Writing and Marketing

Month: September 2020 Page 1 of 2

Review: Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

I’ve mentioned in previous posts how much the phrase “Next Game of Thrones!” both frustrates and amuses me. It’s excessive over usage during the heyday of the Game of Thrones television show was truly ludicrous, with every rumoured fantasy or historical series being awarded the term. This was, of course, entirely independent of the level of actual similarities to Game of Thrones. In general, I find such trend chasing a little irritating. We already have a Game of Thrones. Why would we need another? (And after the Game of Thrones finale, why do we want another?)

With this pall of expectation hanging over any fantasy related product, when I watched The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, I can say that I was absolutely delighted by its desire to forge its own identity. The show is wonderful in its willingness to do its own thing, and it’s an utter shame that there will not be a second season. I highly recommend checking out the single season that exists on Netflix.

The show is a prequel to Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, a fantasy film released in 1982. The film has developed a cult following for its imagination and gorgeous practical effects, but was not readily accepted by audiences due to having no visible human actors, all the characters being portrayed by puppets, as was Henson’s specialty. The puppets in The Dark Crystal are much more intricate in design, however, than Henson’s colourful staples in the Muppets, and inhabit a richly detailed and strange fantasy wilderness. The philosophical themes, deliberate pace and lack of much grounding in our own world make The Dark Crystal not the easiest watch, but a rewarding one. There is a lot to enjoy in the original film, perhaps most memorably, its villains, the baroque and repulsive Skesis, a decayed and twisted nobility living in the ruins of their splendour.

When I heard of a revival of a nearly forty-year-old cult film, I was generally hesitant. We seem incapable of grasping the appeal of some of our most popular properties, as the recent dismal entries into series like Star Wars and Star Trek demonstrate. If we can’t get those right, what hope would there be for a cult puppet movie? I was very pleased to have been proven absolutely wrong. In fact, my thinking on the matter was probably entirely backwards. The Dark Crystal was such a sleeper success of the film that the stakes were likely considered low and the creative staff had more room to be, well, creative.

Age of Resistance is everything that a sequel should be, which is especially impressive given the shift in format from film to television. The attitude of the creators seems firmly rooted back in 1982, with a focus on wonder, mystery and likeably characters, over violence and shock. And yet, the series is not just a retread of the first film, instead building on its ideas and taking them in new directions. What truly amazed me is how the series manages to be a prequel, with certain information certain to the audience if they’ve seen the movie, and yet still manages to be surprising and intriguing. We know how things must eventually end up, but there was enough blank space in the film to add in plenty of questions and twists. The show is also very good at making every development seem natural, instead of simply tossing out ‘mystery boxes’ that will never be opened.

The series also manages to strike an excellent balance between old and new content. Too often sequels feel either like they are retreaded the same ground or are so divorced form the details of the original as to feel like a separate world to the original. The Dark Crystal may be the new gold standard in how to treat a fictional universe. Nothing is needlessly destroyed or undone, and so much great new detail is added. The series manages to celebrate the first movie without repeating it. A major benefit of the series being a prequel is that the villains, the Skeksis, are allowed to return in a combination of familiar characters and new additions.

In fact, all the characters are a major highlight of the show. Despite everyone being puppets, they feel like they have a lot more life to them than many “real” performers! The voice cast features a wealth of talent that is a delight to listen to. A particular favourite for me was Mark Hamill voicing The Scientist. The voice actors help propel a script that is often surprisingly witty, deftly balancing the light and the dark, the humorous and the serious. The world itself is gorgeous, and a character all of its own (figuratively as well as literally in the context of the show). New technologies have been added, but the series never devolves into distracting “CGI soup”, with deliberate and interesting artistic choices made throughout.

It’s very sad that the series, having done everything with such loving care, won’t be returning for a second season. That said, the first season is a satisfying watch all on its own, with a good ending point that caps off a full arc. I was, in fact, very impressed with how quickly the show moves along while keeping coherent – nothing is dwelt on to the point that it becomes overdone. If you’re the sort who likes your fantasy, well, fantastical, it’s a series well worth a watch.

Fantasy in Films – Lord of the Rings and Beyond

It cannot be overstated what a landmark set of films The Lord of the Rings were. At the time they were a phenomenon, beloved by audiences and critics alike. To this day I’d argue that the films hold up quite well. You can tell the love and care that was put into every moment of them, and the enthusiasm of the cast and crew for the product. It really feels like a set of films that someone really wanted to make, a sad rarity these days. One would think that The Lord of the Rings would usher in a new age of similar fantasy films, and yet, I’m not sure anything has even come remotely close. The question is then – what happened?

I should start by saying that the post-Lord of the Rings fantasy film landscape is not entirely barren. Guillermo del Toro has bravely been keeping the fantasy spirit alive through his work, and there have been many sleeper classics such as 2007’s Stardust. But none of them have won the critical and popular acclaim as Lord of the Rings – with the exception, perhaps, of the contemporary Harry Potter series. In fact, if we count by sheer money earned, Harry Potter outstripped Lord of the Rings, its 8 films raking in roughly 8 billion dollars, neatly comparable to the Lord of the Rings raking in 3 billion dollars for 3 films. I don’t wish to be overly critical of the Harry Potter films (and will leave books and author right out of this discussion), but I can’t help but wonder if it was Harry Potter that had more of a part in directing the future of fantasy films then Lord of the Rings – and if the lessons learned from it were all beneficial ones. After all, while Harry Potter started at about roughly the same time as Lord of the Rings, it ended nearly a decade later.

While there are many who will decry the suggestion that Harry Potter is “just for children”, I can’t help but suspect that it was a major impact on the emergence afterward of a storm of “young adult” oriented fantasy films. While I’m sure that these all had their fans at the time, very few of them seemed to have had the staying power of Harry Potter. Trying to age target so aggressively also did little to help the longevity of these followers in the public consciousness. I’m not sure that anyone is really going to fondly look back on the Percy Jackson series. And absolutely no one remembers Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

These series all hold the similarity with Harry Potter in that they take place adjacent to “reality”, with characters slowly learning about a “hidden” fantasy world. This kind of fantasy is of course as valid as any other, but I have to wonder if it made producers wary about dropping people into a truly and completely different world such as in Lord of the Rings. This effect may not have been a significantly negative one, but I must ask if it was perhaps a more limiting one, restricting the number of screenplays that actually made it to production.

Harry Potter also taught that bigger was better. Three movies making a billion dollars each is good, but what about eight movies making a billion dollars each? What about more? Unfortunately, this may be the most major reason why Lord of the Rings has had some of its impact stolen; namely, the blatant attempt to copy Harry Potter’s franchise size by releasing the severely lackluster and uninspired Hobbit trilogy, which featured a single slim book scraped over too much screen time (ironically, The Hobbit should have been the one film in this era to try for a more whimsical, innocent tone) and may have actually undid all the work that Lord of the Rings had begun. Harry Potter went even further with spinoff films, and other genres altogether took the idea to new heights, finally crystallizing in the total domination of Disney with its multiple money printing franchises. While there is nothing inherently wrong with these films on their own, there has arisen the unspoken idea that the new is obsolete when the retread is now the cutting edge. In this paradigm, there is little room for the sort of evolution I discussed in the first half of this piece.

Whether it was the success of Harry Potter, the failure of The Hobbit, or other factors, the fantasy landscape after Lord of the Rings seemed to be defined by this skew into the morass of young adult adaptations – and then, the reaction to it. The next landmark in the genre on screen was certainly Game of Thrones, which was as much a pseudo-historical drama as it was a fantasy work. The choice of a work noted for gratuitous sex and violence, adhering to “gritty” sensibilities, may have been reactionary, but it was surely a winning formula, Game of Thrones arguably being as big a phenomenon as Lord of the Rings despite never hitting the big screen. It would seem that the muted impact of Lord of the Rings wouldn’t matter – here could be the real start of a fantasy renaissance.

And yet I think that the failure of the fantasy genre to have a major cultural impact after Lord of the Rings is connected to a dirty secret behind Game of Thrones’ ultimate fate of irrelevancy. While adhering to the story laid out by book writer George RR Martin, the series flourished. And yet the writers who took over in finishing the story, Benioff and Weiss, took an attitude that seemed to suggest that they viewed the fantasy genre in the same way that it had been seen before Lord of the Rings, claiming that they did not want to appeal to “(fantasy) fans” but to “mothers, NFL Players…”. The unspoken assumption here is that to be a fan of fantasy is to be a strange exception. In short, fantasy is not viewed within Hollywood as having had its “arrival” yet. But how could Game of Thrones ever been that homecoming, I wonder, if it was being designed by its writers to reject its very nature?

The money Game of Thrones made still has many seeking to be its successor, to various levels of success. Given the directional choices, I think that maybe those Game of Thrones successor dollars will be better found in historical dramas than in works that delve deeper into the fantasy genre. But honestly, the phrase “The Next Game of Thrones!” was pretty ridiculous when the show was well-liked, suggesting that success comes through emulation. After the finale of Game of Thrones, the phrase becomes hilarious.

In the end, my point here has to chart how odd the evolution of the fantasy genre in film and television has been as a cultural force when compared to other genres, with consistent “false starts”, lapses into obscurity, and constant chasing of its own tail. This does not mean there have not been many great fantasy films and shows, and nor that there will not continue to be many in the future. Indeed, out of North America, the genre may have very different paths. Europe always seems to have room in its heart for the genre, and China’s filmmaking industry seems to have dived into the concept with full gusto when they discovered the special magic of awful CGI. In Japan… well, let’s not talk about the fantasy genre in Japan until the isekai craze is well and truly buried.

As for me, I’m quite happy with the situation. I don’t get upset by a bad adaptation of something I enjoyed, as I consider the adaptation a work that stands on its own. At the same time, I don’t really feel the necessity of an adaptation as a “validation” as some seem to need. No matter what Hollywood is doing at any given moment, there is a rich and expansive world of fantasy literature that is never going away. And maybe, sometimes, things are better left to the imagination anyway.

Fantasy in Film – An Unloved Genre?

I have mentioned before that we often draw our lines too thickly when it comes to defining the various genres that sprung up from early speculative and weird fiction – traditionally dividing them into science fiction, fantasy, and horror. At the same time, I fully understand why these distinctions have become important as groupings, as those genres themselves have splintered into more and more subcategories and evolved to suit changing tastes and styles.

These diverging paths have taken these genres into very different places over the years, having their own highs and lows. What is interesting to look at is the relationship between these genres in the written format comparative to the film format. I had this particular subject on my mind after a heard a friend mention the complaint that the fantasy genre gets underserved in film compared to science fiction and horror.

Having been brought up on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies my first instinct was to protest this, but further reflection made me wonder if there wasn’t some truth to this. At the time, there was an expectation that Lord of the Rings would serve to “legitimize” fantasy, in the same way that The Exorcist “legitimized” horror, and 2001: A Space Odyssey “legitimized” science fiction. Obviously, I believe that this is too much of an oversimplification, but it does feel that fantasy has had a start that was both delayed and stumbling compared to its sister genres. The aforementioned films did not radically change their entire genres but did leave the door open for films to be to be more ambitious within the scope of their genre. More so, they turned their genres into a worldwide phenomenon that helped shape the popular culture in the Western world and beyond.

The fantasy genre seemed to be on track for a second chance at a major breakthrough with a different approach with the wide popularity of Game of Thrones. However, decreasing quality once the writers had to go off the notes of book author GRR Martin, followed by a last season that has become best remembered as a punchline, Game of Thrones looks doomed to quickly fade from its previous impactful heights. I suspect its legacy will be overall a more damaging one to the fantasy genre in television. I cannot count the times I’ve read in news articles the excitement about “The Next Game of Thrones!” This initial burst of popularity has so warped perception of the fantasy genre that a plethora of shows have been twisting themselves to try and become Game of Thrones imitators. (One of the most hilarious examples I can think of is the recent show Carnival Row which started in concept as a Guillermo del Toro headed steampunk fantasy series. While elements of this remain, the show we got quickly leaps off the rails as soon as it hits the Game of Thrones inspired incest and half-baked political plots.)

It may simply be that we have to be patient. Science fiction and horror filmmaking had what felt to be much more organic growth, though each did have its periods of stagnation. This history does strengthen both those genres, however – even during their bleaker eras, they have a solid foundation to return to when things look bad. Popular director Denis Villeneuve clearly takes inspiration from older, more contemplative science fiction films when crafting his own modern takes. Rising horror director Ari Aster clearly looks to older horror based around family dysfunction, such as Carrie or Rosemary’s Baby. His second film, Midsommar, is highly reminiscent of the horror classic The Wicker Man (no, the first one, not the remake. I know you were about to make a comment about bees.)

I think a clue is that these genres have had a flexible evolution that is deeply tied to their audiences. Our concept of the future and of what scares us changes incrementally over time, and these ideas can be constantly updated to what might interest an audience. 2001: A Space Odyssey appealed to those interested in space travel within our solar system, with the space race well underway at the time. In the 70s, science fiction often pivoted to political and social commentary, reflecting more uncertain times, with films like Logan’s Run and Soylent Green. Science fiction even arguably managed to appeal to a desire for fantasy better than the fantasy genre even did with Star Wars and Flash Gordon, and found itself comfortable intertwining with horror through films like Alien and The Thing. The changing concepts of what technology was and meant to us resulted in the growth of cyberpunk, with films like Blade Runner. Horror was also able to change with the times, atomic monsters and gothic horrors giving way to satanic conspiracy and supernatural terror, eventually transitioning into the modern slasher icons, who were almost comically flexible in their timeliness. (Remember Jason heading into space? Michael Myers killing contestants on a reality TV Show? Freddy Krueger using the Powerglove? Actually, does anyone even remember the Powerglove at all?)

Fantasy, meanwhile, by its nature is in many ways disconnected from our current time, and from its trends. While certain styles of fantasy come in and out of fashion, it is much more difficult to pin down exactly why this is without pointing to a particular work that others sought to emulate – fantasy, essentially, often sets its own trends. This timeless nature is part of the appeal of the genre to many, I think, but translating it to film often involves a constant risk of not connecting with wide general audiences, a risk that not many are willing to take. There was also the unfortunate assumption by many that while science fiction and horror can be made to appeal to all ages, that fantasy was best targeted towards children. This is not to knock many of the fantastic fantasy films aimed at family audiences, but it did put another self-imposed limitation on the number of fantasy films that could be greenlit, and the number of them. Frustratingly, one of the most promising mediums for fantasy, that of animation, itself managed to suffer from an association with being “mere” children’s entertainment, despite many valiant attempts to break from this mold. These included directors as diverse as Ralph Bakshi, who made adult-oriented films like Fire and Ice and Wizards (not to mention his own take on Lord of the Rings) and Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, who has produced brilliant works that make a mockery of the idea that family, fantasy and animated films cannot be high art.

This is not to say that there were not any great live-action fantasy films before The Lord of the Rings arrived – far from it. The original Conan the Barbarian and The Princess Bride are particular favourites of mine, as well as the works of Jim Henson and Terry Gilliam. There is also the issue that fantasy is a rather fluid term on its own – many films with very fantastic elements to them tend to be grouped into other genres, or simply declared to be “magical realism” or “surrealist”.

However, for many fans of fantasy, Lord of the Rings surely seemed like a 2001 or a Star Wars, something that would carve out a new space for their genre to compete alongside others on equal and respected footing. But was that really the case?

Talking Tolkien – Part 2

Previously, I had written about the position that Tolkien’s fantasy works had found themselves elevated to within the fantasy genre, and how the weight of his influence has a warping effect on people’s perception of the genre, starting to see everything through the Tolkien lens. In short, Tolkien has become more of an idol to be blindly worshiped, rather than being treated as a skilled writer on his own unique merits.

However, whenever an idol is erected, there are those who feel the urge for desecration. For many, trying to tear Tolkien down is how they can “prove” that they have discovered some secret to fantasy unknown to the masses, or to show that they have surpassed him.

I must make it clear – I do not think that Tolkien is exempt from critique of his work, or even that he is the undisputed “best” fantasy author. Nor am I suggested there is a “right” or “wrong” method to fantasy. I am more amused that in the consistently cycling rush to tear down Tolkien, I see the same flawed and, frankly, disingenuous arguments being brought up again and again. I would like to touch on some of my favourites of these absurd repetitions, and often refutation. In short, while I feel Tolkien is more than open to critique, I am frustrated when that critique is so often reduced to parroting of old arguments that either miss the point, or are absolutely flawed to start.

I don’t intend to call out any singular author or essayist here – when you recognize these arguments you’ll see them pop up all over the place, and its unclear how often this is a repeat of another point of view, or an original concept. They are universal canards. However, I must give special mention to author Michael Moorcock, who, if not the first, really got the ball rolling with his famous “Epic Pooh” essay, which is worth a read to get a better context for exactly what I’m talking about.

Too keep this concise, I’ll focus simply on The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s most expansive work, and the focus of most critique. One of the most common complaints I hear is that The Lord of the Rings is too simplistic in its morality, in presenting everything as “good against evil.” Supposedly it is lacking in necessary “shades of grey.” Partially I think this is just a symptom of changing times. Good against evil is one of the oldest narratives humanity has come up with. Tolkien was heavily influenced by his Christian faith and experiences in WWI, which coloured his approach to the work. As time moved on, general audiences began to feel that they had heard every sort of variation on this theme and began craving something of nuance. This is especially true once many of the “good guys” of WWII began to partake in some very “bad guy” sorts of operations across the world in service of counteracting the “worse guy” of Communism. The obvious ‘evil overlord’, widely popularized with Sauron, began to become something of a punchline, when real evil seemed so pervasive and yet slippery.

I don’t think it’s exactly fair then to criticize Tolkien for something that was based on his own personal feelings and morality examining his specific moment in time. More so, I feel this critique is a gross oversimplification of how questions good and evil are handled within the books. The “evil” characters and entities are not given as much development simply because they are not the focus. The Lord of the Rings is less about a dualistic “good vs. evil” as it is a study of goodness under the pressure of evil. The evil provides challenges and temptations, but what is the engaging part of the work is how the “good” characters handle this. I will go further and say that simply calling the characters within the books “good” is also an oversimplification. The characters often fail and must be redeemed, or have others take on their burdens. Many cannot handle the burdens of responsibility or the temptation to fight evil with evil. These are the most important struggles for the characters within the book, not those against the physical forces of Mordor.

Often those who decry the “simplicity” of Lord of the Rings also conclude that it is an “unrealistic” work, too divorced from the realities of life in a setting of its kind. The most famous example of this is the by now memetic “What was Aragorn’s tax policy” raised by George RR Martin. The first problem with this of course is – realistic in relation to what? There has arisen an unfortunate belief in a “generic” fantasy. This has variable descriptions to it, but generally seems to be believed to be “medieval Europe.” For starters, most people have very little understanding of what medieval life actually entailed. Secondly, there is no indication that Tolkien was trying to pin Middle Earth to any specific year in earth’s history in regard to technology or society. Indeed, a strength of Tolkien is the uniqueness to his world. How in the world can you set up comparisons to reality, when there is no singular point of reality to be compared to? And why would you want to?

The obvious rebuttal to the question as to why Tolkien did not go into the minutiae of kingship or other aspects was that it simply was not his goal. However, there is another factor at play that many overlook. The book that is The Lord of the Rings is supposed to be an adaptation of the fictional Red Book of Westmarch (a play on the real-life manuscript the Red Book of Hergest), written by the hobbits after the events of the series. The series therefore has a very clear viewpoint (the hobbit characters), and focuses on events from their point of view, specifically what left the greatest impact on them from their perspective. The books are not intended to operate as an objective history. Actually, this adds to the realism of the series being a hobbit history, as Tolkien is more closely mimicking the styles of older historians, who were more concerned with narration and storytelling than presenting an impartial report.

I could go on into even more misconceptions, but I think you get the idea. (I also don’t want to dive into the more wild and vitriolic political theories brought up, which are generally personal to the one making them). There is the incorrect assumption, that I discussed in my last piece, that Tolkien is in some way a “basic” form of fantasy – from that incorrect assumption comes further conclusions that therefore his work has an inherent simplicity to it or lacks in nuance. I think that the idea that there can be a “generic” sort of fantasy is a troubling one at that, and more indicative of the commercialization of the genre in the present day, than anything to do with Tolkien.

In summation, I feel that placing Tolkien as the “lynchpin” of all fantasy does a disservice both to his legacy and to the legacy of other fantasy writers. The Lord of the Rings is by no means a perfect work – but what is? There is nothing else like it, and it has earned its reputation. At the same time, much can be said for other great fantasy works. It seems unfortunate that anyone who wants to say anything about fantasy has to either praise Tolkien as their one and only progenitor or try to take misaimed shots at him to prove their street cred as a radical force in the genre.

I simply don’t believe that any one work deserves to be the singular loadbearing stone in this particular house – it’s one that has many rooms, each with their own purposes and styles limited only by imagination. We should not expect one room to be like any other, but enjoy our time spent in all of them as unique experiences.

Publishing and Self Publishing Industry Overviews

This article was prepared for investors looking into a self-publishing deal – its a high level look, but interesting. 

For the purpose of this report, I will be dividing the publishing industry into “traditional” publishing, and self-publishing. While many businesses do work in both industries, I feel that they are distinct enough entities to warrant separate examinations. The traditional publishing business seeks to balance physical and digital books, for example, while the self-publishing industry relies heavily, if not exclusively, on digital content. Traditional publishing tends to be dominated by a few massive companies, though also expands into areas that self-publish does not have much of a foothold in, such as the massive educational subsector. However, it is not quite accurate to consider self-publishing as simply the realm of smaller companies, as many large companies have carved out a stake in the space, most notably Amazon.

However, while covering the book publishing market, I will not be including certain other major facets of the publishing industry, namely newspapers, periodicals and magazines, which are more singular in the challenges that they face and the model of their businesses.

Traditional Publishing

Technically, the publishing business is as old as the written word – as soon as people began inscribing cuneiform on clay tablets, there were likely those who wanted to sell and buy this new product. This industry would always be a niche one due to the issue of scale, until the printing press arrived to allow for mass production. However, this early stage would not resemble the shape of the industry today, having greater vertical integration.

Modern publishing can be said to have started around the 19th Century, as the advancement of industry led to greater production capacity and cheaper materials, particularly paper. The 19th and early 20th century also saw the emergence of the large publishing houses that dominate the industry today. The business also started to lose the vertical integration it previously had, as more complex global supply chains were established.

The advent of the World Wide Web would prove to be as disruptive an effect on the publishing industry as the advent of the printing press by Gutenberg. However, the death of paper did not come as swiftly or completely as some analysts predicted, with there being enough of a dedicated niche audience for physical books to keep both large and small bookstores operational.

Largest Competitors in the Traditional Publishing Space  

The traditional publishing space is dominated by the “Big Five” publishers, companies that have long histories and often have merged into even larger entities. A brief summary of them will be given, as well as some other major players in the industry that may be more surprising.

It should be noted that all of these listed companies are in the habit of forming a wide variety of imprints to target specific sections of the market, creating elaborate brand families. Many of these companies have dabbled somewhat into the self publishing market, though that will be examined later.


“The Big Five”

It is common to hear talk in the publishing business of  the “Big Five” – this invariably refers to the five largest companies in the space, who all have worldwide recognition, or at least are the owners of universally recognizable brands.

Penguin Random House – A merger of the Penguin and Random House brands, PRH is owned by the German conglomerate Bertelsmann. PRH puts out over 15,000 books a year, as well as recording sales of about 800 million copies of print, audio and ebooks. PRH has an annual revenue of somewhere close to 3.3 billion, making it the largest publishing house in terms of pure revenue.

Hachette Livre – Hachette Livre is a French publisher owned by the French Lagardere conglomerate, which owns major subsidiaries in the UK, Australia and US. Hachette Livre puts out more than 17,000 books annually, with more than 90,000 titles available in digital format. Annual revenue of Hachette Livre amounts to about $2.7 billion. Though the name Hachette may not be familiar to North American readers, many of its subsidiaries such as Grand Central Publishing (formerly Warner Books) and Orbit are well known.

HarperCollins  HarperCollins is the product of a merger between publishing companies Harper & Row and William Collins, Sons, and is owned by the American mass media company NewsCorp. HarperCollins puts out more than 10,000 new books each year in 16 languages, and has a print and digital catalog of more than 200,00 titles. Annual revenue for the company is at about 1.5 billion.

MacMillan Publishers – MacMillan is under the umbrella of the German Holtzbrinck publishing company, recently being integrated into Holtzbrinck’s “Springer Nature” subsidiary. MacMillan has reported annual revenues of around $1.4 billion.

Simon and Schuster – Simon and Schuster is a publisher owned by National Amusements, through the well known Viacom CBC media corporation. Simon and Schuster publishes approximately 2500 titles annually and has an annual revenue of about $830 million, making it the smallest of the “Big Five”


Educational Publishers

When one thinks of major publishers, the “Big Five” of retail publishing are what come to mind, with their books, or books of their subsidiaries, making up much of what you would find within any major book retailer. However, nearly as massive an industry is that of educational publishing – historically, many have called Scholastic the “Big Sixth”, and many educational publishers match or outdo the revenue of retail publishers.

This makes sense when you realize that educational publishers have a captive audience in most cases, as students or schools cannot operate without textbooks – if one has ever had to buy textbooks for college, they know what a great racket the university textbook business can be. Beyond university textbooks, educational publishing can also target the school system or those looking to study for entrance exams for undergraduate and graduate programs.

While selling physical textbooks has always been a good deal, many education publishers are often heavily moving into digital models, often through their own websites and programs, or through affiliated systems set up by universities. While profitable, the educational market can be viewed as more controlled.

Listed are some example annual revenues of Educations. It should be noted that while Wiley does engage in some more traditional publishing, they are best known for their extensive test prep materials, as well as owning the company that produces the ubiquitous “for Dummies” manuals. Oxford University Press is also a unique case for being associated with a single institution.

Scholastic: $1.7 billion

McGraw-Hill: $1.7 billion

Wiley: $1.7 billion

Cengage: $1.5 billion

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Annual: $1.4 billion

Oxford University Press: $1.1 billion

Pearson Education: $1.0 billion


Other Notes

Apart from education, there are some other areas that are surprisingly profitable for publishing houses. Related to education is the industry of academic journals. Most notably, Springer Nature, sister company to MacMillan, makes most of its $1.9 billion annual revenue from the academic journal business.

Kodansha and Shueisha are Japanese companies that make their billion dollar annual revenues not from traditional print, but from manga. These numbers are especially impressive when you compare them to a major comic publisher in America, Marvel, which only makes about $320 million annually. The market for Japanese comics has grown worldwide as American companies focus more on managing film and television rights for their existing creations. English translations of the works of these publishing companies are also a source of major revenue – for Japanese manga that do not see translations into other languages, there is a good deal of revenue loss as readers turn to unofficial fan translations within the digital space.

Another sector of the market to consider is the $2 billion children’s publishing business. Consumers are picking up the fact that children’s vocabularies increase significantly from exposure to books, comparative to television. Children’s literature should not be discounted as a source of revenue.

In general, translations of existing books is an often untapped source of additional revenue, creating an entirely new experience from a book and opening it up to an entirely new market. Many other large publishers can make their bread and butter by acquiring the rights to republish a highly successful book in one language into another.


Importance of Copyright

To fully understand the traditional publishing business, there are a few aspects of the industry that warrant some more examination. Perhaps the most key of these is the vital importance of Copyright, the bedrock of publishing, as it were. Being able to secure the sole right to publish a work is what generally gives that work its value. The emergence of variable sorts of medium for a single work (such as the rise of ebooks) have greatly complicated the concept of copyright, with copyright claims now often involving multiple sections for all possible reproductions.

Acquiring subsidiary rights can often be very profitable as well – as mentioned above, a new country or territory can serve to be like an entirely new release for the book in question. While generally a book sells best for the audience it was originally targeted for, one should not underestimate cross-cultural appeal – in some cases books sell better overseas than at home. Translation rights are therefore an important source of revenue generation.


The Market

Many pundits have proclaimed the death of reading, under the belief that consumption of media is heading more towards the audio-visual, as started by television and accelerated by internet streaming. So far this does not seem to be the case – rather than killing off books, the digital age has simply fragmented the methods and mediums through which readers consume literature.

Compounding this fragmentation is the fact that the global market is very different from region to region in how they prefer to engage with these various mediums. This suggests that it is worth being able to understand how different foriegn markets approach reading. Perhaps the only constant within the market is that education is a good barometer of interest in reading. On average worldwide, college graduates are more than five times more likely to pick up a book than those with only a highschool education or lower.

As far as age demographics, older readers are more likely to own a dedicated reading device such as a Kindle, particularly those over the age of 40. Meanwhile, younger purchasers, brought up in the era of resurgent “pseudo-radio” in the form of podcasts are much more likely to purchase audiobooks – 48% of audiobook listeners are under the age of 35.

Despite major publishing houses being based in North America and Europe, the most prolific readers in the world are actually in South East Asia, with countries like India and Thailand topping the list. Division of media is also very different – about a third of all reading done in China, for example, is done through eBooks. In the US and Japan, it is close to a fifth, while in France, it is only a fiftieth.


Self Publishing

The market for independent authors is a growing one – with 1.68 million self published books available in ebook format, these books form up to 30 – 40% of all ebook sales. This is part of the reason it is good to look at self publishing as its own entity, as it is so closely tied to a specific medium of publishing. Self published works can be spread through a retailer, like Kindle Direct Publishing or the iBookstore, or through an aggregator like Scribd. Aggregators will distribute books to various partner retailers and libraries in exchange for a 10-20% commission on sales.

The largest player in the Self Publishing business is, by far, Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, which both retails and publishes ebooks that can be read on Kindle devices, or devices with the Kindle app. About 80% of all English-language ebook sales are done through the KDP – surprisingly, self-published titles account for about 40% of that figure. That means that roughly a third of all self published material in the world debuts on KDP. Not only does Amazon own the KDP, but it also operates CreateSpace, a “vanity press” that allows for people to produce print copies of their novels, using a print-on-demand model, allowing it to capture more of the self-publishing market. Royalties offered by Amazon are flexible, ranging from 35%-70%

The next largest competitor in the ebook market is Apple, with its iBooks subsidiary, which has captured roughly 10% of the market, much smaller than Amazon but still a significant amount. Apple offers flat 70% royalties.

The third major competitor would be Barnes and Noble, via their Barnes and Noble Press (formerly Nook), which offers both ebook and print on demand publishing. As far as ebook sales go, it controls about 3% of the market. Royalties tend to range from 40%-65%.

The last major player in the business would be the Canadian Kobo, a subsidiary of the Japanese online retail company Rakuten, with roughly 2% of the ebook market (though, notably, with about 25% of the ebook market in Canada). Kobo makes up with its small size by partnering directly with bookstores and ebook retailers across the globe. Its royalties range from 45% – 70%.

Other more niche companies involved in the ebook and self-publishing business include IngramSpark, Smashwords, Draft2Digital, Lulu, BookBaby and Scribd.


As has been demonstrated above, the ebook market is closely tied into the self-publishing market, due to the digital platform providing a less risky way for author and publisher to approach publication.

As a medium the Kindle does seem dominant, especially since it has the Kindle App to cover its usage on other platforms. However, as technology improves, there is nothing to say that the Kindle won’t go the way of the iPod – just as the iPod was made irrelevant by newer models of phone, the Kindle seems to be overtaken by newer models of tablets. The Kindle is also having its market chipped away by a resurgence in traditional books, which have adapted to sell higher quality products to be as much about style as the content itself. The older demographics for Kindle also will prove to be on the decrease as their older customer base is slowly replaced.

The ebook space will still be an important and profitable one, especially for the self-publishing industry. Where exactly those self-publishing authors will go to share their works with the world remains to be seen.

Talking Tolkien: Part 1

The impact of JRR Tolkien on the fantasy genre is a massive one to be sure. For many, he would be one of the only fantasy authors they can name, which is very impressive given the age of his works. I’m not here to give any sort of analysis or review – there’s very little I could say that hasn’t already be said on the matter of The Lord of the Rings.

I do find myself in the rather odd position of finding The Lord of the Rings to be simply good books and a great achievement in fantasy. Not my favourite works of fantasy, nor, I would say, the best I have read – but that does not make their accomplishments any lessened. Indeed, while many will praise Tolkien as the be all and end all of fantasy, there is also a continual trend stretching back many decades, where Tolkien is held up as a useful target for those trying to make their mark in fantasy. True, there is little that gets my eyes rolling faster than the phrase “The Greatest Fantasy Since Tolkien!”, but at the same time, I much of the criticism leveled at Tolkien throughout the years comes across as alarmingly disingenuous to me. In a way this does make sense – to gain attention via vandalism you have to perform your vandalism on something visible.

In short, my point is that Tolkien is an author whose legacy is surrounded by a good deal of nonsense of all kinds. This is a natural consequence of being such a benchmark within a genre. What is impressive is how this nonsense arises from both those seeking to bolster Tolkien’s legacy and those seeking to undermine it.

There are those who consider Tolkien to be the Omega of Fantasy – which, fair enough, that is a matter of personal taste, and I am not so crass as to start attacking that in this forum. What does cause me to gripe is the idea that Tolkien is the Alpha of fantasy as well. In this view, fantasy “really” begins with Tolkien, who then influenced countless inferior knockoffs as well as Dungeons and Dragons, which provided the main thread of fantasy development until the modern day when thankfully we began to receive some variation.

This view either pretends that fantasy before Tolkien did not exist or assumes that it was somehow of lesser importance – essentially relegating things from the Pulp era and beyond to historical footnotes, before Tolkien came and made fantasy “serious”. I’m not going to get into a debate over whether Tolkien was objectively or subjectively “better” than absolutely everything that came before him. But this outline of the history of fantasy is, I believe, a gross oversimplification. Tolkien’s genius lay in taking existing mythological elements and weaving them into an entirely new framework. His work was less of a foundation stone, and more of a, at the time, unique shifting of fantasy to a more European context. It seems strange, when many consider fantasy synonymous with “Medieval Europe” in their minds, but previously, much weird fiction could be argued to have looked more to the exotic within history, being attracted to Greek, Roman or even Arabic sources.

For example, the locations in Conan the Barbarian’s “Hyperborea” hold more with Ancient Mediterranean culture than Medieval Europe, and Conan ranged far and wide beyond his homeland into ever more exotic cultures. Tolkien was unique in bringing fantasy to a more European setting without relying on the purely historical or the fairy-tale. He also focused much more on aspects of cosmology and what we now call “world building”, at least in a more structured way than what had come before.

But how much did Tolkien affect the “mainstream” of fantasy after this? Many point to the reoccurrence of the same fantasy races in Tolkien. However, that I would attribute more to Dungeons and Dragons. True, Dungeons and Dragons may have aped Tolkien in this regard, but for the most part, the context of these races is nearly entirely changed. The Elves, Dwarves, Orcs and Hobbits of Tolkien all had very specific roles to play within his narrative which are not generally found outside of his work, or only copied at the most surface level. Beyond that, fantasy of the Dungeons and Dragons era is marked more by bizarre and imaginative monsters that have little to do with Tolkien’s work. Indeed, the creators of Dungeons and Dragons in mentioning their inspirations put Tolkien as only one among many. Though Tolkien was a landmark island in the river of fantasy, the water had started flowing long before him, and would continue on long past.

Indeed, I feel that trying to paint Tolkien as simply a fantasy “template” does a great disservice to his work as making it seem more prototypical and “basic” than it actually is. His linguistic work has rarely been matched (M.A.R. Barker is the only name who comes to mind as a challenger on that scale), nor has his dedication to winding together fictional histories and mythology. At the same time, it is also a disserve to later writers to automatically reduce their varied inspirations and styles to simply another measurement against Tolkien. The fantasy genre has a much deeper history than that which, I feel, deserves acknowledgment.

Mining in Bulgaria

The following is a brief overview of the mining sector in Bulgaria, created as an intro for a longer project.


Bulgaria’s mining history has mostly been one of untapped potential. The nation has long been a frontier to other powers. To the Greeks it was Thrace, a land of fierce warriors. The Romans and Saxons both explored here and mined gold in small amounts, realizing the potential of the mineral wealth here. However, Bulgaria’s history would lead it down the path of being on the front line of many of the great struggles of history – between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, between the Allies and the Axis and between Capitalism and Communism. This all lead to Bulgaria’s mining sector to go mostly untapped, with the Communist government that emerged after WWII being not too interested in foreign investment in or local development of the mining sector. Through most of the 20th Century, the only gold mining project in Bulgaria was a single mine at Chelopech.

In the 21st Century, after the fall of Communism, this closed system began to open up, most famously through the Canadian Company Dundee, which acquired Chelopech and began extracting gold, silver and copper from that location. The potential for gold mining in Bulgaria in the 21st century has opened up to companies from Canada and further afield, as the untapped potential is realized.


The mineral resources of Bulgaria can be somewhat divided into two parts, encompassing northern and southern Bulgaria. In Northern Bulgaria, amidst lowlands and the Black Sea itself, there are huge deposits of fossil fuels – coal, petroleum and natural gas. Large gas and oil deposits have been found across northern Bulgaria, and into its EEZ in the Black Sea. Overall, these are notable but not huge assets – Bulgaria itself tends to rely on Thermal, Nuclear and Renewable sources for power.  In the mountainous south of the country, along the border with Greece, the major mineral resources are copper, zinc and lead. To a lesser extent this area also includes reserves of iron, manganese and gold. Out of these, copper is the most widespread and significant, though there have been many recent promising gold projects in the area.


After the fall of communism, Bulgaria progressed along the path to democracy, having achieved much greater stability, and has even become an EU member. Bulgaria is also strategically located at a nexus of rail and road connections throughout south-eastern Europe. The country has become much more open to foreign investment in its own sectors. Bulgaria has traditionally had a strong science and research sector. However, the country is still poor when compared to its EU compatriots. This had led to a significant “brain drain”, with Bulgaria being one of the, on average, oldest countries in Europe as many of its youth and students go elsewhere to seek educational opportunities and work.



Chronicles of Amber

I discussed in my last post on fantasy books what I considered to be, in literary terms, the best work written in the genre. However, I understand that answer might seem like an overly technical one – too clinical for something with a good degree of subjectivity to it. So, to be perfectly subjective, today we are going to ask what my favourite fantasy series is. That’s a difficult question on its own, but if had to ever take just one collection down from my shelf, it would probably be the Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny, particularly the five books that make up the “Corwin Cycle.”

It’s difficult to discuss just what the series is about without revealing important details of the plot, so this will be a fairly short review. Essentially, the Corwin Cycle is about Corwin himself, a man who awakes in a hospital after an accident with a severe case of amnesia. It soon becomes clear to him that he is not a regular accident victim, and he must use guile and bluster to fake his way through encounters with his scheming family to relearn his heritage and his identity.

The setting of Amber encompasses the entire universe, from its shining core to the chaotic wilderness of its very edge. The reader is dropped into all this with no context, with only Corwin as narrator to explain things – and he, of course, may be biased. This is the greatest strength of Amber, as Corwin is one of the most intriguing and enjoyable narrators I can recall within the fantasy genre. He is a character who mixes wit, humour and nobility with melancholy, ambition and a touch of arrogance.

The books do feel like you are letting a very interesting character tell you their story and are one of the breeziest reads I can recall in the genre, dancing along from witticism to anecdote. I’ve always been impressed with writers who can do more with less and Zelazny is an absolute master at this. Equally impressive is how effective he is at making memorable characters. Other members of Corwin’s family play key roles in the plot, and we only really see them through Corwin’s eyes. Many of these family members we don’t see much of at all, and yet each of them is vividly distinct and memorable. The plot is intrinsically about these characters – there is no grand prophecy or fate. The horrors and triumphs are all because of action and reaction by the cast, our narrator included.

Most impressive of all is how much emotion, meaning and thought is packed into the wild ride. Corwin and his family are nobility – though it may be better to term them the nobility. Of course, princes and princesses have long been a staple of fantasy, from the earliest days of fairy tales up through Tolkien and on to our current obsession with A Song of Ice and Fire. A common theme throughout these stories is of the “rightful heir” – that there is someone who best deserves the throne, the crown and the power they entail.

Corwin very much starts off as a character in this vein, with an implication of even greater cruelty in his forgotten past. He is in many ways a god among men, and it is understandable how his desire for the greatest power of all could be intoxicating. And yet, over the course of the story, something strange happens. It seems that even gods have room for maturation. Corwin begins to understand that responsibility is perhaps the greater virtue than power – that there is more value in creation than in taking.

Too often I feel that media that deals with people in power turns towards cloying pity for the competition that such power engenders, and glorification of the accumulation of said power, with perhaps some hollow platitudes about corruption tacked on at the end. The Chronicles of Amber is such a tale in reverse, about a character who begins with great power being denied it, and then learning that empathy and responsibility are, in the end, more meaningful attributes. Truly grand in the scope of its imagination and utterly engaging to read, The Chronicles of Amber arrives with no limitations on what it believes fantasy can be, and leaves you wanting to reread it as soon as you are finished. I’d highly recommend taking a look at anything Zelazny does, and Amber stands out as my personal favourite work of fantasy fiction.


As I may have mentioned before, I’m not too big of a fan of ranking, particularly when it comes to books. A book can be good, great, or bad, but in each of those categories it is unique in one way or another. At most, I can maybe group together books into the “great” category or try and pin down those that excel at a particular aspect of the craft, or sub-genre. When it comes to fantasy, however, I generally do answer that the best book I have ever read in that genre is, without a doubt, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.

Among aficionados of fantasy, Gormenghast is often spoken of, in hushed tones of reverence or, more often, as a smug rebuttal to the assertions that another series might be the superior. Among many writers and critics, there seems to be no more exciting moment for them when they get to rebut the idea that Lord of the Rings must be their favourite work, proudly proclaiming that it was, in fact, Gormenghast that was their teacher.

I’ll maybe touch on the criticism of Lord of the Rings later on, but while I don’t wish to suborn Gormenghast into the mere role of proving what little credentials I have, I cannot deny that it is probably the best fantasy book ever. I see it as a little pointless to delve too deeply into its comparisons with Lord of the Rings, as they come from two completely different places. Tolkien was writing from a love of mythology, and Lord of the Rings is a triumph of worldbuilding. Gormenghast however, comes from a love of literature itself. I have heard the series described as “a collaboration between Shakespeare, Dickens and Kafka whilst all were under the influence of opium”, and that admittedly does capture a portion of the spirit.

Plot wise, the Gormenghast series is fairly simple, dealing with the inhabitants of the titular castle. The first book covers the birth of the new heir to Gormenghast, Titus Groan, and the second book with his maturation. The third novel takes place during Titus’s exile beyond the castle – Peake unfortunately died from dementia before any further works could be written. Interwoven with Titus’s life is the machinations of Steerpike, a kitchen boy who assumes more and more power within the social structure of the castle.

So what makes Gormenghast stand out to me as a work of fantasy then? For me, the fantasy genre interests me because it deals with the unreal but is created by those who dwell within reality. What delineates humans from animals is the ability to consider something that absolutely does not exist and communicate it through language – whether spoken, written or drawn. Fantasy is this skill used for art or entertainment, though we also use it to formulate other vital parts of our society that have no physical examples of them, such as our religion, ethics and philosophy. The furthest edges of the sciences also require these kinds of intuitive leaps into the darkness of “what might be.”

Good fantasy transports you to other worlds by presenting things that seem impossible or strange – the fantastical, as it were. What makes Gormenghast so special is that it relies very little on this. There is no magic, no strange creatures, no gods or demons. (In fact, the third book suggests that the castle exists within a world closer to the steampunk genre than anything else). And yet, every page is filled with the essence of the fantastical. Everything within Gormenghast is strange and exaggerated, from the characters to the castle itself. The fantasy is not coming from what the language is describing, but from the language itself. Peake is, in some ways, the reverse of Tolkien. In his work, Tolkien manages to take the vague and shifting meanings of mythology and crystalize them into a single, beautiful fantasy world. Conversely, Peake starts with English literature and renders it down, distilling it into a truly strange brew where the grotesque characters you might find in Dickens become even more grotesque – where the drama (comedy and tragedy alike) that you might find in Shakespeare becomes even more fierce or absurd.

Gormenghast, in this way, blew open the doors of my own perception of what fantasy could encompass, and remains a highly influential work for many within the genre. That said, I’m not sure it’s a book I would recommend casually. Many have accused it of being too dense and longwinded. This does not particularly bother me (I don’t particularly care where a book takes me, or how long it takes to get there, as long as the trip is interesting), but it may not be for everyone. If you’d like a test run, the BBC did a miniseries based on the books in 2000 that does condense the material considerably. You can also find Gormenghast’s influence across a slew of more contemporary works. I’d certainly check out China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station if you’d like a taste of such.

For me, Gormenghast is the peak of fantasy. There are other great books who have managed to bring a literary touch to the fantasy genre. Gormenghast, however, managed to steer literature right into the farthest depths of the fantastical. If anyone ever doubts that a fantasy work can have literary merit, Gormenghast remains to this day the most resounding counter argument.

Barsoom Series

I’ve done a few reviews for books, films and movies that were fresh on my mind. I’ve been a bit hesitant to delve further back, since I know that nostalgia and memory are fickle things to work with. At the same time, I tend to judge works on their lasting impact upon me. Something that sticks in my mind for many months or years afterwards is probably something worth talking about.

A good place to start would likely be near to the beginning – both for me and for much of the science fiction genre, with A Princess of Mars. Author Edgar Rice Burroughs is much better known for his work on Tarzan, which has left an indelible imprint on the public consciousness. To this day, kids Tarzan yell and pound their chests, if not really understanding why. Burrough’s old neighbourhood in Los Angeles is known as Tarzana to this day. Hollywood is likely a good reason for Tarzan’s continued impact, with close to 40 “official” Tarzan films, and countless more homages, spin-offs and spoofs.

The Barsoom series (Barsoom being the name the inhabitants of Mars give to their planet) conversely has, to my knowledge, a low budget Asylum film and the John Carter film released by Disney. I admit to having not seen the latter film, despite it having been an adaptation of a series of books I quite well enjoyed. Given the content of the books, I didn’t particularly trust that a live action Disney movie trying to capitalize on the Pirates of the Caribbean action adventure trend would really interest me. (For similar reasons I passed on The Lone Ranger). Supposedly the film wasn’t particularly good, but I’ll not go making judgement on something I didn’t see – but I don’t really think modern Hollywood has the sort of specific talent lineup to really bring something from the pulp heyday to life. Maybe if Ralph Bakshi was still allowed to direct big budget animated films, and we could get A Princess of Mars a la Fire and Ice….

In any case, my point is that A Princess of Mars was more of a footnote. In many ways, this makes sense. A Princess of Mars features a highly exotic and alien setting, plenty of violence and constant nudity. Modern studios might feel that brute force of CGI and good directing could help them overcome those first two obstacles, but none of them would want to engage with that third issue – least of all Disney! Tarzan, on the other hand, was easy enough to portray through jungle sets, tamed animals, and leopard print loincloths.

I think that the Barsoom cycle ends up being somewhat unfairly forgotten, reduced to a bit of a punchline by the financial failure of John Carter. (Also, why on Mars would you name a film John Carter over A Princess of Mars?! The former sounds like a biographical film and evokes nothing at all of the sort of story involved. Maybe Disney was trying to distance itself from an overreliance on Princesses?) Also, the Barsoom cycle spawned a bevy of imitations, perhaps most infamously the Gor series, noted for its smugly Nietzschean author and, as it progressed, growing obsession with the sexual subjugation of women. In the public mind, the exotic nudity of Barsoom (none of the Martians wear clothes – modesty is an Earthly construct) may have been conflated with the sexual obsessions of Gor. The issue with Gor was less that it was sexy (I think we get a little too upset over escapism these days), but because the other was very adamant about linking the sexual content to the inferiority of women. Gor did end up with its own cultural impact, an odd little side note in science fiction history – fans of the series mimic the subjugating relationships found in the book in real life or online to this very day. That sounds like it involves more of an interest in BDSM given a thin coat of science-fiction paint, but since I’m not an expert, I’ll assume that the “Gor” elements are somehow vital to the experience. The series also got a couple of notoriously bad movies, so I suppose it managed to leave a mark.

The Barsoom cycle, I would argue, had a deeper and more vital impact overall, beyond simply copycat series. The “planetary romance” or “sword and planet” genre that Barsoom popularized may have mostly burned itself out by today, but it had a strong presence in the minds of many. While weird fiction had always blended fantasy, horror and science-fiction together, Barsoom can be seen as the crystallization of the “science fantasy” genre that we still see today. Many science fiction authors were influenced and inspired by it, such as Vance, Clarke, Heinlein and especially Bradbury with his Martian Chronicles. Carl Sagan mentioned what an impact the series had on his interest in space. George Lucas was also influenced by it, and you can see the shadows of Barsoom across the deserts of Tatooine, the flying airship and ornately dressed slavegirls of Jabba the Hutt and the focus on sword fighting in a world with fantastical guns. And I don’t need to explain the influence Star Wars would go on to have.

I think because Barsoom focuses heavily on traditional “Fantasy” elements (princesses, sword fights, journeys into the unknown), its revolutionary science fiction elements are often forgotten, especially since they seem so prototypical. Burroughs based his ideas on a civilization on Mars on early mistranslations regarding the “canals” of Mars by astronomers – the same germ behind War of the Worlds, and he creates and evocatively “dying world” from this idea. The inhabitants of Mars, which often reminiscent of Earthly peoples and animals, have many unique cultures, customs and appearances, with enough interesting twists to keep them fresh to this day. The setting is one that sticks with me to this day due to its forlorn romance and mysteries. Barsoom is not perhaps remembered as a part of Weird fiction because the narrator, John Carter, is portrayed as a fairly hardheaded military man. The series deals with his transportation to the strange world of Barsoom, and the interpretation of the world through his eyes. He’s a much less poetical author than the leads who explore strange territories in the works of say, Hodgson or Lovecraft. This does make the books fairly easy reads even so many years later, but I don’t believe Carter’s blunt nature diminishes the fantastical world he travels in by too much. The books are, of course, pulp and designed to entertain, but even the violence is presented in a “heightened” manner, with Carter flipping and leaping through the lower gravity of strange Martian landscapes like a precursor to the superheroes who would bound through later comics. Carter is not a complex character, but that is part of the charm of the books. He is not on Mars to subjugate weaker peoples or sexes, but to rescue his beloved Princess, no matter what terrifying part of the planet she ends up in.

Compared to the often-dated racial interactions in Tarzan, the Barsoom cycle often displays a remarkable encouragement of tolerance. Many have been turned off by the conceit that John Carter is an ex-Confederate soldiers – within the book, however, that set up seems to be more an explanation why Carter is both good at war and without much attachments back on Earth. Carter of course carves a path through most of the various sentient races he finds on Mars, but also finds friends among nearly all of them as well, even the truly monstrous “Green Martians.” Indeed, the “White” Martians are consistently portrayed in the most villainous light. The focus on race will certainly seem awkward today, but not to the distracting degree found in the works of other pulp authors or later comic books.

They might be straightforward adventure tales, but the Barsoom cycle mixed a quick pace with pure wild imagination that is, in essence, pure Weird, while still remaining an important step towards the formation of later science fiction. As a fast fun read, I can certainly recommend them. I highly enjoyed them when I was younger as they were able to mix an easy to follow adventure with consistently interesting ideas and a desolate, intriguing world. Even if you don’t give it a read, be sure to look up some of the really fantastic artwork that the series has inspired over the years, and which stand as proof of how many people have been caught up in the exotic romance of Barsoom.

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