Mesdames et messieurs, this will have to be a bilingual page: quotes in French, analysis in English, of the two-volume adventure, Le Prisonnier de la Planète Mars (1908) and La Guerre des Vampires (1909).
Through treachery, an experiment in psychokinesis becomes a means by which the inventor, Robert Darvel, is banished across space by a ruthless colleague. Thus our hero is teleported to Mars in a manner reminiscent of John Carter, albeit with an explanation.
Stid: Don't try it, Zendexor. The claim in this sub-heading won't stand up.
Zendexor: Yet we're given a pretty impressive Mars, as I aim to show -
Stid: I admit that we're talking about a considerable sf achievement here. Le Rouge's Mars adventure is far more impressive than that other pre-Burroughs effort, Edwin Lester Arnold's Lieutenant Gulliver Jones - His Vacation. But - Le Rouge as a rival to ERB? Come on! Think what ERB did. Think of that serenely enduring series of ten books set in a comfortably sprawling medley of Martian cultures. Barsoom (despite its endemic warfare) is a settled society, self-confident and balanced. Compare it with what we get in Le Rouge's work: a well-drawn Mars, true, but it's in a state of oppression, and Darvel's fight against the oppressors make for one linear story. A one-off. The author may rival ERB in his capacity for invention, but not with the same kind of result.
Zendexor: All right, so it's the rivalry of alternatives, rather than of contenders for the same ground. I'd say you're splitting hairs. Besides, it is the differences that make the comparison interesting. For example: the Le Rouge Mars (the LRM, let's call it), peopled though it is by at least three types of intelligence, is a lonelier place than Barsoom.
Darvel's arrival there is evoked with a fullness of beauty, awe and isolation. The modern reader may at first be disappointed at some references to blue "pine-bushes" and to "beech trees", and tremble on the verge of dismissing the work, but that distrust soon changes to a sense that this writer deserves a second chance...
...Cette masse de frondaisons, couleur de sang et couleur d'or et de rouille, éclairée par la magique lueur phosphorscente des deux astres, inspirait un accablant sentiment de somptuosité et de mélancolie. Et, dans cette forêt d'or, les arbres blancs et bleus étaient comme des fantômes agitant tristement leurs bras ou peut-être de jeunes princesses égarées, dont le vent de la nuit faisait doucement voltiger les robes blanches.
Au-dessus de toutes ces choses, un ciel pur, un silence mortel à peine troublé par les rumeurs indécises qui montent des bois et de la terre, et qui peu auparavant avaient tant effrayé Robert, gémissements de la brise dans les rameaux, ou bruits d'ailes, grignotements nocturnes, toute la vie secrète et profonde des lieux sauvages.
Robert contempla longtemps ce magique panorama. Il était ravi d'admiration; le silence et la majesté du paysage le pénetrèrent malgré lui, et il se sentait envahi d'une sorte d'horreur sacrée. Il eût voulu crier bien haut ce qu'il ressentait; mais l'anguoisse le prenait à la gorge. Accablé du sentiment de sa solitude, il regardait fiévreusement autour de lui et il eût donné tout au monde pour trouver à ses côtés un ami, un indifférent, un ennemi même, à qui confier les accablantes et solennelles impressions qu'il ressentait...
The LRM has some Earthlike forms, but nevertheless develops the feel of an alien world. We're presently reassured that the "pine-trees", for example, are not quite pine-trees, merely close equivalents. And a bit later we meet creatures that have no counterpart on Earth.
Geographically as well as biologically, it's a transitional Mars from the point of view of the history of literature. It's a lush Mars, fertile and not particularly dry. Though there are no oceans, there are areas of open water the size of Earth's smaller seas.
...Les mers, surtout dans la partie septentrionale, ne sont guère que des Méditerranée, des Caspienne, des lacs intérieurs ou des détroits, des espèces de Manche, qui mettest en communication les régions envahies par les eaux. On ne trouve dans Mars aucun océan comparable au Pacifique et à l'Atlantique. Seules les mers boréales et australes ont beaucoup de rapport avec les nôtres...
Harlei: Never mind the seas; I want to hear about those specifically Martian life-forms...
Zendexor: We're soon shown that the author means business, as far as Martian zoology is concerned.
Darvel is on a beach when he sees what he thinks is a crowd of worms emerging from the sand around him. Then, terrifyingly, as the "worms" get longer, he finds that they are the tentacle-tips of a single vast creature.
...Le monstre qu'il apercevait dépassait en horreur les plus extravagants cauchemars.
Que l'on se figure l'apparence grossière d'un visage humain qu'on eût façonné dans une gélatine transparente et visqueuse.
Les yeux sans paupières avaient le regard terne et glacial des pieuvres; mais le nez, aux ailes frissonnantes, la bouche énorme, munies de dents noires, avait une expression de férocité mélancolique et de tristesse dédaigneuse...
In short, a frightful mixture of man and octopus; and later we meet the Roomboo, a huge burrower, which
...semblait tenir à la fois de l'insecte, du reptile et de la taupe. La face... ne portait pas trace d'yeux; mais les dents étaient nombreuses et dépassaient la bouche comme des défenses de sanglier. Le nez s'allongeait en trompe et se terminait par un ongle très dur, qui devait rendre l'approche de l'animal fort redoutable...
Stid: As far as inventions go, these are, I grant you, one step up from the "blue bunnies" syndrome - that's to say, they're not just different-coloured versions of Earth animals. Yet are they more than mere hybrids, like those in the bizarre illustrations of Granville? Burroughs at least troubled to invent properly unique creatures...
Zendexor: Depends how you consider them. Burroughs' "apt", for instance, could be regarded as a mere hybrid of mammal and insect (because of the apt's compound eyes). But really - you're right - his stuff is sui generis - the "apt" has become, to us, first and foremost an apt.
Now, Stid, having mentioned Burroughs, it's only fair to add that with regard to the humanoid intelligences of Mars, Le Rouge plumps for a more "alien" approach than does ERB.
After much lonely wandering, Darvel does eventually find some civilized folk. The short, chubby, naive village-dwelling Martians may strike the reader as less human than Burroughs' red men - more like "red children", in fact.
Stid: Not an impressive bunch, to my mind.
Zendexor: They are, perhaps, not very interesting in themselves. Yet they are the cause of greatly interesting adventures for Darvel, because, with a mixture of compassion and cultural arrogance, he sets about improving their lot - and that involves him in a war against the vampiric Erloor, another race of bipeds, but winged.
The ups and downs of this struggle make for suspenseful reading. Darvel's over-confidence (to give it no worse name) is almost his undoing. As evening wears on after he has taught the villagers to cook their food, they gorge themselves ecstatically, unthinkingly, while (as we later see) their enemies are preparing a night attack. Darvel, enjoying his own meal in regal solitude, likewise underestimates the Erloor.
...Au-dehors, il entendait le bruit des Martiens qui faisaient ripaille assis autour du feu et dévorant si gloutonnement qu'il entendait le claquement de leurs mâchoires.
Il se sentait fier comme un roi d'Espagne d'avoir mangé seul; des bouffées d'ambition lui montaient au cerveau.
- Ces bons Martiens! s'écria-t-il, comme je vais leur apprendre des choses! Cette semaine, je vais leur montrer à fabriquer de la poterie...
Darvel's achievement is mixed; he means well, but he brings disaster as well as victory to the simple folk who look up to him.
And that's not the only reason why it's a morally complicated story...
In a stunning plot-development we are presently made aware that there are layers of repression on the Red Planet. Amazingly, the Erloor themselves become to some degree sympathetic, in Darvel's eyes, when he learns where they stand with regard to the really dominant creature on Mars. (Interestingly, in one of those coincidences which help build up the characters of worlds, on both Barsoom and the LRM a centre of oppression is found to lurk in the South Polar region.)
Harlei: What you say about sympathy for the horrid Erloor reminds me a bit of the sympathy David Innes shows to the defeated Mahars of Pellucidar, when they petition him for help against the Korsars.
Zendexor: Yes; give Burroughs credit for a similarly unexpected volte-face. But the example you mention, while intriguing, isn't developed as far as is that of the Erloor and their mountainous nemesis.
Stid: An eye-brow-raising phrase, that! Well then, aren't you going to discuss this ultimate Martian foe?
Zendexor: My aim is to talk round it. That way, I'm not a spoiler. So let me just say, I know of nothing quite like it in literature, though Clark Ashton Smith's Martian ruler in The Planet Entity comes closest. Actually, the theme is, or ought to be, fairly central to the genre; given that OSS Mars is an aged world, it makes sense to imagine that it might contain some awesomely developed, consolidated intelligence. Wells' stomach-less brains and Burroughs' kaldanes are just steps on the way...
Harlei: Meanwhile what about the built environment? Cities, towers, technology...
Zendexor: Read the tale and you'll find there's enough to convince you that the Martians, of one type or another, were no dopes when it came to engineering. A crystal mountain, acting as a mirror to heat a forest... creating a sort of luxuriant Valley Dor by artificial means...
...Il demeura stupéfait d'admiration devant ce chef-d'oeuvre qui ui avait dû coûter des siècles de travail et dont la seule conception supposait les idées les plus grandioses.
Mais le fait était là, indubitable.
Robert Darvel s'expliquait tout, maintenant.
C'était les parois de la montagne qui, en recueillant et en concentrant dans la stupûéfiant vallée les rayons du soleil, créaient ce climat exceptioinnel, auquel contribuaient sans doute d'autres savants dispositifs qu'il ne pouvait encore deviner.
Il demeura pensif.
Ce n'étaient assurément ni ses sujets, ni leurs enemis, les Erloors, qui avaient pu concevoir et exécuter un tel prodige, et il songea avec tristesse que peut-être la race intellectuelle de Mars avait dû s'éteindre depuis des siècles...
The friends of the exiled Darvel are by no means idle, especially after the resourceful explorer succeeds in constructing a light-signalling device by which he transmits the message of his plight back to Earth.
The terrestrial scenes are written with as much vigour as are those which take place on Mars. Set variously in London, India, and Tunisia, the episodes on our world evoke those places satisfyingly; there's nothing perfunctory about them.
However, what makes the whole adventure a revelation about two worlds, rather than just one, is the discovery of invisible monsters on our own planet. This part of the story does not tie in completely with Darvel's exploits, but the structure of the plot remains acceptable.
Stid: Says you. I myself could have done with closer connection.
Zendexor: For my part, I'm comfortable with the tale as it is. It steeps us in such an atmosphere of discovery, it feels quite appropriate that Earth turns out to be, in a sense, as mysterious as Mars. Besides, Stid, you're forgetting the acceptance-field generated by an effective story. Just give in, there's a good chap. Like me. I gave in, regarding the manner of Darvel's return from Mars.
When an author writes well, and sticks to emotional truth, he earns a voucher which he can cash in for the suspension of disbelief.
Especially if it's all happening to people whom we feel we know. Darvel's friends and associates are so well woven into the story, we... or at any rate I... see and "believe" through their eyes.
For comments on the first book see the OSS Diary for 15th October 2016.