There’s just something about the vast red wastelands of our nearest planetary neighbor. Even though we’ve all seen photos of the desolate surface taken by our robot pioneers and know on an intellectual level that nothing waits for us on Mars but red dirt, freezing winds, and the wreckage of the machines we’ve sent to do our exploring for us, we just can’t help but look at that angry red dot in the night sky and imagine a world like our own. Like our own, but a planet where the fragile façade of civilization and security have been stripped away. A planet that hides its secrets beneath shifting crimson sands and waving alien flora. It’s a land just out of reach, yet close enough to taste, and so it makes a perfect setting for the lost hero to discover a new world, and make an immediate impact on the almost human societies that call Mars home. Or perhaps the science-fiction genre, one that claims to have moved on, still carry fragments of Edgar Rice Burrough’s DNA within its mitochrondria.
Either way, savage Mars continues to serve as an excellent canvas for writers to paint epic stories of exploration, romance, and bare-knuckle action. (To say nothing of bare limbed – it’s hot on the desert planet!) The image of Mars painted by Joel Jenkins inn Dire Planet certainly owes a great debt to Burroughs. Jenkin’s Mars is no less savage, and populated by the expected menagerie of vicious fauna and multiple races of Man. It is a planet of contrasts, with hideous spider-folk and beautiful near-elven warrior races. It is a vast and sprawling land whose Golden Age has long since passed, and the treasures of that Golden Race lie in wait for those bold enough to seek them out and clever enough to avoid the guardians that also lie in wait.
Which is not to say that the Mars of Dire Planet feels in any way unoriginal. Although clearly inspired by Burroughs, Dire Planet acknowledges the intervening decades and makes good use of the intervening changes in technology and advances in extra-planetary understanding of Mars. Garvey Dire, the hero of the novel, arrives on Mars in the modern style – the first man to set foot on the planet, he is sent secretly for reasons of international intrigue, but marooned due to a rival astronaut’s perfidy, and only escapes certain death on Mars through the fortunate coincidence that his crash site just so happens to be within crawling distance of a time-warp trap that allows him to escape to 47,000 years in the past and to rescue a trapped Martian beauty and at the same time.
At this point it’s worth mentioning that Jenkins’ Mars also shares a love of coincidence with Burroughs’ Barsoom. Although it’s fair to say that Jenkins goes to that well considerably less often than Burroughs, that’s admittedly a pretty low bar.
What follows is the sort of rapid pace adventure race that sees Garvey Dire captured by the evil Galbrans, a degenerate race led by the Warlord Shaxia, escape with the help of a beautiful warrior woman, explore a few tombs, fight a few monsters, and wind up captured once more. Interspersed with the story of Garvey Dire is a parallel adventure that sees a rescue mission sent to Mars encounter more modern day troubles in the form of a rival Chinese mission. The two stories crash into each other in the closing chapters, providing for more miraculous escapes and heroic sacrifice in the finest Burroughsian tradition.
This book is not for the Campbellians. Jenkins’ Dire Planet handwaves away any technological limitations in service to the story. The communications between Earth and Mars feature no lag and no explanation for why this should be so. At one point a man survives several minutes’ worth of direct exposure to Martian atmosphere by sucking on an air-tube. Oh well – this is sword and planet fiction, and the somewhat more grounded technology of the portions of the tale that take place in our time serve to allow for contrast with the sword wielding and dragon slaying portions of the story.
Joel’s writing zips along in service to the story, and his plotting and pacing provide the extended action sequences followed by more personal moments of reflection and romance to give the reader time to catch his breath. The world feels fully realized in a way that Barsoom doesn’t always – Burroughs always seemed to be making things up as he went along, but it’s clear from the hints and details that Jenkins already knows the general lay of the Martian land. No doubt, the subsequent books in the series go on to fill in the blank places left on the Martian map with the same verisimilitude as this first entry.
And even though Mars itself is a much smaller planet that our own world of Earth, it’s clear from this version of the red planet that you don’t need a lot of surface area for adventure. You just need a towering imagination and the courage to turn your back on the cynics of the day and populate that planet with the sorts of dangers and treasures – and beautiful people – that keep readers turning the pages well into the night. Joel Jenkins has both, and those who can still set aside their own ‘above it all’ sense of the mundane and embrace a sense of wonder will appreciate this sword and planet novel not as a pastiche, but for its own sake.