Cryptonomicon in January: Week 4

(I finished the book at some point in March, and basically have been processing and procrastinating this last entry since then. Here comes the chapter recap, with some freeform thoughts at the end.)

  • The Most CigarettesRandy and Avi talk about Andrew Loeb who is suing Epiphyte(2), backed by The Dentist. The Feds show up at Ordo headquarters to retrieve the Tombstone, Epiphyte’s encrypted email box.
  • Christmas 1944Goto Dengo figures out what’s going to happen with the vault and plans an escape route. He is also introduced to the concept of Christmas.
  • PulseRandy presents his Lord of the Rings-inspired dwarf vs. elf theory of dudes who work in tech while going full cyberpunk on the Tombstone during the lawyer standoff. Someone sets off an EMP.
  • BuddhaGoto Dengo is there as the vault is loaded. Then, it’s sealed.
  • PontifexRandy gets the hell out of Palo Alto and flies first class to the Sultanate of Kinakuta. While in the air, he has several phone calls, including one with aka Enoch Root.
  • GloryBobby Shaftoe traverses the Philippines to see Glory. Turns out she’s a leper. It’s a short reunion.
  • The PrimaryRandy goes to Tom‘s bunker in Kinakuta and has a meeting with Epiphyte(2) and Doug ShaftoeRandy discusses his grandfather (Lawrence Waterhouse)’s last decrypts from WWII.
  • DelugeGoto Dengo seals and subsequently escapes the vault aka Golgotha. Not everyone in his crew makes it out.
  • BustRandy flies to Manila, is framed and arrested for drug possession.
  • The Battle of ManilaBobby starts making his way through Manila as it is shelled by General Douglas MacArthur.
  • CaptivityRandy‘s in jail. He talks to his attorney, gets his laptop, and finally has an important conversation with Amy Shaftoe.
  • GlamourBobby in Manila during the battle, part 2. He runs into Goto Dengo and converts him to Christianity. They both run into General Douglas MacArthur. Then Bobby meets his son, Doug Shaftoe for the first and only time.
  • WisdomRandy in jail, part 2. He gets transferred to solitary, reevaluates the relationships with women he has had, and meets his new neighbor: Enoch Root.
  • FallBobby‘s last mission.
  • MetisRandy and Root have a long talk and tier together a lot of disparate plot threads.
  • SlavesLawrence goes through the Japanese code base that Bobby cleared in his last mission.
  • ArethusaRandy talks to The Dentist and finally decodes Lawrence‘s last decrypts, which contain, among other things, the location of Golgotha.
  • The BasementLawrence uses his computer to break the Azure code.
  • AkihabraRandy is released from prison. He meets Avi in Japan and they talk.
  • Project XLawrence has an encrypted phone call with Alan Turing about Arethusa and randomness.
  • LandfallGünter Bischoff and Rudy von Hacklheber meet up after months at sea.
  • Goto-samaRandy and Avi have dinner with Goto Dengo and his son. They convince Goto Dengo to back their expedition/excavation to Golgotha.
  • R.I.P.Goto Dengo and Enoch Root have a chat in Manila days after the Battle of Manila.
  • ReturnRandy sneaks back into the Philippines, consummates his relationship with Amy, and heads out to find Golgotha. They get there and discover a minefield.
  • CribsLawrence spies on a conspiracy at Bobby‘s funeral. He meets up with Rudy to tell them he has broken their code (Arethusa). He promises not to tell.
  • CayuseAndrew Loeb shows up at Golgotha and causes a ruckus.
  • Black ChamberLawrence hides the Arethusa intercepts and replaces them with a very well-encrypted joke.
  • PassageBischoff and Rudy go down with the submarine.
  • LiquidityRandy pumps Golgotha’s gold out.
  • Appendix: Solitaire aka Pontifex by Bruce Schneider.

Hell of a last quarter of a book. While I do love it when a plan comes together, the nonlinear nature of the storytelling in a book like this renders some of the later chapters as essentially background, filling in the history around the plot points we’re already taken as given. Randy undergoes a physical and emotional transition late in the book that coincides with his 1337 hax0r skillz that feels very much like a wish fulfillment “our hero wins in every conceivable way” kind of an ending which disappointed me a bit in its obviousness. Other than that, I finally learned modular arithmetic and have a slightly more detailed understanding of cryptography (though with a decidedly analog bent).

It’s my understanding that Neal Stephenson’s next several books make up what’s called the Baroque Cycle, and they deal mostly with the history of the Shaftoe and Waterhouse families, as well as explaining a bit more about Enoch Root. I don’t know if I’m ready to tackle more from him at this point, but if you’re interested, it’s worth looking into.

I’m not fully over the ending of this book. I can’t fully decide if pumping the melted gold out of Golgotha is a brilliant way to repatriate the gold back to the people, or if it’s a messy but very lucrative cleanup job that will make Randy et al set for life. Essentially: I can’t tell if it’s altruistic or selfish and, while I think it’s supposed to be read as the former, it’s a bit too ambiguous to work as well as it should. It’s neat though. A cool concept.

Cryptonomicon in January: Week 3

At this point, the “in January” and “week 3” are just a joke. But I really like this book and want to finish it and I’m honor-bound to write chapter summaries because I can’t find good ones online. Here’s week 1 and week 2.

  • OutpostGoto Dengo makes it back to “civilization” but is reminded that war is hell. He gets on a submarine.
  • Meteor: We catch up with the erstwhile crew of U-691 in Sweden, on the Gulf of Bothnia. While laid up with a new paramour, JulietaBobby Shaftoe is reminded of Glory back in Manila. A jet crashes.
  • Lavender Rose: Stuff is being brought up from the German U-Boat that America Shaftoe discovered in part thanks to Randy WaterhouseRandy gets an email from root presenting a new encryption scheme. Something comes up from the U-Boat the says WATERHOUSE LAVENDER ROSE.
  • BrisbaneLawrence Waterhouse tries to figure out what to do in Brisbane as his official orders have been essentially canceled.
  • DönitzBobby and Günter Bischoff talk. Bischoff will be rejoining the German navy. They decide to investigate the jet crash and discover Enoch Root and Rudy von Hacklheber.
  • CrunchRandy eats some Captain Crunch, checks his email, then goes to a dance with America among others. He receives some mysterious coordinates.
  • GirlLawrence find a job breaking smaller Japanese codes, he finds a room in a boarding house and then meets and falls for a girl named Mary.
  • ConspiracyRudy tells how he ended up in Sweden (he investigated what Lawrence and Bobby were doing with unit 2702) and Bobby hallucinates a bit. The Societas Eruditorum comes up, and they plan to meet in Manila.
  • HoardRandy flies to the USA to take care of some personal business and writes a long AF email detailing his trip to the mysterious coordinates, where he found literally tons of gold stacked neatly in the jungle.
  • Rocket: A new u-boat (matching the description of the one that Randy and America have found in Manila) arrives to pick up Bischoff, who gives intelligence on this u-boat to Bobby as he leaves. Turns out Bobby and Enoch have both been with Julieta (in THAT way) and they decide she needs an American or British passport. Germans come and Bobby kills most of them but they fatally wound Enoch, who is hurriedly married to JulietaEnoch then dies…or does he? Bobby leaves.
  • CourtingLawrence‘s libido and its effect on his work is detailed, with math. He has to adjust his routine due to his feelings for Mary. He goes to a dance where he discovers she is Qwghlmian, but from Inner Qwghlm.
  • INRIGoto Dengo is convalescing in a Catholic hospital in the Philippines, recovering from PTSD and injuries. He is cured but convinced they tried to convert him to Catholicism. He makes his way to his new post. The Societas Eruditorum is seen again.
  • CaliforniaRandy and Avi Halaby discuss creating a cryptocurrency after Avi picks Randy up at the San Francisco airport.
  • OrganLawrence goes to church with Mary and her brother (his roommate). He obsesses over the pipe organ there and (in my favorite sequence so far–I listened to a recording of the piece as I read this part) triumphantly plays Toccata and Fugue in D Minor while simultaneously working out plans for a digital computer.
  • Home: There’s an earthquake. Randy‘s house is destroyed. America is there somehow, with two of her cousins from the Tennessee Shaftoes. Theme of the chapter is: “you can’t go home again”
  • BundokGoto Dengo gets orders to dig.
  • Computer: Things are going well for Lawrence with Mary, the organ, and his computer. He knows the Japanese are going something with mining and gold in the Philippines.
  • CaravanRandyAmerica and the Tennessee Shaftoes take a car trip to Washington. Randy gets to know everyone better, especially America but not in THAT WAY.
  • The General: Bobby makes his way from Stockholm to New Guinea and offers his skills to General Douglas MacArthur directly. He is ordered to go to Manila.
  • OriginRandyAmerica and the Tennessee Shaftoes use a bizarre real-life graphing system to divvy up his grandmother Mary‘s possessions. He discovers that Lavender Rose was the name of the pattern on her wedding china.
  • GolgothaGoto Dengo draws up elaborate plans.
  • SeattleRandy tries and mostly fails to get information about his grandfather, Lawrence, but does end up with his trunk and punchcards contained therein. He meets up with a friend who collects obsolete technology (to read the punchcards). America decides to head back to Manila.
  • RockGoto Dengo walks through his massively labyrinthine over-designed vault with the general, going over all of the various traps. The general indicates that such a bunker will be duplicated in other sites (…maybe in Kinakuta?).

We’re reading from the chapter Most Cigarettes through the end of the book now. Good luck!

Cryptonomicon in January: Week 2

It’s looking much more like this is going to be a 2-month book club considering that I’ve gotten halfway through the book at the end of the month. Anyway, a lot of stuff has happened in the book and I still want to finish it. The chapter-by-chapter summary I found online and mentioned previously peters out about halfway through our reading, so here’s very brief sentence-long summaries of the chapters.

  • Lizard: Bobby Shaftoe in Italy while they sit around and make it look like they’ve been there a while and transmit encoded data.
  • The Castle: Lawrence Waterhouse is in Qwghlm and he’s paranoid that everyone is a spy. Also a complete explanation of the creation and use of a one-time pad.
  • WhyRandy Waterhouse is in the Sultanate of Kinakuta decompressing from his flight and preparing for the big meeting by reading the business plan, answering his email (including an interesting one from someone with a root email) and reading up on an old rival who is now into hive minds.
  • Retrograde Maneuver: Japanese soldiers escaping do not sufficiently destroy some code manuals.
  • HuffduffLawrence, still in Qwghlm, engages in subterfuge to make the residents think he’s doing high frequency direction finding while he does other code and information flow works. He advises Bletchley Park to crash a boat with code manuals into Germany as an excuse to abandon codes known to be broken. Lawrence also engages in intercourse with a friendly potential spy.
  • Pages: The Australians find the badly-buried Japanese code manuals mentioned in Retrograde Maneuver.
  • RamBobby is on a boat full of guns. He flashes back to the Italy escape and the very deadly Vickers machine gun, and then witnesses an argument over whether to follow orders and leave a code manual in the boat after it crashes.
  • DiligenceRandy doesn’t tell The Dentist everything that he’s up to in the Philippines.
  • SpearheadLawrence and Bobby investigate the U-553 which just happens to have crashed, with no crew, very near Qwghlm. There’s useful code info on board, but a safe is stuck.
  • MorphiumBobby uses controlled explosives to release the safe. He also gets his hands on some German morphine.
  • SuitRandy emails with root, and has a chat with The Dentist.
  • CrackerLawrence cracks the safe from U-553 and finds a Chinese gold bar and some hand-written encoded sheets.
  • SultanEpiphyte(2) has a meeting with the Sultanate and some potential investors in The Crypt.
  • SkippingGoto Dengo ends up in the water after a surprise American attack.
  • MugsRandy is still in the meeting, realizing that maybe all of these guys are not such good guys. He sets up his laptop for a demo and writes a script that will take pictures of the people who use it.
  • Yamamoto: Admiral Yamamoto is killed while in flight. Dying, it occurs to him that the Japanese codes are probably compromised.
  • AntaeusLawrence talks to Alan Turing. They discuss the Turing machines and binary encoding. It’s revealed that the mysterious handwritten encoded pages on U-553 were in Rudy von Hacklheber’s handwriting.
  • PhreakingRandy reads more about his old rival and his attempts to create a (pre-twitter) hivemind, then watches as some of his pals do some Van Eck phreaking (with explanation) which reveals a long “Letters to Penthouse”-style story about the fetishization of archaic things.
  • AfloatDengo is still in the water. He makes it to shore with one other guy, then finds some cannibals.
  • ShinolaBobby is unnerved by Lawrence but not surprised that he gets along with Root. Now he’s on a mission pretending to be Afro-Caribbean traders and they meet U-691.
  • HostilitiesRandy emails root again, and Epiphyte(2) comes to terms with the idea that they’re going to be helping bad guys.
  • FunkspielLawrence witnesses and takes part in a radio operation to make Germany think that U-691 has been taken by the Allies.
  • HeapRandy emails root agin, then Avi reveals that he’s building the Crypt to store a Holocaust-prevention resource. Randy reveals to Avi that the Shaftoes have found sunken treasure.
  • SeekyBobby and Root get interrogated by the Germans on U-691. They shoot Bobby up with morphine and he tells them everything but they don’t really believe him since it doesn’t make sense. The Captain of the ship, who is the only one who believes that the enigma has been broken, takes back over and decides to go straight to Germany as directly as possible.
  • WreckRandy is back on the water with America and Douglas Shaftoe and they use a sonar ROV to take a look at a sunken u-boat.
  • Santa MonicaLawrence is on his way to Australia. He stops over in the US and, on Santa Monica pier, considers the trans-oceanic data cables.

Whew. See you in…a week 😉

Cryptonomicon in January: Week 1

I decided to read Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon this January for a slightly delayed resurrection of my previous December book clubs. I thought that maybe January would be better because the hectic schedules of the Holidays were over people like to start the year fresh sometimes and decide “this is the year I get back to reading”. So we ended up with an 1000+ page book (depending on the edition) about cryptology, the perfect kind of light reading to help you start the year off right.

We’re reading 32 pages a day, which is a bit more ambitious than I realized. Which is why you’re getting a week 1 recap about halfway through week 2. In fact, here’s the schedule, which is roughly 220-230 pages per chunk (based on my copy of the book, the 2000 paperback edition published through Harper Perennial, which I purchased at a thrift store for $1):

  • Week 1: beginning through Crypt
  • Week 2: Lizard through Outpost
  • Week 3: Meteor through The Most Cigarettes
  • Week 4: Christmas 1944 through end

I have found, in my life, that I prefer certain kinds of literary fiction. While I certainly love the young adult genre novels which read quick and have shoddy world building but fun movies (Harry Potter/Hunger Games come to mind–you’re welcome to fight me about JKR’s Harry Potter world building), I really sink into books that can be charitably described as infodumps. JRR Tokien’s Hobbit is a nice primer into books that have a narrative but spend a bunch of time just explaining stuff, then cutting back to the story. Frank Herbert’s Dune really is where I got my first taste of hardcore, well-thought-out informational overload being balanced with an exciting but somewhat opaque story that slowly comes into focus as background is added. A much more hardcore example of this is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Weird how all of these books have been part of book clubs I’ve led or at least taken part in.

So Cryptonomicon

The book starts with background on, at this point, three main characters. We also start immediately pre-World War II at the tail end of 1941. So we have, in 1942:

  • Bobby Shaftoe, a Marine and eventually a Marine Raider who is a war hero, has seen some shit, and likes haiku
  • Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, an extremely smart enlisted Marine who is tends to treat human interaction as a problem to solve, and not even an interesting one. Friends with, among others, actual real-life historical figure Alan Turing.

In 1999:

  • Randy Waterhouse, systems and network admin involved in some kind of new startup in the Philippines. Definitely related to Lawrence.

So far we haven’t received the inner monologue of many other characters, though we’ve been introduced to a lot of other mostly fictional people:


  • Glory Altamira, Bobby Shaftoe’s erstwhile paramour in Manila
  • Rudy von Hacklheber, former schoolmate of Lawrence’s, very good friends with Alan Turing, it’s worth mentioning that he’s German
  • Goto Dengo, member of the Japanese military who befriends Bobby Shaftoe when they’re both stationed in Shanghai
  • Enoch “Brother” Root, missionary with questionable credentials who once saved Bobby Shaftoe’s life and then ended up in his life again mysteriously
  • Ultra/Magic, not actually a person, but the secret code names of the joint British/American cryptography venture that Lawrence is involved with


  • Avi Halaby, Randy’s business partner who is very excellent at human interaction and also really prefers everything to be encrypted (apparently also a reference to Neal Stephenson’s 8-book series The Baroque Cycle, and not even the only one, though it was written after Cryptonomicon)
  • America “Amy” Shaftoe, who runs a salvage/diving business out of Manila, working with Randy. Definitely related to Bobby Shaftoe
  • Epiphyte (1) & (2), the two startups that Randy and Avi are working on. The first is a project to use microwave antennas to bring greater internet connectivity and asynchronous video messages to Manila, the second is the creation of a data haven.
  • The Sultanate of Kinakuta, this is not a real place, though the Sulu Sea is real. It’s where Epiphyte(2) is building their data haven.

There is a lot happening, and it’s a lot of reading. A seriously great chapter-by-chapter breakdown is over here at with tons of links to relevant wikipedia articles. I particularly appreciate the wikipedia photos of the real life places some of this story occurs in, like the Intramuros or the Pine Barrens.  Also really worth reading is Neal Stephenson’s 1996 book-length Wired article Mother Earth Mother Board, the research for which must have partly inspired this book. MEMB is one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction writing, and having read it helps clarify a lot of the undersea cable talk in the 1999 chapters.

This recap is obviously delayed and there’s definitely the chance that the next one will be too.  ¯_(ツ)_/¯

On Book Clubs

For four years running now, I’ve hosted an internet-based Science Fiction/Fantasy book club. Mostly inspired by how much I enjoyed reading Infinite Jest with most of the Internet, It’s never been that wildly successful, but it has been fun.

I think I started the book club, and keep doing it, to make personal connections with other book nerds. I tend to get along well with bookish people, particularly those who like SF/F genre works. And there’s always a book I’d like to read or read again, and I always discover others in the same boat. I like to encourage people to stretch themselves and do something they don’t often do–or something they wish they did more–and see results. It’s likely this same reason that my wife is a fitness coach. It’s also been a way to reconnect with my spread-throughout-the-country, wildly-differing-stages-of-life friends from college. And it’s a project. It’s something I can point to at the end of the year and say “look! I did this thing!”

I’ve collected my previous book club posts on this blog, mostly as a way to just archive my own writing (and because I stopped paying for the domain of Dunecember, so I didn’t have a place for that stuff)

This month is a slight departure: fantasy rather than science fiction. We’re reading The Hobbit in anticipation of the film coming out. I’ll be writing about it on the December Adventure tumblr, with posts also on twitter and facebook. Join in! It’s only 10 pages a day!

Decembarsoom: The Last Half of the Book

(originally posted here)

The Last Half of the Book (Chapters 19-28)

What a wild group of chapters (and a wild few weeks for me—sorry for the delay, dear readers). The book seems to veer in three or four directions from the midsection to the end, as if Burroughs was unsure what he wanted to do with the rest of the story. Here’s basically what happens:

  • Chapter XIX: Battling In The Arena – Gladiator battles! Friendship! Deception!
  • Chapter XX: In The Atmosphere Factory – Completely out-of-place science fiction compared to the rest of the book! Psychic locks! Wonder if that’ll come up later!
  • Chapter XXI: An Air Scout For Zodanga – Carter is skilled in anything he tries! Military might!
  • Chapter XXII: I Find Dejah – Our heroine found! She’s promised to another! Some stuff finally gets explained re: her behavior earlier!
  • Chapter XXIII: Lost In The Sky – Plans! Flying!
  • Chapter XXIV: Tars Tarkas Finds A Friend – We unexpectedly happen upon the green Martians from earlier! Everything is so much better with them! Let’s build an army!
  • Chapter XXV: The Looting Of Zodanga – Down with Eurasia! Bloodthirsty warriors = great!
  • Chapter XXVI: Through Carnage To Joy – Dénouement! Everything is perfect forever!
  • Chapter XXVII: From Joy To Death – Ten years later! Remember that random part from earlier?!
  • Chapter XXVIII: At The Arizona Cave – What a crazy dream thatwas!

The book as a whole was…interesting. Plot-wise, it was kind of a mess, spending a lot of time at the beginning with exposition, and a lot of time at the end with action—it flowed kind of like a Michael Bay movie. The scenes and chapters a sometimes hardly joined together collections of events, though this is likely due to the book’s origins as a serialized story.

It seems like everything happens just to set up Carter as a nigh-invincible hero. To me, there was very little real peril in the book; either John Carter’s great skills or some deus ex machina would pop up at an opportune moment to save him every single time. I realize that this is simple pulp fiction, but there was pretty much no character development on John Carter’s part. He learned some of the Martian culture, but the entire book was structured on his excellence and how he changed all of Mars singlehandedly with relatively little effort.

The ending works perfectly to set up the further adventures of John Carter. Being taken suddenly back to the beginning, to a world that now seems alien to Carter, leaves us thirsty for more of his Martian adventures. Ten years of greatness and happiness on Mars is a long time to mine for pulp adventure stories, and since the prologue sets up the assumption that Carter made his way back, it’s no surprise that there are so many sequels to this legendary piece of fiction.

The next book, should you be interested, is The Gods of Mars. It’s available for free everywhere that the first book is, and I might even consider blogging through it. We shall see, dear reader. We shall see.

Decembarsoom: Week 3 Recap

(originally posted here)

Chapters 12-18

Is it just me, or does it feel like this book still hasn’t really started? I have certainly enjoyed all of the exposition we’ve received in the last seven chapters—the impenetrable wooing customs that Dejah Thoris expects and John Carter understands about as well as us, Sola’s parentage, the political structure of the Tharks and the Green Martian race—but I keep waiting for the main story to start. Perhaps it is generally episodic in nature whereas I’m expecting a full-blown novel. Plenty of stuff to talk about though.

First off, it seems like John Carter is into Dejah Thoris. Like, really into her. Obviously, he spends what feels like several chapters talking about (and foreshadowing like crazy) his need to be with her. He makes grand sweeping statements to her, pledging his eternal allegiance to her and promising vengeance against anyone who looks at her funny. And then, in his overwrought devotion, he says something which sets her off and she refuses to speak to him until he risks life and limb to rescue her from horrible torture. What he says exactly is implying that he has fought for her and thus won her hand—she takes great offense to that implication and refuses to speak to Carter for several chapters.

It is during Dejah Thoris’ silent treatment that we learn about Sola’s parentage. She, unlike every other Green child, was conceived in love and born in secret. It is strongly implied that she is the only compassionate Green Martian. She was raised nightly by her birth mother for an entire year, which seems to have made all of the difference. The revelation of her father is perhaps not entirely a surprise either. Tars Tarkas has been the only Green chieftain who has shown anything approaching kindness to Carter. Quietly, and with a minimum of interest, he has made sure John Carter is taken care of and taught the culture of the Tharks. Tarkas has aided and advocated for Carter from the start. When Carter refers to his relationship with Tarkas as something approaching friendship, Tarkas puts him off of that way of thinking, though much less so than any other Green Martian likely would. So, Tarkas as the redeemable father of a secret love child certainly sets up some excellent comeuppances later in this story.

Speaking of comeuppance, the Green Martian society is all about assassination as political advancement. This isn’t news, considering last week, but it’s interesting that this goes all the way to the top of the political order. I’m not entirely clear on whether Tal Hajus is the leader of all the Thark tribes or of all the Green tribes, but I suspect it’s the former. We encounter the far more war-like Warhoon tribe, who seem all about killing all of the time. We see a bloody coup minutes after John Carter regains consciousness and then he is thrown in a dungeon in preparation for the gladiatorial games that have been hinted at since early in the book.

Other bits worth discussion:

  • Why are the Tharks a nomadic people? Is it certain tribes or all Green Martians who are nomads?
  • If Woola could track the escaping Carter, Thoris and Sola so easily, how come the Tharks couldn’t?
  • John Carter is head over heels for Dejah Thoris and it certainly seems like she is indifferent towards him (until the end of chapter 17). Ain’t that always the way?
  • I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty excited about the chapter called “In the Atmosphere Factory” next week. Maybe there will be SCIENCE in this fiction.

See you next week—the recap will be posted Christmas Eve, and Christmas day is a skip day, though you’re certainly welcome to read on the 25th if you’d like.

Decembarsoom: Week 2 Recap

(originally posted here)

For such an upstanding southern gentleman, I couldn’t help notice that maybe John Carter is just a little bit racist. He keeps excusing some of the barbaric activities of the Green Men of Mars by saying, in essence, that they’re just not smart. And they only love killing. And they’re irredeemable barbarians. Except that one lady who is taking care of him—she’s cool and stuff. He portrays the Green woman who is assigned to him as the ONE forward-thinking member of her race, who is also brilliant, but he mostly relegates her to the role of servant.

(I just had to get that out—it’s easy to forget that this was written in 1917, until you get to the amazingly melodramatic, overwrought dialog and almost humorously backwards attitudes towards women [the phrase “feminine thinking” is in the last few chapters at least twice] and men who aren’t white like John Carter. Admittedly, this is a classic pulp, not a piece of Great Literature, but still, the casual racism and misogyny is better addressed than overlooked completely.)

In these chapters we also learned more about the bizarrely well-structured reproductive process of a barbaric, nomadic, communist people, read about our hero killing heretofore unknown creatures (the elusive albino Martian space-ape) with almost no explanation, and AIRSHIPS. I was, I’m going to be honest, really excited about the airships. Which were then chased off/destroyed.

Finally, we are introduced to the titular character, Dejah Thoris, THE princess of Mars. She’s, like all of the characters in this book, totally naked except for some tasteful accessories. She is being kept alive by the chieftains for some terrible purpose—I’m thinking gladiator battle, based on how much the Greens enjoy death. She’s saved by our hero, who has just learned the language of Mars (it wasn’t terribly complex because everyone is telepathic there, including John Carter!). It also turns out that now he is a chief, because he has so brutally and efficiently taken down two higher up members of the tribe. He is allowed to decamp to a new place—with more “pretentious” architecture—with Dejah, servant Sola, Sola’s ward, and Carter’s new and (we know this thanks to his heavy handed foreshadowing) incredibly loyal pet Woola. We learn more background about the incredibly advanced but now almost completely forgotten white people of Mars.

Some more critical bits, for discussion:

  • Carter threatened to kill a female Martian. It’s mentioned that there is an honor code about mixed-gender killing, so I expect something about that to come back.
  • It seems the red humans, the last descendant of the various human races on Mars, sustain life (particularly air and water) on the planet. What remaindered technology are they using to sustain the planet?
  • The airships were the first brush with technology-based science fiction in the story so far. I loved the airships. Hopefully we’ll see more of that.
  • The Green society is portrayed as almost completely communistic—everything is shared, from property on down to child-rearing. It’s also perceived as a completely unloving and violent society. Is ERB suggesting that to love, people must have their own personal property? It seems a bit like he is.

The picture up top is the cover of a current Marvel series retelling A Princess of Mars. The cover is by Skottie Young, and the series is written by Roger Langridge.

Decembarsoom: Week 1 Recap

(originally posted here and here)

What an introduction! Edgar Rice Burroughs goes for the classic Literary Agent Hypothesis framing story (“I found this story and here I am publishing it for you”) and basically says that John Carter is immortal. Pretty ostentatious way to start the story!

I love cowboy comics. I’m a longtime fan of Jonah HexBat Lash and other western comics. I grew up in Texas; cowboy stories are part of my childhood. So I really got into the beginning of this book, though I was a bit perturbed as I was expecting, you know, SCIENCE FICTION. Chasing down natives in the moonlit Arizona desert is great and all, but there are no rockets or lasers there. Then our hero has a bit of an out of body experience—neat, still no robots though—and suddenly he is drawn to Mars.

It’s time to reevaluate our definition of Science Fiction for this book. It does not appear that there are going to be any of the traditional elements of science fiction herein: Robots look doubtful. The space travel is metaphysical in nature. No mention of lasers yet. But we do have incredible biology—the native Martians, their mounts (epic or otherwise), their, uh, pets and some heavy foreshadowing of battling Martian white apes. So, if you were reading this with hopes of sassy droids or space duels, well, it’s time to adjust your expectations. This was written in 1917 and it’s going to be much more of a classic pulp adventure on a foreign planet than it is going to be about any star wars.

Speaking of space travel, the description and effect of the lower gravity on Mars sounds (1) super cool and (2) pretty prescient for being written roughly fifty years before anyone set foot on another celestial body. Certainly this will factor into John Carter being a great Martian Basketball player.

I must admit to somewhat immersing myself into the media surrounding this book. In my defense, it’s been out for nearly a century—there are dozens of comic book versions (many archived on—as well as the upcoming film (directed by Andrew Stanton), which literally inspired this book club. So, swimming as I have been through John Carter media, I was pretty unsurprised by the descriptions of the Martians. They’re certainly not little green men—green yes, little not so much—and they have impressive-sounding extra limbs and tusks. I’m surprised that they’re not similar to other science fiction characters that I’ve seen or heard about, to be honest. You’d assume that a book of this age and level of influence would have spawned some imitators, but I honestly can’t think of any major sci-fi species with six arms or prominent tusks. A little surprising.

What did you think of the first few chapters? Totally bummed about the lack of space ships? Surprised that, up to this point, John Carter is still butt naked on another planet? Please comment here on Tumblr or on Facebook or on Twitter using #decembarsoom

I realize that the chapters are short and it’s easy to read quite a bit in a relatively short amount of time, but I am considering that a feature, not a bug.

Decembarsoom: Reading Schedule and Sources

Reading Schedule (originally posted here)

We’re starting on a Thursday, but the reading week will be Monday through Saturday with a recap here on Sunday afternoons.

  • Thursday, December 1 – Sunday, December 4: Introduction through the end of chapter 4
  • December 5-11: Chapters 5-11
  • December 12-18: Chapters: 12-18
  • December 19-25: Chapters 19-24 (that includes a day off for Christmas)
  • December 26-31: Chapters 25-28

Sources for A Princess of Mars (originally posted here)