March 24, 2012

Stark Lives?

Not Tony Stark – Eric John Stark!  It was the first thing I thought of when I saw this headline on Discovery News.

The picture shows what may be a water ice polar cap on Mercury.  In Brackett’s stories, Eric John  Stark is the child of miners prospecting in the shadowed valleys of the Twilight Belt on Mercury, the region where it’s neither too hot nor too cold for life, and there’s breathable atmosphere in the deep valleys and canyons.

Eric John Stark appeared in the following stories by Brackett:

  • Queen of the Martian Catacombs
    (expanded and reissued as Secret of Sinharat)
  • Enchantress of Venus
  • Black Amazon of Mars
    (altered and reissued as People of the Talisman)
  • The Ginger Star
  • Hounds of Skaith
  • Reavers of Skaith
  • Stark and the Star Kings (Leigh Brackett/ Edmond Hamilton collaboration)

March 23, 2012

Asian Elements of Barsoom


This is all conjecture, as of course I never knew Edgar Rice Burroughs; but I posit that ERB took a lot of his inspiration from Asia in writing his Barsoom stories.  Like any other writer, ERB would have sourced at least some of his ideas from what was going on in the world at his time, so let’s see what the picture was like from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, when Under the Moons of Mars was published:

Rise of Modern Archaeology
The mid-1800s saw a torrent of archaeological works and discoveries, awakening a sense of mankind’s true age and rekindling a sense for the mortality of civilizations – motifs very prominent in the Barsoom stories. 

Valley of the Kings, Egypt

In 1840, Layard was excavating Nineveh; in 1871 Schliemann was excavating Troy; and in 1907, Howard Carter partnered with Lord Carnarvon to dig in the Valley of Kings, which would lead to the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

It’s easy to trace ERB’s fascination with dead cities and lost civilizations to these archaeological efforts, as well as the ‘lost race’ literature spawned by them, such as the works of H. Rider Haggard.  After all, who can resist the vista of ‘a rose-red city, half as old as Time?’

The Princely States of India
This was the time that the princes of Rajputana and other parts of India that had remained under the rule of local potentates were touring the world in style, while at the same time British public figures would often have gone to India themselves.  Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II of Jaipur made waves when he visited England in 1902, bringing the two largest silver objects in the world – to carry his drinking water.

Zitidars: from Dynamite Comics

I’m sure ERB’s ideas for small, warring monarchical city-states was informed as much by the states of India as by Ancient Greece, and the descriptions of pomp – especially of the Martian caravans with their ‘mastodonic zitidars’ are a dead giveaway. 

Also from India, I believe, are ERB’s descriptions of Barsoomian architecture: in particular, the idea that the entire facades of buildings are entirely covered in relief sculpture, such as found in Hindu temples:

The Rajputs and Marathas also sometimes wore two swords, but these swords were usually the same size.  Instead the two swords idea I believe came from Japan.

In 1854, Commodore Matthew C. Perry opened U.S. relations with Japan, helping trigger the Meiji Restoration and the opening of Japan to international trade.  The decades that followed saw a mania of japanoiserie sweeping the west, with the first photographs from Japan appearing in books and periodicals.

Hand-tinted samurai photo, c.1850s

It is here where I think Burroughs got his ideas for the wearing of two swords, one long and one short, and the code of honor requiring a warrior to meet his opponent with an equal or lesser weapon (something which by the way I had hoped to see in the movie, but didn’t).

America Acquires the Philippines
By a shrewd piece of double-dealing, the Spanish government – already losing the Philippines to a popular revolution – sold the islands to the United States after their defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Immediately the Americans found themselves dealing with the same problems the Spaniards had – including the feared Iranun and Sulu pirates.  Striking from hidden, fortified bases – sometimes in incredibly picturesque locations that are now tourist destinations! – these raiders terrorized locals and expatriates alike with their propensity for taking slaves. 

From this, I believe, ERB took his ideas for Black Pirate culture, the hidden Black Pirate base in Omean, and to me the title of the Black Pirate princes – Dator – is a dead giveaway, pointing to the Malay word datu

This last connection struck me only yesterday, as I was re-reading Gods of Mars.  Having left my battered old physical copy in Manila, I was reading from the Gutenberg Australia archive, when a trick of pagination, or perhaps my mind just skipped something, rendered Dator Xodar as Dato Xodar to my eye.  Dato?!  It was when that element clicked that I got the yen to write this article.

I find it really cool that, for all its escapist pleasures, the Barsoom stories were also a mirror of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ times and the world as he saw it.

March 15, 2012

John Carter of Mars: a Retrospective

History repeats itself.  In 1912, All-Story Magazine ran a serial entitled Under the Moons of Mars by a certain Norman Bean. 


Norman Bean was the pen name of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was so unsure of his reception, and afraid his career would suffer from negative criticism of something so outlandishly different, that he felt he had to adopt this punning nom de plume – ‘normal bean,’ that is, ‘there’s nothing wrong with my head.’

Under the Moons of Mars was to be republished, with a missing chapter that added depth and sympathy to the story (Sola Tells Her Story), in 1917 as A Princess of Mars, and under Burroughs’ real name.  And science fiction, just beginning to totter onto its feet  like a new-hatched Thark, got a fire lit under its – well, that burns to this day.

Fast forward to 2012, and Disney did the exact same thing.  In 2007, after several aborted attempts to produce a movie based on the novel, Disney acquired the film rights.  This year, on the centennial of the original story’s publication, it was finally released.

As John Carter.  No Mars.  No Princess

Not even a nod to Edgar Rice Burroughs, or the debt that the entire Star Wars saga, or Flash Gordon, or Avatar, or any number of other popular franchises based on the pulps, owe it.  Of course we fans were going to watch it – but how many moviegoers nowadays have read anything by ERB? And so once again, a work that could be a classic gets dismissed by normal beans.  Disney should pay us fans for identifying the good points of this movie and telling the world how much fun we had with it!

Trust your inner kid.  He, or she, knows what good stuff is. This is what my inner kid liked from the movie:


Dejah Thoris
Um, wait, maybe it’s not exactly my inner kid that likes this character so much … But kidding aside, the movie not only takes the character of Dejah Thoris quite faithfully from the book – the royal daughter of Helium’s jeddak (emperor), and a scientist – it really plays up on her being a strong-willed, noble-minded lady, willing to sacrifice all for her people.  And she kicks ass (which she does in the books, but it’s overshadowed by ERB’s overuse of the damsel in distress plot). 

I really liked that the creative team gave her her own distinctive sword-fighting style.  I’d even say that, just as Peter Jackson improved the roles of Merry and Pippin in the LOTR movies, JCM director Andrew Stanton improved and updated the role of Dejah Thoris very nicely.   


The Green Men
Thanks to the advances in CGI, it was finally possible to depict ERB’s vision of the green men – one of the most iconic denizens of his fantasy Mars – as he described them.  They tower over the humans, their four arms are beautifully coordinated, and the animators outdid themselves I think in making both pairs look useful. 

I was hoping the movie would do more with Green Man culture, though: that the name Dotar Sojat come from the first two Tharks John Carter kills, as in the books, that they deliberately bred all the tenderer emotions out of themselves, and how much of a break with tradition it was for Tars Tarkas to even know Sola was his daughter, much less treat her differently because of it.  I personally found the latter two elements underplayed in the movie.

That said, the hatchery scene was fantastic – the four-armed green tykes were hilariously cute, and it did reveal a lot about the green men when Tars Tarkas ordered the unhatched eggs destroyed.


The Flyers
I’ll have to say I was rather put off at first by the first sight of the flyers – there was no indication they were buoyed up by tanks, like the dirigibles ERB based them on, and ERB explicitly described them as propelled by rotors, again something the movie departed from.  But. 


The flyers did have this wonderful steampunk/Final Fantasy vibe to them.  And, another plus for me, the design looks suitably alien – reinforcing the idea that all this action isn’t happening on Earth.  Seeing them in flight gave me the same feeling I had when I first saw Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder skimming across Tatooine back in 1977, and of course the speeder bikes in Return of the Jedi. 


The Architecture
I really have to give kudos to the production designers for their interpretation of Barsoomian architecture and architectural details.  The dead cities blended really well into the rocky desert environments, and the echoes of Persepolis and what looked like Egyptian and Khmer touches gave the cities a good feeling of antiquity.  The romantic theme of lost cities was one that ERB would play on repeatedly in his novels, as it was also around this time that archaeologists were beginning to unearth the majestic ruins of Asia and Mesoamerica.


Therns on Earth
Acquaintances of mine will probably not be surprised that I like this departure from the ERB canon, since I’ve always been one of those who favored a Martian link to ancient Earth as a story idea.  It’s much more interesting than the very deus ex machina way that Carter gets transported to Mars and back in the books, and provides a hook for possible sequels and spinoffs. Since I get high on red dust, more Barsoom = more better!

I also like the depiction of the Therns as a sinister order possessing hyper-advanced disguising technology, as it  adds to the potential of using them in more stories.  On the downside, though, I wonder now how they’ll work in the Black Pirates of Dor, the Sea of Korus, and the end of the Issus cult.  While Issus is worshipped by all Barsoomians in the books, in the movie it’s made to seem that only the greens do, while the reds don’t.


Thoats and Apes and Calots!
Again, kudos to the artists and animators for the great creature designs.  I specially liked the twist on the white apes, making them blind, and, IIRC, even bigger than in the books. The thoats were done exactly as described in the books, to my great surprise and pleasure.

However: I think Woola was clumsily handled.  Make no mistake – the movie faithfully depicts the calot as the fastest runner on Mars, as ERB describes it.  As one who’s read the books, I knew that; but my wife had to ask me about Woola’s running.  They should’ve had Sola or Sarkoja warn Carter not to try running away from ‘the fastest creature on Barsoom’ or something like that to establish the expectation of Woola’s abilities.


Harness and Weapons
I was wondering how the movie team would interpret ERB’s concept of the Barsoomian harness.  The depiction of Martian costume in the 1970s Marvel adaptation was unsatisfying, as it showed the male characters solely in g-strings and shoulder cross-belts, and the women in brass bikinis; again, kudos to the Disney artists for breaking out of that box, and yet still getting the feel right.  The armor even looks plausibly practical, given that the Martians have firearms but also fight with rather heavy-looking blades: there’s protection for shoulders and the chest, bracers for parrying, and helmets, but the whole optimized for agile movement.

The swords though are again quite a departure from Burroughs’ descriptions – which however were inconsistent.  In some books he would describe the Barsoomian longsword as being like a saber, with a slim curved blade, and in others ‘long and with a needle point’ which to my mind conjured images of a rapier.  Perhaps influenced by 300, Oliver Stone’s Alexander, LOTR and other recent sword films, Disney’s designers made the swords in JCM look like long versions of the Spartan kopis crossbred with Southeast Asian blade and hilt designs. 

I found John Carter of Mars, despite its departures from the books, to be a fun and solidly worthy adaptation.  The story was simple, as pulp stories should be, with good old-fashioned, two-fisted heroes, modern heroines (Sola and Dejah Thoris both), and a satisfying conclusion.  Yes, they could’ve stuck closer to the original story, but I’m a realist: Hollywood is run by corporations, and corporations will always do creation-by-committee.

But just as the romance of the books is ERB’s ability to enmesh us in his visualization of an alien world and its civilizations, so John Carter the movie entrances with its look, bringing back the sense of wonder that was the whole point of the series.

Here’s hoping this will inspire a revival of interest in the sword and planet genre.  Kaor! 

March 11, 2012

Radium Demons of Mars: an Adventure

With the release of John Carter stirring up the fascination for sword and planet goodness again, I’m thinking quite a few of you are raring to run or play in an S&P adventure.  So here’s my celebration of the movie’s triumphant reception, a free systemless adventure set on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom.  Feel free to edit, add details, adapt it to whatever system you like, or even transpose it to a different setting.

The city of Valzor seems to have disappeared; lately all caravans and merchant fliers expected from it have been failing to arrive, nor have attempts at long-distance communications been answered.  Your city’s merchant guild has decided to send a team to investigate – and because this is Mars, a dying world, to salvage whatever you can!

Player Characters:
This adventure will work with characters who are resident of the home base city – it can be Helium or any of the other cities mentioned in the series, or a new one of your invention – or unemployed panthans who can be hired by the merchant’s guild.

Act I: Devastation
When the player characters reach Valzor, they will find it a smoking, empty ruin: there are no survivors in sight, but there are signs of a terrible battle.  As the PCs go through the ruins, however, a band of green men attack!

These green men, however, are not green, but a pallid gray all over, and their normally red eyes are instead a dead white.  They are also more than 20 feet tall, instead of just 12-15 feet. Nothing short of decapitation or total destruction of their brain pans – such as by exploding radium bullet – will stop them.

Possible outcomes of this encounter:

  • The PCs escape;
  • The PCs are captured;
  • TPK – this is a pulp adventure, so unless the players are playing really badly, this should not happen, but instead just have them be captured

Act II: the Immortalizer Ray
If the players are on their toes, they should realize that pallid gray green men 20’ tall are not a common thing at all, and want to investigate. 

The easiest way to do so is to find some way to follow their attackers from Act I without being detected.  Other means are possible, for example finding other settlements that have been destroyed by these monsters, and triangulating the center of disturbance.

Another possibility would be for someone in the party to realize that the mutated green men could be the result of radium over-exposure, and then recall that in ancient times there were radium mines in the Abreas Mountains not too far away.  Or, they could find a hidden survivor in Valzor, who gives them this clue.

However they find the information, the clues point to the ancient radium mines in the Abreas Mountains. Again, if they can make it here without detection – there will be sentinels posted in hiding on the mountainside – they will find the mines are again active, with human slaves going in and out of the mines to a heavily fortified green man encampment in the foothills.

At the center of the encampment is a huge tent that periodically glows with energy – so much that the opaque thoat hide covering it glows!  Within the tent is the Immortalizer Ray, a radium-powered mutagenic device that can turn living creatures into powerful albino zombies. 

If they investigate further, they may also learn that most of the camp’s mutated warriors and the Immortalizer Ray machine will be sent on a raid upon the hatchery of another green man tribe, the Wathiq.  (The mutants are members of what used to be the Zeronn tribe.)  If successful, the raid will give the mutant tribe a huge number of new members!  But at the same time, it will weaken the defenses here …

Act III: Swords Against Radium!
The thrilling climax!  A big-bam-boom battle in true Barsoomian style! What actually happens in this last act is very much up to the players, but here are some ideas:

  • Recruit the Wathiq Horde:
    It may be possible to recruit the Wathiq Horde and bring them to defend their hatchery.  A full horde of green men with their radium rifles may just be enough to turn the tide, and give a chance to destroy the machine.

  • Sabotage the Immortalizer:
    Another possibility is to sneak in and sabotage the Immortalizer machine so it blows up when next used.  This could be combined with an attempt to free the slaves and get them to revolt as a diversion.

  • Use the Immortalizer:
    This is rather like taking the One Ring and putting it on yourself, but … if the Boromirs win in the planning, your players just might do this.  If the ray’s discoverer – a mad red man scientist – can be persuaded, or the secret gotten out of him, the ray can be used on some PC and NPC heroes to turn them into supermen (or women!). 

  • Call the Air Force:
    Another option – though this should be made very difficult, as it may take time to go back and recruit some friendly city’s aerial navy – is to get some war flyers in and bomb the machine’s location.  This can be played as a race against time, to reach a friendly city, convince its ruler to help, then find the camp or marching line of the Zeronn and attack before they can start working on the hatchery.  If they reach the hatchery, the hatchlings will be put through the machine as rapidly as it can be operated, producing enormous numbers of ‘radium demons’ all capable of wielding a mature green man’s sword, lance, or radium rifle.

Secret of the Immortalizer Ray
The immortalizer ray was discovered by the mad red scientist Vor Raxos, and it was he who conceived of using it to create an army of mutated super-creatures.  The machine, found in the ruins of an Orovar city, was originally built to cure disease – probably cancer – but a malfunction while Vor Raxos was experimenting with it caused it to have its current effect. 

Bathing a living creature under the Immortalizer’s rays has the following effects:

  • The subject grows by 25-30%; if juvenile, maturation is also accelerated;

  • The subject acquires great physical strength and stamina, in proportion with its size increase and a bit more;

  • The subject retains its memories and basic mind-set, but also becomes more aggressive;

  • The subject’s life span is gravely reduced; a red man that could live to a thousand years normally will die within four or five years after exposure to the ray;

  • The ray’s effects may be reversible, but current Barsoomian science will not suffice; perhaps the machine may be re-tooled to do this, or perhaps a trip to the Orovar city where the machine was found will reveal a solution.

Vor Raxos, Mad Scientist
Vor Raxos was a Zodangan scientist who lost his family to John Carter’s attack on Zodanga.  His great hate however is focused on the green men of the Thark Horde, Tars Tarkas in particular, because his only son was killed in battle by Tars Tarkas. 

This is why Vor Raxos is using his ray on green men: not only are they providing him a powerful army hostile to Helium and the Tharks, the inexorably destructive nature of the ray satisfies his sadistic hate of the green race.

Vor Raxos is not only talented in understanding and repairing Orovar technology, he is also a cunning manipulator and a perceptive telepath, easily able to read the thoughts of almost anyone he can lock gazes with; he uses this ability to find out what others want and play to their fears and desires so he can get his way.  This was how he was able to make the  jeddak of the Zeronns take him in and help him with his plans.

Bal Shanga, Jeddak of the Zeronn
Bal Shanga is the ruler of the Zeronn Horde, a savagely ambitious but not very wise chieftain who dreams of supremacy over other green hordes – specially Thark, since Tars Tarkas once shamed him in battle.  He plans to use Vor Raxos until he has learned how to operate the Immortalizer Ray machine himself, and then he will get rid of the hated red scientist. 

Vor Raxos is aware of this, though, and has made sure that Bal Shanga never finds out how the ray is used.  As added insurance, Vor Raxos is also grooming another chieftain, Dak Zor, to take over Bal Shanga’s place when the time is ripe.

March 8, 2012

How Ping Pong Killed My Initiative Roll

Ping pong has always been one of my preferred sports, because of the fast action and the fact that I could play it at home (until we moved this January).  It was while playing it that I got my epiphany concerning the initiative roll and why I didn’t need one anymore.

Watch the game video and note how the players flow very smoothly between attack and defense, and how timing is so crucial to their play.  That’s what led to my insight: a large part of your skill is manifested in your timing.  Did your attack get through? It’s because your opponent didn’t parry in time!

When the combat rolls are separated into the traditional sequence – Initiative > Attack > Damage, that sense of timing being vital is lost.  Yes, you have initiative and you want to boost it, but that’s already been done for you at character creation. 

So I thought, what if I just chucked the initiative roll, and made the attack roll opposed?  It’s been working for me ever since, and it really does make the game faster.  I believe it also helps keep the players on their toes, because they know their results don’t depend on a static number but instead on the relationship between their rolls and their opponent’s.

March 1, 2012

Excerpt from Black Titan of Gaikand

An excerpt from a work in progress.  I’ve been craving samosas since this morning, and it seems that craving made its way into my story!  Mustard oil is used for frying samosas in India.

The gates boomed, splinters flying inward, shaking the cedar beams the defenders had set to brace them.

Orhan ventured to look down from an arrow slit atop the barbican, and saw the elephants being urged back for another charge.  Two were left dead on the road, their bodies almost hidden by the spears and arrows stuck in them.  The enemy was being profligate with his living battering rams, but he did have six hundred to spend.  The bodies of many soldiers were also strewn on the ground, as the elephants now carried climbing teams as well.  They'd been fighting them off the ramparts all morning.

"Ready the oil!" he ordered.  "Make sure it's hot!"

"This is the last of the oil, Lord Orhan!" cried the officer in charge of it. 

"Then make it count, Havildar!  Let's fry some elephants!"

"This'll smell good, for once," the officer gave a bristling grin.  "It's mustard oil.  What we fry savories in."  He looked over the wall to check if his targets were in range, then cried out, slumping in a heap.  Orhan saw he had an arrow in the eye.

Sword and Silk: Antero Cycle & Seer King

I forgot to mention in my list of Sword and Silk inspirations and talking points the Antero Cycle by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch, specifically The Far Kingdoms and Kingdoms of the Night, and the Seer King trilogy (Seer King, Demon King, Warrior King).

The Far Kingdoms
Bunch used his experiences in Asia, while serving during the Vietnam War, to good effect in bringing color and a totally different feel to his milieu.  The Antero cycle is refreshing in its shying away from the typical Medieval Western Europe flavor, instead going more for Renaissance and Asian inspirations.

The protagonist, Amalric Antero, feels modeled on Marco Polo, and his home city of Orissa – taking a real Indian place name – is like a mishmash of Venice, Classical Athens, and, yes, Bombay, great trade centers all. Bunch also brings to vivid life mysterious jungle locales, taps into the were-crocodile theme found in both Thai and Philippine (and probably Vietnamese and Cambodian) folklore, and evokes the Silk Road with episodes of caravan travel through desert and encounters with nomad bandits. 

Magic is also satisfyingly sinister, and the authors used the ideas of sympathetic magic to good effect in narrating how the magic was effected.  This is borderline Sword and Silk to me, by the definition I posited in my earlier post, because magic is available to the heroes and they use it quite freely.  The dark side of magic however comes from this very lack of limits, as it shows how easily it can be misused and how tempting absolute power can be. 

Seer King Trilogy
In Seer King, the first book of the series, Bunch deftly weaves two, or perhaps three, great historical inspirations into a riveting tale of war, magic and intrigue. 

The first thread is based on the Anglo-Afghan Wars, specifically the Second. Damastes, the main protagonist, starts as an officer assigned to a border outpost and then as escort to a doomed diplomatic mission.  Despite their efforts, enemies manage to incite the population against them, and the embassy is destroyed by a fanatical mob, after which they are pursued through snowy mountain passes by the highland tribes.

The second thread is based apparently on the careers of Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte, as Tenedos, the sorcerer who had been sent as emissary, schemes his way to come out on top during a period of political chaos and get himself made dictator. 

Again, the setting is vividly Asian in inspiration, and recalls to mind the stories of Lamb and Mundy and, of course, Howard’s El Borak.  Bunch again makes use of the ideas of sympathetic magic as a narrative tool, and again it’s temptation that makes the magic sinister in nature. 

The story however is written from a viewpoint that more closely mirrors that of the British during the Anglo-Afghan Wars.  This did not detract a whit from my enjoyment of the book and its sequels, but I do have to point out that, from the viewpoint of one searching for Sword and Silk examples, this viewpoint puts it on the fringe of our specs rather than solidly inside.  If you enjoy gritty fantasy adventure with a touch of darkness and sex, though, this is a great read.

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