Otis Adelbert Kline, The Swordsman of Mars (Paizo Planet Stories, 2008)
Pulp fiction, in its classic incarnation, is not to
everyone’s taste. There’s a great deal of the old school
″race indicates behavior″ stickiness, though the races in
question are often purple, live on Venus and have six arms. There’s
the strident and simplistic brutalizing of Communist straw men, the
less-than-enlightened approach toward the roles of women, and the
unquestioned assumption that the best possible response to any
particular situation is to pick up a sword and start hacking.
That being said, the best of pulp fiction still resonates, and it does so because of the sheer, unadulterated fun factor it possesses. Whatever its other faults might be, good pulp moves, and it moves in places and ways that are utterly seductive. Fighting duels aboard winged beasts over the Martian plains? Leading a daring raid to overthrow a treacherous usurper using stolen Lunar death rays? Tussling with ferocious Martian bog-beasties? Who wouldn’t want to do that, secure in the knowledge that they, The Hero, are bound to come out of things triumphant?
And so we have Otis Adelbert Kline’s The Swordsman of Mars, reissued by Paizo’s Planet Stories line in its original text. Regarded as a minor classic of the genre, it’s been unavailable for years, and the most recent edition of the book was a bowdlerized version. Paizo, then, has done lovers of pulps a favor by bringing it back to view in all its glory.
Make no mistake about it, The Swordsman of Mars is some of the good stuff, as Michael Moorcock attests in his foreword. While the setup may be a little dodgy -- depressed socialite Harry Thorne is kidnapped by a mysterious professor and offered the choice of either body-switching with a Martian or death -- once the action gets to Kline’s mythical Mars, it never lets up.
Cast adrift in a society he knows nothing about, armed only with
his wits and skill with a sword, and dropped rather unceremoniously
into a political situation fraught with peril, Thorne makes a manly
go of things. Fortunately, there’s barely time for him to think
about his situation, as he’s flung from one peril to the next,
fighting monsters one minute and guarding a seductive and dangerous
Martian princess the next. Nor does Kline skimp on the Martian
scenery; from ancient walled cities to deadly baridium mines, he
keeps his hero on the move. Throw in a supporting cast of dastardly
villains, noble henchmen, and beautiful but deadly Martian women, and
the end result is a heady brew, an enjoyable romp across a mythical
landscape that Kline took great care to develop.
Is it politically correct? Not terribly, though the ending does have a sly, modern twist to it. Is it great literature? Certainly not, nor should it be held to that standard. What The Swordsman of Mars is can be summed up in one word: Fun. Those looking for a transcendent literary experience won’t find it here. Those looking for a rollicking good time, however, will, and to them I say welcome to Mars; you’re going to enjoy the trip.