[due to a technical issue, this is unedited]
1978’s The Gods of Xuma or Barsoom Revisited is the fourth book in David J. Lake’s Breakout series1. Readers intrigued by my review need not worry if they have not read the first three books; not only does Gods function as a standalone, good luck finding a copy. Many authors benefited from the golden age of ebook reprints but the late Mr. Lake does not appear to have been one of them.
The stars are ours! Well, the Moon is ours (albeit at the cost of World Wars Three and Four largely depopulating the Earth but eggs and omelettes), not that the Russians, Americans and Chinese like sharing that world with each other. The stalwarts of the Euro-American moon base have every hope Operation Breakout will plant Euro-Americans on the worlds of 82 Eridani, Epsilon Eridani and Delta Pavonis.
The unfortunates sent to Epsilon Eridani found only airless rocks and the Delta Pavonis ship has yet to report its findings but in 2143, starship Riverhorse hits the jackpot. 82 Eridani 3 is small but habitable, the Mars ours solar system never had. Linguist Tom Carson favours the name “Barsoom”, after Edgar Rice Burroughs but humourless Captain Mannheim insists on Ares. Whatever the planet is called, it is clearly life-bearing, a potential home for humanity.
Pity about the natives.
The natives — Xumans — are misleadingly humanoid, the details of their biology significantly different from humans. Their language is unfamiliar, of course, but easy enough to learn given time and a kidnapped native from whom to learn it. Sent down to the surface, Tom discovers that Xuma, as the locals call it, is a comparatively backward world, ancient but very conservative, technologically on par with Earth in the 18th century (with some very specific gaps in their know-how) and even more politically divided than lost Earth.
Riverhorse did not expect to encounter natives but it had contingency plans just in case. The Xuman situation seems ideal for the officers on Riverhorse. The rival city-states seem perfect for a divide and conquer strategy. Even better, the planet has been visited by aliens before. The Xumans appear to think the humans are their old gods. If the natives decide to be uncooperative? The Xumans have nothing to match the ship’s lasers; easy enough to simply exterminate them and proceed with the plans for an uninhabited world.
Tom knows that while the Xumans are not human, they are definitely people, some of whom are now friends. Conquest is abhorrent to Tom and his friends. Genocide would be even worse. Tom and his friends are not the ones in charge, though; Mannheim and his goons are. The Xumans seem doomed to slavery. Or worse…
This is one of the few Disco-era books that has an explanation for the Fermi Paradox, which is that we live in an undesirable neighbourhood. The “gods” who helped transform Xuma from a verdant, rich world to an arid wasteland two million years ago regard the outer parts of the Milky Way as hopelessly barren, its stars unfashionably far apart. Anyone who is anyone moves to the core regions. Only races too short lived for star travel remain out in the boonies and of those, only the humans were crazy enough to find a work around for their short lifespans2.
Tom is casually racist, a reflection of Lunar society in the 25th century. The three enclaves are at each other’s throats (a very small part of the novel explores if Cold Wars IN SPACE are a good idea.). Tom has only met people from the other communities briefly, while closely monitored by the security services. It has never been safe for Tom to develop any sort of sympathy for the “Chinks” or the “Russkies”. Similarly, the men in charge of Riverhorse see women primarily as mechanisms to rapidly expand the small human population on Xuma. It says a lot about how bad the Moon must be that the women on the ship volunteered for this.
There must have been some temptation for Lake to make the Xumans perfect in contrast to his flawed humans but as it turns out they’re just folk, just as prone to pointless spitefulness as the humans. Not just at the city-state level. Slavery is common and many Xuman cultures exploit and mistreat Xumans who pass through the cycle of genders in the wrong order3. The one claim to superiority the Xumans have is persistence: they survived contact with the gods, their way of life is two million years old, whereas the humans went from horse-drawn carriages to total nuclear destruction in a few centuries.
What saves this from being a novel about one group of amoral monsters struggling with another group of amoral monstersis that there are humans like Tom, Sally (later Queen Sally; take that, human sexism!) and their Xuman friends like Saino and Varan who are essential decent folks, limited by their backgrounds but willing to take great risks to confound evil.
If there is a recent edition of The Gods of Xuma, it is a closely held secret.
1: The series was as follows
1 Walkers on the Sky (1976)
2 The Right Hand of Dextra (1977)
3 The Wildings of Westron (1977)
4 The Gods of Xuma or Barsoom Revisited (1978)
5 Warlords of Xuma (1983)
6 The Fourth Hemisphere (1980)
Wildings is a sequel to Dextra, and Warlords is a sequel to Gods.
2: There is also a good chance that even if they survive having the technology needed for starships, which humans very nearly did not, mayflies who go exploring will encounter the gods or worse, the demons. This will either end badly for the mayflies or very, very badly.
3: The standard pattern for the Xumans (and related species) is neuter children > male > female > neuter elder. Males are expected to be excitable and violent. Women are more sensible and generally run the city-states. Elders quietly run the systems that let the world as a whole work.
Some individuals follow a different sequence: neuter > female > male > neuter. Customs vary widely but in the region of Xuma where the novel is set, these people are called “perverts”, are looked down on for their deformity and are all enslaved into army brothels. There is a single small empire ruled by a “pervert”; he’s a mean jerk but it is quite clear why he is as bitter and vengeful as he is.
Please direct corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com