Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Valley Where Time Stood Still and The Martian El Dorado Of Parker Wintley


The Valley Where Time Stood Still, by Lin Carter
February, 1976  Popular Library
(Original Doubleday hardcover edition, 1974)

Between 1973 and 1984, Lin Carter published a “sequence” of four novels and one short story that was inspired by and dedicated to  Leigh Brackett. Carter, in his afterward to the final book, Down To A Sunless Sea (DAW, 1984), stated that as a teenager he’d been a fan of Brackett’s pulp sci-fi novels, and wanted to pay tribute to her version of “legendary Mars.” Carter’s novels were not published in chronological order (the first to be published, 1973’s The Man Who Loved Mars, actually takes place last chronologically – and was also the only one to be written in first-person), and they did not feature any recurring characters – other than Mars itself, which as in Brackett’s stories is a dying, dessicated world, home to an impossibly ancient race.

I’d never really thought much of Carter, other than I always remembered his name from the Conan books I read as a kid. But then when I met with Len Levinson last year, my interest in Carter was piqued – Len and Lin were friends from the early ‘60s until Carter’s death in 1988. Len told me some crazy stuff about the guy, who sounded like quite a memorable character – indeed, like a character in one of Len’s novels. Len himself has only read two of Carter’s novels (the first two Thongor installments), but he still thinks fondly of Carter, mostly because of the inspiration he gave Len to get started on his own novels.

Lin Carter was incredibly prolific, and outside of the Conan stuff maybe he’s most remembered for his Callisto series, which was greatly indebted to Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars books. Carter appears to have been a pastiche sort of author, maybe even a fan fiction author; at least he appears to be as such in The Valley Where Time Stood Still, as for the most part he does an effective job of capturing Leigh Brackett’s style. Carter’s pastiching certainly isn’t as evocative or poetic, but it does at time attain the ring of a Brackett original – to wit, “If ever a dead city had ghosts, thought M’Cord, it was Ygnarh dreaming of her lost empire in the golden twilight…” He also tries his hand at various Brackettisms, like “[M’Cord] cudgeled his memory.”

Carter considered these novels to be part of a “sequence” he referred to as The Mysteries of Mars, each of them taking place “about two hundred years” in the future. Chronologically The Valley Where Time Stood Still takes place second, I think, though note that in 1969 Carter published a novella titled The Flame of Iridar that was part of a Belmont Books Double which was also set on Mars, and also dedicated to Brackett (as well as her husband, Edmond Hamilton), but that one took place millions of years in Mars’s past and was more of a fantasy story – indeed, somewhat similar to Brackett’s The Sword Of Rhiannon in setting and fantasy vibe.

This one was the only novel in the sequence to be published in hardcover; Carter dedicates it to Brackett, “because it’s her kind of story.” He doubtless means this both ways – it’s Brackett’s kind of story in that it’s something she herself would probably enjoy reading, but also because Carter has done his best to retain her style and to set his novel on her Mars. Even the names of the various Martian cities are similar – ie Carter’s Tharsis to Brackett’s Valkis. And his Martians have that same vibe of decayed nobility; Carter’s have “coppery-red” skin and yellow eyes, and the men sport “furcaps” which are styled according to their status. The native women are generally topless and wear bells in their hair, just as in Brackett.

One difference is that Carter seems to go for more of a Western vibe than Brackett did. It would be easy to transpose the plot and characters of The Valley Where Time Stood Still from the deserts of Mars to the deserts of the Midwest, with his “lean and ragy” human protagonist M’Cord coming off just like a cowboy hero, even down to the dual “energy guns” he wears on his “lean hips.” (And those energy guns are made by General Electric, folks!) Likewise, Carter’s main Martian progatonist, Thaklar, is basically the Indian of Western yarns, abiding by his own code of nobility.

M’Cord himself is gruff and taciturn; he’s a desert prospector, having spent the past decade scouring the desert wastes of Mars for uranium, which is valueless to the Martians themselves. Instead of a horse he rides a slidar, one of the “ungainly, long-legged scarlet reptiles” which Martians use as “riding beasts.” (As we’ll recall, Brackett’s were described as “lizardlike mounts.”) An interesting detour from Brackett is that the humans of Carter’s books have undergone surgery to survive on Mars without the aid of a “respirator;” thanks to the “Mishubi-Yakamoto treatments” he received years before, M’Cord needs less oxygen. However like other “Earthsiders” on Mars, he wears a “thermalsuit” against the harsh elements.

Our hero comes upon a native stuck beneath a dead slidar. This turns out to be Thaklar, a former prince of the “Dragon Hawk clan.” It takes a long time to eke the info out of the injured warrior, but long story short: Thaklar is the latest in a line of fathers and sons who protect the secret location of Ophar, the so-called Valley of Lost Time, a sort of mythical Eden that also has a Fountain of Youth. The place, known as “The Holy,” is forbidden to Martians, and only Thaklar’s people know where it is. But he recently gave away the secret for a piece of ass: a hot native dancer-babe named Zerild, she of the “shallow pointed breasts” and “long, slim, coltish legs,” with hair like “a banner of black silk.” But the “wicked slut” took the sacred info and ran – without even giving poor old Thaklar that promised piece of ass!

Thaklar only relates his sad tale to M’Cord because the two have become “brothers,” following the ancient Martian tradition of sharing water – this after M’Cord is nearly killed by an attacking “sandcat.” Given that M’Cord himself saved Thaklar’s life, the Martian feels indebted to him, even if he is a “f’yagh,” or “hated one,” as the Martians refer to Earthmen. Thaklar gives water to an unconscious M’Cord, whose leg has been torn open from hip to knee, and this sharing of water is a holy and sacred thing, as water on dessicated Mars is more precious than life.

The two stop off to rest in Ygnarh, an incalculably ancient city that is “the first stop on the road” to Ophar. Thaklar’s own leg has healed, but M’Cord is in a bad way, but luckily here in this deserted “first city” of Mars they find other people – a Martian outlaw with the face of a wolf named Chastar, a “little priestling” named Phuun, and none other than Zerild herself. Chastar, who leads the group, keeps prisoner two Earthlings: a brother and sister from Sweden named Karl and Ingrid Nordgren. Of course, Ingrid is a hotstuff, stacked blonde, but she tries to hide it, and more so serves as an obedient servant to her brother. She helps to heal M’Cord with lots of high-tech equipment.

Thaklar has bargained for their lives with the revelation that he didn’t give Zerild all the details on the path to Ophar, so if the three want to go there – for whatever reason – they’ll need Thaklar’s help. And he demands safe passage for his “brother” M’Cord as well. Thus the group stays in Ygnarh for like…well, for like forever. The novel hits a holding pattern here for what seems to be endless chapters as M’Cord heals (I swear the phrase “His leg healed” appears like every other page, even though we’re informed he’s still healing). Carter strives for Brackett-style word painting as the humans muse over how ancient the city is, the first marble of which was set down while dinosaurs walked on the earth, but it does go on.

It’s a bunch of padding and slows the novel right on down, which is a shame, as prior to this it moves at a snappy pace. Finally though M’Cord has healed, for real this time, though we’re also informed he now has a “game leg” that he’ll forever have to drag along behind him. He can still ride a slidar, so off they head for fabled Ophar. But even here the novel is slow-going at best, Carter constantly stalling all forward momentum wth inordinate padding; repetitive padding, at that. It is clear he is having a hard time of filling up an entire novel – which isn’t even too long, coming in at 222 pages. Carter keeps stalling, ending most chapters on lame “what might happen next?” cliffhangers.

Ophar, when it is finally reached after arduous (and page-filling) journeying, is an Edenic paradise hidden in a valley at the bottom of a massive crater. An artificial crater-floor serves as a mirage to hide the place; Thaklar leads them down the stairs cut into the thousand-foot drop of the crater, and on through the mirage-like portal into Ophar. The cover painting of this Popular Library edition* pretty faithfully captures how Carter describes Ophar, even down to the big-eyed cat – which M’Cord theorizes might be the “mammal-like cat” from which the Martians themselves descended. Strangely, despite trying to invest the tale with “science,” Carter has it that his version of Martians might have a feline heritage…yet they’re still “humans.”

For Ophar is truly the place where time stood still – there are all manner of flora and fauna here that went extinct so long ago that no fossils even remain of them. The biggest surprise is the giant scarlet telepathic reptile that greets them – a kindly Guardian, and just one of several that still live here in the Valley. Even here though Carter shamelessly pads out the pages; it seems like every other page M’Cord pauses to worry over what might happen next. At any rate the Guardian fixes his game leg while he’s asleep; Carter works up a somewhat-lamely delivered reveal that the Valley heals those who have good hearts, but curses those who have come here for evil.

Here also Carter develops an 11th hour love between M’Cord and Ingrid, who it turns out is sometimes whipped by her brother…and might just enjoy it. After a lot of padding and exposition on this or that element of the Valley, the climax goes down quick, with Chastar and Phuun revealing their (incredibly lame) plan to conquer Mars – threaten destruction of the Valley itself! They’re going to bottle up water from the Pool and show it to people around Mars, or something…it’s pretty dumb. Oh, and the Pool gives off “bubbles” which, if they touch you, instantly zap your mind back to childhood and remove all stain from your heart, etc. But too much of it and you permanently regress, as evidenced by the flocks of nude young people running around, most of whom have been here for millennia.

The finale features various bizarre send-offs: one character is turned into a babe by the Pool, another is strangled by a tree that comes to life, like it just walked out of The Lord Of The Rings. Another is cast back into a bestial mode. Dancing “slut” Zerild (who might actually be a virgin – and by the way there’s zero sex in the book) freaks out and decides she loves Thaklar after all, devoting herself to him if he will accept her. And meanwhile Ingrid’s in danger of becoming one of those brainless Valley kids, thanks to an errant bubble, but M’Cord finds her…and conveniently enough she’s forgotten about practically everything except her love for him!

All told, not much really happens in The Valley Where Time Stood Still; as mentioned, it was more like a novella that was padded out to excess. The blood and thunder of vintage Leigh Brackett is nowhere to be found in this novel. The characters are not very interesting; the late reveals and turnarounds are so carelessly delivered as to almost be an insult to the reader. But I did enjoy the vibe of the novel, or at least the opening of it, which implies that The Valley Where Time Stood Still is going to be a lot better than it actually is.

Carter does an okay job of capturing Brackett’s style, though he does have an unfortunate tendency to lecture the reader, breaking the narrative flow. This is usually in regard to background on Mars, and thus isn’t too egregious, but sometimes it can be, with stuff like, “But that is one of the best things about living – one of the most precious gifts ever given to us by Those who shaped our being: We cannot ever know what is to come.” He does stuff like this throughout the novel and it isn’t very “Brackettian” at all; she was much more of a “show rather than tell” kind of author, and would’ve shoehorned such philosophies into action or dialog. But these things mark the difference between a good author and a great one.

*Every time I looked at that funky cover painting on this Popular Library edition, I kept thinking of Shea and Wilson’s almighty Illuminatus! trilogy – in particular, the similarly-funky cover paintings of the original Dell Books editions. I puzzled over the signature on this The Valley Where Time Stood Still painting, researched online, and at length discovered that it is indeed by the same dude: Carlos Ochagavia! Though he just went as “Carlos Victor” for the three Illuminatus! covers.

As mentioned above, The Valley Where Time Stood Still chronologically takes place second in the sequence. In 1976 Carter published a short story in the DAW Science Fiction Reader which would take the first chronological spot. It is titled “The Martian El Dorado of Parker Wintley.” Here’s the cover of the anthology, which is dated July, 1976:


The story takes place in “’67,” which I wager means 2167; in the afterward to Down To A Sunless Sea, Carter states that the Mysteries Of Mars sequence takes place about 200 years in the future. Or as Carter puts it in this story, “This was rugged, Colonialist Mars of the frontier,” further referencing the global revolution which apparently serves as the climax of The Man Who Loved Mars. But anyone hoping for a Brackett-esque short story about “legendary Mars” will be disappointed. Rather, Lin Carter apparently wants to do a comedy…one written in an annoyingly omniscient tone at that. 

Our “hero” is Parker Wintley, a self-involved lothario who has come to Mars after running into some female troubles on Earth. His plan is to get rich quick, capitalizing on the diamond rush currently dominating the red planet; while hard to find, diamonds are not much valued by the natives. Parker’s figured he can find some in the south regions of the planet, whereas everyone else is up north. He uses his charm to score a free “sand crawler” from the pretty lady who runs the rental place, and sets off on his trip.

But the majority of the 10-page tale is given over to “comedy” about the inordinate customs and rituals of the Martians, who we are informed perfected their culture millennia ago, so that there is no new art or entertainment or etc. So instead they enjoy talking floridly and endlessly beating around the bush. To this end Parker, when he meets a tribe of “yellow-faced natives in their loose brown robes,” spends five days haggling with them, most of it composed of days-long words of welcome from the Martians. Luckily, none of this crap is in The Valley Where Time Stood Still, and one hopes it only exists in this short story – the Martians seen in that novel, and hopefully the other three, aren’t so bound by ridiculous formality.

Worse yet, the story winds up to a lame comedy climax; after all this haggling, Parker makes off with what he believes are cannisters of diamonds. But then his sand crawler breaks down and only then does he look inside – the Martians have given him water, thanks to a mistake on Parker’s part in the Martian words he used. He referred to a “precious thing” he wanted in exchange for the salt he was bartering with the Martians – salt being incredibly rare and desirable here – and to the Martians there is nothing more precious than water.

But the water keeps Parker alive for the long walk back to civilization, and the story ends with him figuring he’ll go shack up with the pretty sand crawler rental babe. And that’s it for the story, which I guess can be considered part of the Mysteries of Mars sequence due to the reference to The Man Who Loved Mars. Otherwise I’d say this one could be skipped; it doesn’t even have a Brackett vibe, as the novels do.

FYI, only one post next week, on account of the holidays; it will be on Wednesday. Merry Christmas!

5 comments:

FreeLiveFree said...

Carter is best remembered for publishing the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series (despite sounding like a porn line) which kept a lot of older works of fantasy in line like the work of Lord Dunsany. He is not very well remembered as a writer.

AndyDecker said...

"Ophar" like Burroughs "Opar" as in "Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar"? This is strange for a writer, who "hommaged" Burroughs without end. If it is an in-joke, it is kind of lame.

Ah, the times when Adult wasn't the synonym for porn :-)

allan said...

FYI, only one post next week, on account of the holidays; it will be on Wednesday. Merry Christmas!

SLACKER!

Thanks for another year of entertainment.

russell1200 said...

I guess the title comes from a line in Colridge. The title sounded familiar to me. And yes indeed, there is a very strange nuclear apocalypse novel with the same name: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Down_to_a_Sunless_Sea

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, guys -- sorry for the delay, but the blog has been on autopilot. Allan, very funny!