Bug-eyed Monsters and Mad Scientists

November 27, 2016

space

Actually, BEMs (Bug-eyed Monsters) are not a sine qua non of space-opera, and early examples often fill up with stuff lifted from the historical novel, or if you like the parry-and-thrust opera, things like princesses and palace guards and ancient codes of honour. Later space-opera fills up from the ‘tec yarn, with galactic hoodlums, alien dope-runners, etc. The kind of setup I have been describing is plainly an important ancestor and collateral of much contemporary fare as seen in comic books and strips aimed at those of immature age or inclination, and it even afflicts the occasional story in the serious science fiction magazines. Moreover, space-opera with a full complement of BEMs and a small staff of mad scientists attended by scantily clad daughters constitutes, I should guess, the main brand-image of science fiction in the minds of the less au-courant trend-hounds, those who haven’t yet caught on to how frightfully significant it all is. To go back in the other direction: the ancestral figure in the development of space-opera is clearly Rider Haggard, who in a book like SHE provided elements that needed only to be shifted to Mars and eked out with a BEM or two to get the whole new show on the road. Edgar Rice Burroughs performed this very feat in 1912 with UNDER THE MOONS OF MARS, later republished as A PRINCESS OF MARS, and in the next quarter of a century or so more than a dozen successors flowed from his dreadfully fluent pen. The degree of scientific interest here can be gauged from the way Burroughs shows his contempt for all interplanetary devices, from waterspouts to gravity insulators: the hero, trapped in a cave by a band of Apaches, simply finds himself on Mars, and at once enough starts happening in the way of green men for the more technical questions to be quickly dropped. Burroughs’ most celebrated and profitable creation, Tarzan, is, incidentally, a more complicated person than the continuing spate of films about him would suggest. Far from being a mere rescuer of lost wayfarers and converser with animals, he meets several adventures stemming even more directly from Rider Haggard, TARZAN AND THE LOST EMPIRE or TARZAN AND THE CITY OF GOLD, for instance, which represent a kind of terrestrial space-opera, and at least once, in TARZAN AT THE EARTH’S CORE, we retrace the steps of Verne, though with less dignified gait.

Kingsley Amis
New Maps of Hell

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