Reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Moon Trilogy: The Moon Maid, The Moon Men, and The Red Hawk

Well, the next in the set of Edgar Rice Burroughs books I’ve tackled are his Moon stories. The series consists of one novel (The Moon Maid) and two sequel novellas (“The Moon Men” and “The Red Hawk”), the latter of which Ace published together under the title The Moon Men. I read the former in late 2018, and the latter just today, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on the whole series: the lunar adventure and romance, the pulp war stories, and the inevitable weird racial fantasy of postapocalyptic cowboy-and-Indians-and-moon-men and all. Oh, and naked Japanese hill-pygmy warriors. 

Yeah, these books are kinda strange. 

The Moon Maid (1923)

The cover of my copy of The Moon Maid shows a scene that you could be forgiven for taking to be out of some Greek myth: a bluish, centaur-like creature armed with a spear bears a stoic-looking but blowsy woman (wearing a red dress) across a desolate plain, while pinkish mountains tower in the distance. 

That said, if you’ve read any Burroughs, you know who she is, and what that blue centaur is, too. I mean, not specifically: though The Moon Maid is a kind of loose spinoff from the Mars/Barsoom books, the specifics of its contents—”Who is she? What is that creature?”—won’t be known to you… but even so, you can probably guess a lot of the plot of the book from that cover:

  1. There’s a frame story where some Earth man meets a mysterious, adventurous-looking man, who recounts and unbelievable story.
  2. In the story, the adventurous man is conveyed to the Moon by some strange means. 
  3. Arriving, he searches his environs, and discovers the native life, finally stumbling on a subhuman race of manimals who attack and capture him.
  4. The subhuman race is explicitly compared to some group of nonwhite people back on Earth. 
  5. A beautiful woman appears as if out of nowhere. 
  6. The adventurous man thinks, “Oh, no, she’s going to fall in love with me!”
  7. She falls in love with him, so quickly that it comes up once they’re fleeing their captors. 
  8. She reveals that she’s betrothed to another, whom she does not want to marry, and yet if they’re to reach safety, she’s going to be within reach of that not-great mate who’s decided to take her for his own. 
  9. The adventurous man wishes he could take her back to Earth, but before they think that over, they’re captured by other terrible sentient—albeit, also subhuman—beings. 

If you’re familiar with either of Burroughs’ more popular science fantasy series—the Mars books and the Pellucidar ones—you’ll recognize a lot of that plot skeleton… and, of course, it’s not as if Burroughs invented it, so much as he adapted it from colonialist adventure fiction. Deja Thoris, Dian the Beautiful, and Nah-ee-lah are all, in their way, figures cut from the same cloth as, say, Pocahontas or Foulata (in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, and likewise the No-vans (the weird centauroids with profiles “singularly like those of the ancient North American Indians”), the enormous multi-armed Tharks of Barsoom, the human Pellucidarians (and the less-human ones, too) are stand-ins for the colonial subjects: Burroughs’ scientific fantasies often included alliances with them, if not always a sidekick taken from their “noble savage” ranks, in the manner of Allan Quatermaine’s African sidekick Ubompa in King Solomon’s Mines.

I mean, there is a certain color-by-numbers quality to the plotting: Burroughs had a formula, and by God, did he stick with it! 

With me having said that, you might be thinking I hated The Moon Maid, but in fact, I actually found it reasonably entertaining and was even a little surprised by parts of the book. There’s something interesting about the way Burroughs imagined Earth’s future, including not just the establishment of telecommunications with Mars/Barsoom (yes, as in the Mars of the John Carter books), but also a whole future-history of wars and peaces (and way more of the former than the latter). I also was amused by the weird technological developments he imagined that facilitate terrestrial and interplanetary transportation. (Specific types of “rays” associated with each planet are captured in tanks and used to repel vessels from the planet with which they’re associated. This sounds vaguely Blavatsky-ish, but I’m not sure about that.)

Of course, this is mostly just backdrop to a pulp adventure, but it’s a weird, surprisingly inventive one, and sufficient to make for an entertaining setting, at least for a short work. The fact that it’s sort of a tie-in was interesting, too: the very ship that carries our protagonist to the moon is called The Barsoom, and its original, intended destination is Mars, yet the fact that the characters never reach that destination leaves it—I think—a footnote the Mars series, which honestly is probably just as well. Not that I wasn’t aware that pulp writers had pioneered series franchising, spin-offs, and tie-ins that we think of as the province of TV and movies, of course, but this particular tie-in was not one I expected.   

Perhaps I read the last portion of the story too quickly, because I ended up a little confused, but another interesting thing about Burroughs’ moon is that it is, like the Earth of Pellucidar, a semi-hollow world with an inhabited  interior which can be entered via big holes inside craters, which play the role here that a hole at the North Pole seems to play in the later Pellucidar books. 

The Moon Men (1925)

I read the Ace paperbacks edition of this book, which collects the other two parts of the “trilogy,” a pair of linked novellas titled “The Moon Men” (which is a sequel to “The Moon Maid”) and “The Red Hawk” (which ends the series). 

The history of these works is laid out over at the ERB-LIST website, along with a lot of praise for Burroughs, but it amounts mostly to this: Burroughs drafted a story titled “Under the Red Flag”—an anti-communist piece responding to the Communist Revolution in Russia, written on the heels of the novels he’d written and published during World War I. Publishers didn’t want it, though: people had had enough of the war, they said, and wanted something fun, like Tarzan. Burroughs complied, setting aside “Under the Red Flag” until after he’d published “The Moon Maid” (which was serialized in 1923). At that point, he reworked “Under the Red Flag” as a follow-up, converting the Russian Communists to alien invaders, and following up with still more anti-Communist sentiment in the final installment of his lunar stories, “The Red Hawk.”

So, how do those two “rebranded,” follow-up novellas measure up? Well, for one thing, they shift the setting back to Earth. For another, they’re a postapocalypse setting, though it’s a cultural and colonial apocalypse rather than the kind we’re so familiar with from the latter half of the 20th century. 

So “The Moon Men” surprised me, for a few reasons. For one thing, I expected it to pick up and carry on where The Moon Maid left off, but instead it kills off the hero of the novel in the first chapter (which is frame story, and would today probably be labeled “Prologue” or something like that), and then proceeds to tell the story of Julian 9th, the great-grandson of that hero.

The world in which Julian 9th grows up is Earth in 2100, colonized by the lunar race known as the Kalkars and… well, it starts out pretty authentic to how colonized societies end up. I mean, okay, there’s the whole, “They’re trying to take the choicest of our women (but we’re wily enough to prevent it from really happening, wink wink)…” but there’s also a long-running campaign to stamp out literacy, and most of the infrastructure that gets wiped out during the lunar invasion never gets repaired. Quislings (though they’re not actually called that) join with the Kalkars, supposedly because they sense that they themselves share something with their new overlords: mediocrity and greed. Travel is slow and dangerous, and “taxes” (paid in gold, silver, or produce—and all the gold and silver was bled away generations ago) are ruinously high, and must be paid to conquerors who freely insult, abuse, and cheat the conquered humans (“Yanks”) as their presumed inferiors.  

None of this seems to have been controversial to the audiences who first read it. I guess this goes to show that whatever excuses people make now, at least some Americans in the 1920s did know what the ugly side of imperialism was like—they were more than capable of imagining it from the other side. Maybe, though, that’s because he purposefully imagines the conquerors in a way that feels very much like how imperialists have always tended depict the conquered. The Kalkars, the colonial overlords, get described in a lot of the same terms—lazy, mediocre, pathetic, cruel, lustful—that were historically used instead to describe colonial subjects. (Why Burroughs never seems to catch on to the contradiction, I’m not sure: if the “Americans” (as the colonized population still secretly calls itself) are so amazing and great, why did the Kalkars defeat them at all? 

Once we get past Burroughs establishing the whole colonial premise, it’s pretty obvious that what Burroughs’ conception of the postapocalyptic world, following the lunar invasion, was actually kind of a Western, albeit one where the cowboys are so oppressed they have neither cows not horses, only goats that they struggle to hang onto. There is, of course, a romance subplot about forty pages in, but since Burroughs is mostly attacking Soviet Communism, he makes a point of making an explicitly Jewish character both very sympathetic, and part of the secret, underground religious community of in Julian 9ths village. The anti-Soviet tenor holds throughout, though I was surprised to see that some of the lunar invaders end up almost being decent folk, and that the lunar government is quite strict about its rules, regardless of how often its representatives break them. The most surprising thing, though, was the conclusion of the tale: it’s not often one sees a failed uprising against alien invaders played out in pulp SF, even if it is an obvious setup for a sequel.

Most bewildering is the fact that the narrator of the tale—I mean, the military man who appears in the frame stories of both “The Moon Maid” and “The Moon Men”—recounts his execution at the end of the latter novella… because it was a future incarnation of himself. How it’s possible for him to “remember” future incarnations isn’t really explained, and I suppose we shouldn’t expect it to be, any more than the device used to allow communication from the core of the earth to the terran surface in the Pellucidar books. 

“The Red Hawk” picks up the epic in the year 2430, when  descendant of the Julians of the previous books—Julian 20th—is seated on horseback in Arizona, looking out in the direction where the great ocean is known to lie, and where the Kalkars make their last stand on Earth. (Well, one of their last stands: apparently, there’s another group of them at the Atlantic Ocean doing the same thing.) If “The Moon Men” was a postapocalyptic cowboy story, then “The Red Hawk” is set when the cowboys have become transformed to pseudo-Hollywood Indians: they are on horseback, described as “bronze-skinned” and organized into a hundred “tribes,” and dressed in buckskin and calf leather with feathered headbands, like something the “Indian” characters would have worn in an early Western film. (The hero and narrator wears a single red hawk feather—a symbol of his tribe and bloodline—attached to the buckskin band that holds back his long hair from his face as he rides.) They pray to a lone, long-surviving American flag (which they believe brings rains and good fortune to them).

That said, they’re armed with lances, swords, and daggers made from metal out of Utaw and Kolrado. Here, again, Burroughs seems to me to be pioneering thepostapocalyptic collapse of present-day language: there’s a comment about how “Americans” all spoke one language, long ago, and he riffs on regional names by rendering them oddly, in a way that becomes much more common in later SF. Had someone else done it before him? Quite possibly, but I’m not aware of an earlier example. (Not that I’ve read early pulp SF extensively.) 

For all that, there’s a striking moment about a third of the way through “The Red Hawk,” when the narrator has refused to split the land and live “in peace” beside the Kalkar invaders, and is consigned to the hut of an old woman enslaved by the Kalkars:

Faintly, as from a great distance, I heard, presently, a familiar sound and my blood leaped in answer. It was the war cry of my people and beneath it ran the dull booming of their drums.

“They come!” I must have spoken aloud, for the old slave woman, busy with some household duty, turned toward me.

“Let them come,” she said. “They cannot be worse than these others, and it is time that we changed masters. It has been long now since the rule of the ancients, who, it is said, were not unkind to us. Before them were other ancients, and before those still others. Always they came from far places, ruled us and went their way, displaced by others. Only we remain never changing.

“Like the coyote, the deer and the mountains we have been here always. We belong to the land, we are the land—when the last of our rulers has passed away we shall still be here, as we were in the beginning—unchanged. They come and mix their blood with ours, but in a few generations the last traces of it have disappeared, swallowed up by the slow, unchanging flood of ours. You will come and go, leaving no trace; but after you are forgotten we shall still be here.”

I listened to her in surprise for I never had heard a slave speak as this one, and I should have been glad to have questioned her further. Her strange prophesy interested me. But now the Kalkars entered the hovel. They came hurriedly and as hurriedly departed, taking me with them. My wrists were tied again and I was almost thrown upon Red Lightning’s back. A moment later we were swallowed up by the torrent of horsemen surging toward the southwest.

It’s a strange moment of unexpected (apparent) subversion: the old woman, presumably, is the descendant of one or another Native American groups living in what we now call California (of which Burroughs mentions a few), and she lays claim to the land. Sure, she also says something ridiculous about how the rulers prior to the Kalkars—here it seems she means the white Americans of Burroughs’ time and the generations before it—were “not unkind” to her people—but there’s still something surprisingly defiant about those last words of hers:

“You will come and go, leaving no trace; but after you are forgotten we shall still be here.”

It’s hard not to feel like Burroughs is on some level anxiously acknowledging that, yeah, his “Yanks” are a bunch of white folks he’s dressed up as stereotypical “Hollywood Indians”; that he gets it there’s something weird and awkward about the whole literary conceit that the white man has become a sort of “new Indian.” Perhaps someone commented about it to him after the publication of “The Moon Men” (where, though they were mostly cowboy-like, the Yanks occupied a political and colonial-subject position much more like Native Americans) or maybe Burroughs was simply aware enough of the trope to feel a little awkward. I don’t know, and the text doesn’t suggest clearly how to read it. 

That said, I also feel like I see something much more clearly now that links Burroughs and Lovecraft, besides anxiety about race in 1920s America: that is, degeneration. Lovecraft frames it as racial degeneration, whereas Burroughs, though he goes on about race sometimes, is (at least in these books) more concerned with the degeneration and collapse of civilizations. The Kalkar project of dismantling human knowledge is the truly horrifying part of their occupation of the Earth, and it brings to mind the preoccupation with education, knowledge, scientific literacy, and technology in the Pellucidar books. I don’t think this is merely some naive embrace of whizbang wowser science: I feel like maybe having lived through the profound destruction of World War I, authors of this time not only felt keenly the fragility of modern civilization in a way we haven’t for a long time, but also had a very specific idea of what life might revert to if modern civilization did fall apart, because they’d lived in a world without radios, in a world where telegraphs had always existed but where people also remembered how slow communications had been before them.

I have to admit, I kind of envy Burroughs’ ability to imagine a habitable apocalypse, his idea that modern civilization could collapse and somehow we’d end up with something that looks roughly like the 19th century. Compared to how we image that sort of thing going these days, it seems almost naïve.     

As for the plot, there are a few interesting twists, such as the way that the nature of the enemy in the novel—the Or-tis especially—isn’t what you’d expect from the account in “The Moon Men”: after all, 340 years pass between the earlier tale and this one, and it seems only natural that someplace along the way, someone might not necessarily take after his traitorous ancestors. 

A fun little detail about the book is that, unlike in “The Moon Men,” Burroughs gets a little traveloguey with his postapocalypse here, footnoting locales mentioned in vague terms and suggesting their the modern-day (1925) location with which they correspond: a cañon (canyon) is mentioned which he notes is “Probably Rustic Cañon, which enters Santa Monica Cañon a short distance above the sea,” and one ancient “camp” in ruins is footnoted as probably being Pasadena. Of course, Burroughs was living in the area years before this novella was published, on a ranch called Tarzana where the Los Angeles neighborhood now stands.

(According to Snopes, Burroughs got the character name from the place, and not the other way round like some people (including L.A. Weekly) claim; whether he named the Or-tis family line in the moon stories after General Harrison Gray Otis, from whom he apparently purchased this land, I cannot guess. However, knowing he was living on a ranch at the time he was writing these tales does make one suspect that, given the cowboys-and-Indians vibe of the stories, the setting and ideas of the latter Moon Maid come from Burroughs doing a bit of what Rudy Rucker dubbed transreal writing.)

Likewise, it’s odd that Burroughs’ chose to include a bizarre pygmy tribe of Japanese ancestry, the Nipons, led by a character named Saku. Burroughs himself had a complicated relationship with the Japanese, viewing Japanese-Americans with the same suspicion many people in his time shared; that said, apparently by World War II, he was vocally opposed to their internment and deportation. I don’t know about his politics, but as far as his depiction of these characters, I suspect that some of the old 19th century American Japanophilia tinged his thoughts, for the Nipons are presented as a stalwart, if primitive, group: they manage to hold off the Kalkars like few others can, but also go about completely naked. (That said, they do get attacked offscreen in an unexpected Kalkar raid that sends them fleeing, leaving behind only a couple of their number whom the narrator calls his “my tiny friends—two little naked warriors.”) 

Of course the tale ends in triumph after a pitched battle against a monstrous giant (the one on the cover, in fact, though his size and alienness are exaggerated there). That said, the victory is incomplete: the Kalkars get into big canoes and sail westward. There’s a riff here that calls back to the beginning of the book, where there’s a debate about whether the Earth is round or flat: the hero believes it flat, and mocks a smarter man in his group who believes it is round; at the end, the smarter friend warns that the Kalkars could sail westward until they reach the East Coast of America, but the pseudo-primitive narrator mocks this idea:

The Rain Cloud said that if they were not overcome by storms and waves they might sail on and on around the world and come again to the eastern shores of America, but the rest of us knew that they would sail to the edge of the Earth and tumble off and that would be the end of them.

This is followed by a brief observation that there’s nobody left to right, and that the narrator is training his son, Julian 21st, to become the Jemadar of America.1 Was Burroughs setting up a possible sequel? Maybe, though I think as a pulp writer, it was pretty much just the norm to always end in a way that left the door open to sequels. Still, if all that was to come was a return of the annoying Kalkars, it would have been a bit boring, and I wonder if maybe Burroughs might have tried to intertwine the Barsoom books with the Moon ones, if it could have. After all, there was a tantalizing attempt in The Moon Maid to link the Moon stories to the Mars ones—the spaceship heading for Mars was called the Barsoom, and if I recall correctly, even John Carter’s presence on Mars is mentioned in the opening chapters. 

However, nothing else materialized. I guess it was a matter of audience response: the Mars, Pellucidar, and especially the Tarzan books got a strong response, so Burroughs wrote more of those. The Moon tales… well, not so much, and so the series ends here. 

A thought about the cowboys-and-Indians stuff: Burroughs is doing nothing particularly new when he makes his heroes pseudo-Indians and ennobles them and the Indians: that was how popular culture treated the subject then, and had done for some time. This isn’t an excusal—it’s not like it’s not oddly discomfiting—but it’s more self-conflicted, more awkward, and more formulaic in a way. All of this makes it easier to see why see Burroughs’ work gets read as much more tame and harmless in retrospect, while Lovecraft’s has evoked so much acrimony.

Sure, part of that is because Lovecraft’s work has grown in popularity while Burroughs’ popularity is on the wane, but it’s also because Lovecraft goes so far above and beyond the average degree of mainstream racism that Burroughs’ relationship with the subject takes on an almost complex, self-conflicted cast. That’s not to say Burroughs’ books are absent of issues, or to attempt to excuse them—human cultures all have large cesspools as their fundament, so when some progress is achieved in draining the sludge (that is, when progressive movements aimed at achieving greater respect toward marginalized people), a lot of that culture’s contents will be discovered to be tainted by its prior presence—but when you set these books down next to Lovecraft’s work, and remember that the two men were basically contemporaries… well, for one thing, it becomes much harder to excuse Lovecraft’s attitudes as simply being “of the time.” 

  1. Interestingly, the term “jemadar” is taken from the Indian military, as the equivalent of lieutenant, though Burroughs presents it as a lunar term for supreme ruler. Ah, a world without internet, huh?

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