Secret Library

Michael Moorcock’s Planetary Romances: City of the Beast

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys the first of Michael Moorcock’s pulp science fantasy novels in his ‘Kane of Old Mars’ trilogy

It was Edgar Rice Burroughs who started it all: the vogue for bestselling adventure novels set on other planets, with an intrepid hero and plenty of fantastical monsters and villains to face and, ultimately, vanquish. In the wake of Burroughs’ hugely popular and influential series of books set on Mars, known as the ‘Barsoom’ books and featuring his adventure hero John Carter, many popular writers turned their hands to the ‘planetary romance’ in the Burroughs vein, from Leigh Brackett (whose stories featuring Eric John Stark in adventures set on both Venus and Mars are hard to track down, but worth it) to John Wyndham to Isaac Asimov to Michael Moorcock – whose trilogy of Michael Kane novels are unabashed pastiches of Burroughs’ Barsoom novels.

In fact, even Burroughs was standing on the shoulders of other writers. There had been planetary romances set elsewhere in our own solar system before the Tarzan creator unleashed the first John Carter of Mars book, A Princess of Mars, on readers in 1912: George Griffith’s 1890s Stories of Other Worlds is just one example of earlier adventure tales set on the Red Planet, and Griffith’s newlywed travellers actually visited many of the planets in the solar system in the course of their adventures. Burroughs’ contribution was to take the existing template for the adventure novel – particularly the imperial romance, most famously exemplified by H. Rider Haggard’s bestselling novels, such as She and King Solomon’s Mines – and combine it with another genre or subgenre, the planetary romance. After all, if the continent of Africa was exotic and far-flung for most British and American readers, just think how exciting and alluring the landscape of another planet could be!

Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars novels were pure escapism: adventure for its own sake. They’re unashamedly male wish-fulfilment fantasy, and therein lies both their appeal and their limitation. Discerning readers, even of popular fiction, don’t like their dreams to come true too easily, and Burroughs’ stories are high on action and plot and less strong on psychological depth or emotional complexity. The rather unremarkable male hero is the reader’s locum in the adventure, so the (usually male) reader can experience the thrills of exploring exotic landscapes, battling and overcoming fearsome monsters, and getting the girl all vicariously through John Carter. But even though the stakes are high, we are never encouraged to care particularly about this. We don’t feel what’s at stake so much as acknowledge it.

The same is true of Michael Moorcock’s City of the Beast, the first of a trilogy of short science fantasy novels Moorcock churned out in the mid-1960s featuring his John Carter, the American scientist Michael Kane, a tall, musclebound hero who is able – thanks to new technological experimentation – to travel to Mars, but the Mars that existed thousands if not millions of years ago, when the planet was host to a great civilisation (the people – and they are clearly human like us – who inhabited this ancient Martian civilisation subsequently upped sticks and moved to Earth). This is Moorcock’s version of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, inventing a mythical past for humanity that, for Howard, slipped between the cracks, between the sinking of Atlantis and the dawn of recorded history several thousand years ago. I’ve blogged before about Moorcock’s ability to write a book in a matter of days, and it’s easy to see how such a feat was achieved in the case of City of the Beast (originally published in the US under the alternative title Warriors of Mars; the wonderful New English Library paperback I own is from 1971, and gloriously bibliosmic).

City of the Beast is a more polished effort than Burroughs’ earlier rough tales, but this is essentially because Moorcock learned so much from Burroughs and simply tweaked the formula here and there. Although City of the Beast is essentially a pastiche of, or tribute to, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series, it is great fun and worth reading whether or not you’ve read Burroughs’ original novellas. It’s undemanding stuff: once Michael Kane has arrived on aeons-old Mars, he promptly falls head over heels in love with the first girl he meets (Shizala), visits the city of Varnal where Shizala lives, learns how to communicate (via a sort of telepathic machine) with Shizala and her people in their own language, and rapidly becomes involved in their fight against the Blue Giants. In the fast-moving adventure tale that unfolds, we get flying machines, exotic cities, and fights aplenty. Whether Kane gets the girl and helps repel the enemy I won’t reveal here, but you can probably guess the kind of story this is. Having said that, it’s worth mentioning that the novel opens with Kane recounting his adventures to another man on Earth, and that this is only the first novel in a trilogy…

Moorcock was apparently paid $700 in 1965 for all three Michael Kane books: City of the Beast and the follow-up Lord of the Spiders and Masters of the Pit, all of which initially appeared in the US under different, more Burroughs-esque titles. He took nine days to write the whole trilogy: three days per book, as in his famous writing regimen. They are pure pulp, from start to finish. Yet they were among Moorcock’s most popular books for a long while, and remained his father’s favourites among his son’s books until the day Moorcock Senior died. Are they escapist fantasy? Yes, and lacking the interesting exploration of the opposition between Law and Chaos we get in Moorcock’s other popular fantasy novels, from Dorian Hawkmoon to Elric to Corum. But still good fun, and perfect ‘Saturday matinee of the mind’ fare.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

6 Comments

  1. Thanks for the enlightening post. The speed at which Mr Moorcock produced the trilogy is in itself reminiscent of science fiction. As I stand before the shelves of bookshops in departure terminals of airports, I wonder how many Moorcocks adorn those cubicles nowadays.

  2. Speaking for MM (see my page) The novels were written in about eight days in all — i.e. 3 for the first two and 2 for the last. Normal office hours. I was paid Lancer’s then standard advance of $750 a book. This went up to $1000 for the first two Elric books and 1500 for the Hawkmoons. All to Larry Shaw at Lancer. All were written in 3 days each, except the Elrics which were written for magazines at different times. The Mars trilogy was also a bit of an amiable parody. I tried to have my John Carter figure act according to his stated Code of a Gentleman of Virginia, which involves the odd hard decision! Gave me a good insight and respect for that simple but effective technique. Sharp review. Thanks.

    • Terrific – many thanks for the comment, and the clarifications. It’s always astounded me that a remarkable quartet of novels like the Hawkmoons/Runestaff was completed in just 12 days! (Albeit with considerable planning/notes before the actual writing starts.) The Mars trilogy was great fun to read, both as Burroughs parody and as standalone adventure fiction (I hadn’t read John Carter of Mars before I read Kane of Old Mars, so it was nice going to Burroughs afterwards and seeing what had been borrowed and transformed!)

  3. Cheers! It’s a great site, by the way. Very much to my own taste.

  4. “Saturday matinee of the mind’ fare” – this is a brilliant description and should be adopted as the official phrase to describe this genre and quality of writing! Fascinating stuff as always!