Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The City Outside The World

The City Outside The World, by Lin Carter
October, 1977  Berkley Medallion

Part of the Mysteries Of Mars “sequence” by Lin Carter, The City Outside The World is yet another tribute to the work of Leigh Brackett; such a “tribute” that the astute Brackett reader can easily spot the novellas which Carter has borrowed from. The top three I detected would be “The Last Days Of Shandakor” and Sea-Kings Of Mars, with a couple elements from The Nemesis From Terra thrown in for good measure. There are probably more besides.

As if that weren’t enough, Carter also liberally borrows from his own The Valley Where Time Stood Still, the novel in the sequence that preceded this one. There’s no continuity or recurring characters (other than that the first-published novel, The Man Who Loved Mars, actually occurs last in the sequence), but Carter does alert us of the previous tales via asterisks. Given that these earlier books came out through different publishers could be seen by the less forgiving critic as a testament to the size of Carter’s audience.

A big, big problem with The City Outside The World is that the characters are barely allowed to breathe; there’s hardly any dialog in the book, just blocks and blocks of narrative. And as ever Carter has a tendency to break into impromptu lectures on this or that, usually in describing how things are on his “Old Mars,” ie a Mars with its feline-descended humans who have been around for “billions and billions” of years. Brackett was sure to keep her yarns moving and to let her characters live a little, but Carter is guilty of telling much more than he shows. This makes the book sort of a chore to get through at times.

There’s no connection to The Valley Where Time Stood Still, other than a passing mention of its titular Edenic area. But then the “city” of this book is itself a hidden Eden, so as mentioned there’s some repetition afoot. Our hero this time is the cipher-like Ryker, no other name given, a big brawling bastard exiled to Mars many years ago due to his unpopular political beliefs or somesuch. Mars, we learn, is sort of like a planetary Australia in Carter’s future (which appears to be around 2077 or so); the New World Order/globalist government that rules Earth extradites particularly-troublesome “criminals” to Mars, so as to be done with them.

When we meet him Ryker is in one of those typically-downtrodden ancient Martian villages, watching a super-hot Martian babe dancing topless. Now that’s how you start a sci-fi novel! The woman’s eyes are masked, and Ryker detects something unusual about her, other that is than just the great rack. (Carter’s Martian women appear to be bustier than Brackett’s, for anyone taking notes.) Ryker finds himself following the woman and her two companions – an old man and a young, nude boy (annoyingly, the kid stays nude for the duration of the novel!) – as they wend their way through the mazelike city. When some natives try to attack the trio, marshalled by a bloodthirsty priest, Ryker steps in with his laser pistols and starts frying Martian scumbags.

After this Ryker becomes a companion of the three…not that it’s ever discussed or in fact that any of them say much to each other. Carter appears to have forgotten how to type quotation marks, so that the entire story is told via narration. Ryker goes along with the group, and what little they say to each other is relayed in summary. This leads to the frustrating development that we get no understanding of the three strange Martians, none of whom act like any natives Ryker has ever met. It becomes especially hard to buy the growing love between Ryker and the hot topless masked babe, whose name is Valarda. Valarda’s gold eyes are also very strange, and the reason she goes masked in public; eventually we’ll learn that a now-extinct race of Martians, ones who once ruled the planet, had gold eyes. The old man is Melandron (he ultimately contributes nothing to the text) and the naked boy is Kiki.

The strange group makes its way north…not that it’s every discussed why they’re going this way. One can almost feel the plot just dragging poor Ryker along as he trudges northward with them, now riding the big lizards called slidars which also appeared in the previous book. (And it’s clear the cover artist has seen a recent sci-fi movie; all it needs is a Storm Trooper on its back!) There isn’t much in the way of action, and about the most Ryker and Valarda share is a quick kiss that leaves Ryker flummoxed. However it’s the reader who is flummoxed when a nude form comes to Ryker that night in the pitch dark, and he eagerly accepts it and kisses and fondles it…only to discover it’s the ever-nude Kiki playing a practical joke! Instead of frying more Martian scum Ryker just sort of chuckles it off.

Things sort of pick up when the group latches on to a caravan run by a trader named Houm. Ryker gets a job as a guard, and they move on up north. But it’s a setup and Houm’s in cahoots with wily desert prince Zarouk, who wants Valarda and the other two. Ryker to the rescue again, wielding those dual pistols. They escape again, taking Zarouk as hostage, but that night Valarda ties up Ryker while he’s sleeping and she and the other two abandon him. Once Zarouk’s men catch up, free their prince, and beat up Ryker for a bit, Zarouk offers to take on Ryker; it’s all due to a curious icon he plundered from a Martian tomb years ago, one that’s shaped like the famous “Sphinx of Mars.”

The Pteraton, as it’s known, is a massive black structure much like the Sphinx of Giza, but bigger, and this one looks like an insect. Shrouded in mystery, the Pteraton is in the north of Mars, and now Ryker realizes Valarda et al have been headed for it all along; his earlier clue was the discovery of a faded Pteraton tattoo on Kiki’s chest. Zarouk keeps Ryker alive because Valarda stole the icon from him and it’s believed the icon can open a hidden passageway in the Pteraton. So they put Ryker under hypnosis so he can instruct a craftsman how to remake the icon(!?), after which one would reasonably expect Zarouk would have Ryker killed. But instead he lets him live and further brings him along on the merry journey to the Martian Sphinx.

Ryker is filled with the lust for vengeance, but he feels it slipping away when they (rather easily) discover the secret way into the monstrous Pteraton structure and head down it, down and down…until they come out in like a completely different world. Reminding the reader of the valley from the previous book, this one’s a paradise of lush foliage and unusual creatures and etc, and Ryker soon wishes he had died so that he wouldn’t have brought Zarouk and his warriors into this Eden. Eventually Dr. Eli Herzog, an old Israeli prisoner of Zarouk’s whose function is to serve up exposition, deduces that they’ve gone back in time – like two billion years back in time.

So it’s all like Sea-Kings Of Mars (only without the interesting characters, plot, or good writing) as Ryker finds himself in the far, far past. He doesn’t seem much upset about it, though. Anyway for hazy reasons Valarda, who turns out to be a priestess in this distant age, is now with her people in their castle which is defended by stone giants that are impervious to Zarouk’s weapons. It’s all just goofy and so juvenile; when Ryker’s caught and condemned to death by a regretful Valarda for bringing these people to the past, he sort of brushes off how she abandoned him back there in 2077 and etc.

The finale is one of the more glaring bits of deus ex machina ever, as Kiki unleashes the friggin’ god these people worship, and it’s an omniscient but wrathful entity that basically flies around and destroys all their enemies. One must credit it for taking the unusual approach of employing an army of walking dead. The “climax” rushes by with Ryker just standing on the sidelines; there isn’t even any mention of his getting back to his own era and all that. Instead, he’s happy to stay here and marry Valarda.

Carter’s enthusiasm for his own work is certainly evident, but sadly the enthusiasm doesn’t filter over to the reader. I found the book stilted and wearying, and Carter’s lecturing tone didn’t help matters. Nor did his heavy-handed attempts at conveying “drama” by arbitrary use of italicized single-line paragraphs. His reluctance to allow his characters to interract with one another really robbed the tale of any drama it might’ve had; instead The City Outside The World almost comes off like an outline or a treatment. Here’s hoping the other two novels in the sequence are more enjoyable.

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