Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Title: Beyond the Farthest Star
Year: Written 1941, Published 1964
This book is actually two short novellas written by ER Burroughs way back in 1941. They are both about Tangor, a human soldier that somehow has been transported to a very distant planet (which will sound very familiar to fans of the Princess of Mars series). Now on Poloda, Tangor integrates with the society there and takes a side in the war that has embroiled this planet for generations.
Though short (I read this is one evening) this book includes two of my favourite features of Burroughs’ writing. He is able to move the plot along at a rapid pace without the reader taking notice of it, something I really admire and try to emulate in my own fictional writing. Long periods of time can lapse in his plot without us losing momentum in the least. Despite the short length of the book we therefore get a lot of action and pivotal scenes, without any filler that might bulk out a novella into a longer novel.
We also get a look at Burroughs’ amazing world building abilities in a very condensed model. Not only does he establish the history of the planet and people that Tangor now lives among, but describes their industry, their culture, agriculture, work and leisure activities, technology, you name it. The reasoning for their way of life is explained in the sort of straightforward dialogue that you usually find in pulpy sci-fi novels, but it’s not taken to a patronizing level. Instead it just makes the backstory simple and treated in an unremarkable manner, again benefitting from Burroughs’ excellent pacing.
The themes of the novel are pretty obvious, with the war against Germany not-so-subtly represented in the war between Unis and Kapar. Burroughs was not shy about parodying the famous regimes of his day. I have to admit that I did keep expecting Tangor to eventually discover another side to the Kapar people, some sympathetic element that would give him a moral conflict, but that definitely did not happen. I went into it with too much of a modern-lit mindset, I think. There was no moral dilemma whatsoever, once Tangor had chosen to fight for the people of Unis. (We also got another great John-Carter-esque superman moment in Tangor’s piloting abilities, apparently easily transferred from the planes of Earth to the ones invented on Poloda).
So what are my conclusions? I definitely like the story and think that it is a quick and easy read, a satisfying enough ending (considering he didn’t continue the series) and enough suspense to make it compelling. On the other hand I think it is a great work for studying the historical context of sci-fi; you can really see the impact that war propaganda had on Burroughs, and i’m sure there’s much to be taken from his depiction of the society of Unis (I’m thinking of his interesting homogenized female characters). It’s also worth noting that he enlisted in the army the year after writing this story. Maybe he felt that his characters were living more exciting lives than he was, with all their interplanetary warmongering. But I’ve read that he was classified as Infantry and not an Officer, and then succumbed to depression and was discharged. I wonder if his disappointment in not becoming a superman like his characters in any way impacted his disillusion with the military.