Those readers who had been charmed by Otis Adelbert Kline’s swashbuckling sci-fi adventure The Swordsman of Mars would not have long to wait before they were treated to that novel’s follow-up thrill ride. While that first interplanetary pastiche of author Edgar Rice Burroughs had appeared as a six-part serial in the January 7 to February 11, 1933 issues of the weekly Argosy magazine, the follow-up, The Outlaws of Mars, appeared as a seven-parter, in that same pulp’s 11/25/33 to 1/6/34 issues. As had been the case with the first novel, The Outlaws of Mars copped the cover illustration for that first issue of the run, again beautifully rendered by artist Robert A. Graef.
This second novel would not be reprinted for a good 28 years, until Avalon books released it as a hardcover in 1961, and Ace, at the same time, released it as a 35-cent paperback … the edition that I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on. And if you are perchance wondering why I have insisted on twice referring to this second book as a “follow-up,” rather than a “sequel,” it is because The Outlaws of Mars seemingly poses the difficult question: “When is a sequel not a sequel?” In this second installment, none of the major characters from the first book make an appearance — only three of the minor characters, one of whom is a pet animal — and the action, for the most part, transpires in a wholly different sector of Mars. What the two books happily do share, however, is a tremendously fast pace, breakneck action done with great panache, well-drawn Martian menaces (both human and animal), and two lovely beauties for our hero to contend with.
In that first book, you may recall, Terran scientist Dr. Richard Morgan had managed — with the assistance of Lal Vak, a Martian scientist who’d lived millions of years earlier — to send the spirit of a 20th century Earthman, Harry Thorne, into the body of a Martian in that far-distant past! But now, in book #2, it seems that Morgan and Vak have made some improvements on their original conception. When Morgan’s nephew, Jerry Morgan, shows up at his mountain laboratory, in disgrace from the Army due to some vaguely hinted-at love triangle, the young man is asked if he would care to volunteer for a novel experiment. A breakthrough contraption has been completed, a combination spaceship and time machine, that will enable Jerry to travel to the Mars of long ago and start a brand-new life. Jerry of course agrees, and thus becomes the first person from Earth (or Dhu Gong, as the Martians refer to it) to visit the Red Planet in his own body. But no sooner does his time ship land on the roof of the palace of Numin Vil, the emperor of Mars’ largest nation, Kalsivar (the first book had transpired in the smaller nation of Xancibar, you’ll remember), than the troubles begin.
Jerry deliberately slays a dalf (a tremendous otterlike creature) that he believed was attacking a young woman, little realizing that it is the Princess Junia with her beloved pet. Thus, Jerry is forcibly hauled into the emperor’s court for punishment, only to be falsely accused, a short while later, of the murder of Junia’s brother. And things get even more problematic for the young Earthman — I mean, Dhu Gongian — when Junia’s cousin, the brown-skinned Thoor Movil, who is plotting against his uncle to usurp the throne, takes a dislike to Jerry; when Movil’s sister, Nisha Novil, takes a hot-blooded fancy for the Earthman; and when the schemes of the desert-dwelling, golden-masked Sarkis the Torturer — who is fomenting a rebellion of all the black and brown-skinned races against the white — threaten to embroil the entire planet in a race war. Ultimately, Jerry escapes from the castle; becomes a slave (as had Harry Thorne) in a canal-digging crew; is captured by the Torturer; escapes again; becomes a kind of Martian Lawrence of Arabia, leading his army of thousands of desert dwellers; and engages in multiple battle royals against the forces of Numin Vil, Thoor Movil and the Torturer. Quite a lot to deal with, for a Dhu Gongian who’s relatively fresh on the Martian scene…
As compared to the earlier book, The Outlaws of Mars seems a bit more tightly plotted, and its central conceit of a racial uprising may have been a startling one when the serial first ran 85 years ago. As in the first Mars novel, Kline peppers his book with all kinds of imaginative touches to make his scenario come alive. Thus, we are presented with torfals, fungoid plants that grow in the Martian desert and supply a liquid form of nourishment; tuzars, a weapon that the desert dwellers employ, consisting of a lance tipped with sharp tongs; rodals, scaled (as in “having scales” and “climbable”!) bird/reptile creatures that those same desert dwellers ride like horses; histids, a giant water lizard that almost makes a meal out of our hero; the unnamed horrors that arise from the ground and clamp blood-sucking tentacles onto their victims; and the koroo bird, a 40-foot-high aquatic monstrosity that is the cousin to the desert-dwelling koree bird of the first book.
Into his relentlessly fast-moving narrative (it really is remarkable how much incident Kline can squeeze into four or five pages!) the author gives his readers any number of memorable scenes, including the deaths by giant magnifying glass that the Torturer inflicts on several of his victims, with the assistance of the slow-moving sun; the spectacle of Jerry and Junia going up against several of those aforementioned monstrosities one after the other; a suspenseful sequence as Jerry and Junia try to smuggle themselves via boat back into Kalsivar; and, of course, the final battle, with Jerry’s winged and rodal-riding forces hurling improvised grenades against the Torturer’s men. And, as in the first book, the action is culminated by a doozy of a sword fight between our hero and the archvillain. It is all pulpy, colorful fare, done to a turn in the finest ERB manner.
I might add that besides Dr. Morgan and Lal Vak, that third recurring character is Neem, the dalf that had belonged to the Princess Thaine in book #1; in a nice touch, Morgan and Junia discover Thaine’s marshland hideaway in Xancibar during the course of their travels, without even realizing the significance of where they are. But the reader does. Another nice touch here: the fact that Jerry, being on Mars in the flesh, must acclimate physically to his new environment, only to find later that he is now capable of unbelievable leaps and jumps due to the lesser gravity, giving him, in effect, a superpower of sorts.
But again, as in that first book, several problems crop up that prevent me from giving The Outlaws of Mars a higher grade. For one thing, Kline, despite all the detail that he throws at us, can be woefully inept when it comes to landscape descriptions. For example, he repeatedly makes reference to the planet’s complex system of canals, terraces, channels and aqueducts, and every single time fails to draw a picture that this reader could properly visualize; his descriptions of the canal-digging operations are likewise impossible. The identity of the masked Torturer is meant to come as a surprise at the book’s end, although that identity is ridiculously easy to guess, as it turns out. And then there is the unexplained matter of why the ferocious Neem stops in its tracks while attacking Jerry and Junia, and suddenly becomes docile, as if it recognizes them from before. And Kline is also guilty of what I suppose must be called sloppy writing, such as when Jerry uses a depilatory to remove his beard … and immediately afterward uses some dye to turn his beard black! And when a border guard, seated on a swinging chair while interrogating Jerry, is later said to “[sit] down heavily,” although he’d already been sitting the entire time! Things like this can drive a sharp-eyed reader to distraction, although the majority of folks, I have a feeling, will be too caught up in the book’s tremendous sweep to care much, or even notice.
Quibbles aside, though, The Outlaws of Mars surely is quite an entertaining ride. OAK may not have been quite as accomplished a craftsman as ERB (who also, I have found, and in all fairness, was often guilty of those same kinds of writing flubs), but he sure did come close. Taken together, The Swordsman of Mars and The Outlaws of Mars make for splendid, two-part fare for all lovers of Golden Age sci-fi…