Lin Carter, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George R.R. Martin and the Fantasy Dilemma

It’s difficult to express why I like ‘Jandar of Callisto’ It’s obviously not a very good book: an unashamed pastiche of Edgar Rice Burroughs ‘Princess of Mars’, with poor or variable writing at times, unconvincing characters and some awkward dialogue. Perhaps the best way to express this is by comparison with Burroughs himself and a modern fantasy ‘A Clash of Kings’ by George R R Martin.

First a quick plot summary – although if you’ve read ‘A Princess of Mars’ by Burroughs you hardly need look at the following paragraph.

Jonathan Dark is a helicopter pilot, forced down in the jungles of Cambodia, where he discovers the ancient city Arangkhôr. He slides into a mysterious well and teleports to another world – the Jovian moon, Callisto, is enslaved by the Yathoon, a race of intelligent insectoids and rescues, albeit briefly, the princess Darloona of Shondakar. A naughty Sky Pirate steals the princess and a few adventures follow.

The faults – well Burroughs was a far better story teller and this is effectively a specific Burroughs yarn. The dialogue between characters is utterly unconvincing and where Carter injects his own voice and reasoning and ideas – i.e. where he goes away from Burroughs – his innovations fail. The hero of ‘A Princess of Mars’ does make stupid mistakes but he is a hero; invincible, a master swordsman, an arrogant egotist, principled and brave, and he would never hit a woman. Jandar, unfortunately, resembles another character of Burroughs, Carson of Venus, who has been criticised by Burrough’s fans for being, well, a bit like Jandar of Callisto who bumbles insipidly from adventure to adventure being helped out by unlikely friends and, who most damning of all, punches the princess.

It’s clear that Carter wanted to write a Burroughs yarn and during the writing tried to inject a ‘little’ more realism into the equation. Unfortunately the psychological motor for this kind of story is not realism – it’s simply about making the setting realistic enough so that the hero can do heroic things. It is an utter requirement that the hero beats all odds the princess is the most beautiful in the universe and the hero eventually sweeps her off to the bedroom.

The good bits: Well, it was a bit like Burroughs – the setting and descriptions were good, the narrator gives it the right fantastical feel; it was simple and easily read. Some of the characters were well drawn in a simplistic way and there were very few of them. Interestingly the description of the discovery and entrance to the mysterious well are perhaps the best drawn and most ‘literate’ – very reminiscent of R E Howard. The description of flight and flying machines, clearly drawn from experience, was as convincing as the jungles of both worlds.

I just read ‘A Clash of Kings’ by George R R Martin – well written, tightly plotted, peopled with deep and well drawn characters, almost mathematical in its precision, realistic in its descriptions – To be honest I was a bit bored for a few reasons. Firstly, it was too complex; secondly it was too realistic – to close to the medieval in its portrayal – and damningly for me, constantly filled with the introspections of the characters. The classic failing of most modern fantasy is this introspective nonsense where characters are given a chance to say how they feel and what they think. This fails largely because the characters think in modern terms – terms alien to the fantasy worlds to which they have been condemned – and it also fails because epic fantasies are about events not thoughts. Now ‘Jandar of Callisto’ is not particularly an epic – although that could be argued, as transportation to an alien planet is a fairly epic event – but ‘Clash of Kings’ is one of a series of books purporting to be epic. It would perhaps become an epic if Martin removed the entire internal dialogue.

Carter makes none of these mistakes – the book is short, readable; there are only a few main characters, Jander thinks about things but then he’s the narrator. For an hour or so you’re carried off to a strange planet and seeking out the heroine with the panting breasts. In short, you’re an adolescent and that’s where the best fantasy lies.