indiana jones on mars:
opinions on
mike resnick's
in the tombs of the martian kings
as featured in
old mars
report by dylan jeninga

It was crowded in Razzo the Slug’s.

There was no reason why it should be. There were twenty-three ramshackle bars surrounding Marsport, each with a don’t-hear-don’t-tell policy, but for some reason Razzo’s was the one that was always crowded.

    If you want scene-setting, it doesn’t get more concise than that. When we start In the Tombs of the Martian Kings, we know exactly what kind of story we’re stepping into: this is the lawless, guns-drawn world of the space western. The shady cantina is a tradition of the subgenre, dating back to even before Star Wars made it famous, and any long-time consumer of sci fi will feel right at home with a setup like that.

     I enjoy a good space western quite a bit. In my day-to-day, I’d object to shooting anybody, and I’m generally interested in society and the possibilities it creates. But there remains in my soul a man who longs for the freedom and independence space cowboys often defend so fiercely. Combine that with outer space, and I hope the reader will understand why I might have such a dichotomy of interests.

     Resnick’s story, then, had my interest immediately. One criticism one could make of the space western genre generally might be that it often skimps on scene setting, but thankfully Tombs makes no such misstep.

“Has this city we’re heading to got a name?” Scorpio asked the Martian.

“It has had several,” said Quidipai. “In the days of the Krang rulers, it was Melafona. Later, during the Sixth Pleistar Dynasty, it became Bechitil. And its last name, before it was sacked a little over five centuries ago, was Rastipotal.” He sighed. “And today is has no name at all. Even when it appears on maps, it is designated only as the abandoned ruin of a deserted city.”

      Good stuff. Ruined cities, though, are not the usual home of the stellar gunslinger. And indeed, this adventure has an Allan Quatermain flavor, an Indiana-Jones-style plot that takes our heroes to the gates of a long-lost tomb in search of forgotten treasure. It’s a tale Edmund Hamilton might have written, full of blood and thunder, with a C.L. Moore-style protagonist and a Mars as gloomy as Leigh Brackett’s.

     Somehow, though, I’m not quite satisfied at the end. The setting is well drawn, and the adventure is a good one, but it’s the hero that leaves me wanting. His motivation seems to be money, but it's never presented in a way to make him sympathetic. Writing lovable characters is a problem I struggle with, so I certainly hesitate to judge the story too harshly, and I hope the reader won’t get the wrong impression: it remains a good yarn, despite it’s flaws.


     Zendexor, I loved your page on The First Men in the Moon. It’s one of my favorite books, and your analysis was interesting and well entertaining. It stirred in me the urge to read the novel again - certainly the finest praise an article about a work of fiction can achieve!

       Speaking of classic OSS novels, I’ve reread Out of the Silent Planet, this time from a physical book and including the postscript, which my digital copy for some reason lacked. It’s too bad, because I missed something extraordinary.

     Our explorations of Mars have sent some wonderful photographs back to Earth, including, among my favorites, images of Martian sunsets and sunrises, blue like the daytime sky on the our planet, a consequence of the thinner atmosphere of Mars. It’s a gorgeous sight, the sky blazing cyan-white over the red dunes, a scene none dreamed existed until we went and saw it for ourselves, and then we thought “Yes, of course!”

     Or so I thought! Then I came across this passage written by C.S. Lewis, copyright 1938:

     There are two scenes that I wish you could have worked into the book; no matter - they are worked into me. One or the other of them is always before me when I close my eyes.

     In one of them I see the Malacandrian sky at morning; pale blue, so pale that now, when I have grown once more accustomed to terrestrial skies, I think of it as almost white…

     How did Lewis get right when, to my knowledge, no one had predicted it before the probes finally opened up the landscapes of Mars to our eyes? I’ll never guess.  I imagine such insights come with genius, or else the man was incredibly lucky. Whatever it was, it’s a rare phenomenon, a case of modern astronomy vindicating an OSS story, and not disproving it. It allows for me, the modern reader, to appreciate Malacandra in a way Lewis’ contemporaries couldn’t have, because I can take that unlikely scrap of reality and lend its authenticity to the whole of the story, rather than simply appreciate the beauty of it.

     I wonder if there are any other cases of an OSS author getting their facts right, against the odds? Cases of art imitating life, even before life knows it is being imitated?

{Comment from Zendexor: A good question.  I suppose the great canyons revealed by Mariner 9 might be seen as a vindication of the idea of the "handramits".  And the bright blue colour of Neptune as revealed by Voyager 2  is doubtless like that of Hamilton's watery Neptune in Captain Future's Challenge, though the cause of the pigmentation is very different.  Arthur C Clarke once made much of the fact that Iapetus was revealed to have points of similarity with his description of the moon in the novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, though that's hardly an OSS tale.  Readers are invited to chip in with any further ideas.

Regarding The First Men in the Moon, I was enormously relieved to have finally got round to doing that page - the absence from the site of a proper tribute to one of the greatest works in the genre had been pricking my conscience for months.  Unfairly, the best books tend to get taken for granted.}

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