Thursday, November 20, 2014

Faces of Mars


On Google+ the other day, Evan Elkins sparked a conversation about the portrayals of Mars in the works of Clark Ashton Smith, CL Moore, and Leigh Brackett. While there are a lot of differences between their future red planets, they start from a Barsoom base and had an ingredient ERB never utilized: colonialism. Not that it was a particularly glaring oversight for Burroughs to ignore it; his earth folk on Mars were never numerous and trickled in one at a time. These three, though, developed there respective Mars into something less fairy tale or Gulliverian travelogue and so they had it--but they dealt with it differently.

In Smith's Mars stories ("The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis," "The Dweller in the Gulf," "Vulthoom") have colonialism merely as a background. The native Martian aihai are largely just set dressing. They act as bearers or as guides for the earthling archeologists and treasure-seekers that are the protagonists of Smith's tales. The history of Mars is more potent--and more deadly. Earthmen seem to have free rein on Mars in the present, but that only gives them the freedom to blunder into ancient places where they don't belong. The Curse of King Tut's Tomb and Fawcett's doomed expedition to the Lost City of Z are good templates for Smith-style Mars adventures--as might be Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.

CL Moore's protagonist is not a treasure-seeker or archaeologist like Smith's and his fate is not as grim. He's not a representative of colonial authorities--in fact he's often hiding out from them--and exists in a criminal underworld made up of native Martians and outcasts of other worlds. He might be Charlie Allnut in the African Queen or Jake Cutter in Tales of the Gold Monkey--except the same ancient horrors Smith's protagonists unearth are still lurking out their, waiting to snare the unwary. Despite Moore's more multifaceted approach, her stories still don't involve resentment Martians might have against the Earth. The colonization is still mostly window-dressing.

Brackett's portrayal of Mars is much like Moore's, except that deals specifically with the tension between colonizer and colonized. This is something that develops; her earliest Mars stories are more straightforward sci-fi adventures. Eventually though the Tri-Council of worlds is seen to be of secondary importance to "the Company." Brackett's Martian's for all their Celtic names resemble Native Americans as they were beginning to be portrayed is Westerns like Cheyenne Autumn or Duel at Diablo. There might also be a bit of Heart of Darkness in Brackett's Mars, at times, though her protagonist is unique: an outsider, himself, and more savage than any Martian drylander. This doesn't make him any less resented by the Martians though, because they don't just resent people of Earth as their conquerors, they resent them for being young upstarts with less history. Brackett for all it's Old West by way of the Middle East flavor is more than a little China under the thumb of the Great Powers in the the early 20th Century.

There are ancient secrets lurking on Brackett's Mars. too. (You pretty much can't have pulp Mars without them.) Here, though, it isn't greedy colonizers digging them up or merely stumbling upon them, its Martians hoping to use them against their enemies (i.e. mostly the colonizers). Unfortunately, for them, they are seldom exempt from ancient dangers.

What's the point of all this? Well, I think this distinction is strong (though certainly not solitary) distinction between the Mars of these respective authors. Gaming in any sort of colonial Mars setting would require some consideration of how that fact of this colonization will impact the PCs and their actions.

6 comments:

John Till said...

Very timely exploration, as I just learned last night that Leigh Brackett will be one of the Posthumous Guests at Diversicon next summer (along with Sun Ra and Gene "Devil in the Dark" L. Coon.

Our main (living) Guest of Honor is Ytasha L. Womack, author of "Afrofuturism." My task will be to combine some of these influences into an RPG.

Joshua Dyal said...

What is the source of that second image? I've read a lot of ERB, Moore and Brackett--but somehow I never even know CAS wrote Mars fiction. What an oversight!

Trey said...

Excellent. I think those things can be worked together for sure. While Stark's ethnicity is never commented on by Brackett, the blackness of his skin is mentioned several times, which I think is significant.

Trey said...

@Joshua - It's by Druillet from a French edition of Brackett's work.

Francis Lee said...

Three quite different takes on the red planet.

John Till said...

@Trey: Now I am going to have to go back and read the Stark novels. I missed that detail.