Thursday, November 23, 2017

Ardor On Aros

Ardor On Aros, by Andrew J. Offutt
May, 1973  Dell Books

Reading this novel was a personal milestone – I first became aware of Andrew Offutt back in 1993, when I spent the fall semester of my sophomore year at a college in Maastricht, Holland. There in a used bookstore I found some paperbacks in English, among them two Cormac Mac Art pastiches by Offutt. I knew the character but not the author. How those old Ace paperbacks made it to a bookstore in Holland no one knows, but I’ll tell you one thing – I bought ‘em both and brought ‘em back to the god-blessed USA.

But I could never get through either of them. I remember trying to read them a few times there in Maastricht, but just couldn’t get into them. Many years later I got more Offutt novels – some of his historical sleaze Crusader series, written as “John Cleve,” some of his sci-fi sleaze Spaceways series, also written as John Cleve. Even a sci-fi paperback under his own name with an awesome psychedelic Vincent Di Fate cover titled Genetic Bomb. But I couldn’t get past the first few chapters of any of them.

Well this time I swore by all the trash gods I wouldn’t fail. I’ve been on a sword and planets kick of late, and given that Ardor On Aros proclaims itself as a satire of the subgenre (indeed, a “satiric masterpiece,” per the cover – though every time I see it I think it says “satanic masterpiece,” which would of course be even cooler), I figured it would finally be an Offutt novel I started and finished. And I did! And the book wasn’t that bad, though not that great…and really the whole thing appeared to be building up toward something for the majority of the text, only to come to a rushed end.

If anything Ardor On Aros reminds me of fuzzy-freaky ‘70s sci-fi like Venus On The Half-Shell, by “Kilgore Trout” (aka Philip Jose Farmer). Not in content but in spirit. But this one’s very much indebted to the sword and planet of past authors; Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Albert Kline, even John Norman are referenced throughout – and part of me suspects that Ardor On Aros was more of a satire of Norman’s Gor novels, for reasons I will soon elucidate. It just takes this subgenre satire and mixes it with that special ‘70s sci-fi freakiness.

In keeping with the trappings of sword and planet, Ardor On Aros is written in first-person, a schtick begun by Burroughs in his 1911 novel A Princess Of Mars. I’m not crazy about first-person narration in my escapist fiction – I think it’s better suited to literary-type novels – but I guess you have to accept it, so far as this subgenre goes. But for other reasons this first-person narrative is one of the things I disliked about Offutt’s novel, in particular due to the snarky tone of the narrator, Hank Ardor.

A regular guy with nothing but a college degree to his name, Ardor takes a job with a “scientist who was not mad.” In keeping with the subgenre template, Ardor is relaying all this to us “many years” after the story’s events, by the way, and he tells us all about this strange new job. But as mentioned his snarky tone, which runs throughout, quickly begins to grate. While this sort of thing might’ve seemed novel in 1973, in our current era of snark overload, in which even supposed news articles are written in a smarmy, arrogant tone, it was more annoying than anything. But throughout Ardor (and thus Offutt) takes pleasure in constantly playing against our expectations, throwing it in our face that he’s not the typical sword and planet hero, and also making off-the-cuff, arbitrary condemnations of our modern era.

Ardor hits on Eveyln, sexy but all-business co-scientist on the mysterious transporter project Ardor’s boss is working on. Here the in-jokes begin, as the two engage in a conversation about sword and planet novels, of all things; Eveyln is actually writing her own(!), and Ardor offers to help her, given that he himself likes to write. The two argue over how unbelievable Burroughs’s Barsoom was, with Eveyln arguing for it and Ardor against; in particular, he dislikes how women are treated so chivalrously in the Mars of Burroughs, which is supposedly a barbarian planet, arguing that “you either kill ‘em or rape ‘em” when it comes to how women are treated in a barbaric culture. He also feels that the Burroughs books were overly stuffy and tame, apparently not realizing that the characters in those books were nude.

In a way Ardor On Aros is like a spoofy take on the Richard Blade books, even down to how Ardor is sent to the planet Aros; as Richard Blade is strapped onto a table and sent to the latest dimension via a computer, Hank Ardor clumsily slips into the transporter device and comes to, nude and confused, on a strange new planet – same as in the Barsoom books. This “arriving on a new planet in the nude” seems to be a sword and planet motif, I suppose the idea being the character is reborn.

Not that Hank Ardor is much reborn. He goes about the planet Aros with his twentieth-century attitudes and opinions unchanged. He’s also not shy about letting us know how much of a coward he is. Again, the spoofing of the subgenre template is strong throughout, but at the same time you almost wish Offutt had just played it straight and delivered a real sword and planet novel – something he appears to have done a few years later, with Chieftan Of Andor (Dell, 1976; published as Clansman Of Andor in the UK). But then this is a “satiric masterpiece and all.

But all the staples fall in place right on cue; I haven’t read too many books in this subgenre, and even I could see them coming. Posthaste Ardor runs into a dying native, Kro Kodres, who teaches Ardor all about this strange world as the two hide in a cavern in this vast desert. The people of Ardor can speak via telepathy, and Ardor, being human and all, somehow is able to pick up broadcasts better than the natives, even though he’s unable to send communications. In this way he quickly learns the language, and also that Kro Kodres is on the search for “the Jadiriyah,” who was apparently captured by someone called the Vardors. Kro dies and Ardor takes up his quest, also purloining the guy’s simple leather harness and sword. As in Barsoom, fashions and armor are a bit on the low-tech side, as is the weaponry – however there are no ray guns as on Barsoom.

But the real differences begin to show when Ardor finds the Jadiriyah, a good-looking brunette babe who, Ardor gradually realizes, looks like a “pre-Cleopatra Elizabeth Taylor.” She’s broadcasting telepathically for help, being closed in on by a pair of Vardors – blue-skinned, hulking apelike creatures – who proceed to rape her. Ardor, for his part, hides, knowing he’s no match for these monsters – and since he feels everything the woman feels via that telepathy, he’s soon “draining” himself into the sand(!). For you see, despite being raped (at one point even double penetrated), the Jadiriyah is, believe it or not, getting off royally – “her prime though was to gain all possible clitoral stimulation.” Because, folks, women actually enjoy being raped on Aros.

Friends, I don’t see Ardor On Aros being reprinted anytime soon. Good grief, we live in an era in which victim culture is so prevalent that people get upset about cereal boxes; could you imagine how triggered they’d be by a novel in which female characters enjoy being raped??

This is the concept of Julan, in which an Aros woman is obligated to offer herself to the man who saves her life – and a man better except, or at least turn her down gently following the formal wordings. But Hank Ardor doesn’t know anything about this, so he politely turns down Jadiriyah’s strange offering of sex, once he’s killed off the two Vardors who were, you know, just raping her…at the same time. She doesn’t seem to appreciate this. Then she takes the ring Ardor took from Kro Kodres’s corpse, slips it on her finger, and vanishes. Eventually our hero will learn that “Jadiriyah” is actually a title, meaning “the Ringbearer,” and the lady’s name is really Sorah – and she’s not one to offend by bluntly turning down an offer of Julan.

The book gets more dreamlike as Ardor runs into Pope Borgia, the lab parrot which preceded him through the astral portal to Aros. But here Pope Borgia speaks fluent English – and rules an army of labcoated humans who go around with parrots on their heads. Maybe this is the part that had me thinking of Venus On The Half-Shell, as it’s all just so weird in that funky ‘70s way. But Pope Borgia is sick of this boring rule and goes along with his old buddy Hank – more dreamlike stuff as Ardor notices the jungle they just left seems to disappear when he looks behind them, but when Pope Borgia’s also looking back, the jungle is there again.

The thing about Ardor On Aros is that it sort of drifts along, with no real quest or mission for Hank Ardor. The whole book seems to be building up toward something…only it’s not. Ardor just sort of bumbles along with the parrot, taking up a pair of horse-like creatures called “slooks” (he names one ERB and the other Kline). He runs into another Vardor attack, and this time manages to save a lady from being raped – a gorgeous hotstuff who looks like Sophia Loren, and is the most beautiful woman Ardor’s ever seen.

Her name is Dejah Thoris, and at this point the Barsoomisms are getting egregious. But then, there is a Wizard of Oz vibe to the whole book (ie the film), with all the people Ardor meets resembling people he knows back on Earth. Soon he begins to question where in hell he really is – could he somehow have teleported into the book his old coworker Evelyn was writing? Things get more surreal when they arrive in Bythna, home of Deja Thoris as well as Sorah, the Ringbearer, who teleported here via the ring.

Having proven himself as a warrior – and by the way, Ardor can jump super-high on this lower-gravity planet, just like John Carter could on Mars – Ardor becomes a member of the Guild, a warrior class which is run by Sorah’s father. Meanwhile Ardor tries to court Dejah Thoris, first explaining to her upset father, a silversmith, why he didn’t accept her offering of Julan when he saved her! Throughout Ardor argues to the reader that this world cannot be of his own creation – ie Aros really being some sort of weird dream he is experiencing – because he wouldn’t have created anything like this place or its strange customs.

Eventually Ardor does take Julan from the lovely Dejah (of course, she’s been sulking because he didn’t take her, earlier), and Offutt fades to black just as it’s getting to the graphic stuff, Ardor snarkily telling the reader he won’t get “a free ride” out of an explicit description of his sex with her. But next day Ardor finds that Dejah and her dad have been taken prisoner, on orders of the Guildmaster himself – who himself takes orders from his daughter, the spoiled sorceress Sorah, who is affronted that Ardor didn’t accept her offer of Julan, but did accept it from the daughter of a lowly silversmith.

Here I was, assuming Ardor On Aros would lead up to this big action finale, with Earthman Hank Ardor marshalling the forces of Bythna against a Vardor assault, or something along those lines, but as Ardor gratingly keeps reminding us throughout the book: “I’m no John Carter.” And Andrew J. Offutt is now Edgar Rice Burroughs. Instead, the novel features a bizarrely underwhelming finale in which Ardor engages Sorah in a “sorcerer vs sorceress” battle; if Ardor can “magically” best Sorah, Dejah and her dad will go free.

But like a regular Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Ardor’s “magic” is mostly due to his knowledge of science and his pocket watch, the sole item he brought with him from Earth. After being bested – unable to gauge when an hour will begin, like Ardor can, thanks to his watch – Sorah first asks our hero to marry her, and upon his refusal, zaps herself back to her castle, where she goes into a mad rage. The climax features more of this low-key stuff, with our hero basically hiding out while Bythna suffers her wrath, and finally it’s up to Sorah’s dad to deliver some long-delayed discipline.

I’m not sure if Offutt planned to write more books about Ardor’s adventures on Aros; there’s no indication that this wasn’t intended as a standalone novel. It ends with Ardor relaying that all this was “long ago,” and that he is now old and married to Dejah Thoris, with several children by her, and he has become very wealthy thanks to his many business ventures on Aros. He also worries what will happen when Evelyn, back on Earth, eventually dies, having come to the theory that Aros is a creation of his, Pope Borgia’s, and Eveyln’s minds.

Overall I didn’t dislike Ardor On Aros, but I didn’t much like it, either. Despite such a salacious setup, the book itself is pretty theadbare in the exploitation aspect, and it’s almost as if Offutt wanted to write a straight-up sword and planet yarn, but figured it would be laughed at, so decided to angle it more as a “satire.” But as mentioned it appears he did write a genuine sword and planet novel a few years later: Chieftan Of Andor If I ever manage to read another Offutt novel, it will probably be that one.

And the Frazetta cover, by the way, is surprisingly subpar…I mean the giant snake looks great, but what’s up with the dude’s lack of a face? According to the 2003 documentary Frazetta: Painting With Fire, at one point publishers were begging Frazetta for paintings to use as covers, even if the painting had nothing to do with anything in the book. I’m assuming this is what happened with Ardor On Aros, as there’s no scene like this anywhere in the novel – hell, there isn’t even a snake in the book. Or maybe the snake is a metaphor, representing of course man’s inhumanity to man, and the dude’s lack of a face is representative of the dehumanizing, emasculating effects of the modern era? Yeah, that sounds good, let’s go with that.


Unknown said...

Hey Joe! Great writeup on this Offut title. I have it in the stacks, but have never ventured into the book. I'm curious if I'll enjoy more with your framing in advance!

Have you read his son's memoir? "My Father, the Pornographer" is an interesting (sometimes raw) look at growing up the son of a working writer.

John said...

I agree with you about the 1st person POV in these kinds of books. Third person enables my own imagination to create the mental visual of the story instead of someone telling me what it is. I recently picked up one of Offut's "Crusader" titles. Thanks for the warning! said...

Many thanks Joe for your reference to the delightfully sleazy "Spaceways" series. I bought the first 4 or 5 books in the early 1980s and unfortunately tossed them during a culling of my collection years later.

I've been wracking my brain ever since for the series title or author's name so I could recollect them if I wanted to.

Thanks to you now I can.


Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, John, glad I could help. You've inspired me to finally read my copy of Spaceways #1. Also, great use of the word "culling!"

Felicity Walker said...

No wonder Den arrives on the new planet naked in Heavy Metal (1981). At least Ardor took Kro’s thong so he didn’t have to walk around with his dork hanging out!

Cowboy Yogi said...

I read The Crusader books years ago and really liked them. Just about to start Ardor on Aros. I just couldn't get into the Spaceways books.