Synthetic Men of Mars is the 9th of 11 books in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ JOHN CARTER OF MARS series. It first appeared serially in Argosy Magazine in early 1939, and is one of the most way-out entries in the series. The book may be seen as a sequel of sorts to book #6, The Master Mind of Mars, in that Ras Thavas, the eponymous superbrain of that earlier work, here makes a return, and the bulk of the action once again takes place in the dismal and forbidding Toonolian Marshes of Barsoom (Mars, to you and me).
In Synthetic Men of Mars, Carter and one of his lieutenants, Vor Daj, go in search of Ras Thavas, to enlist his aid when Carter’s wife is critically injured in a midair collision. Thavas is engaged in creating an army of synthetic men (the so-called hormads), who have taken over an island in the Toonolian Marshes, made an unwilling slave of Ras Thavas himself, and are now plotting to take over all of Barsoom. Things get pretty wild when Vor Daj has his brain put into one of the hormad’s bodies, so that he might better protect a pretty female prisoner who is being held on the island also. Then things go over the top completely, as one of the vats in which the hormads are created goes blooey, and a giant blob of living tissue spreads and spreads and threatens to envelop the entire planet! This blob is comprised of living heads and hands and other body parts; it feeds on itself and seemingly cannot be stopped.
All this takes place in the first half of the novel; things get even hairier, if possible, in the final stages of the tale. Before all is said and done, we have been treated to a civil war amongst the hormads, an escape through the swamps of Toonol, encounters with giant insects and reptiles, a marsupial society, wild swamp savages, a Martian zoo, a tense little air battle, and the final confrontation with that living blob mass. It’s as if Burroughs ate a headcheese and Fluffernutter sandwich before going to bed one night, had the wildest dream, and the next morning put it down on paper.
The book has nice touches of incidental humor, and Vor Daj’s predicament of being trapped in the body of a monstrous hormad while trying to win the affection of the girl of his dreams is an involving one. This leads to John Carter delivering one of his most touching lines: “It is the character that makes the man… not the clay which is its abode.” So what we have here is a fantastic tale of wild imagination, with some touching passages and incessant action.
So why, then, have I only given this novel only three stars? Well, as with most CARTER novels, there are problems of inconsistency, and this novel contains one of the worst in the entire series. During the swamp escape, Vor Daj is accompanied by a party of five others, including a man named Gan Had, who later deserts him. Later in the book, it is stated that this deserter was named Pandar, one of the others of the five. The two characters are mixed up and confused by Burroughs for the remainder of the book, to the point that the reader doesn’t know who Burroughs is talking about. This is a terrible and egregious error, I feel. I have discussed it with the founder of the ERB List, a really fine Burroughs Website, and he has told me that he and others have concocted some explanations for this seemingly incredible screw-up, while admitting that the reader must read between the lines and do some mythmaking of his/her own to explain it.
This giant problem aside, there is also the inconsistency of a character named Ur Raj, who is said to hail from the Barsoomian nation of Ptarth, and four pages later is said to be from the nation of Helium. This is the kind of sloppiness that I, as a copy editor, find especially deplorable. I also regret the fact that the ultimate fate of some of the book’s main characters (Sytor, Gan Had and Ay-mad) is never mentioned. Another example of careless writing, I feel.
Synthetic Men of Mars is a wonderful entertainment, but could have been made so much better by the exercise of just a little more care on the part of the author and his editors. Still, I quite enjoyed it, and do recommend it to any lover of fantastic literature.