Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Princess of Mars (1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs

   Welcome to my first blog. In the blogs ahead I will be looking at the fiction of legends like H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, H. P. Lovecraft and many others. But where to start? I figured where else but Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Carter. 
   After all, A Princess of Mars changed fantasy and science fiction forever. Just look at John Carter's decendents: Flash Gordon (a direct John Carter rip-off...awesome though it was), Buck Rogers, Star Wars, Avatar...the list goes on and on. Sadly, the plots, situations and characters of Burroughs' Mars books have been so often recycled that when the John Carter film was at long last released, it often felt like we had seen it all before. 
   Edgar Rice Burroughs is of course known best as the creator of Tarzan of the Apes. A Princess of Mars was written first however, and I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up being his most influential work. I wonder about the eventual fate of Tarzan. He just might end up an interesting relic from the 20th century, one that makes many of us just a bit uncomfortable now. I have no doubt that John Carter will live forever on the brilliant fictional landscape of Barsoom (the martian's own word for Mars). A Princess of Mars is a book that has aged remarkably well, its fast-moving and impossible plot as engrossing now as it was a hundred years ago.
   It tells the story of ex-Confederate Captain John Carter of Virginia, who just happens to be an immortal warrior who never ages past thirty and has no memory of childhood. He is trapped in a cave by Apaches, where he is somehow transported to the Planet Mars. He wakes up there naked, the planets lesser gravity giving him super-strength. Carter is captured by fifteen foot tall, four armed Green martian nomad warriors. He learns the language and earns a high place among them thanks to his fighting ability (he is now the greatest swordsman of two worlds, as he never gets tired of telling us). The green martians also later capture Dejah Thoris, the title's Princess, a naked beauty who looks entirely human save for the fact that she is a copper red color. John Carter helps her escape and later becomes embroiled in a civil war between two great Martian cities. Needless to say, he wins out at the end, though tragically he is transported back to Earth while saving the whole planet from extinction.
   A pretty wild plot to be sure and one peppered throughout with ghastly monsters, airships, daring escapes and violent battles. The genius is in the telling. Something about Burroughs style could often make the most outrageous happenings seem believable enough, at least while you are reading the book. He had plenty of failings, all plenty apparent in Princess. He never mastered the ability to reproduce human speech in dialogue for one. Whatever his failings he had a towering imagination and instinctually understood how to tell a story. He also had the rare ability to write action extremely well indeed. 
   It is remarkable just how easily most readers can get past the fact that John Carter so casually mentions that he is immortal ( Edgar Rice Burroughs hated aging and found a way to make most of his heroes ageless). The human inhabitants of Barsoom are also easily accepted. If anything seems to bother fans of the book it is how John Carter is transported to Mars in the first place. He is paralyzed and then finds himself looking down at his own body. Looking outside the cave he sees the red planet, a red star in the sky. He closes his eyes, stretches out his arms and feels himself drawn through the "trackless immensity of space". Before he knows it he is on Mars. For some reason this never bothered me at all. 
   One criticism that is often leveled at Burroughs is how he handles the issue of race. Burroughs, like many white men of his time, grew up believing that his particular race was the highest type of human being. This becomes a real issue in Tarzan, as I will bring up in the future. So it is very interesting to read how John Carter falls in love with a red woman from another world and how his best friend ends up being a four-armed green martian. One gets the sense that his view of race was a bit complicated.
   The real magic of A Princess of Mars is just how well Burroughs tells the story. It is the ultimate in escapist fiction. His readers loved it and he ended up writing what amounted to eleven books set on Mars, and through them he created an intricate portrait of a dying world. For anybody interested in fantasy or adventure, they are must reads. 


1 comment:

  1. Great first post, Mike! This book has been on my "to read" pile for some time but what you're written has made me move it closer to the top. Your knowledge about this kind of literature is impressive. This blog will be a great place for you to share it. I look forward to reading more. Keep up the good work!