Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Venus series

I’ve talked a bit about Edgar Rice Burroughs’ sword and planet adventures before; in particular, I’ve discussed his ‘Barsoom‘ (Mars) series briefly and did a post on the first two books on his ‘Pellucidar‘ (Hollow Earth) series.  In preparation for another massive literature survey post, I decided to read Burroughs’ fantasies set on yet another planet: Venus!  The series, describing the adventures of scientist/adventurer Carson Napier when he crash lands on Venus, consists of four books: Pirates of Venus (1934), Lost on Venus (1935), Carson of Venus (1939), and Escape on Venus (1946).  (There is also a posthumously published story, Wizard of Venus, which I haven’t read.)

The novels are interesting and distinct for a number of reasons.  First, the ‘Venus’ series was initiated much later than the other adventures Burroughs is known for, and represents the last series he would start (though he continued to write Tarzan, Barsoom, and Pellucidar books at the same time).  Perhaps because of this, the Venus series seems a little more mature and a little less spectacular than its predecessors.  Whereas David Innes, for instance, had completely dominated Pellucidar in the span of two books, Carson Napier is more or less on the run throughout the four books.

Let’s take a tour through Burroughs’ fictional version of Venus, and meet its inhabitants!

Like the ‘Barsoom’ and ‘Pellucidar’ series before it, the Venus series (perhaps properly called the ‘Amtor’ series, which is the local’s name for the planet) is introduced by Burroughs himself.  In each series of novels, he introduces a new conceit by which he acquires a first-hand account of the adventures in the distant land.  In the Mars series, Burroughs acquires the written memoirs of John Carter.  In the Pellucidar series, he encounters David Innes in the Sahara desert, recently returned from the Inner Earth; later communication comes from telegraph communications installed by Innes between the surface world and the inner one.  In the Venus series, Burroughs introduces telepathy as his method of communicating with Carson Napier.  In his introduction, Burroughs explains that Carson had approached him before leaving Earth as a man with whom he was in “psychological harmony.”  Carson’s adventures are narrated psychically to Burroughs, who is simply the conduit through which the story is told.

Carson Napier himself is motivated by a daredevil streak, brought on by all those dear to him having passed on:

Shortly after my graduation the third and greatest tragedy of my life occurred– my mother died.  I was absolutely stunned by this blow.  Life seemed to hold no further interest for me.  I did not care to live, yet I would not take my own life.  As an alternative I embarked upon a life of recklessness.  With a certain goal in mind, I learned to fly.  I changed my name and became a stunt man in pictures.

(This near-suicidal urge, brought about by the death of his mother, is so strikingly like Robert E. Howard’s own suicide that I wondered for a moment if Burroughs was paying tribute to the departed Howard.  Not so, though; Howard died in 1936, two years after the publishing of Pirates.)

In an ironic twist, Napier decides to construct a rocketship to travel to Mars.  He dismisses an attempt on traveling to Venus in his discussions with Burroughs:

“Mars is a long way from Earth,” I suggested; “Venus is nine or ten million miles closer, and a million miles are a million miles.”

“Yes, and I would prefer going to Venus,” he replied.  “Enveloped in clouds, its surface forever invisible to man, it presents a mystery that intrigues the imagination; but recent astronomical research suggests conditions there inimical to the support of any such life as we know on earth.  It has been thought by some that, held in the grip of the Sun since the era of her pristine fluidity, she always presents the same face to him, as does the Moon to earth.  If such is the case, the extreme heat of one hemisphere and the extreme cold of the other would preclude life.

“Even if the suggestion of Sir James Jeans is borne out by fact, each of her days and nights is several times as long as ours on earth, these long nights having a temperature of thirteen degrees below zero, Fahrenheit, and the long days a correspondingly high temperature.”

Burroughs, even though he writes tales of pure fantasy, at least learns the science before he completely disregards it!  Sir James Jeans was a distinguished scientist of Burroughs’ era who wrote a number of popular science books, among them The Stars in Their Courses (1931) and The Mysterious Universe (1930).  Burroughs actually quotes from one of them, to give his story a better scientific veneer:

“Yet even so, life might have adapted itself to such conditions,” I contended; “man exists in equatorial heat and arctic cold.”

“But not without oxygen,” said Napier.  “St. John has estimated that the amount of oxygen above the cloud envelope that surrounds Venus is less than one tenth of one per cent of the terrestrial amount.  After all, we have to bow to the superior judgment of such men as Sir James Jeans, who says, ‘The evidence, for what it is worth, goes to suggest that Venus, the only planet in the solar system outside Mars and the earth on which life could possibly exist, possesses no vegetation and no oxygen for higher forms of life to breathe,’ which definitely limits my planetary exploration to Mars.”

In Jeans’ time, as I have noted in previous posts, Mars seemed the likeliest place for life to exist beyond the Earth, though it was still considered a longshot.  From a section entitled, “Is there life on Mars?” from The Stars in Their Courses,

On the whole, the case for life existing on Mars, or on any other planet in the solar system, can hardly be called a strong one, and, although there is still room for much difference of opinion, it seems to me most likely that the life which exists on our earth is the only life in the sun’s family, although other stars far out in space may include inhabited planets in their families.

Carson’s flight goes immediately wrong, however, and he veers dramatically off course because he neglected to include the Moon’s gravitation in his calculations of his rocket’s trajectory!  Such an obvious goof might seem to ridiculous to believe, but in light of relatively recent goofs at NASA, Burroughs’ tale seems almost prescient!  The rocket veers towards an impact with the Sun, but in a million-to-one chance ends up crashing into Venus instead!  Carson bails out of his rocket into a dense cloud layer, and his parachute lands in a massive tree “which evidently dwarfed the giant Sequoias.”  This landing immediately proves two things: there is a survivable atmosphere on Venus, and there is actually life on Venus!  On Burroughs’ Venus, multiple layers of clouds reflect the devastating rays of the dangerously close Sun.  Occasionally the Sun peeks through the clouds and causes immense devastation, a phenomenon that becomes a major plot point later in the series.  (In reality, the temperature on the surface of Venus is estimated to be at 460 °C.)

No Burroughs novel would be complete without two things: fearsome beasts to fight and beautiful princesses to be enamored with.  In short order, Carson encounters both.  He ends up fleeing from unknown predators in the upper trees and is rescued by inhabitants of a tree city in the country of Vepaja.  While there, he happens to see a beautiful woman in the garden neighboring his adopted home, and instantly falls in love.  The woman, Duare, is the daughter of the Jong (king) of Vepaja, and is forbidden to fraternize with, much less love, a commoner (and alien) like Carson.  Nevertheless, he manages to save her from a raiding party of Thorists without her even knowing it!

Vepaja is the remnant of a great continental kingdom, which was overthrown by members of a populist movement known as Thorism.  The leaders of Vepaja fled the Thorist fanatics and moved to their island of readily-defensible tree cities.  Burroughs was reputedly vehemently anti-communist, and this is reflected in the cruel, corrupt nature of the Thorists.  It is the first of a number of societies which Carson will encounter during his wanderings across Venus, and each seems to reflect some social commentary, though the point of said commentary is often not clear.

After a dangerous encounter with a beast of the trees, Carson ends up lost on the forest floor, where he and a friend are abducted by birdmen working for the Thorians.  They end up on a Thorian slave ship, but manage to free themselves and take control of a ship, becoming the ‘pirates of Venus’.  Along the way, they rescue a recently-abducted Duare, and the first two novels revolve around attempts to return her to her homeland (and Carson’s attempts to woo the maiden).

As noted, the first two novels also cover the various societies of southern Venus.  In addition to the very utopian Vepaja and the communistic Thora (and its diabolical execution chamber, the room of seven doors), Carson and Duare encounter the ‘perfect’ society Havatoo which practices extreme eugenics and the kingdom of Morov, literally filled with the living dead!

A large part of the difficulty in getting Duare home is the poor cartography of the Venusian people.  Living in a world of perpetual cloud cover, they have never seen the stars and envision themselves to live on a disk:

He stepped to a shelf and returned with a large volume, which he opened at a beautifully executed map of Amtor.  It showed three concentric circles.  Between the two inner circles lay a circular belt designated as Trabol, which means warm country.  Here the boundaries of seas, continents, and islands were traced to the edges of the two circles that bounded it, in some places crossing these boundaries as though marking the spots at which venturesome explorers had dared the perils of an unknown and inhospitable land.

“This is Trabol,” explained Danus, placing a finger upon that portion of the map I have briefly described.  “It entirely surrounds Strabol which lies in the centre of Amtor.  Strabol is extremely hot, its land is covered with enormous forests and dense undergrowth, and is peopled by huge land animals, reptiles and birds, its warm seas swarm with monsters of the deep.  No man has ventured far into Strabol and lived to return.

“Beyond Trabol,” he continued, placing his finger on the outer band designated as Karbol (Cold Country), “lies Karbol.  Here it is as cold as Strabol is hot.  There are strange animals there too, and adventurers have returned with tales of fierce human beings clothed in fur.  But it is an inhospitable land into which there is no occasion to venture and few dare penetrate far for fear of being precipitated over the rim into the molten sea.”

In other words, the Venusians in the southern hemisphere have their world mapped inside out:


One would think that this would be a problem, but Burroughs explains how the Venusians resolve the difficulties of mapping ‘inside out’:

“This seeming discrepancy caused the ancients considerable perturbation until about three thousand years ago, when Klufar, the great scientist, expounded the theory of relativity of distance and demonstrated that the real and apparent measurements of distance could be reconciled by multiplying each by the square root of minus one.”

I saw that argument was useless and said no more; there is no use arguing with a man who can multiply anything by the square root of minus one.

Burroughs is describing an actual mathematical transformation known as a Möbius transformation, a special case of which is the geometric operation of mapping the outside of a circle to the inside of a circle, and vice versa.  Such transformations are described using the ‘imaginary’ number i, which is defined as the square root of minus one!  In spite of Burroughs’ tongue-in-cheek condescension, imaginary numbers are a very useful tool in solving many real physical problems, and many important results fall broadly into the mathematical field known as complex analysis (which I use all the time).

Either in spite of or because of the poor Venusian maps, Carson and Duare end up exploring more of the world than anyone previously.  By the end of the second novel, they are in control of Venus’ very first airplane (anotar) and still attempting to reach Vepaja.  True to Burroughs form, however, every time they put their craft down for supplies or directions, someone gets kidnapped, typically enslaved, and eventually a daring escape is made!

Eventually this gets rather tiresome.  Carson himself gets sick of it late in the series, as he declares,

I had desired adventures; but recently I had had little else than misadventures, and I must admit that I was getting pretty well fed up on them; so… I made up my mind then and there that we were to have no more adventures or misadventures, but were heading south in our search for Korva just as quickly as possible.

The vow doesn’t help, though, and Carson and Duare face many dangers as they seek a final home.  Carson performs espionage on behalf of the aforementioned country of Korva, and later becomes a soldier in a high-tech war of ground dreadnoughts (basically, land-ships).  The second two novels, however, seem to focus more on exotic biological entities!  Carson and Duare encounter a race of mer-people, a race of plant-people and, even more bizarre, a race of “amoebic neuters”, who reproduce by splitting down the center!  Though the idea of large, mobile, single-celled organisms might seem a bit outlandish, it’s not completely crazy.

The world of Venus and the story of Carson Napier are surprisingly detailed.  Obviously Burroughs put a lot of thought into his worlds (one of these days I’m going to try and make a detailed map of Amtor, based on Burroughs’ writings).  The storyline has a remarkable amount of consistency, and even the hint of character development.  By the fourth novel, Duare has developed into a stronger, independent woman, and is even the focus of a ‘mini-adventure’ which does not include Carson at all (in fact, she must rescue him).  In the end, even though the last Venus novel was published only a few years before Burroughs’ death, the series does have a satisfying conclusion.

The Venus series is my favorite Burroughs series as yet.  The editions I’ve read are part of the complete works of Burroughs published by Leonaur, Ltd., which sadly seem to have been truly a limited publication: I had to get the second volume used!  I recommend grabbing up copies while you can — my Burroughs books look pretty on my bookshelf!

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2 Responses to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Venus series

  1. William says:

    Very cool review on ERB’s Venus. I read and loved all of his books when I was in my early teens – Barsoom, Pellucidar, Venus, Beyond Thirty, some Tarzan, and some of his other lesser known novels. Fortunately, there was a great little bookshop in a neighbouring town that specialised in old pulp science fiction, and I picked up lots of them there, in the old Ace paperback editions. Have you read The Moon Men and The Moon Maid? I’m sure that the science is appalling (I’ll have to find the box that they currently reside in and skim through them again), but that’s half the fun, right?

  2. William: Thanks! I haven’t read the ‘Moon’ series yet; it’s on my shelf, though.

    “I’m sure that the science is appalling (I’ll have to find the box that they currently reside in and skim through them again), but that’s half the fun, right?”

    I’m totally in agreement! Certainly, part of the fun in reading these things for my blog is the opportunity to compare the real science with the fictional stuff. I’ve never been one to let silly science get in the way of enjoying a story, unless it’s exceptionally ridiculous.

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