The very roots of my science fiction interest go back to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his John Carter/Barsoom books. If I hadn't stumbled across the books by accident in a library, I wouldn't be the devotee I am now (leaving qualitative judgments about the nature of my devotedness aside). So I also have a fascination with planetary romances written about Mars, such as Otis Adelbert Kline's The Swordsman of Mars. I really didn't recognize the author's name other than his mention on the covers of some old pulps I have seen over time, and really had no pre-existing bias for or against him. But when the thus-far excellent Planet Stories imprint decided to reprint this story from the early 30s, the confluence of interests was too much for me to resist.
Michael Moorcock's introduction to this edition has some fascinating backstory on Kline, including the reputed "competition" with Edgar Rice Burroughs that enveloped The Swordsman of Mars. Kline never admitted to a public or private contest between the books, and the interest in them seems to have come primarily from fans. And on the surface, there are reasons to think that Kline was making a statement about, or butting his own writing against, Burroughs. Like Burroughs, a well-to-do Earthman makes his way to Mars using mental powers. Once again the hero has adventures that send across the surface of the red planet, where he meets loyal soldiers, duplicitous cowardly foes, and strange races. Both heroes appear to be master swordsman, so that nearly any challenge that besets them can be faced down by "dint of the blade." And they both are particularly inept with the female species.
But such a facile comparison really only sets them both in the same sub-genre and obviously excludes the differences in setting and plot between the two novels. Harry Thorne has had a break with his wealthy Northeastern family and discovers that his fiancée, whom he thought would wait for his return, has ditched him for his best friend. So, when the strange Dr. Crane approaches Thorne with a plan to go adventuring in the body of his identical Martian twin, Thorne takes him up on it and finds himself caught in a strange conflict with the first Earthman to travel to Mars. Since the protagonist and antagonist are actually in Martian bodies, they are not capable of performing the super feats that Burroughs's John Carter can. And Kline's story isn't as convoluted as Burroughs's; Kline only tells enough about the culture of the strange planet as is required to tell his story in as straight line as possible, whereas Burroughs has developed a fascinating society of differing races and species. Kline also doesn't spend as much time describing his settings and creatures; Burroughs is marked with a rich (some would say verbose) style that goes into deep detail.
Nonetheless, Kline's story is a good bit of fun, falling back as it does on the near-Victorian ideal of the soldier. Moorcock, in his introduction, spends time talking about Kline's opposition to communism, and so I expected that Swordsman of Mars would find Thorne going up against a communistic regime. But it doesn't, or else I'm not seeing the same references and allusions that Moorcock does. Instead, the setting follows the same type of romantic plot that readers of that era's genre fiction have come to expect: benevolent rightful ruler is deposed, replacement ruler is a despot with evil henchmen, hero fights his way through succeeding evil henchman to overthrow the tyrant, and grateful reseated ruler gives the hero titles, land, riches, et cetera. And of course, there are women along the way, and while Thorne interacts with men as well as the best hero, women are surely his downfall—actually indicating his own emotional immaturity along the way (But that's more analysis than this book really calls for).
One big difference is the nearly chapter-long history of the solar system and how it relates to ongoing clashes on Mars itself. In this narrative, we find out that Earth's moon used to be a planet between Earth and Mars and that their war with Mars itself resulted in the airless, crater-marked planet being moved into orbit around the Earth, long before humans raised their eyes to the skies. It's fascinating, though convoluted and long-winded, reminding me more of a lost Olaf Stapledon chapter than any other planetary romance.
When all is said and done, though, The Swordsman of Mars is an example of the good pulp writing that was taking place in the 30s. It hasn't aged well, but it is still a great deal of fun. And Planet Stories (an imprint of Paizo Publishing) has again done fans of the genre a great service by reprinting the story in a lovely edition, with introduction by a modern great. It's not a huge book and doesn't take long to read, but it does propel the reader back to the roots of the genre—escapism. IF I have any quibble, it's the one I repeat for Planet Stories…please, somebody copy-edit these books! (Seriously, call me!)