Spirit of the Century presents: Khan of Mars by Stephen Blackmoore
So. Khan of Mars is set in some kind of shared-universe thing, based maybe on a game (board or table-top rpg; I can’t tell from the badly done ad in the back of the book) or maybe the game is based on the books, I can’t tell. The central character of this book is one Professor Khan, a sentient, talking gorilla who’s also a university professor in Britain and a member of the Century Club, a group of adventurers in the pulp tradition. In addition to Khan we meet Benjamin Hu, detective, Amelia Stone, aviatrix, Edison Thomas, mad scientist, and Enrique “Bulls-eye” Gutierrez, newly-minted Centurian from the US branch of the club (Prof Khan and the rest are from the London branch). An accident in Dr. Thomas’ lab opens a portal that sends Khan and Bulls-eye to Mars, where Khan is seen as a prophesied hero who will overthrow the evil ruler and free the many races of Mars, particularly the blue-skinned gorillas known as the Inkidu.
There’s a clear attempt to get a pulp sensibility here, and it kind of falls flat, at least to me. It’s hard to tell when, exactly, it’s supposed to be occurring; though I’m pretty sure it isn’t the spirit of this century. Mars doesn’t feel right either: with its multiple animalistic races and evil ruler it’s Mongo, from Flash Gordon. There’s a lot of action but none of it seems to add up to anything. Professor Khan’s background is never filled in (how did he become a lecturer at Oxford?); all we learn is that he has a “genetic progenitor” named Gorilla Khan, the conqueror ape, but what it means to be a genetic progenitor is never explained either (parent? Clone tissue donor?). The only character in the book I actually liked as Amelia Stone, and she doesn’t get enough “screen time” to make the book worthwhile.
It isn’t a bad book, per se, it just isn’t a good book. It fails as pulp and it fails as commentary on pulp. It’s not terrible, but you can do much, much better. Not recommended.
She: a history of adventure by H. Rider Haggard
She predates pulp as such by decades; it came out in 1887. Still, it’s a tale of adventure, albeit a completely different one to Khan.
Haggard keeps up the tradition of pretending to be editor to a tale someone else has given him. In this case, the someone else is L. Horace Holly (named changed to protect the innocent), the ugliest man on the grounds of Cambridge University (University name changed to protect . . . well, you get the idea), and guardian to Leo Vincey, the handsomest man on the the grounds of Cambridge University. Vincey’s dad basically shows up at Holly’s rooms one night with a big metal chest and says, “I’m gonna die, take care of my son and when he’s of age show him what’s in this chest and I’ll see to it that you’re taken care of” and then goes and dies. Holly raises young Leo until he’s 21, at which time they open the chest and learn that the Vinceys are descended from an ancient greek named Kallikrates, who abandoned everything to marry an egyptian woman, only to land in an unknown part of Africa ruled by a woman who claimed to be immortal, who fell in love with Kallikrates but wound up killing him when he chose to stay with his wife. She fled but fortunately (at least, fortunately for the Vinceys) was already pregnant and left the story behind so that her son should try to avenge his father. And if the son failed, the next generation, and so on. As the family moved from Greece to Italy to France to Britain, generation after generation passed the story on and went to Africa only to fail to find the woman and avenge Kallikrates.
Leo and Holly head off to Africa, expecting maybe a few months of fine hunting but, as you might expect, they succeed where all Leo’s ancestors failed and find their way to the caves of Kor, where the decadent Amahagger live, under the leadership of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, a beautiful arab named Ayesha who claims to be over 2000 years old, to have known and loved Kallikrates, and that Leo is his reincarnation.
I don’t know if Haggard is a better writer that Blackmoore, or if he just had better material to work with, but this is a far more interesting book, and hardly anyone gets shot and no gorillas appear at all. People do talk, though, oh god do they talk. She and Holly spend pages talking religion and philosophy and you can safely skip a lot of it. Overall, though I wouldn’t call it exciting it is mostly interesting. Very much a product of its time, though, and so not for everyone. Cautiously recommended.