Return to Barsoom

by Scott Dutton
Series: Barsoom fan fiction
Reviewed date: 2020 Jun 1
189 pages
cover art

I'm a sucker for Barsoom fan fiction.

I like Barsoom stories just the way Edgar Rice Burroughs intended: with larger-than-life heroes and beautiful princesses, with sword fights and duels and combat in the arena, with secret passages and loyal comrades and mad scientists. But mostly the romantic larger-than-life heroes. Barsoom doesn't need updating or fixing. I want more Barsoom just the way Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote it. By contrast, Scott Dutton wrote Return to Barsoom with a far different idea in mind:

I describe Burroughs’ approach as colonial fiction; the virtuous western man will invariably rise to the top over other cultures. In Tarzan, it was over the apes and black African culture. In John Carter, it is the decaying and warring factions of red and green men.

Having come of age in the latter part of the 20th century, I think we now know the myth of western superiority, or at least we should.
That was what inspired me: how could I respect what Burroughs had created, while bringing a modern or post-modern reality to how we think of people. What does an adventure story look like when you apply that to it?

Author Interview: Scott Dutton, at No Wasted Ink []

So Return to Barsoom is not what I'm looking for. I read it anyway. What can I say? I'm a sucker for Barsoom fan fiction.

Where to read it
The final completed version of Return to Barsoom is available as a free ebook from Scott Dutton's website: Return to Barsoom []. A shorter version is available to read online at ERBzine.

Chester Ventura
The protagonist is Chester Ventura, a woke 21st century man. He's bored of life. A spaceship drifts into his life, so Chester takes his cat and flies to Mars.

A confederation of all races
Mars is Barsoom, but barely. The air is breathable but thin. The land is parched desert. There are no cities, no villages, no animals, no vegetation. Small bands of green men, yellow men, black men, and even kaldanes and rykors roam the desert and fight for the few resources still left. Barsoom is dying and near death. The people have no hope.

Chester decides that what Barsoom needs is a kick in the pants, and he's just the man to do it. Unite, work together, Chester tells them. If you stop fighting and start working together, maybe Barsoom can be saved. The Barsoomians think working together is for weaklings and fools, so in order to get the Barsoomians to work together, Chester must unite them under his own leadership. And to do that, he must demonstrate his prowess in battle. So he fights them all, single combat, one after another.

The combat sequence is one of the highlights of the story. Chester, not a great warrior but possessed of some quickness and the strength of a Jasoomian on Barsoom, fights duel after duel. He defeats each in turn, but spares their lives if he can. In the final duel, he's tired and losing. He disables one of the green warrior's four arms, but he's still losing. In a desperate gambit, he charges and allows himself to be stabbed through the chest.

[My] body continued to fail me. Keilis had three arms. I could parry one blow, dodge another, and still strike, but it was the third arm that was doing the damage. I had no way to avoid it, and I had to disable one of those blasted arms if I was to survive, let alone triumph.

There was no other choice. I could only choose the way it happened. I watched how he set up his striking patterns. No. That way would be certain death. That would maim me. That I don’t even want to think about. There. That one.

I pressed in and deflected one blade away. An instant later I had the most unusual sensation of my life as I felt a blade pass through my right lung and go out my back, but the sword was immobilised. I parried the last and thrust my blade straight forward and up, stopping for nothing.

Keilis stood there, his jaw opening and closing reflexively. He was very still, stiff. I heard the quiet around us. I smelled the desert. With a grunt I pulled my sword free. It had gone in under his chin and out the top of his head. As Keilis fell backwards I pulled away and fell to my knees, his sword still impaling me.

“Bloody Hell!” I managed to gasp out. The pain was exquisite. Keilis lay there twitching in the dust. Weakly, I raised a shaking hand to my chest and tried feebly to pull the blade out. One tug and I fell over, nearly unconscious.

Holy smokes. Chester lets himself be stabbed through the chest so he can get close enough to deal the winning blow.

Red treachery
Under Chester's leadership, the combined races of Barsoom head to the ruins of Helium to search for answers. There, in the archives in the ruins of Helium, they find evidence of genocide. It was red men, notably Tardos Mors and Mors Kajak with help from Ras Thavas, who engineered a virus to destroy all the other races of Barsoom, in order to secure more resources for the red people. The virus mutated, decimating not just the green, yellow, and black races, but also every animal, plant, and yes, even the red race.

Atlas Shrugged
This is astounding, of course. An enormity. A crime against humanity. But instead of a climactic moment where Chester learns of the enormity, he actually learns the truth off stage. Then the reader is treated to an entire chapter where Chester gives a long, dull speech explaining everything to the assembled races of Barsoom. It reminds me very much of the sixty-page speech in Atlas Shrugged where Ayn Rand drops a philosophy essay into the middle of a novel. This is mercifully shorter than Ayn Rand's screed, but it's still boring.

Dejah Thoris and John Carter: catharsis but no absolution
In Helium they also find Dejah Thoris and John Carter, who are not as romantic or heroic as Edgar Rice Burroughs portrayed them. Neither Dejah Thoris nor John Carter were directly involved in the genocide, but both were close enough to the powers-that-be that they would have had to be intentionally ignorant.

First Dejah Thoris and later John Carter come to Chester to bare their souls and seek advice and absolution. Dejah Thoris in particular asks Chester three times: "Do you think my husband and I are guilty?" but three times Chester deflects the questions and refuses to give her absolution. It's a gut-wrenching conversation, or at least it should be. Something about the incomparable Dejah Thoris baring her soul, and the great John Carter admitting to withdrawal and depression just didn't do it for me. That doesn't make it wrong--Scott Dutton has written this story precisely to explore these things--but I prefer my princess on a pedestal and my hero incorruptible.

Ras Thavas
In any case, it turns out Ras Thavas is still alive in the great atmosphere generator, so the united armies of Barsoom (under the command of Chester Ventura and John Carter) head that direction. They defeat Ras Thavas's army of synthetic men and force Ras Thavas to reverse the virus. Which he does.

Still the savior
I find it interesting that Scott Dutton's goal was to write a Barsoom story not predicated on colonial imperialism and the white savior myth, but what he wrote was a Barsoom story predicated on woke imperialism and the white savior myth. It takes a modern 21st century man named Chester Ventura to teach the ignorant Barsoomians how to work together for peace and the good of their planet instead of fighting amongst each other like bickering children.

Chester Ventura is a savior because it turns out that's the kind of story that speaks to one's soul. Scott Dutton can't help but write that story.

The pacing of the story seemed a bit off. There are the times it stops for Chester to give a speech or for Chester to have a heart-felt conversation with someone. Those are due to a particular choice, to showcase the modern thinking man rather than the romantic hero, but it does interrupt the flow of the storytelling. Further, the climax really seems to come at the battle at the atmosphere generator, where the united races of Barsoom defeat the synthetic men and capture Ras Thavas. That's the natural climax. (I think.) But then the story drags on, and there's even a chapter at the end that deals with Chester fixing his spaceship and leaving Barsoom. It's actually a nice set-up for a sequel, but it should have been wrapped up in a few paragraphs.

Chester's comrades
Besides Chester Ventura and his cat, the major characters are:

  • Sakoma Nu, a green Warhoon who becomes one of Chester's closest friends
  • Keilis Kree, a green Thark who Chester later kills in a duel
  • Koldas Torka, a green Thark
  • Fel Nek, a green Thark
  • Tikhel Sen, a yellow man
  • Rajan Parl of the first born, a black man
  • Juon, king of the kaldanes
  • Dejah Thoris
  • John Carter
  • Ras Thavas

Chester's cat
Chester takes his cat to Barsoom with him. It follows him everywhere. The Barsoomians are intrigued. But this cat has no name. It's always just the cat. What kind of man has a pet cat without a name? That's weird. It's unnerving. I don't trust that sort of man.

Seriously, it's just odd.

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