Werner's Reviews > Gulliver of Mars

Gulliver of Mars by Edwin Lester Arnold
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's review
Jan 17, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: science-fiction, books-i-own
Recommended for: Readers very interested in the history of science fiction
Read from January 13 to 17, 2011 , read count: 1

Edwin L. Arnold had some reputation in his own day as a writer of highly melodramatic science fiction, mostly based on this book and on his Phra the Phoenician --which I haven't read; and based on this one, won't!-- both are mentioned in older editions of The Anatomy of Wonder, and some critics, including Richard A. Lupoff (who wrote the introduction here) think both books, especially this one, influenced Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels. (Arnold's works hadn't appeared in an American edition prior to the publication of A Princess of Mars, however.) That prompted me to start reading the book several years ago, when I was considering developing a college course in science fiction; but when that fell through, I set the novel aside. Recently, I decided that to be fair (not having read much of it), I should give it a second chance. I did, and it flunked markedly.

On the (scanty) plus side, Arnold did have a big vocabulary --he sent me to the dictionary a time or two, which doesn't often happen. And at his best, he can conjure very powerfully drawn, evocative scenes described in a fashion reminiscent of better writers, like Howard. But in this book, you can count those on your fingers (with one hand), and he usually doesn't really go anywhere with them in narrative terms; they're mostly just pure filler. And while he tries to write "purple prose," he usually just doesn't do it well. That job takes more than a big vocabulary; writers like Howard, Lovecraft, and Moore use big words precisely, as tools of descriptive communication, and they use involved syntax advisedly, when it serves a purpose. Arnold uses it as a constant stylistic monotone, from the first page to the last, even when he's writing dialogue (which comes across as highly stilted), and bedecks every sentence in a plethora of big words and excessive description, until they collapse under the weight. His prose reads like a parody, except that wasn't his intent. (He does have occasional flashes of intended humor, but not at his own expense.)

A reader could forgive (or at least patiently suffer through) the stylistic train wreck here if the writer gave one anything much to make up for it. Alas, he doesn't. The characters are weakly drawn, and not likable; as Lupoff says, "Gully Jones is no John Carter." (And he might have added, Princess Heru is no Dejah Thoris; though she has no marked bad qualities, she also has nothing to commend her but her looks.) Jones is irritatingly flip to everybody, as slow on the uptake as a block of wood, and fickle and tepid in the romance field --this is anything but a tale of great love, though Arnold tries at times to present it as one. (I would surmise that he was single. :-) ) The novel is plot-driven, but the plot is ultra-thin, and moves at a glacial pace. Of course, this is soft SF (squishy soft --the protagonist arrives on Mars by means of a magic flying carpet!) and most writers prior to the 1960s viewed Mars as more life-friendly than it actually is; but unlike Burroughs, Arnold seems not to have any conception that Mars would be much different than Earth in terms of its environment, and the sociology of his effete Hither People (as opposed to the Thither People they're tributary to) is implausible even in terms of internal logic. Martian telepathy is a deus ex machina used only once to impart the language to Gully (a device that, as it's handled here, has its own major credibility problems.) I might also mention that Arnold makes an embarrassing chronological boo-boo, confuses tides and currents, creates geographical absurdities with his River of Death (it can't start on one continent, cross an ocean, and end on another!), and refers to "the short Martian year," though Mars has a longer year than Earth.

In short, this is a novel designed to make the reader dance with joy --when he/she realizes it's finished! Two stars is being generous. :-)
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