public in revolt had a clear program or an organization or leadership. If they were more like the Bolsheviks and less like QAnon, they'd take over the Capitol building. They'd start passing laws. They would topple the regime. But what we have is this collision between a public that is in repudiation mode and these elites who have lost control to the degree that they can't hoist these utopian promises upon us anymore because no one believes it, but they're still acting like zombie elites in zombie institutions. They still have power. They can still take us to war. They can still throw the police out there, and the police could shoot us, but they have no authority or legitimacy. They're stumbling around like zombies.

(From: "The Elites Have Failed" on the website Vox, March 27, 2021, accessible by clicking here.)

So here in a discussion between a university professor and a former CIA analyst comes imagery of science fiction and fantasy, of utopianism and stumbling zombies. And it's not just some imagery. It may in fact be the essential imagery of science fiction, the central question or dilemma of the genre: the dichotomy of Utopian/Dystopian order and ultimate dissolution versus apocalyptic chaos and destruction. Is there any other choice? Can we steer ourselves between this Scylla and that Charybdis? Maybe that's the question good science fiction seeks to answer.

I'm reading The Humanoids by Jack Williamson right now. Here's how he phrased this dichotomy, in the words of one of his characters:

". . . the same crisis that every culture meets, at a certain point in its technological evolution. The common solutions are death and slavery--violent ruin or slow decay." (Lancer, 1963, p. 39)

Death and violent ruin: the zombie apocalypse. Slavery and slow decay: Utopia/Dystopia.

Again, the striking thing is that people working at high levels of the academic/governmental-industrial complex resort to science fiction and fantasy for their imagery. That probably could not have happened in the pre-war world (pre-World War II, that is), as science fiction and fantasy were beneath consideration for men born in the nineteenth century. Now, eighty years later, or even just thirty or forty years later, we turn to these visionary and predictive genres for inspiration, maybe because only in them is there imagery adequate to describe or to which we can make adequate allusions regarding our current situation. As in politics, traditional, elitist ways fail, and the elites are forced to fall back on the modes of the popular for their expression.

Above: Zombies in black and white.

Another dichotomy, too, from folklore and literature: the dark versus the fair. And a non-dichotomy, or an analog vs. a digital or binary choice: "not alive . . . nor dead . . ."

By the way, I Walked with a Zombie was produced by a teller of weird tales, Val Lewton (1904-1951).

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, March 15, 2021

A Swipe Along the Way

I have been reading and writing about H. Rider Haggard. Along the way, I have discovered an obvious swipe. The first image below is of the cover of Ayesha: The Return of She in a 1977 edition from Newcastle Publishing. The artist was Tony Yamada. Below that is Mr. Yamada's inspiration, Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, from 1801. The mound of bones and skulls may also be a swipe, from Frank Frazetta, probably the all-time champion swipee (and occasional swiper), from his cover for the Lancer book Conan the Adventurer. (Click here to see that image.)

Today, March 15, 2021, is the eighty-fourth anniversary of the death of H.P. Lovecraft. May his mind now correlate all of its contents, and in doing that, may he and it rest in peace.

Note: I could not find a good scan of the cover of Ayesha: The Return of She. I have instead modified this image from a photograph.

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley