Get your ass to… Venus?

Some time ago, I did a post about the sword-and-planet stories centered on the planet Mars, such as Burroughs’ classic John Carter of Mars series.  Earth’s other neighbor has also been the inspiration for a significant amount of fantastic fiction, and I’ve at long last come back to do a post about adventure stories set on Venus!

The second planet from the Sun, Venus has many features which could inspire belief in Earth-like life.  It is a terrestrial planet with 81.5% of the Earth’s mass and is only 650 km smaller in diameter.  Venus has an atmosphere, as was first detected by Mikhail Lomonosov in 1761: watching Venus cross the Sun, he observed a light ring around the edge of the planet at the beginning of its passage, and correctly concluded that the ring was caused by the refraction of light in a sufficiently thick atmosphere.  Venus is also a neighbor to Earth, and has a comparable orbital diameter (0.7 astronomical units for Venus, 1.5 AU for Mars, 1.0 AU for Earth, by definition).  These various features might suggest, at a glance, that Venus is rather Earth-like in its characteristics.

In reality, though, Venus is a planet of murderous heat, crushing pressure and acid clouds.  Temperatures at the surface reach as high as 460 °C, and the atmospheric pressure is 92 times that of Earth’s.  The thick clouds of Venus consist of sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid.  In addition, Venus has almost no inherent magnetism, which means that the planet has no shield from cosmic radiation.

Nevertheless, before robotic space probes began to be sent to Venus in the early 1960s, very little was known for certain about the planet, allowing for plenty of speculation.  Scientists were not particularly hopeful, though; to give a feel for the consensus scientific thinking in the early 20th century, let us quote from Sir James Jeans’ The Stars in Their Courses (1931):

As Venus and the earth are about the same size, and have in all probability had similar life-histories, we might reasonably have expected that their atmospheres would be similar.  Actually they are very different.  In particular, oxygen, which forms a large fraction of earth’s atmosphere, appears to be exceedingly rare, if it exists at all, on Venus.  We know that oxygen combines very freely with other substances; such combination occurs, for instance, when substances burn or corrode or rust.  This being so, we need not feel surprised that there is little or no oxygen left in the atmosphere of Venus; what would be surprising, if we did not know the explanation, is that there is so much left in the atmosphere of the earth.  The explanation is that every tree and every blade of grass on earth is a sort of oxygen factory; the earth’s vegetation keeps up the supply of oxygen.  The circumstance that no appreciable amount of oxygen can be detected in the atmosphere of Venus goes far to suggest that there is no vegetation on Venus, and so probably no life of any kind.

Not all scientists had this view, however;  the Swedish chemist  and 1903 Nobel Prize winner Svante Arrhenius published The Destinies of the Stars in 1918, in which he included an assessment of the atmosphere of Venus which is striking as much for its imagination as for its incorrectness:

Very different conditions obtain on our neighbour planet which is closer both to the Sun and to ourselves the radiant Venus, an object of interested human attention already in ancient times. The average temperature there is calculated to about 47°C (116.6° F) assuming the sun constant to two calories per cubic centimeter (.061 cu. in.) per minute. The humidity is probably about six times the average of that on the Earth, or three times that in Congo where the average temperature is 26 °C (78.8 °F). The atmosphere of Venus holds about as much water vapour 5 km (3.1 miles) above the surface as does the atmosphere of the Earth at the surface.  We must therefore conclude that everything on Venus is dripping wet. The rainstorms on the other hand do not necessarily bring greater precipitation than with us. The cloud formation is enormous and dense rain clouds travel as high up as 10 km (6.2 miles). The heat from the Sun does not attack the ground but the dense clouds, causing a powerful external circulation of air which carries the vapour to higher strata where it condenses into new clouds. Thus, an effective barrier is formed against horizontal air currents in the great expanses below. At the surface of Venus therefore there exists a complete absence of wind both vertically, as the Sun’s radiation is absorbed by the ever present clouds above, and horizontally due to friction. Disintegration takes place with enormous rapidity, probably about eight times as fast as on the Earth, and the violent rains carry the products speedily downhill where they fill the valleys and the oceans in front of all river mouths.

A very great part of the surface of Venus is  no doubt covered with swamps, corresponding to those on the Earth in which the coal deposits were formed, except that they are about 30° C (54 °F) warmer. No dust is lifted high into the air to lend it a distinct colour; only the dazzling white reflex from the clouds reaches the outside space and gives the planet its remarkable, brilliantly white, lustre. The powerful air currents in the highest strata of the atmosphere equalize the temperature difference between poles and equator almost completely so that a uniform climate exists all over the planet analogous to conditions on the Earth during its hottest periods.

The temperature on Venus is not so high as to prevent a luxuriant vegetation. The constantly uniform climatic conditions which exist everywhere result in an entire absence of adaptation to changing exterior conditions. Only low forms of life are therefore represented mostly no doubt belonging to the vegetable kingdom; and the organisms are nearly of the same kind all over the planet.

It seems that  Arrhenius’ views resulted in a rather consistent view of  Venus for fiction writers.  The perpetual cloud cover, dense atmosphere and proximity to the Sun suggested to most authors a wet, tropical swamp-like climate.   The civilizations imagined for Venus vary widely, though, as we will see: some authors imagined very primitive peoples populating the planet, while others envisioned very advanced civilizations.

Let’s take a look at a collection of some of the planetary adventures that have been set on Venus, and the adventurers who braved the Venusian landscape!

1.  Robert Grandon: Planet of Peril (1929), by Otis Adelbert Kline.  For once, we start a discussion of planetary adventures with someone other than Burroughs!  Otis Adelbert Kline was a writer for Weird Tales and, later, a literary agent, notably for Robert E. Howard.  In his novel, written in 1922, young Robert Grandon yearns for adventure.  While attending the opera one evening, he is drugged and kidnapped by one Doctor Morgan, who informs Grandon that he has a brain pattern that will allow him to exchange bodies with his double on the planet Venus.  Grandon takes the body of Thaddor, Prince of the small country of Uxpo.  He begins in slavery to the beautiful Princess Vernia of Reabon, but quickly escapes into the wilderness, and in single combat seizes control of a group of warriors called the Fighting Traveks.

Vernia and her forces pursue the escaped prisoner, but she is betrayed in what amounts to a coup and ends up alone in the wilderness with Grandon, where they both must struggle to survive.  In the process, they battle with a clan of violent winged gorilla-like creatures, get enslaved by and later lead a revolution against a race of insect-beings, and eventually fight to reclaim the Vernia’s kingdom from its usurpers.

Kline’s Venus is a place of lush fern and mushroom filled jungles.  Curiously, he says little about the cloud cover of the planet.  The civilization is clearly inspired by the earlier works of Burroughs, consisting of feudal kingdoms following odd and antiquated traditions.  The technology is a mix of the old and new, and warriors fight with torks (gas-powered dart guns) as well as swords, and one race jealously guards the technology of their airships.

Kline published two other books in his Venus series, The Prince of Peril and The Port of Peril.  I personally find his Venus series to be not as compelling as his later Mars works, or the works of Burroughs.

2.  Carson Napier: Pirates of Venus (1934), by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I’ve already written a detailed post about Burroughs’ Venus series!  When Carson Napier builds a rocketship to carry him to Mars, a miscalculation sends him speeding towards the surface of Venus instead!  Through a series of four books, Carson ends up lost and wandering across the planet, encountering both highly primitive and savage tribes as well as scietifically advanced utopian civilizations.  Of course, there is a princess — Nuala — who is forbidden by tradition from marrying Carson, and Carson spends much time getting the two of them into and out of danger.

Of the early planet fantasists, I would say Burroughs put the most thought into his worlds.  Venus is shielded from the intense rays of the sun by its perpetual cloud cover, though occasional breaks in the clouds lead to large-scale devastation.  The perpetual clouds prevent the Venusians from learning about the spherical nature of their world, and also result in seriously screwed-up cartography.  This lack of good maps keeps Carson and Nuala always wandering, and on the way they meet societies based on various theories of government, and races of various origins (bird-men, plant-men, amoeba-men).

It was long rumored that Burroughs and Kline were feuding through their writing.  Kline started writing books about Martian adventures, and Burroughs retaliated by writing about Venus!  The comparison gets more striking when comparing aspects of the storylines: Burroughs’ Venus, like Kline’s earlier perception, possesses massive trees which feature significantly in the plot.  There is no direct word on such a feud from either Burroughs or Kline, however, and was apparently the imagination of an overzealous fan magazine author named Donald Wollheim.  It does seem more likely, to me, that the two authors were simply playing off each other’s ideas; there certainly was enough demand for planetary fiction in their era that they didn’t have to worry about competing.

3. In the Walls of Eryx (1939), by H.P. Lovecraft.  Though arguably all of H.P. Lovecraft’s work is science fiction, this story is the only one which features more conventional science fiction elements, namely human interplanetary travel and ‘adventures’ on another world.  For the most part, the story is told from the point of view of a prospector on Venus.  The humans are searching for rare crystals which can be used as a source of electrical power, but their quest brings them into contact with the hostile, lizard-like natives of the planet.

While out searching for crystals, the narrator comes across a remarkable structure: a perfectly invisible maze.  Within the center of it is the largest crystal he has ever seen.  The prospector ventures within to recover the crystal, but can he get back out before his oxygen supply runs out?

4.  Hugh Starke/Conan: Lorelei of the Red Mist (1946), by Leigh Brackett/Ray Bradbury.  Leigh Brackett could be considered the queen of planetary romances!  She wrote many exciting tales, and is even credited with the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, submitted just before her death.  Of her many stories set on the planet Venus, ‘Lorelei’ stands out for me: not only is it a beautiful story, but it was written as a sort of tribute to the work of Robert E. Howard, as is suggested by her use of the name ‘Conan’.

Criminal Huge Starke (no apparent relation to her character Eric John Stark) is fleeing from the authorities on Venus by aircraft, having  just pulled off a heist of the T-V Mines payroll ship.  Faced with either being arrested and imprisoned or daring to cross the Mountains of the White Cloud into uncharted lands, he attempts the crossing and crashes on the other side of the mountains.

He awakens, dying, before a beautiful woman, who tells him she is going to put his mind into the body of another man, Conan, imprisoned in the kingdom of city of Crom Dhu (note: ‘Crom’ is another nod to Howard).  He has been sent to be an assassin, but refuses to play ball, and becomes wrapped up in a three-way war between the humans and two races of amphibians, one of which has permanently left the Red Sea.

The Red Sea is a fascinating concept: a sea of red mist, within which one can breathe, and buoyancy is provided by radioactive processes.  Starke (Conan) will eventually travel into the depths of this sea to further his own goals.

Starke is a great character, with psychological turmoil not only between his own good/evil inclinations but also between his will and the will of the woman Rann, who is constantly trying to force him to serve her.

In an ironic twist, the novella itself suffers from a bit of a split personality: Leigh Brackett headed off to Hollywood to write screenplays, and her young protege, an upstart named Ray Bradbury, came in to finish it.  I personally can’t tell where one author ends and another begins; the only indicator to me is a bit of sentimentality at the end of the story which seems very much not in the style of a tribute to REH!

5.  Myles Cabot: The Radio Man (1948), by Ralph Milne Farley.  This one is a hoot!  Miles Cabot, radio scientist, has a mishap which results in him being beamed naked to the surface of Venus.  Cabot’s own description of his research:

My chief line of work, since graduating from Harvard, was on the subject of television.  By simultaneously using three sending sets and three receiving sets, each corresponding to one of the three dimensions, any object which I placed within the framework of my transmitter could be seen within the framework of my receiver, just as though it stood there itself.

He comes to on Venus, and takes a look around:

The atmosphere was warm, moist and fragrant, like that of a hothouse, and the lap-lapping of the waves gave forth such a pleasing musical sound that I lay where I was and dozed off and on, even after I had recovered consciousness.

I seemed to sense, rather than really to see, my surroundings.  The sand was very white.  The sky was completely overclouded at a far height, and yet the clouds shone with such a silvery radiance that the day was as bright as any which I had ever seen with full sunlight on earth, but with a difference, for here the light diffused from all quarters, giving the shadowless effect which one always notes in a photographer’s studio.

Almost immediately, he is captured by a super-intelligent race of ant-men, and is brought to their scientists for study.   Though he manages quickly to convince them he is intelligent, he is unable to determine how they communicate, until…

And then I remembered the speculations of some earth scientists, which had been running in the newspapers shortly before my departure from that sphere.  The opinion had been expressed that insects communicate by very short length radio waves.  I had made a note to investigate this subject later, but at that time I had been too engrossed with my machine for the transmission of matter to be able to give the question of insect speech more than a mere passing thought.  It had not crossed my mind again until, immediately after my sad meeting with the beautiful Cupian, I was racking my brains for some means of talking with her.

Radio! The very thing!

In an astonishing ‘coincidink’, it turns out all species on Venus communicate via radio waves, and have no ordinary sense of hearing.  No real explanation is given for this odd turn of events, which seems to otherwise fly in the face of evolution.  In fact, Myles uses his own sense of hearing to run circles around the deaf Venusians, so much so that one can hardly imagine why a sense of hearing wouldn’t have evolved on Venus!

Myles builds a radio communication set which allows him to ask the ants about the beautiful (almost human) princess he had seen.  It turns out that the ants had conquered a country known as Cupia, and used its people as slaves.  The Princess Lille had been brought to Myles to be used in a breeding experiment.  Myles decides to help the Princess escape from the Formians (ants), and the two of them engage in numerous adventures which (of course) include a treacherous and traitorous Cupian!

Farley’s conception of the creatures of Venus is rather as naive as his views on radio technology.  Native animals consist primarily of giant-sized versions of Earth creatures (giant ants, giant bees, giant spiders).  Apparently, though, the naivete worked: Farley wrote numerous  sequels to The Radio Man.

6.  The Long Rain (1950), by Ray Bradbury.  It’s worth noting that Bradbury wrote plenty of tales about Venus himself.  One of the most well-known is The Long Rain, about a group of explorers whose spacecraft crash-lands on the surface of Venus, which is perpetually inundated with rain.  The explorers proceed on foot to find a Sun Dome, shelters built on the surface by colonists, before the unending downpour destroys their sanity and their lives.  Brief mention is made of the native Venusians as an undersea race.

7.  Marc Vitrak: The Sky People (2006), by S.M. Stirling.  Stirling has been carrying on the tradition of sword and planet in contemporary times!  He has created an alternate universe in which the space probes of the 1960s in fact found intelligent life on Mars and Venus.  The Sky People was Stirling’s first book set in this alternate universe.  Venus is a planet populated by primitive tribes of humans and savage, cannibalistic tribes of Neanderthals, as well as vicious dinosaurs and  aerial predators.  The United States and the Soviet Union have both established small colonies on Venus by 1988, and have established relationships with the native inhabitants.

Marc Vitrak, the hero of the story, is a Cajun-born American who does scouting on the planet.  When a Soviet shuttle crash-lands in unexplored wilderness, the Americans are recruited to help rescue any survivors.  Marc takes a group via airship across the wilderness, but their rescue efforts are hindered by fierce creatures, fiercer storms, and sabotage.  Along the way, Marc falls for the lovely Teesa of the Cloud Mountain People, who wears a powerful and ancient artifact.  Connected to that artifact is an ancient device, left behind by the past masters of Venus, that threatens mass destruction if not stopped.

Stirling plays a nice balance between pulp adventure and science fiction.  The history of the Venusian exploration is well-thought out, and the interactions with the natives is believable and less cartoonish than the earlier pulp adventures.  But the story still has plenty of the staples of the pulps, including a beautiful princess, an exotic and loyal pet, a traitor in the midst and battles for survival against deadly creatures. The book also acknowledges its history explicitly: the heroes were raised on the stories of Burroughs and others, and one of the space shuttles used for travel to Venus is named the Carson!

I had earlier read Stirling’s follow-up book set on Mars, In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, for my post on Mars.  I found that book a bit hard to follow at first, due to the more sophisticated Martian politics and culture.  The Sky People, by contrast, is a nice, fast-paced read.


Stirling’s work shows that planet fantasies are not yet completely out of style!  Though we no longer believe that Mars and Venus are inhabited planets, it is still a joy to imagine what they could have been.  Reading these Venusian adventures makes one long for a more hospitable solar system.

As a closing note: have you ever seen the pictures of the surface of Venus?  The Soviet probe Venera 13 managed to land on the inhospitable surface of Venus in 1982 (though it wasn’t the first) and snapped some pictures in the 127 minutes before it broke down in the heat and pressure.   Here is a sample, via Wikipedia:

Even if we can’t live on Venus, the fact that we can send probes there to take pictures is pretty amazing!

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6 Responses to Get your ass to… Venus?

  1. abstractplane says:

    Venus is cool, but not as exotic as the Planet of the Miniature Mummies:

  2. Coturnix says:

    I grew up with “Venus, Earth’s sister” by Martinov:

    Not tropical by any means, but containing some interesting life forms nonetheless.

  3. abstractplane: Charming!

  4. FS says:

    Bradbury’s “All Summer In a Day,” perennial entrant in the “anyone remember this story I read as a kid?” contest.

    Kornbluth & Pohl’s The Space Merchants.

    • FS: Ah! I forgot about “The Space Merchants”! I was going to give that a re-read for the post. “All Summer in a Day” didn’t seem to fit as well with the ‘planetary adventures’ theme, so I opted to include “The Long Rain” as my Bradbury sample.

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