Why Smith & Burroughs
‘…I turned to meet the charge of the infuriated bull ape. He was now too close upon me for the cudgel to prove of any practical assistance, so I merely threw it as heavily as I could at his advancing bulk. It struck him just below the knees, eliciting a howl of pain and rage, and so throwing him off his balance that he lunged full upon me with arms wide stretched to ease his fall.
Again, as on a preceding day, I had recourse to earthly tactics, and swinging my right fist full upon the point of his chin, I followed it with a smashing left to the pit of his stomach. The effect was marvellous, for, as I lightly sidestepped, after delivering the second blow, he reeled and fell upon the floor doubled up with pain and gasping for wind. Leaping over his prostrate body, I seized the cudgel and finished the monster before he could regain his feet.’
A rollicking good story, full of fights, muscles, and bodacious women. It could, however, beset anywhere — Mars, the midwest, the mean streets of Brooklyn. Or in the jungle.
Today I’m looking briefly at Smith and Burroughs, two writers that helped characterise the heroic, swashbuckling adventurer. Which isn’t to say they’re identical — E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith focused a lot more on gadgets and super-science. One character might ask, ‘Gee, Bill, what kind of ray do you think them aliens are using?’- and get a mid-size lecture on wave-particle theory in return. Smith always made sure his studies were quickly followed by a punch up to keep the action flowing.
On the other hand, Edgar Rice Burroughs wasn’t quite so concerned with explaining away his scenarios. The extract above, taken from A Princess of Mars (1912), follows John Carter, a Confederate veteran who happens to wake up on Mars amid a battle between two tribes of red and green aliens. John discovers that the thinner Martian atmosphere has evolved a race of beings unable to compete with him physically, despite their gruesome, looming appearance. So our hunky hero quickly becomes a Martian superman, with the ability to punch and kick his way to the top of the food chain.
Does all sound rather juvenile? Perhaps they are, but for anyone three seasons down on Married at First Sight, I’ll state the obvious. These were light-weight entertainment stories, written to amuse and excite, with drama packed in so fast we’ve no choice but to keep reading. And after rushing through the Doc Smith omnibus in the space of a week, I’d have to agree they do just that.
Yet, it’s also worth noting that both authors went on to have a massive impact on serious SF writers down through the generations. One could almost chart a ripple of authors inspiring authors, spiralling out from these two. The great postmodern fantasist Ray Bradbury mentions Burrough’s Mars as the insight for his own. And Bradbury’s Mars sparked Kim Stanley Robertson’s hard science fiction approach to the red planet. Today we’ve Any Weir’s The Martian, a more 21st-century approach to the age-old subject.
But what exactly is transmitted between these wildly different writers, save for the fact that they’re all set on Mars?
Well, as author Leigh Brackett pointed out, at the 1964 Pacificon convention, it’s the sheer adventure. Brackett talks about how stories such as Burrough’s and Smith’s focused her creativity, giving rise to wild new adventures in her childish play, a self-proclaimed outdoorsy tom-boy. Aspects of these writers are evident in her work, but, like Bradbury, she brings a unique nuance beyond what these early writers had achieved.
In short, they set the fictional landscape before it had become commonplace. A Princess of Mars was published the same year as Tarzan of the Apes (yes, Burroughs invented Tarzan too) and featured in adventure magazine All-Story. Few submissions, however, took place quite so off-world as Burroughs.
Smith had a more challenging time getting started. He wrote the original Skylark way back in 1916 and attempted to publish it in Argosy four years later. The story was rejected for being too far fetched.
The same magazine, mind, published A. Merritt, H. Rider Haggard, Robert W. Chambers and Gertrude Barrows Bennett. All complete fantasies, with works so surreal you’d have to hold onto your hat to keep it from turning into a snake. However, these stories were primarily based on the magical, mythical past and almost always on Earth. They used distorted yet familiar settings from history and folklore. The cigar-shaped rocket that would go on to grace magazines and cinemas wasn’t yet a standard image to readers.
So, it’s safe to say that both Smith and Burroughs were instrumental in giving us the stars. They’d both see continual reprints, with stories called back two decades later for a further rerun in popular science fiction magazines like Astounding. Smith even inspired real-life space initiatives, including the Search Defence Initiative against bomb attacks, stealth fighter jets, human-machine interfaces, and airborne early warning systems.
While not the most couth stories ever set to paper, the works of Smith and Burroughs evoke a romanticism that makes us excited to explore, whether the exterior of space or the interior of our imaginations.
I’m glad to see the spirit of these writers live on, even if they are largely forgotten. A hundred years separate our world from theirs. For one thing, their gender and racial politics are entirely out of date, which sour a lot of plot lines. So, perhaps for the best, we’re unlikely to see a complete revival of any one story without heavy modernising edits.
Science has also changed a lot. While never taken seriously, the Mars of their day could have housed life as yet unknown. The canals of Mars, though perhaps to be the work of an advanced civilisation, we're still mainly in debate when they first took to writing.* Now the adventure is somewhat different — without any real Martians to face, it seems we’re it for the red planet’s future.
However, the adventure continues — whether it’s in the fiction of Andy Weir, the films of Ridley Scott, or the plans of Elon Musk. Smith and Burroughs didn’t start the dream — space travel goes back as far as you want, with the works of Lucian (125–180 AD) whimsically detailing life on the heavenly bodies. They did, however, lend it a brand of romance that’s persisted ever since, colouring our view of the world whether we’re aware of it or not.
*The evidence of any canals has long since been dismissed as an optical illusion due to inaccurate measurements of the Martian surface.
*The evidence of any canals has long since been dismissed, like an optical illusion due to inaccurate measurements of the Martian surface.