Book corner: Synthetic Men of Mars (Burroughs, E., R., 1940)

A woman is again at the start of it all. But not in that way. Dejah Thoris has been gravely injured in a flyer accident and John Carter is worried, as she's in a coma and all the kings' horses and all the kings' men don't seem to be able to put her together again. So Carter has to do what Carter has to do and this time it's to go to the great swamps of Toonol to find the amoral scientist Ras Tavas, whom we previously met in the Master Mind of Mars.

The story isn't all about Carter though and this time around it's not even told from his perspective, despite he is more prominent part of the narrative. Instead of Carter, the narrator is a young padwar from Carter's personal guard, Vor Daj, who accompanies his lord to the quest of finding the scientist who's gone missing.

When Carter and Daj finally find Ras Tavas from the city of Morbus, they're shocked to learn, that the scientist has been at it again, this time in the form of creating life. He has managed to create a race of synthetic beings called homads, who are mostly slow-witted and greatly deformed beings. The homads have, however, managed to produce 7 jeds, who have taken the control from Ras Tavas and are forcing him to create an army, that they hope to use to conquer all of Mars.

The most interesting aspects of the story revolve around the city of Morbus. The homads especially are described in a quite a macabre manner, as they're oddly proportioned, with different length limbs and their faces are everything but symmetrical: their faces look more like Picasso paintings than anything human. And the breeding vats themselves are a quite horrific place, as there the deformed homads come to existence and where the most deformed are cut back in the sludge to be reborn as something more feasible. It all is quite a delicious piece of bio-engineered horror.

And then there's the woman, the obligatory damsel in distress, whom Vor Daj can't resist and whom he falls madly, head over heels in love with. Janai, who's a fellow prisoner in Morbus, is this woman and for her Daj comes up with a plan, where his brains are transplanted with the help of Tavas into a disfigure body of a homad. This way he can infiltrate the ranks of the 7 jeds as well as to try to protect Janai from the jeds, who obviously want some hanky panky with the gorgeous martian girl.

This plan adds to the ah so familiar melodramatic tones of the romance aspect, as while Daj is madly in love, he also knows he's no price chicken the way he looks like in the body of a homad. So there's a lot of something of a teenage angst like quality in the chapters, where Daj is constantly beating himself up because he's so hideous and monstrous and that he'll never get his body back and all that.

Of course, Daj and Janai escape Morbus before Ras Tavas is able to transfer his brains back, as the things escalate to a direction where Carter and Tavas need to escape the city themselves. After promises of getting back as soon as possible, Daj needs to get Janai out of the city, but this obviously places them between several rocks and hard places. And also brings out some even odder martian creatures living in the swamps, like  Goolians, the half marsupial-like creatures.  At that point, I was starting to think Burroughs might have had a Star Wars style toy collection in his mind long before Lucas was even born.

The relatively uneventful last part of the story takes place in a city of Amhor, where the grotesque Daj is thrown into a local zoo. After some time just hanging around as a new attraction Daj finally finds a way to escape again with Janai, and after a flight they finally encounter the navy of Helium. They are escorted back to Morbus where Daj gets his body back and finds himself to be pretty enough to love again. And even Dejah Thoris has been fixed, as Carter and Ras Tavas managed to get to Helium safe and sound. Awww.

I'd be lying through my teeth if I'd claim that Synthetic Men of Mars is a good novel. While it does have interesting bits and pieces in it, the main bulk of the story is just far too melodramatic, even excessively so in comparison to other stories in the series. The most interesting part of the story really is the lab-grown, bioengineered homad race, but at the same time, I do need to say, that Ras Tavas is a far more agreeable person in this story than he was in the Master Mind of Mars. He even seems helpful and caring of other people.

Despite its good aspects, the overly familiar style does bring it down and the matter of truth is, that at places it's just way too naive for its own good. And that, with the whole melodrama aspect, is just an odd mix. Like those ewoks in the Return of the Jedi.

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