ERB Book Reviews
Edgar Rice Burroughs book reviews from fans like you.
THE MONSTER MEN
Reviewed by: Lew Kaye-Skinner 2003-10-22
Quick! Name this book by ERB! The beautiful blonde heroine is stranded with her professor father in a remote jungle. She is rescued by a young white man who is unable to speak English or any other European language, and she has no idea of his identity. The hero is described as a giant of exceptional strength, physical beauty, and intelligence. Later, after the heroine is carried off into the jungle by a sub-human, the hero again rescues her, but does not return to identify himself. One of the villains then convinces her that the hero is the lowest form of despicable. Only on the last page do we learn the true identity of the hero.
Well, yes, most of that does sound like Tarzan of the Apes. However, this is a trick question. The correct answer is ERB's The Monster Men (published in All-Story magazine in 1913 and in book form in 1929). The heroine is not Jane Porter, but Virginia Maxon, daughter of Professor Arthur Maxon, who is an assistant professor of an unnamed natural science at Cornell University. The hero is mostly known simply as Number Thirteen, though later he is given the native title of Bulan, referring to the tropical moon. Most of the sub-humans (and all with whom the hero can communicate) are the results of Professor Maxon's attempts to create life, though orangutans enter after the story moves to Borneo. Only one of these experimental results is clearly described for us, and he sounds very much like Quasimodo, Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame. Again, ERB assumes that a blonde woman will be recognized as beautiful by all males, regardless of culture, race, or species; in this case, he extends the assumption to the sub-human results of scientific experiments. (It may be an oversight on ERB's part when Number Three, at the end of Chapter XI, refers to a female orangutan as beautiful, though this does effectively associate the experiments with the great apes.)
In addition to the reworked motifs from Tarzan of the Apes, The Monster Men also has clear correspondences with Shakespeare's "The Tempest," though the plot details are much different. Like Miranda, Virginia Maxon is the only female character and is lovestruck upon her first sight of the gorgeous creature from this ‘brave new world.' Like Caliban, Number Thirteen is a ‘natural,' he is interested in the heroine, though he feels himself unworthy of her, and he has superhuman strength; unlike Caliban, he is thought to be a creation of the controlling wizard. Number Thirteen, as the love interest of the heroine, corresponds more closely to Ferdinand and like him must prove to the father that he is worthy of the heroine. Like Prospero, Professor Maxon is an adept at forbidden arts who is temporarily in residence on a largely uninhabited island, and his greatest treasures are his books and his daughter. Both usurp roles proper to divinity, but for Professor Maxon, the opposing villain is an assistant, rather a brother.
Wisely, ERB makes no attempt to explain the science involved in Professor Maxon's experiments. Because DNA had not yet been discovered, we are left to suppose that he envisioned a science similar to that in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, based on the interactions of chemicals. (Brave New World was first published in 1932, three years after the book publication of The Monster Men. It is highly unlikely that Huxley would have known of this book.) Huxley, however, wisely does not assume accelerated growth to adult size, as ERB must assume for the timeframe of his plot. In the pseudo-birth at adult size, ERB is much closer to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, although Dr. Frankenstein's monster is the result of surgical and electrical processes, rather than chemical.
Perhaps most interesting about the book is the assumption apparently shared by Professor Maxon and ERB that the factor which most distinguishes the scientific experiments from true humans is neither their physical abnormalities nor their deficient brains (mentioned frequently, but not carefully shown to the reader). Rather, it is their lack of a soul. We are never told why they lack souls, though it is implied by some characters and assumed by others that the lack is an inherent result of their creation by a human, rather than by God. In this day of debate over the ethics of cloning, this assumption is often bandied about as if it were an established fact. However, none of the characters in the books or participants in the debate seem to know what a soul is or how reliably to determine whether someone has such an intangible. Number Thirteen is the only character who wrestles with the issue, though Numbers Two through Twelve accept the designation as soulless without argument and conclude that this makes them worthless and gives them sufficient reason to hate their creator and sufficient cause to attempt his murder. Finally, the real issue is what it means to be human, but the plot never resolves the issue.
With all these correspondences to other, better-known works, a reader not among those who will read anything and everything by ERB must surely ask whether this book is worth the time to find and read. It is interesting as a reworking of those familiar motifs and may be worth the time for that reason. It is another treatment of some aspects currently in the national and international debate over a difficult, controversial issue. It is ERB visiting again the broad outlines of the story for which he is most famous. It's a relatively quick read and an engaging story, certainly worth this reader's time.