Tag Archives: Vie extraterrestre Romans nouvelles etc

The Gods of Xuma

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gods of Xuma, or Barsoom Revisited [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by David J Lake.

Lake The Gods of Xuma

The Gods of Xuma is a mildly metafictional take on Burroughs’ Barsoom, framed by a “harder” SF scenario of attempted 24th-century emigration from the solar system. Instead of being the nearest planet in our system, as Barsoom was, Xuma is in the nearest star system that has an Earth-like planet. The explorers have read the old Barsoom stories, and they are intrigued by the arid planet with a canal-based civilization. The protagonist is the crew’s linguist Tom Carson (note the shared meter and assonance with “John Carter”), who is the first to land on the planet and engage the natives.

In an interesting counter, Carson is not given low-gravity superpowers by the below-Earth gravity of Xuma, because he (like all healthy surviving humans) has actually grown up in even lower gravity among the human settlements on the Moon and Mars. What the humans do have is excessive military technology. The Xuman natives, while suspiciously advanced with respect to cultural continuity and general sciences, have no automated transport or weaponry beyond a medieval standard. But the humans barge in with beam weapons, tanks, and orbital barrages. Thus the star-faring humans are mistaken, first by the natives, and later by themselves, for “The Gods of Xuma.”

Communications between the humans and Xumans are established quickly and easily, although without any cross-species telepathy or magical translation. Although superficially quite humanoid, the Xumans have a very different developmental and sexual cycle, which produces real but not insurmountable cultural distances from the explorers. The book does not shirk from an account of the first sexual encounter between humans and Xumans, along with the subsequent developments of this possibility.

The human characters are reasonably fallible, sometimes verging on pathetic, and the Xumans are a little incredibly benevolent. On the whole, the book is a pretty effective anti-imperialist fable. It has a sequel (Warlords of Xuma), but it doesn’t cry out for one.

Transit to Scorpio

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Transit to Scorpio [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Alan Burt Akers, part of the Dray Prescot series.

Akers Transit to Scorpio

Transit to Scorpio is the first of dozens of sword-and-planet novels by Alan Burt Akers (nom de plume of Kenneth Bulmer) set on the planet Kregen in the binary star-system of Antares (Alpha Scorpii). The scorpion figures as a symbol and a portent throughout the story, beginning with the death of the hero’s father from a scorpion sting.

The book is certainly better than some Burroughs pastiche I’ve read, although it keeps rather rigorously to the formula. Akers makes his alien princess a cripple at the her first meeting with the protagonist, which is an interesting choice. As in other sword-and-planet milieus, manipulations by superhuman agents are responsible for the narrator’s travels between Earth and Kregen. In this case, they are called the “Star Lords,” and their attributes and motives are left entirely unspecified. 

There’s an overt allusion to John Norman’s Gor books, in the form of a continent called Gah that is reported to host gender relations of the Gorean type. But that’s just peripheral detail, in this volume anyhow. The issue of slavery is addressed squarely, though. Unlike Norman’s late 20th-century academic Tarl Cabot who has never encountered slavery on Earth, Bulmer’s hero Dray Prescot is from 18th-century Earth, and learned to buckle his swashes in a nautical career. He is familiar with the mercantile slave industry, and antagonistic to it. (Note the repeating meter of “John Carter” in the names of the heroes. No other is permitted!) His initial aversion to lethal violence fades quickly in the course of the story. 

On the whole, the book was a quick and pleasant read. The prose is palatable, with a little bit of affectation that seems to suit the narrating character’s 18th-century origins, and the occasional seeming-anachronism stemming from the fact that he has returned to Earth periodically, well into the 20th century. The scorpion omen and some avian signs seem to be related to the Star Lords, but that whole dimension is left opaque, and it is clear that Bulmer intended this to be the first of many linked novels. I’ll probably read more from this series.

Men, Martians and Machines

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Men, Martians and Machines [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Eric Frank Russell.

Russell Men Martians and Machines

This slender 1950s sf volume (my copy is from 1965) contains an introductory short story regarding the “emergency pilot” Jay Score, and then a series of three novellas about the extrasolar voyages of the spaceship Marathon. All are told in the voice of Sarge, a sergeant-at-arms for space-going vessels. Even in the opening pages, there’s some suspect attention given to racial difference, implying that the “Negro” humans who are given medical duties are as different from “white Terrestrials” as are the many-tentacled and alien-brained Martians who are another part of the crew.

Each novella introduces a new exoplanet, and the encounters with indigenous intelligences are all ultimately hostile. Captain McNulty’s perennial caution about harming natives gets mild scorn from Sarge. The whole thing has a sort of “boys’ adventure” feel to it, with lots of “thrilling” violence and “good-natured” grumbling banter.

These tales offer nothing like sexual impulse or even identity for their characters. The “mixed” crew doesn’t include women. Everyone of whatever species on the Marathon uses masculine pronouns, and the details of Martian sexuality aren’t given even the consideration of a passing enigma. Nor does any notion of gender or sexuality arise in considering the newly-encountered creatures of distant worlds.

The Martians are notable for being near-delirious chess enthusiasts, to the extent that they are never not thinking about the game–while their peculiar mental constitutions allow them to direct their attentions simultaneously for other tasks. I wonder if Russell was cued by Edgar Rice Burroughs to make chess an essential part of the Martian culture.

It almost goes without saying that there’s no technological speculation of current interest in this book, and there are a few mild clunkers–most notably the primitive approach to photography. It was not a read I’d counsel anyone to seek out for pleasure or enlightenment, although it was hardly a heavy lift.