JOHN CARTER (of Mars!) for book lovers

Been busy the last month — too busy to really blog.  My agent, the estimable Andrew Zack, asked me to do some formatting of my manuscript in order to send it to editors; did that, did some other things, had a sleep study performed (apnea woke me up, on average, 59 times an hour!  No wonder I wake up in the morning feeling completely worn out!) and did the daily work thing.
The result: just like I have to make time to read, I now have to make time to blog.  Just how and when, I’ll let you know.  For now, it’s right now; and right now, let’s talk about a subject near and dear to my ink-stained, bibiloholic heart: the Red Planet.
I love the rings of Saturn.
I am astounded by the Red Spot of Jupiter, and especially by the gas planet’s two moons, Europa and Io, where volcanic activity far beneath their frozen surfaces give rise to the possibility of alien life.
But it is Mars, the Angry Red Planet, the World of War, that has not only captured my imagination since I was thirteen, but has held the imagination of countless others in thrall, especially since the canali of Mars were “discovered” by Schiaparelli in 1892 and expounded upon later by Percival Lowell.
When I was thirteen, I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs, Captain John Carter of Virginia, Dejah Thoris, an incomparable princess of Barsoom, and Woola, carter’s faithful Martian dog — and my life has never been the same.
Burroughs wrote his last Martian story in the mid-1940s.  Since then, not a single original story has been published in book form continuing the adventures of John Carter, Warlord of Mars.  (I’m not counting stories published in comic books or as fan fiction.)
Until now.
I’ve been waiting just about 37 years for new stories about Burroughs’ Mars to be published, and this new anthology is being released to coincide with the release of John Carter, Disney’s hugely budgeted and long-awaited version of Burroughs’ first novel, A Princess of Mars.
Under the Moons of Mars takes its title from the original appearance of the first John Carter tale, in All-Story Magazine, February, 1912.  This “scientific romance” featured a Civil War veteran transported to Mars, giant, green, four-armed, tusked warriors, and a human race who walked around naked, except for swords and leather harnesses.  Weird stuff in 1912 — and it was that reason why Burroughs used a pen name, Normal Bean, to indicate that the writer was, indeed, normal.
He needn’t have bothered.  The story was immensely popular, and with his second and third novels, The Outlaw of Torn and Tarzan of the Apes, the Burroughs name became the gold standard for adventure.  The novel was published in hardcover five years later, with its subsequent and classic title, A Princess of Mars.
This anthology is like any other anthology: a grab bag of stories of wide and varying quality.  Editor John Joseph Adams has brought together some good and popular writers, but they don’t necessarily provide the best stories.  Peter Beagle is a great fantasist, but his version of John Carter comes across as an angry and violent apologist for the Confederacy, and his Dejah Thoris flirts with Tarzan after the jungle lord has been transported to Mars.  It doesn’t ring true at all.  Joe Lansdale’s story is firmly true to the Barsoom oeuvre, but, as such, is a good introduction to Barsoom, but not very original at all.
There are three A stories here.  The first is a surprise, the second tale in the book, by David Barr Kirtly.  It features a green warrior and a young woman from Earth, and how they cope with a new existence on Mars.  I’d really like to read more about both, especially about Suzanne Meyers from a place called New York.
The final story, “The Death Song of Dwar Guntha,” by Jonathan Maberry, is also an A story — a melancholy tale of a Barsoomian Light Brigade.  Usually, the last story in an anthology is the best story; but not this time.  Its placement here is absolutely appropriate, as it serves as a thoughtful, lingering conclusion to the book that leaves the reader wanting more.
(Honorable Mention goes to “Woola’s Song,” which looks at the adventures of John Carter and Dejah Thoris through the eyes of Woola, his loyal calot.  Woola has always been my favorite dog in fiction — Krypto is a close second — and here he finally gets his due.)
The best and most original story is by seminal comic book writer Chris Claremont.  “The Ghost that Haunts the Superstition Mountains” takes our Barsoomian champions and places them in an adventure on earth, during the days of Cochise and the southwestern Apache wars.  Claremont gives us Chapter 11 of this story, which is self-contained, placing us firmly in the grip of pulp convention: get the story started right in the middle of the action.  I wish that he would write the remainder of the novel — Barsoomian tales, I think, are best at novel-length — and this single story could absolutely lend itself to a lengthy ten chapters before and ten more behind.
Claremont, with a change of setting and a realistic writing style — plus an obvious reverence for the characters — knows how to pace and knows how to tell an adventure story.  The characters are written pitch perfectly, and the star of the story, green Thark Tars Tarkas, shines as he’s placed in the alien environment of the American West.  “Ghost” is simply invigorating — a new beginning for Barsoomian tales in the 21st century — and I want more.  A lot more.
This book comes out in February, just in time for John Carter to hit the movie screens.  Read it for a quick Martian fix at Amazon.  And here’s the movie trailer.

UPDATED: The United States of CorpAmerica ™

UPDATE 2:07 pm Feb 13, 2011:  They’re nickel and diming us to death.  That’s where it starts; that’s where it’s personal.  They know, more than us real people, that mere pennies add up, especially when you’re getting pennies from everyone and for everything.  Here: this is the most recent thing I’ve discovered — just a few minutes ago, as a matter of fact — that shows how our corporate overlords really think of us.

*      *      *

Corporate greed is the reason I need a new pair of glasses.

The pair I’m wearing is a replacement pair for glasses that, three weeks ago, had just been delivered to the Grove Avenue Eye Center.  That pair distorted my vision and was unusable; this pair, it was promised, would be perfect.
And they are.  A perfect waste.  They distort my vision even more.  It turns out that DavisVision, my vision insurer, makes the lenses themselves.  In what fashion, with what primitive grinding and polishing instruments, and with what neanderthal-like technicians in gruel-stained lab coats, I don’t know — but my doctors don’t like DavisVision (they say this with eye rolling and wink-winks) as they cannot vouch for their “quality.”
I can.
They suck.
So I’m waiting for another new pair of bifocals so I can use a computer with the upper, intermediate lenses, and read what’s on my desk with the lower lenses.  Right now, the lower lenses make it appear as though I’m reading through a pane of rushing water that distorts the letters when I move.  (Distort.  I used that word describing the effect to the glasses technician.  She didn’t understand the word.)  DavisVision, according to the woman who cut the lenses — here in Richmond — from the pieces of glass Davis sent them from wherever in DavisHell, actually changed my prescription because they did not have an upper and lower set that would match what my doctor prescribed.
Quality costs money.  And spending money on their customers is one thing corporations don’t want to do.

So I’m reading this wonderful new anthology, Brave New Worlds.  It’s a collection of dystopian short stories, all about presents- and futures-imperfect, where life and civilization have gone all wrong.  Sexuality is legislated, the military runs the government, babies are revered but adults are killed, books are outlawed, chips in our brains control our minds — fictional, of course, dystopian Americas that we, as a people, know just can’t happen here.  That’s all just make-believe.
In the introduction, the editor, John Joseph Adams, writes

Whether or not a society is perceived as a dystopia is usually determined by one’s point of view; what one person may consider to be a horrible dystopia, another may find completely acceptable or nigh-utopian.

Later, in the introduction to “The Pedestrian,” a story written by Ray Bradbury in 1951, the editor writes

One marker of a dystopian society is its lack of fairness.  For some people, the field isn’t just unlevel — it’s hideously slanted, and there’s no way to get a hand up it.

We’re in a future that was predicted in the ’70s in Rollerball — that’s the first time I can remember thinking that our present situation could seriously come to pass — and somewhat in the ’80s with Blade Runner.
It’s a dystopian future where corporations have a stranglehold on the government.  They’ve bought the politicians, they’re going for the courts, they’re ripping the money out of our pockets by nickel and diming us with fees and surcharges and obscene interests and price-gouging and ticket scalping and Planned Product Obsolescence.  People aren’t important, except to be used as a working class — all of us, working for the corporations, and the executives at the top of their golden pyramid schemes, firing our workers to find cheap labor overseas, while annually raising prices that we just can’t meet without credit here, credit there.
This dystopia exists here in America, right now.  And I really don’t think people are looking at it like that.  I think conservatives, especially the tea partiers, in the lower and middle class still think, still believe in their innermost hearts, that by working hard and struggling every day and being honest (well, mostly, because the boss will never notice if I take home one of these pens or a notebook, right?), that they will make it, that they will eventually join the higher echelon of financial security — the Upper Class.
Ain’t gonna happen.
This is the lie that they want us to believe: Work hard and you will get everything you want.
Yeah.  I heard this before in history class.
Arbeit macht frei.
21st Century America isn’t in a science fiction dystopia.  It’s an all too real economic armageddon that right now affects every single American.  The root cause is not the deficit, the cost of war, the price of gas, the frosts in Florida, the mortgage crisis, or industry bailouts.
The root effect is personal, forcing middle class wage-earners to scrimp and crawl just to live paycheck by paycheck; and the root cause is greed, corporate greed — that’s what has brought us as a country — and especially on an individual level — to this financial apocalypse.
And, hell, we’ve all bought into it.  We believe what the bought politicians are telling us.  We believe the talk radio fat cats.  We respect men who wear ties and snap flag pins on their lapels.  We follow the rules because we want to be led, we need rules to keep things right, keep things moral!  And the corporations would never do anything to us, never!  The business of America is business!
Rollerball has come true.
We are in the midst of an American dystopia — brought about by the fear-mongers who are already billionaires and want more money and more power –and I’m not sure anybody can see it.  There are too many trees in the way, and we can’t figure out we’re in a freakin’ forest.
Brave New Worlds.  The book is fiction, like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  But the stories — the dystopias — could come true.
If they haven’t already.
I’m going for a third pair of new glasses on Monday.  Do you really think DavisVision gives a damn if they get my prescription right?
Read the book.  It could happen here.