Alas, poor Amtor

Trivia fact: Edgar Rice Burroughs, in addition to his Tarzan and Mars books, also wrote a handful of pulp stories about Venus, which was called Amtor by the natives, and his intrepid hero, Carson Napier. They were a little different from the Mars series, where John Carter was teleported to Mars by some form of astral projection, in that Napier was a rocket pilot flying to Mars who made a tiny error in his calculation and crash-landed on Venus instead. Then it lapses into the usual formulaic adventure story where Napier finds a Princess (there’s always a princess), falls in love, and the two of them bumble about needing to rescue each other from pirates and communists. Amtor, by the way, is covered by oceans and continents of giant trees, and the cloud cover keeps the planet cool and liveable, except when the clouds briefly break and a brutal sun sets everything on fire beneath the gap.

Unfortunately, the real Venus has surface temperatures of 450°C and a dense and acidic atmosphere. Nothing lives there.

This recent modeling of the Venerian atmosphere suggests that there may have been a long period of relative coolth in the planet’s history. The runaway greenhouse effect wouldn’t have occurred until a period of intense volcanic activity that produced LIPs, Large Igneous Provinces, released even more CO2, and then the temperatures soared.

That surge occurred less than a billion years ago, so it’s easy to imagine warm (mean temperature of around ~20°C, compared to Earth’s current ~15°C) oceans in which life could have evolved before global warming slammed the hammer down and burnt the soup.

I think Carson Napier’s navigation error had to have been off by more than I thought: 150 million kilometers and a billion years. Even then he wouldn’t have found princesses, but at best the equivalent of single-celled prokaryotes, which would have been far more interesting than mere Amtorian princesses.


  1. jonmelbourne says

    Off by 150 million kilometers, not to mention in the wrong direction.

  2. says

    My copies of the Venus novels sit on one of the many shelves in my bedroom. I haven’t read them in decades. I doubt they would hold up very well, but rereading old novels is one of my favorite diversions during these sequestered times. The “science” was already refuted by the time I first read them in the sixties (with Mariner 2 measuring the planet’s surface temperature in a 1962 fly-by). But I enjoyed Carson’s misadventures.

  3. James Fehlinger says

    Pirates of Venus (in the 1963 Ace paperback edition, F-179), bought for me
    by my father from a drug-store paperback rack, was my first “adult” novel
    (as opposed to the DC comic books I’d been consuming up to that point).

    I still think the Roy Krenkel cover illustration (the princess — “Duare” is her
    name IRC — is being kidnapped by bird-men) is pretty nifty.

  4. leerudolph says

    I doubt they would hold up very well, but rereading old novels is one of my favorite diversions during these sequestered times.

    If you want Venus, Earth, and Mars all under attack by an extra-solar planet/spaceship, not to mention a view of Amazing Terran Technology of Daily Life (which eventually rises to the challenge posed by Even More Amazing Alien Technology of WARFARE AND DESTRUCTION), and One-World Government, you should check out Ray Cummings’s Wandl the Invader, available at Project Gutenberg. I read it a couple of weeks ago, because I had, for no obvious reason, suddenly remembered owning the ACE Double edition in 1961, without any memory of its contents. (Now I suspect that my brain was doing its best to protect me from a second exposure.) That edition appears to be essentially unchanged from the 1931 Astounding Stories serial—so almost exactly contemporary with Pirates of Venus. Ninety years on, Ray Cummings does not age well.

    By the way, the same giant trees that appear on Amtor were still there on Venus by the time that A. E. van Vogt first published The World of Null-A (also in Astounding Stories) in 1945. He ages a bit better. Maybe.

  5. JoeBuddha says

    Having become disgusted at the casual racism and misogyny of the Lensmen series (I was a huge fan back before I finally grew out of my WASP upbringing and ’60’s television morality), I’ve been a bit wary of revisiting my old Van Vogt and other favorites. I’m sure they weren’t much better.

  6. James Fehlinger says

    Having become disgusted at the casual racism and misogyny of the Lensmen series. . .

    Well, that’s a — what might you call it, “memetic hazard”? — of much,
    if not most, SF from the “pulp” era through the 1950s.
    I was politically unsophisticated enough at the age of 12 not to
    have been bothered, or even conscious, of the political slant of
    the entertainment I was consuming (which is a good thing — why
    spoil a kid’s fun prematurely?). The “New Wave” of the 60s was
    in part a political (in addition to being an aesthetic) reaction
    to the traditional ray-guns-n-rocket-ships era (and it enraged
    some of the traditional SF readership for that reason, and
    continues to do so to this day). When I first encountered
    J. G. Ballard, I consumed (and enjoyed) his stuff (or at least
    his early stuff, like the “Vermilion Sands” stories) just as
    obliviously as I’d consumed, say, van Vogt.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    jonmelbourne @1: There’s not much difference between initial angles from Earth orbit for Mars and Venus trajectories.

    “But you said go left!”
    “Yeah, but you were upside down. Oops.”

  8. A momentary lapse... says

    For anyone who doesn’t have access behind the journal’s paywall, a preprint is available on the arXiv. One of the interesting points is that it appears possible to maintain oceans on Venus at the present day, despite the brighter Sun. If Venus hadn’t gotten unlucky by having too much large-scale volcanism going on at once, we might have had a second ocean-bearing terrestrial planet in the Solar System.

  9. Amphiox says

    re #1: There are orbital configurations where Venus and Mars are in the same direction from Earth.

    If the temperate period of Venus really spanned over 3 billion years, it is not outside the realm of possibility that there was more than just prokaryotes and single celled microbes in those Venusian seas.

  10. chrislawson says

    Maybe we should be designing Venus-safe robots to explore for fossils.

  11. brightmoon says

    You can see Venus in the west in the evening. Planets don’t twinkle and Venus is bright . A few years ago I met a woman who was all upset because she swore she saw a UFO. It was Venus .

  12. Rich Woods says

    @brightmoon #11:

    A dozen years ago I got a taxi ride home from a beer festival, sharing the ride with a friend. “We’re being followed,” she declared. I looked out the back window, seeing no other cars on the road. “No, up there!” There was a big, fuzzy light low in the sky, and yes, she was right in that it did follow us all the way home, even as the road twisted and turned up and around the hill between the festival venue and town. Whenever the road straightened out sufficiently, we could look back and see it. Even getting out of the taxi once home, it was hanging there in the sky, right down the street. She was clinging to me in near panic (she claims to have seen “real” UFOs as a kid).

    The light was Jupiter. The road into town and my street mostly run north-south, so Jupiter was always going to remain approximately south during the 15-minute ride, just high enough to be visible over the trees and houses. I ran one of the astronomy programs on my PC (this was before smartphones and sky map apps) and was able to assuage her fears: Jupiter nearing conjunction.

    Anyway, before being reminded of that little digression, I was going to say that Edgar Rice Burroughs did do some good with one of his generally-poor Venus stories. In one of them he took the opportunity to write a fairly heavy-handed pastiche of the Nazis, a Venusian people he called the Zanis. I was only about 12 when I read it so the warning came about 35 years too late, but maybe he did dissuade some 12-year-old boys back in 1940 from idolising goose-stepping genocidal authoritarians.

  13. says

    @7 Rob Grigjanis

    While the angles do not look very different, to archive this difference you have to burn at opposite sites of earth. To reach Mars you have to burn at the dusk side of earth, to reach Venus at the dawn site. Not even mentioning the precise timing needed to reach either planet.
    A “small” mistake indeed ;)

  14. Rob Grigjanis says

    Turi @13:

    To reach Mars you have to burn at the dusk side of earth, to reach Venus at the dawn site

    I’d like to see a reference for that. I would think that for any interplanetary flight, you want to make use of the orbital and rotational velocities of the Earth. That would mean always burning at the dusk side, as shown here.

  15. blf says

    If the mistake happened when Venus was a cosmic billiards ball (Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision) zooming about the solar system, then perhaps it wasn’t so much Carson Napier crash-landing on Venus due to a mistake as Venus crashing into his rocket. There is the small issue of time, Venus played billiards around 3500 years ago, whilst Napier left a more recent Earth, unless he was in Erich von Däniken’s astronaut corps. I’m sure a blast of <pick-a-letter / -number / -gibberish>–rays will sort out it all out.

  16. yaque says

    When my son was about three or so, he was convinced for a good while that the moon followed us when we went out in the car! He was always very observant and from his point of view at that age, it made sense …

  17. chigau (違う) says

    I agree with yaque’s son.
    also Mars and Venus are both in the same direction from Earth. Up.

  18. leerudolph says

    @17: There’s a not-bad poem in Conrad Aiken’s Brownstone Eclogues titled “How to Accompany the Moon Without Walking”. Your son was onto something!

  19. unclefrogy says

    wanting to be thorough and being somewhat board I decided I should read C.S. Lewis’s scfi-fy books back in the early 70’s. I found them to be not scientific at all almost a through back to the morality plays like “everyman” from a previous age, with the “lessons” as heavily troweled on as the catechism classes I had in grammar school . Which I found out years later was understandable since Lewis was a catholic true believer.
    Burroughs and many of the earlier sci-fy authors were similar in that they were using the descriptive freedom of “outer space and the future” to describe the contemporary and historical world and events. The science was often or even mostly bad true but it was the political and moral universe the real subject of the fictions where the problems dwell. The stories of jack London put the reader in a place far from the ordinary and very human but without the same kind of fantasy people and situations, even Poe is more believable. Some of the old stuff reads more like Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress then scientific fiction

    One of the things that is coming out of all the research into the solar system and outer space is that the earth is not that unique and any of the reasons writers and others use for aliens to would want to invade the earth are becoming completely pointless. there is little here except us that is not almost everywhere else we look and the conditions for life have existed many places and many times.

  20. Rob Grigjanis says

    Turi @13: On further thought, I think you might be right. You want to lose orbital speed around the sun to get to Venus, and burning to leave Earth orbit on the day side would help with that.

  21. says

    @16 Rob Grigjanis

    To be honest, my reference to this is me planing interplanetary flights in Kerbal Space Program(KSP), an amazing game that is good at teaching the basics of orbital mechanics.

    After searching for a good reference and only finding KSP Tutorials, I decided to simply show what I mean by simulating it in KSP. It’s the easiest and clearest way I can think of. KSPs physics engine is well enough equipped to simulate this basic problem.

    Three caveats to the following video:
    A) I was not very precise, I only want to show the general effect and not spend even more time on this video.
    B) This is assuming a Hohnmann Transfer. Other forms of transfer have different rules, especially ones that use gravity assists
    C) The dusk (180° to Prograde) and dawn (0° to Prograde) ejection angles are only rough positions. The exact ejection angle depends on multiple factors, including rocket performance and current solar system configuration.

    That said, I still hold that flying to Mars and flying to Venus would start at roughly the opposite sites.


  22. says

    @21 Rob Grigjanis

    Seems as if I took to long to write my comment :D

    Yes, that is exactly why. But because earth bends our orbit while we’re burning, we have to start at (roughly) dusk and dawn, not night and day.

  23. says

    Wait no. Bending has nothing to do with it, that is the wrong explanation. And in fact, watching at it in KSP, it seems the best angle are in the middle between the dawn and day (0° and 90° to prograde) for lower orbits and between dusk and night (180° and 270°) for higher orbits.

  24. leerudolph says

    unclefrogy@20: “The stories of jack London put the reader in a place far from the ordinary and very human but without the same kind of fantasy people and situations”.

    Actually, Jack London did write one fantasy / science fiction book, The Star Rover; I’ve never read it, but approximately 67 years ago my father read it to me as a bedtime story (I remember nothing of it at all). He also owned a lot of Burroughs’s Mars books, and I remember reading some of them myself 7 or 8 years later.

  25. unclefrogy says

    thanks for the info I might try to find that and read it, though I find these days I do not have the patience nor concentration for a whole book or even many TV serials.
    uncle frogy

  26. A momentary lapse... says

    @chrislawson #10:
    Nice idea, unfortunately Venus seems to have undergone global resurfacing after its tectonics seized up. That is probably not going to be helpful for the preservation of any fossils that might once have been there. Maybe some bits of ancient terrain survived though.