CLASSIC SCIENCE FICTION BOOK REVIEW: “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1917)

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This is one of those books that people have endlessly referred to in more recent, better science fiction, but which I’ve always avoided. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was those Frazetta paintings (A Safe-For-Work example http://farm1.static.flickr.com/50/173750100_7b6b64414d.jpg?v=0 there are many not-safe-for-work ones) that put me off when I was younger and kind of a religious fanatic. Maybe it was just that all the pictures I’d ever seen made me think it was a fantasy story, and I never liked those. I dunno. Anyway, I put it off again and again and again, even when I was interested in stuff like the geography of Barsoom and liked to pour over maps of the place.
I’m equally unsure why I finally decided to give in and read it: Was it that all the nods in books I liked were positive? Was it that I’m not a fanatic anymore, and find a lot of those Frazetta paintings kind of alluring now (Another Safe-for-work example: http://farm1.static.flickr.com/49/173750310_cb4a284068.jpg?v=0 ), or was it just that I was bored and wanted to try something new? Again, I dunno, but I’m glad I did.
This book is the purple-est of purple prose, but I mean that in a fun way. Looking for deep meaning, trenchant insights, or even a coherent explanation of what’s going on? You’re not going to find it. This is one of those books that just assumes the reader will blithely accept twenty-five impossible things before breakfast and come back begging for number twenty six. It is breathless and short of attention span, and kinda’ stupid, but again I mean that in the best way possible. It’s stupid in the way that a twelve-year-old boy is stupid - it is the stupid of a mind that’s still curious about everything, not at all jaded, and possessed of limitless energy and basically nonexistent focus. It’s the literary equivalent of a trip back in time to that time in your life when even the most boring things were kind of interesting, and “Summer was ten thousand says long” (As Bradbury once said.) It is the stupid of irrepressible youth, and that’s always pretty intoxicating.
We start out with John Carter of Virginia already inexplicably immortal and of great-but-indeterminate age. He appears to be a handsome, tall, black-haired man in his mid thirties. There’s never any attempt to figure out how John got this way, it just is, and from that decidedly odd starting point we move on at a hell of a gallop - by page 18 - John has already been adopted by a Virginia plantation family, made a name for himself as an adventurer and mercenary, lost the civil war, headed west, become a gold prospector, and been killed by hostile Indians. I am *not* making this up, it really does read like that.
After dying he transmigrates to Mars - again, for no adequately explained reason - where he has a body that looks just like the one he had on earth - yet again: for no adequately explained reason. I have to admire Mr. Burrough’s narrow focus on what he’s doing here. He has a story to tell about a Confederate sword-wielding superhero killing mideval aliens on Mars and come hell or high water, he’s going to tell that story and not let any kind of logic get in his way. Why do any of these imponderables happen to Mr. Carter? “It just is” is the only explanation you’re gonna’ get. Frankly, the author doesn’t care: just bring on the naked chicks and the swordplay! In anyone else, this would simply be a case of bad writing - and it’s undeniably bad writing here as well - but in Mr. Burrough’s hands it gets a free pass based entirely on its giddy and unapologetically charming assets.
I won’t spoil the plot. Suffice to say John gets embroiled in a turf war between tribes of four-armed green Martians, then falls in love with an unbelievably hot naked Red Martian chick with the correct number of arms, and then ends up getting involved in a war between city states, all of which, of course, he wins by a combination of Southern ingenuity, superior fighting skills, and the more-or-less superpowers he gets just by virtue of being on Mars.
Mars has lower gravity than earth, y’see, so just like those damn annoying little kids from “Galactica: 1980”, our Mister Carter can jump thirty feet in the air, run for hours with out tiring, and kill people with one punch. Ok, yes, a person from earth would be ridiculously over-muscled for Mars, but as we’ve seen from extended space missions, your muscles and bones begin to adjust to low-or-no gravity pretty quickly. In ten years on Mars, John never gets any weaker. Why? “It just is!”
Despite all the supernaturally hot naked alien babes walking around, this is a surprisingly chaste book. There’s no overt mention of sexual intercourse, John and Dejah, his girlfriend, barely even kiss, and only then as a precursor to marriage. One could probably do a fairly accurate study of how all the swordplay in this story is a surrogate for sex, and it may even be, but if so I suspect it’s on a subconscious level. This book is almost unnervingly free of subtext or connotation, it’s as if Ayn Rand wrote adolescent adventure stories: everything is what it is, and it’s nothing more nor less than that.

A slim book of just 160 pages in Trade Paperback format, the story was originally written as a series of short stories in an adventure magazine several years before it was boilerplated together and published as a novel, and it shows. There’s a frame story narrated by Mister Burroughs himself, evidently related to his “Uncle Jack” as he explains, and the coda sets up a sequel. There’s some clunkyness and a series of incongruous episodes that take place between the initial intrigue with the green martian savages and the second half involving the palace intrigues of the Red Martian war. Clearly these were two separate-but-related stories that have been sewn together, and a few elements have been tacked on to bring it all to a solid conclusion. Despite this haphazard plastic surgery, however, the book is really a solid read all the way through.

So is it science fiction?

Yes. He’s on Mars, there are two moons in the sky, they address Mars’ lower gravity frequently as a plot device, his strength is always put forward as a result of this, his fighting skills are explained by years of military service on earth, and while they never explain his immortality, it is never implied to be anything other than of rational cause. His transmigration is never really implied to be anything, but the candor of the book suggests it to be preternatural rather than supernatural, an unknown aspect of science and natural law rather than supernatural hokum. There’s even some token attempts to fit this version of Mars to the early-20th Century speculation and scientific knowledge about the planet. Those Martian Canals may not exist in reality, but they make good use of ‘em here, and they’re damn neat. Likewise, the topography is, on the whole, about 1/3rd as massive as that of earth. Sure, Mars turned out to have a vastly larger range of high and low land than Earth did, but the logic in ERB’s thought processes is obvious: 1/3rd the size, so valleys are 1/3rd the depth and mountains are 1/3rd as tall on Mars as on earth. There’s even a rudimentary artificial language he invented for the story, the first example of that I’m aware of. Why Barsoomian never caught on, but Klingon did I don’t know. Well, I do know: Barsoomian is pretty threadbare, but the fact that he tried is pretty cool.

This could easily be taken as a bad review. Most of what I’ve said could be taken to be negative, and in the hands of a more accomplished writer than Mr. Burroughs it probably would be, but he’s got just the right magical combination of pulp prose, halfbaked ideas, and hack enthusiasm to make it all work. I can’t praise that highly enough: this book *should not* work on any level, but it ends up being more than the sum of it’s admittedly goofy parts. I even recommend it.

The John Carter of Mars stories are part of a larger fictional universe involving the Tarzan stories and the Barsoom stories as well. I didn’t realize that until after I’d finished this book, and for some reason I find that fascinating, though probably not fascinating enough to make me read a Tarzan novel. We’ll see. At any rate, I fully intend to read the next book in this series as soon as possible.

We’ll see if ERB can pull off this kind of hat trick twice in a row.

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