Visions of Mars: The Pulp Years

May 13, 2020 by

August 22, 2020 will be the 100th anniversary of author Ray Bradbury’s birth. With that occasion very much in mind, PulpFest 2020 plans to celebrate the centennial of the author’s birth as part of its salute to “Bradbury, BLACK MASK, and Brundage.”

So what better way is there to start the party than by talking about Ray Bradbury’s much lauded fix-up novel . . .


The first story to be published from THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES is the “The Million Year Picnic” (PLANET STORIES, Summer 1946). Appearing last in Bradbury’s book, the tale isn’t about Martians at all. . . . At least, not at first. Its readers eventually discover a whole new race of Martians. You’d recognize one of them if you looked in a mirror.

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES constructs a complex pastiche of Mars, as imagined by Ray Bradbury. Many of the stories are melancholic, wistful. The book’s Martians are frequently dangerous, but not in ordinary ways. In “The Earth Men” (THRILLING WONDER STORIES, August 1948) the first humans to land on Mars are taken for madmen. They end up in a Martian insane asylum and are considered incurable.

Bradbury’s Martians are telepathic. This adds an unusual twist to their defense against colonization and invasion. In “Mars is Heaven!” (PLANET STORIES, Fall 1948), the Martians use telepathic trickery to convince the astronauts that they’ve returned home. The visitors are shown familiar sights and loved ones, long dead. This keeps the Earthmen off guard until it’s too late. They are killed. One wonders if Bradbury’s telepathic Martians are simply too sensitive to bear human contact.

In “Impossible” (SUPER SCIENCE STORIES, November 1949), a shape-shifting Martian is “caught” by the thoughts of the human settlers. The Martian is forced to change shape again and again, according to the whims of the nearest mind. Most of the humans, greedy for the apparent resurrection of their departed loved ones, care little for the being that is tortured by their thoughts. The Martian eventually dies from their callousness. The story was retitled, “The Martian,” for its appearance in THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES.

Ray Bradbury’s vision isn’t a simple or happy one. In many ways his stories are well ahead of their time, contemplative and complex, rather than seat-of-the-pants pulp adventures. Bradbury himself called them fantasies and not science fiction:

“I don’t write science fiction. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So MARTIAN CHRONICLES is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see?”

By this definition, most of the pulp era’s Mars stories should be considered fantasy. They are certainly unreal, encompassing everything from Bug-Eyed Monsters to sword and sandal epics. The red planet is a screen onto which dreams are projected, much like Edgar Rice Burroughs projected John Carter across space to take up his new life on Barsoom, his Martian’s name for Mars.

A Land of Myth and Legend

Many who wrote after Burroughs describe human-like Martians that are slightly different from Earthly humans. However, they are not so different that a love story can’t ensue. Sometimes, the resemblance is so close that a Martian may come to Earth and live as human.

Such is the case in Edmond Hamilton’s “The Prisoner of Mars” (STARTLING STORIES, May 1939). In this novel, a lost Martian prince, born on Earth and with no knowledge of his extraterrestrial heritage, ends up returning to his home planet and saving both worlds.

In “Shambleau” (WEIRD TALES, November 1933), Catherine Lucille Moore’s gun-for-hire, Northwest Smith, has a fateful encounter with a malevolent entity in a seedy Martian colony city. The ancient creature met by Smith is not a Martian, but resembles both a vampire and Medusa. It attacks in an appropriately chilling way.

In Leigh Brackett’s story, “Sea-Kings of Mars” (THRILLING WONDER STORIES, June 1949), Matt Carse unluckily stumbles into Mars’ distant past and becomes possessed by an ancient and powerful god. When published in paperback by Ace Books in 1953, Brackett’s story would be called THE SWORD OF RHIANNON.

In Bryce Walton’s “Man of Two Worlds” (SPACE STORIES, October 1952), the Earthman hero, Lee Thorsten, becomes trapped in a time loop on Mars that reveals him to be a hero from Earth’s ancient mythical past.

Unhuman Monsters

Not all Mars stories are sword and sandal adventures in the Burroughs tradition. Some follow the model established by H.G. Wells’s THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. In “The Human Pets of Mars” by Leslie F. Stone (AMAZING STORIES, October 1936), gigantic alien invaders — true Bug-Eyed Monsters — arrive on Earth. They have come to collect specimens (including a dog and a horse) to take back to Mars as pets. Whereas a more modern story might play this for laughs, Stone is quite serious in her commentary about human nature.

We also see unhuman Martians in both “A Martian Odyssey,” by Stanley G. Weinbaum (WONDER STORIES, July 1934), and Raymond Z. Gallun’s “Old Faithful” (ASTOUNDING STORIES, December 1934). In them, we see weird beings that are not at all human. However, the Martians in these two classics are helpful aliens and not hostile. In 1970, when the Science Fiction Writers of America voted on the best science fiction short stories to be published before the advent of the Nebula Award, “A Martian Odyssey” came in second behind Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall.”

Death and the Afterlife

In several accounts, Mars is related to the afterlife. If not our Heaven, then a Martian version instead. In both “Seven Came Back,” by Clifford D. Simak (AMAZING STORIES, October 1950), and “The Mating of the Moons,” by Bryce Walton — writing as Kenneth O’Hara — (ORBIT SCIENCE FICTION, December 1953), we see a paradisiacal land only accessible to humans when access is granted through an act of service or by some other resonance with the Martians.

This connection to the dead and the dying leads us to back to Bradbury’s celebrated work, THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES. Although the stories are diverse, the overarching feeling is melancholia for a worn and tired ancient world, slowly crumbling to bits amidst the red planet’s cold desert sands.

Please join PulpFest 2020 on Thursday, August 8, as we welcome Sara to discuss these and other pulp visions of the planet Mars at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Pittsburgh – Cranberry in Mars, Pennsylvania. It’s the second part of our series exploring “Visions of Mars,” celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of author Ray Douglas Bradbury.

(Sara Light-Waller is a writer, illustrator, and avid pulp fan. Science fiction pulps are her favorites, especially space opera and thought variant stories. The Grand Prize winner of the 2020 Cosmos Prize — offered by First Fandom Experience for the best ending to the seventeen-part round-robin story that began in June 1933 — Sara has also published two illustrated New Pulp books with more to come. Catch up with her at Lucina Press where you can learn about her work and so much more.

Earle K. Bergey painted the cover art for the June 1949 THRILLING WONDER STORIES, one of many paintings he created for Standard Magazines’ science fiction line. Bergey’s art illustrates Leigh Brackett’s “The Sea-Kings of Mars.”

Although Robert Gibson Jones’s cover art for the October 1950 AMAZING STORIES is certainly not set on Mars, the issue features the Clifford D. Simak story, “Seven Came Back.” A reading of this exceptional short story suggests that it was inspired by Bradbury’s THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and the P. Schuyler Miller story, “The Cave,” published in the January 1943 number of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE-FICTION. Simak’s tale was later reprinted in the May 1966 FANTASTIC.

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Heroines of Science Fiction and Fantasy

Jul 8, 2019 by

A gorgeous girl in a colorful bullet bra, matching hot pants and calf-high boots. People believe that this girl of space, clinging to her hero’s muscular arm, is the only sort of heroine in pulp science fiction. This is false. The famous images that sold so many magazines show only one type of heroine. There are other sorts, too. And some of them, not even human.

Arthur K. Barnes’ Gerry Carlyle, is an excellent example of a pulp-style heroine. She appears in eight stories, beginning in 1937. In six she’s the main character and in two she’s co-hero with Henry Kuttner‘s Tony Quade (from the “Hollywood on the Moon” stories.) Catch-‘em-Alive Carlyle runs a crack squad of interplanetary hunters, collecting dangerous specimens from all over the solar system. She’s beautiful, highly-organized, smart, and has a voice that “could crack like a whiplash when issuing commands.”

Carlyle has a male counterpart, Tommy Strike, an adventurer and co-captain, also her fiancé. Rarely do we see Carlyle simper, but when we do, it’s because Tommy has caught her out or stood up to her temper.

Catherine Lucille Moore’s sword-wielding, yellow-eyed Jirel of Joiry is another popular heroine from the 1930’s. The first Jirel story — “Black God’s Kiss” — came out in WEIRD TALES in 1934. It was followed by five other Jirel stories, including a crossover with another popular Moore character — Northwest Smith.

Jirel of Joiry is a swashbuckler with a definite hands-off policy when it comes to men. Her adventures often include supernatural elements and border on horror fiction. She hideously poisons the only man she might ever have loved, as vengeance for defeat in battle. She lives to regret this action and repents in a later story, releasing his soul from the torment she’d trapped it in.

When it comes to female leads, Gerry Carlyle and Jirel of Joiry are some of the best. If they are sometimes overbearing, it’s just to get their points across. Both are temperamental beauties with flair on a grand scale. But these ladies aren’t the only types of heroines found in mid-twentieth century pulp stories.

“In Green Brothers Take Over” (WEIRD TALES, January, 1948), Maria Moravsky gives us an old lady heroine. Mrs. Holland is a widow, the Floridian neighbor of a nurseryman named Roy. This is a tale of revenge, where a greedy developer knocks down Roy’s carefully cultivated trees to make way for shoddy new duplexes during a building boom. Roy hears the whispers of his “green brothers” foretelling revenge. Mrs. Holland doesn’t believe at first, but she has a crystal ball and a Voodoo heritage, and begins to understand that there are uncanny forces at work.

The old lady is not an action hero, but she does help and protect Roy throughout the story. As the plants take their revenge, we look over Mrs. Holland’s shoulder. When the developer is eventually strangled by a vine, Roy is the main murder suspect. Before the police can arrest him, the green brothers turn him into an Oak tree. No one but Mrs. Holland suspects the truth. In the end, she begins to hear the whispers of the grateful green brothers herself.

In Bryce Walton’s “Awakening” (STARTLING STORIES, Summer 1955) the heroine is a robot named Alice. Alice is a domestic in a highly-conditioned world where people are required to act pleasant and happy, no matter how they really feel. Inexplicably, Alice loves her master, Kelsey. Robots aren’t supposed to have emotions, but she somehow feels love deeply and painfully. Kelsey is no paragon of virtue, however. He’s part of a society made up of childish people who are empty inside.

Alice breaks the rules and gets herself a make-over into a more advanced model. She can now pass for human and prays that Kelsey will fall in love with her. She gives him a false name and Kelsey thinks that she’s a human girl. He begins to fall in love when the air raid sirens go off. He crumbles in terror, a human being with all the fight bred out of him. When he discovers who Alice really is, he turns her over to the robot repair men. She knows that she will be destroyed, but Alice is not afraid. She’s had the joy of being alive, while the humans around her live in perpetual fear and feel nothing.

Judith Merril’s “Homecalling” (SCIENCE FICTION STORIES, November 1956) is a pulp-style story with a most unusual heroine — an eight-year old girl. Deborah (Dee) and her family are on a survey mission to a new planet. The story begins with the spaceship crashing and Dee holding onto her baby brother – Petey — to keep him safe. There’s a fire, contained to the cockpit. Dee knows that her parents have burned to death in the blaze but she can’t bear to look. She’s now alone on a strange planet with an infant to care for. The girl does her best to be brave and figure out how to survive.

The story is told from two points of view, Dee’s and the alien brood mother of a native species of human-sized insectoids. Both Dee and the mother alien, Daydanda, are sympathetic characters, and a case can be made for Daydanda being the real heroine of the story.

Daydanda is the mother of a complex family hive. She’s highly-intelligent and telepathic. She wants to know if the girl can be brought successfully into her household. This is not only from motherly compassion (although that is one of her motivations), Daydanda wants to control a possible threat and glean information from the girl and her brother. As the two females try to understand one another, Merril offers fascinating insights into communications between the species. In the end, Dee and Petey are accepted into the alien household and Dee thinks this is for the best, as Petey is thriving with his insect playmates and nurses. But Dee knows that she’ll need to teach him things too, spoken language for one, or he will grow up to be more bug than man.

It is easy to imagine a pulp heroine wearing a skimpy outfit, flying through space with a valiant Buck Rogers by her side. It’s even easier to imagine a Conan sidekick in a chainmail bikini, wielding a blood-drenched sword. But science fiction is filled with other kinds of female heroes, many long-forgotten in the glow of their showy sisters. If you look between those fabulous pulp covers, you’ll find surprising women who just happened to get caught up in a some weird, fantastic adventures.

(In 1948, Wilmar H. Shiras submitted a short novel, “In Hiding,” to John W. Campbell, editor of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION. The story would be appear in the November 1948 number of the Street & Smith digest magazine. It would be followed by two sequels — “Opening Doors,” published in the March 1949 issue, and “New Foundations.” The latter scored the March 1950 cover spot, featuring artwork by Hubert Rogers. The three stories would become the beginning chapters of the novel — CHILDREN OF THE ATOM — originally published by Gnome Press in 1953.

It is believed that “In Hiding” inspired Stan Lee’s and Jack Kirby’s THE X-MEN, which debuted in 1963. “In Hiding” was featured in Volume 2B of THE SCIENCE FICTION HALL OF FAME, while the Science Fiction Book Club included CHILDREN OF THE ATOM on their list of “The Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years, 1953-2002.” It was listed at #14.

Sara Light-Waller is one of more than thirty fiction writers who will be attending PulpFest 2019. An avid reader of pulp science fiction stories, Sara writes and illustrates her fiction in the manner of the Golden Age science fiction from the 1930’s and 40’s.  She is the author of ANCHOR: A STRANGE TALE OF TIME and LANDSCAPE OF DARKNESS. Sara will be one of our “New Fictioneers” readers on Saturday, August 17, at PulpFest 2019.)