I’m what you might call a compulsive writer. Or convulsive. Or something.
I write because I have to. I’ve quit now and then, but I come back to it. Sometimes I just end up abandoning it because life gets in the way, but sooner or later I come back to it.
It’s not necessarily even fiction. I just like writing. Movie reviews, quirky little essays, ruminations and reflections, odd little things – I’ve written reviews of imaginary movies, discoursed on the ecology of nonexistent animals.
I remember as a teenager, I built an entire fictional fantasy world, Loranth: maps, geography, races and animals, populations, everything. Never did anything with it, never showed it to anyone, I just got satisfaction from doing it.
I’ve done stuff that I’ve never shared with anyone. Often because I know I’ll be the only person interested in something so esoteric or off the wall. A regular person will look at it, and just not see the point.
Anyway, a few years ago, I was browsing the web and I found this topographic map of Mars. For those of you who aren’t up on your NASA, Mars is just a cratered reddish brown glob of a globe. There’s darker, there’s lighter, but it’s pretty dull.
Then about twenty years ago, they put a satellite up around the planet, a Global Surveyor, I think, that photographed the whole planet in extreme detail. I mean extreme detail – this was a level of resolution which would show up a buffalo as a couple of pixels. Not bad for twenty-thousand miles up. So any kind of elaborate structure – a boulder for instance, the size of a house, would show up.
That was very cool. For a while, online, you could literally tool around the planet Mars, zooming in on craters, following the courses of ancient river banks, checking out volcanoes, and exploring the geography of an alien world almost as if you were there.
It also studied the Topography – the relative elevations. And from this, we discovered that there were literally two Mars. There was the northern Mars, which was a relatively smooth lowland, kilometers lower in elevation than the southern hemisphere, barely cratered. And there was the southern highland, a cratered moonscape with a couple of gigantic depressions at Hellas and Argyre. The current theory is that Mars once had a great northern ocean, and a couple of southern seas. I loved the topography because it made Martian geography come alive in meaningful ways, geography is just about where the mountains and the valleys are, the hills and the rivers, etc.
Now, I’ve been a lifelong fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Mars (Barsoom) books. The thing about Burroughs is that he was a world builder before that was even a thing.
He invests anthropological levels of detail into his alien world – for instance, if you look at his Green Men on Mars, he spends a crazy amount of time on their lives, he depicts their child rearing, their social structure, their wardrobe, their philosophy. And when he criticises them, it’s not his human characters passing judgement, it’s the green men themselves going ‘It’s our society, and it works for us, but sometimes we’re kind of dicks.’
I think that was what I liked about Burroughs, the sheer level of investment in exotic landscapes and alien peoples. It’s what a lot of his imitators simply didn’t bother with – typical example being the Tarzan clone, Jongor, and his lost land.
Anyway, Burroughs Mars, or Barsoom, filled eleven books. And Burroughs invests a lot of time detailing cities, lost cities, mountains, swamps, ocean bottoms, etc. He builds up quite a detailed Mars. He’d started with Percival Lowell’s fanciful maps of Mars and it’s canals, but he went way past that.
So anyway, and this may give you some sign of what I’m like when I have too much time on my hands….
I thought it would be interesting to match up the geography of Burroughs Mars with the real Mars as topographically revealed by the Global Surveyor. Both of them, after all, were dead worlds with ancient seas and oceans now dried up.
I took what I thought was a sound approach. I didn’t bother with the Cities, not at first. Cities weren’t part of the natural landscape, they wouldn’t tell you anything. You can put cities anywhere, and trying to sort out the geography by referencing the relationships and distances between cities seemed to be a fools errand.
Instead, I focused on actual geographical features identified by Burroughs – (1) the ‘snow capped Artolian mountains’ the unique group of the highest peaks on Barsoom, the martian Himalayas, on a world which was mostly otherwise bereft of mountains and mountain ranges; (2) ‘The Toonolian Marshes’ the last remnant of the Martian ocean; (3) Gathol, a singular volcano/mountain rising out of the former seabed; (4) The Valley Dor; (5) The River Iss which bore pilgrims to the Valleys; a few other places.
The game was basically to identify these geographical features in Burroughs novels, and work out their relationship to each other. Once you had these landmarks down, you could then place the cities in the context of these landmarks and with each other.
So then I looked at real Mars topography to see if I could find equivalents. And I did! (1) The Tharsis Mountains, a series of shield volcanic peaks, the highest on the planet; (2) Valles Marinis, a 2500 mile long, five mile deep canyon extending into the seabed; (3) The Elysium volcanic plateau, an isolated seamount in the former northern ocean; (4) The Argyre depression; and (5) Apparently a very long winding river passing in and out of craters leading from Argyre.
Literally, you could find real geographic structures on Mars, that matched Burroughs Barsoom tolerably well, and with the same broad relationships between them.
It wasn’t perfect, you had to give yourself ten or fifteen degrees of wiggle room, but there was a consistent parallel between Burroughs Barsoom and Real Mars geographical features and positional relationships between each.
And the more you kept on digging, the more you could find potential match ups with secondary and less significant geographical correspondences. Literally, you could lay a map of Barsoom over the real Mars and it would fit. Not perfectly, but extraordinarily close and consistently, far more than it had any right to.
How cool is that!!!
I did the work. I was quite pleased with it. Considered it time well wasted.
Then I tucked it away in my hard drive.
Because I couldn’t imagine any other person on the planet being interested in this, and if they were, I had no idea who they might be or where to find them.
Now, let’s fast forward a few years.
I stumbles across an incredibly comprehensive Edgar Rice Burroughs website, Erbzine, run by a guy named Bill Hillman.
I thought to myself, ‘Hey, maybe he’d get a laugh out of this?’
So I dug out my ‘Matching Mars’ paper and sent it off to him.
Bill Hillman liked it a lot and offered to put it up on his web site. So, I looked around and I’d had a few more pointless Barsoom essays cluttering up my hard drive that no one had ever looked at. There was one on the history of the Tur and Iss cults of Barsoom, there was another speculating that Thuria was an artificial habitat, a long lost Orovar O’Neill colony.
Bill loved them all and asked for more. So, I wrote more, because exploring odd facets of not just Barsoom, but Amtor, Pellucidar, Pal-Ul-Don and Caprona, as well as other writers like Wells, Tolstoy (the other one), Lewis, Kline and Farley. I think it eventually got to around forty articles and a half a million words, something like that. I had my own little corner of the ERB universe.
It’s pointless stuff. But on the other hand, it’s interesting and fun to me, and at least some people like them. So who am I to argue. To be honest, I’ve loved doing them. It was a chance to write, to spin out ideas, and even share them.
Bill even raised the subject of my trying fiction. I do write fiction, which you might have noticed if you’re stumbling around my web site, but I have some dream of getting paid for it. So, while it was flattering, I didn’t have any serious urge.
Back then, I lived in The Pas, Manitoba, in Canada. It turns out that Bill lives in Brandon, Manitoba. We were both in the same province, a few hours drive apart. What a coincidence!
Well, no sooner did we realize we were practically neighbors, than we had to meet in person. So, back in August, 2005, I believe, I travelled to Brandon, Manitoba, to meet Bill Hillman. and say hello. Bill and Sue-On proved to be charming and engaging hosts and we had an excellent time.
As we left, Bill was feeling poorly and out of a desire to cheer him up, and out of genial good spirits, I promised to write him up a fiction piece set on Barsoom.
After we left, Bill’s condition worsened. He was in the hospital. Since I couldn’t do anything to actually help him, I turned seriously towards doing some fiction he’d enjoy.
I decided to copy some of the key elements of the old master’s style. Well, obviously, I can’t write like Burroughs. If I could, I’d be raking in the cash. But I could figure out the sort of format he used and copy that. And in fact, there was a very definite ‘pulp format’ in his writing, and in the writing of others of his era. What was the pulp format? I decided it was short chapters, 1500 to 2000 words, each ending in a cliffhanger.
I worked out a story, and started in. Originally, I wanted to send Bill a chapter a day. That didn’t work out well for either of us. But the thing proved to be quite easy to write, taking on a life of its own.
The end result was that Bill’s health recovered nicely, and he wound up having to read a novel. A novel which turned out to be 53 chapters and about 100,000 words. Pound for pound, its equivalent to any Burroughs novel (of course, that’s not an assertion of style or quality… only poundage).
Yeah, and this seems to represent the screwed up, sentimental way I function. I wrote a hundred thousand word novel as a sentimental gesture, a sort of get well card, for a friend I barely knew and had only met once, because he was sick and I thought this might cheer him up. What the hell is wrong with me?
I called it “Lesbians of Mars.” Why? I was being bad. I wanted something risque, something attention getting, something fun. And lets face it, everyone likes lesbians. It’s a friendly, fun word. It was suggestive of something more adult and naughty. I’m sorry, this isn’t 1912, the characters are gay, they have lots of sex, though it’s more allusional than explicit, and frankly, unlike John Carter, our protagonists shouldn’t have to suffer through an entire book to get their groceries.
It’s a story of two people who discover each other and fight their way across their world. It’s a story with Green Men, White Apes, Deserts, Monsters, Lost Cities, evil henchmen, maniacal villains, lost princesses and noble causes. Along the way you’ll meet characters and settings from Burroughs own Barsoom novels, and perhaps little nods and in jokes to other writers like Otis Kline or C.S. Lewis, as well as completely new stuff.
Since the whole ‘Lesbians of Mars’ thing seemed a bit risque, we renamed it ‘Torakar of Mars’ just to be on the safe side.
Bill Hillman got better. I don’t think that’s connected to anything I did. But he liked it enough to put it up on his site and invite people to read it. That’s flattering. In a tribute to the old serials, we put up four chapters each week, for thirteen weeks.
And that’s about it. You can find it here:
And… nothing. Putting an entire adventure novel in thirteen installments like clockwork. I’d hoped to make some kind of impact. I honestly don’t think it got much in the way of readers or readership. Maybe a few people. A dozen? A few dozen? I dunno.
But at least it’s not just sitting in my hard drive. It’s out there in the world, whether anyone else cares. It’s still out there.
Sometimes with my writing, it felt like I’m just screaming into a void, not even an echo back. You do all this work… and nothing. No one notices. No one is interested. No one cares. You put your heart and soul into something, and maybe you get a polite ‘uh huh’ from someone walking past.
I think that’s an occupational hazard for most writers. For that matter, for most people in the arts – for actors, singers, dancers, musicians, artists, etc. We’re all just smashing our heads against the wall, desperate to say something, to make a mark, and for the most part, the world trundles along oblivious and indifferent. It’s tough when you look at it like that. There’s a few in the arts that win the lottery and go big, and most of the rest of us, just struggle. Most of us smash our heads against the wall, and we don’t break through, we just get migraines.
I think that’s why I’ll go to a Comic Con and spend a few hundred dollars buying peoples self published novels. Just to show that respect, to say someone cares, and all their hard work means something. It’s an expensive gesture.
There’s no guarantee in this business. Mostly we all fail. But that’s kind of liberating, because it means that there’s no point in sacrificing our souls to chase the brass ring. If you’re going to fail, then fail doing something that means something to you, that you’re interested in, or that you really enjoyed doing. Why not write an entire goddammed novel as a sentimental gesture to help a sick friend feel better? Why not? How is that not a good reason?
You want to write? Write what you love, because you can’t guarantee anything else.
And anyway you know what? It’s a damned good novel!
It was a blast, it was pure FUN to write in the old pulp style, and it helped me to understand how those guys managed to write with such intensity and write at such an astonishing pace (guys like Lester Dent were literally writing a novel a week, you’d have guys like Hubbard maintaining eight pseudonyms because they were literally filling magazines, it was insane).
It’s fast paced, it’s lively, the characters are terrific, I love Torakar Thor, a roiling bundle of terrifying competence, neurotic insecurities and self sabotage, and I love Princess Azara, who refuses to put up with even an ounce of Thor’s bullshit and still loves her with her whole heart unreservedly, the romance is a roller coaster, the action sequences are great, the dialogue is fun, and the whole thing is lightly tongue in cheek and peppered with references and in jokes.
And it’s even got literary pretensions, with the novel and its events structured in mirror form, with the two halves reflecting each other. (Okay, went a little overboard with the Maltese Falcon/Chinatown references in a few spots). I’m proud of it.
Honestly, I think that if I could figure out a way to monetize it, I’d do that.
So check it out. Why not?