Category Archives: Classics

Princess of Mars / A rose for Ecclesiastes

A review in two parts.

Part I

Princess of Mars / Edgar Rice Burroughs

A rose for Ecclesiastes / Roger Zelazny

Princess of Mars is a story about imperialism and how assuming indigenous cultures are ignorant savages rules by their superstitions just waiting for a white man to come rescue them is foolish in the extreme.

Wait, I think I may have things slightly wrong here. Let me consult my notes.

I’ve been informed that the above description of this classic pulp adventure is totally backwards. Let me try again.

A Princess of Mars stars a soldier who has recently taken part in a treasonous uprising. The revolt having failed, he decides to invade a sovereign nation in search of gold. Upon finding it, he is shocked to discover that the inhabitants take issue with his plan to rob them of their natural resources. Trespassing on sacred ground to avoid capture, he finds himself transported to Mars. There he protects the local settled, agricultural population from the nomadic Green Martians (race being the determiner of virtually all individual characteristics), rescues the (nude) princess and becomes a prince, using his superior strength and intellect to negotiate a truce between the Green and Red Martians. At this point I feel obliged to point out that this story was the inspiration for the movie Avatar.*

So it’s pretty much your standard colonialist white savior narrative that has been done ten thousand times. Yes, it’s an uncomplicated adventure story but at this point more than 100 years after its original publication there are so many other stories that don’t drip unexamined racism there’s not really any point to reading this for entertainment. It’s definitely valuable for its historical importance and those wanting to experience the history of the genre should check it out.

*I was incredibly disappointed when I discovered that it was not, as I initially thought, a movie about Krishna. The promotional stuff I initially saw only showed an eye on an apparently blue skinned face and I was really excited that there was going to be a big budget movie featuring the eighth avatar of Vishnu. That would have been an amazing movie.

Part II

So what about my earlier description? That’s more suited to A rose for Ecclesiastes, a story that almost didn’t get published because Zelazny, more than 50 years ago, knew that the “dying Mars” subgenre was outdated and somewhat embarrassing.

To describe A rose for Ecclesiastes as an anti-imperialist take on Burroughs isn’t really accurate. Still, Zelazny does an excellent job of subverting the standard planetary romance tropes while crafting the best example of the genre I’ve ever encountered. So read that instead.

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The three musketeers

The three musketeers / Alexandre Dumas, père

Seeing as how it’s been quite a while since I did something that wasn’t 20th century sf, I figured I’d go back to the classics and take a look at The three musketeers.

Spoiler: it’s not particularly faithful to subsequent adaptations

Brief plot summary

D’Artagnan is a hotheaded would-be musketeer. Armed with an ugly horse, his father’s sword, a letter of recommendation, and instructions from his father to fight as many duels as possible, d’Artagnan leaves his native Gascony and heads for Paris. Adventure, espionage, and “romance” ensue.

Continue reading The three musketeers

… and call me Conrad

This immortal / Roger Zelazny

This immortal was originally published in a somewhat shorter, serialized form under the title “… and call me Conrad” which was apparently Zelazny’s preferred title for the work and may or may not be the title it is currently published under? Apparently the “complete” version wasn’t actually published until 1980. I read the 1974 Ace edition so there are (once again, apparently) about ten paragraphs that I didn’t get.

It’s been hard for me to find the right angle to approach this one from. This review will probably come across as more negative than this book warrants considering its publication history but so be it. I’ll just say for the record that I do like Zelazny’s work, including this book.

Also the aliens are from Vega so they are, naturally, referred to as “Vegans” which has great comedic potential.

Plot summary

Conrad Nomikos is apparently ageless and possibly a god. Conrad is ugly, clubfooted and with a face covered in some sort of fungal infection. The Earth has been devastated by nuclear war, the vast majority of the population has moved offplanet to serve as menial servants to the Vegan people. The Vegans are fascinated with how humanity has managed to destroy their planet and view the Earth as an intriguing holiday destination.

Years previously, Conrad was the leader of the Radpol movement, the center of the Returnist movement that attempted to convince human expatriates to return to their homeworld and used terrorism to prevent the Earth from being entirely turned into a tourist trap for the Vegans.

Now, Conrad has been charged with escorting the wealthy Vegan Cort Myshtigo on a research tour of prominent locations in human history. Myshtigo claims they are writing a book, but the current Radpol leadership sees Myshtigo’s trip as a fact-finding expedition to enable complete Vegan domination of the planet.

Continue reading … and call me Conrad

Outlaws of the marsh (水浒传)

Outlaws of the marsh (水浒传)

Outlaws of the marsh is one of (many) different titles of the Shui hu zhuan, one of the four classics of Chinese literature (the others are Journey to the West, The romance of the three kingdoms, and The dream of the red chamber). It’s also known as The water margin, All men are brothers, and occasionally by its Japanese title, Suikoden.

Note that three of the four classics are perpetual video game/anime fodder.

Plot summary

Told as a series of vignettes, The water margin follows 108 bandits/heroes as they eventually take refuge in a marsh fortress where they band together and seek revenge against the corrupt officials who have wronged them.

There’s also a third volume in which the bandits fight on behalf of the government but its authenticity is questioned and I haven’t actually read that one.

So how is it?

There’s a saying in Chinese that I think I’ve mentioned here before. It translates as “the young shouldn’t read The water margin, the old shouldn’t read The three kingdoms.” To over explain, The water margin’s heroes are not good role models. They spend most of their time as bandits and their only real redeeming feature is their commitment to each other. Even when one of them attempts to “lie low” they end up getting drunk, getting a giant tattoo, and ransacking the temple where they were supposed to be hiding out. Another chapter includes a discussion of the secrets to a successful seduction, one of which is “having a tool as large as a donkey’s.”

Really it’s not significantly different than the unexpurgated Book of one thousand nights and a night, or the Canterbury tales. Modern English editions of the latter tend to tone down the language considerably and for most modern English speakers reading Middle English is exhausting at best. The distinction between modern written Chinese and the language of The water margin is significantly less pronounced than with Chaucer, and since the target audience for most translations is academics the “low humor” is more evident for most readers. It’s closer to Rabelais than Chaucer in that respect, though Rabelais is more current.

Enough lit crit. The water margin actually reads pretty well for a moden audience. I’d go as far as saying it’s the most accessible of the four classics. That the protagonists are outlaws help to reduce the degree of baker puns knowledge required. 

It reads like a serial adventure. Each chapter is mostly self contained which makes it easier to pick up and put down without committing to a lengthy session. That’s mostly a benefit but after a dozen or so chapters the fact that almost every chapter follows the same basic formula can start to wear.

Translation notes

I’ve read parts of several versions, both in Chinese and English. Assuming that most people coming here who read Chinese won’t care about what I have to say about that, the best translation I’ve read is probably the one titles Outlaws of the marsh, but…

It’s out of print and incredibly expensive if you can’t find it at a library. 

Unfortunately, good translations are surprisingly difficult to find. Wuxia novels have this issue too, to the point where huge swathes of a fantastic genre are just completely unavailable in English. The translations that are available are frequently by graduate students rather than professional translators and frequently err on the side of the overly literal or overly poetic (see Fox volant of the snowy mountain for a translation that manages to be both).

Recommendation

The translation issues above, alongside poor availability, make it difficult to recommend. I do anyway, but carefully.

I generally recommend Outlaws of the marsh (that’s the edition available in my local consortium) to people who only read “literary” fiction or to Literature teachers looking to expand their horizons. 

If it was more widely available I’d recommend it to all those parents of teenagers who complain that their child only reads fantasy novels (or whatever genre is the current bête noir of excessively serious parents) but even then it’s still “literature” enough that teens or younger readers who aren’t reading above their grade level probably won’t stick it out long enough to get to the really fun parts.

In general I’d recommend the abridgment of Journey to the west released under the title Monkey, which is more accessible and more widely available before I’d recommend this but since Monkey is essentially a superhero story I’d recommend Outlaws of the marsh to the truly stuffy types as the “it’s one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature” will only go so far in getting the obnoxious literary snobs (who I didn’t believe really existed until I got a job at a public library in an absurdly wealthy modern-day Mayberry) to read it. Expecting them to read a book about an immortal flying monkey is probably expecting too much.