Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > Synthetic Men of Mars

Synthetic Men of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
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Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1939 Synthetic Men of Mars, ninth in the eleven-book Barsoom series, starts--as have all so far except the fourth, Thuvia, Maid of Mars, if I recall--with a "received story" narrative frame. This time, rather than coming to the fictionalized Burroughs directly from John Carter, "this remarkable tale of strange adventure upon the planet Mars" originates with Vor Daj, a faithful and able fighting man in the Warlord's service, and is sent with the aid of previously met Barsoomian characters, along with another nod to Burroughs' Pellucidar series (1980 Del Rey paperback, page 8).

Here the incomparable Dejah Thoris, John Carter's wife, "ha[s] suffered an appalling injury in a collision between two swift airships; and ha[s] lain unconscious for many weeks, her back broken and twisted, until the greatest surgeons of Helium ha[ve] at last given up all hope" (page 8). The only possibility is to enlist the aid of Ras Thavas, the most brilliant surgeon Mars has ever seen, he who even can switch brains into different bodies and who, at the end The Master Mind of Mars, had "promise[d] to devote his skill and learning to the amelioration of human suffering rather than to prostitute them to the foul purposes of greed and sin" (page 7). John Carter and Vor Daj, this tale's first-person narrator, thus set off in a flyer in search of the former mad scientist.

As usual, however, the quest goes awry almost immediately when a glitch in the ship's mechanical guidance apparatus sends them far off course, and then the pair, disguised as "wandering soldier[s] of fortune" (page 11), encounter a bird-borne patrol of troops. These fighters appear "the faulty efforts of a poor draftsman," with individuals whose arms are of greatly different lengths and whose "[e]yes, noses, and mouths [are] usually misplaced," with one, for example, having "[f]our-fifths of the face...above the eyes" and another the opposite (page 13). After a fight that leaves several enemies' severed heads still "gibbering and grimacing in the dust" as their decapitated bodies continue "cutting and slashing" at random (page 14), the pair--and the still-conversing heads--are taken to a secretive city ruled by a coalition of seven kings.

The strange warriors--and the rulers themselves, although their brains have been transplanted into normal bodies--are "hormads," the product of Ras Thavas's attempt to create synthetic humans from "a culture in which tissue [grows] continuously" (page 21). He still doesn't have all the bugs worked out, though, and what comes out are, generally, "hideous creatures" (page 21), with any that are too weird simply being "sliced into hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces that are dumped back into the culture vats, where they grow with such unbelievable rapidity that within nine days each has developed into a full-sized hormad again" (pages 22-23). The non-rejects don't have to be Michelangelo's David, however; they just have to be able to fight, for the "stupendous plan" is that an army of synthetic millions upon millions be used to conquer the entirety of Barsoom (page 22).

So now have not only the plight of the maimed Dejah Thoris but also a threat to the entire world. In fact, there's a third piece of jeopardy, which is the most immediate one for Vor Daj: the wellbeing of Janai, a girl who had been captured by the aerial patrol just prior to the Heliumites. As usual for Burroughs, she is "beautiful," and yet despite the "terror and helplessness" in her eyes (page 17), she still attempts for Vor Daj "a very brave little smile. A pathetic little smile out of a hopeless heart" (page 28). After all, as she tells him, "You are...better off in that you are a man. The worst they will do to you is kill you" (page 24), whereas she presumably awaits A Fate Worse Than Death once the seven kings finish their squabbling about who will have her.

Well, you know the Burroughs fighting-man hero-- They don't cotton to this none 'round hyah, and of course they fall in love on sight, for such, it seems, is the allure of these Barsoomian gals whose jeweled leathern trappings seem to call the eye more than guard against it. It's not creepy at all, apparently, nor is this "love" anything but the most holy and self-sacrificing...no matter how sultry and shapely the object of desire. "[L]ove is mad," shrugs the earnest Vor Daj at John Carter's incredulity that the warrior has asked to have his brain transplanted into a hormad body, but this is the only way Vor Daj "can find the opportunity to discover what has become of Janai" and "[p]erhaps...even rescue her," after which Ras Thavas, who truly has reformed and now is a trusted ally, can switch 'im back again (page 42). Hey, what could go wrong?

A bunch, apparently. It's too bad for Vor Daj, shambling around as a huge "hormad with a hideous face and malformed body" (page 43), immensely strong and capable of an exceedingly long reach in a swordfight though the body may be. Posing as a hormad while John Carter and Ras Thavas attempt to go back and save Dejah Thoris, Vor Daj while hoping for their promised return can only work his way up in the service of the most ambitious and clever of the seven kings. At the same time he must protect the woman he loves, even as her suspicion of the crooked-faced beast gradually wanes and yet occasionally waxes again from her own natural doubt, or from that encouraged by rivals of the masquerading Vor Daj. And in the back of the narrator's mind is that, capable as John Carter is, his escape from the Great Toonolian Marshes will be very, very difficult, and if he and Ras Thavas do not make it...well, then he himself will be stuck as a hormad forever, exiled from his own body, the woman he loves, and the society of Helium.

As usual in this series, there are swordfights and secret creepings, plans cleverly drawn up and yet dashed, heroism and friendship and betrayal. It will be quite a journey before Vor Daj finally comes to the end of his double- or triple-pronged quests, and Synthetic Men of Mars along the way gives us a solidly entertaining four-star Barsoomian read.

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Reading Progress

June 27, 2021 – Started Reading
June 30, 2021 – Finished Reading
July 3, 2021 – Shelved

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