There have been many versions of the “Beauty and the Beast” story since French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve published her book back in 1740, and in 1939 Edgar Rice Burroughs put his own spin on the tale, but he decided to leave out the Stockholm Syndrome element of the story. Synthetic Men of Mars was first published in the pages of Argosy Weekly as a six part series; and though it does include the heroic John Carter he is mostly a tertiary character.
Once again Dejah Thoris is in danger; surprisingly it’s not from being kidnapped but from suffering a serious injury in an airship collision. The top medical minds of Helium are unable to help her so John Carter turns to the greatest mind on all Barsoom, Ras Thavas, who first appeared in The Master Mind of Mars, but finding him is the tricky thing as Ras Thavas had moved his laboratory to a secret location since we last saw him.
Vor Daj, a young lieutenant in the Helium army, insists that he be allowed to accompany John Carter and the two set forth in a small flier, but due to a broken navigational needle they find themselves flying near the dreaded Toonolian Marshes. They land their flier and decide to approach the city of Phundahl to see its Jeddak, but before they reach the city they are captured by monstrously deformed humanoids mounted upon giant flying birds that have long been presumed to be extinct. Even John Carter’s superior swordsmanship is no help as these beings can withstand almost any amount of damage, only cutting off their head seems to slow them down, and soon our heroes find themselves captured and being taken to the island city of Morbus located deep inside the marsh.
Guess where Ras Thavas had moved his secret laboratory to? Put your hand down, we all know it’s in Morbus. Anyone familiar with the works of Burroughs knows that incredible coincidences tend to pop up in his stories from time to time; in The Fighting Man of Mars the hero loses his invisible ship but then days later, when trapped on a hill and surrounded by enemies, our hero bumps into something he can’t see that of course turns out to be his lost invisible flier. It can be said that the gods of chance look kindly upon the characters created by Burroughs; so that John Carter and Vor Daj got lost, captured, and then taken to the very place they needed to go isn’t all that surprising.
Story structure has never been Burroughs’ strong suit, writing in serialized form is bound to change things a bit, but where he always stands out is in the sheer creativity of the people and worlds he populates these stories with. The title creatures of Synthetic Men of Mars are the hormads, men grown in huge vats by Ras Thavas in another of his bids to take over the world. He hadn’t quite perfected the process when our heroes encounter him; many of the creatures that stumble out of the vat are so far deformed that they are just chucked back in, but even the best of them are hideous to behold, misshapen monstrosities of ones worst nightmares. Ras Thavas had planned to make an army that would be nigh unbeatable, but unfortunately a few of them were intelligent enough to overthrow Ras and forced him to continue making “monster men” while also forcing him to use his brain swapping techniques to move their own brains into the bodies of normal Red Men of Barsoom that they capture from time to time. Basically this is a Frankenstein story only with an army of monsters, and Ras Thavas as an even less sympathetic mad scientist.
But what of the “Beauty and the Beast” element I alluded to at the beginning of this review? Well you’re not going to have an Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure without a love interest in this case of we have the lovely Janai, a beautiful woman and fellow prisoner in this mad city, and who Vor Daj falls in love with. Vor Daj comes up with the most insane plan to protect this fair maiden; he ask Ras Thavas to put his brain inside the body of one of the homads, this way he will have freedom to move around the city and find Janai. He finds her and becomes her protector, but he can’t find it in himself to let her know that he is Vor Daj, who she’d briefly met during their capture, and so he tells her that he had been looking for her on Vor Daj’s behalf. She is at times suspicious of this hulking brute, and can get no real verification of his claim to be Vor Daj’s friend as his body is in cold storage beneath Ras Thavas’s labs, but over time she comes to realize what a noble and brave soul lies inside this monstrosity.
Will beauty see into the heart of the beast? Will Vor Daj get his body back? Is Dejah Thoris doomed if Ras Thavas cannot escape his own creations? Is all of Barsoom itself doomed if this army of monster men wage war on the planet? And just what is John Carter doing during all this?
Synthetic Men of Mars is not one of the better Barsoom stories, John Carter vanishing for the bulk of the book is lazily contrived so as to give us time with the book’s new hero, but anytime spent with mad scientist Ras Thavas I enjoyed wholeheartedly, and his current creations are quite amazing (even if one of the vats gets out of control and becomes a massive fleshy blob, with random arms and heads sticking out of it that could eventually consume all life on Mars) and are true fun science fiction stuff. The love story between Vor Daj and Janai gets that nice wrinkle of the hero being stuck in the body of a monster, and once again the action and humor found in these pages is always entertaining. So even if this isn’t one of the better books in the series it’s still worth checking out.