Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Review of A Princess of Mars -- Edgar Rice Burroughs

juskoerbWhen fans of science fiction think fondly upon the roots of their beloved fiction genre, most tend to think of H. G. Wells or Jules Verne.  Less commonly known of early science fiction writers was Edgar Rice Burroughs.  The same author who gained worldwide fame with his series of Tarzan stories began his novel-writing career in 1912 with "A Princess of Mars." (full text available here)

In this first of a long series of Martian adventures, we meet the estimable John Carter, a southern gentleman of Virginia who gained notoriety fighting in the Civil War.  Seeking his fortune in mining with a friend in Arizona, he discovers a mysterious cave which proves to be a kind of gateway to a world he never dreamed existed.

John Carter arrives on Mars quite to his surprise, and quickly finds himself in an exotic landscape populated with strange flora and fauna.  He soon meets the huge and warlike Green Men of Mars, standing sixteen feet in height with four arms and bristling with weapons of war.  But John Carter quickly finds out that a man of earth, with its comparatively heavy gravity, is a fearsome foe.  A leap propels him dozens of feet into the air and a single blow from his bare fist can kill a Green Man.

John Carter (no one ever calls him but by his full name) gains great fame among this heartless and savage race, securing himself a place among the hierarchy of their chieftains.  He learns their ways and discovers a wide variety of other races, creatures, and history of Mars (or Barsoom as it is called by its inhabitants).

At one point, the Green Men capture themselves an important prisoner after a violent raid on an otherwise northern race.  The city of Helium is populated by the Red Men of Mars, who besides a red tint to their skin and the fact that they lay eggs, are otherwise human.  This prisoner turns out to be the beautiful Dejah Thoris, the granddaughter of the King of Helium and the city's most prized citizen.  Of course, the Green Men immediately set out to take this prisoner to their emperor for torture and death despite Helium's desperate bargaining for her return.

John Carter decides that he will be this woman's deliverer and sets out on a path to free her from the clutches of these savages.  Adventure after adventure befalls the two and twisting intrigues unravel themselves as to the histories of various characters who aid or frustrate the hero and heroine on their path to freedom.

Forbidden Literature

A Princess of Mars is the sort of book that is liable to be banned from public libraries these days.  At one time, sex and occult content flagged a book as unacceptable for young readers.  But here we have John Carter, a confederate soldier and gentleman; just the sort of character which seems custom-tailored to alarm the sensibilities of our culture.  He refers to races upon the world of Barsoom as Red Men or Green Men, which of course to the modern (or hypermodern) mind are categories both racist and sexist.

What is worse, John Carter decides without asking to rescue the headstrong and beautiful Dejah Thoris because she is a woman and must not be left in the hands of these violent savages, regardless of what their own culture has to say about their claim on her or their right to exercise what they believe to be right.  John Carter knows such a task is certain death, but because he is a man and a gentleman, he cannot do otherwise.  Such sentiments are even more racist and sexist.

Perhaps worst of all, John Carter does not doubt the righteousness of his cause and does not waver in his convictions at any point in the book.  He is simply who he is, he can be no other.  When confronted by the strange ways of the Green Men, he does not contextualize them as deriving legitimately from a history of class warfare, dwindling natural resources, and Darwinian competition for survival (all facts he explicitly considers while learning of the world's history).  No, he condemns them as wicked and heartless, and sets about teaching them compassion and human sentiment.  When they laugh at him or do not understand, he does not flag, but rather continues his course of doing what is right, refusing to bend to the slightest compromise of conscience.  And because of this, he is a force of nature upon the face of Barsoom.

Here is a book which reminds us that the sentiments of our own day are not universal values.

Fantasy or Science Fiction?

This is science fiction on the order of Flash Gordon rather than Isaac Asimov.  The cultures and events considered are not rationalist social experiments conceived and executed in fiction.  A Princess of Mars is a milieu story about an ordinary man (or perhaps Man) coming to a strange world and discovering it through one veil at a time.  It is an adventure story of civility upended in savagery and the aftermath of that meeting.  And it is a love story that finds its roots in the archetypes of Man and Woman.  This story, for all its lush descriptions of radium pistols, gravity differentials, and Martian canals, is perhaps better seen as a fantasy than a science fiction, since virtually no plot point hangs on a rationalist impulse.


For those who love serial adventure stories in the vein of Indiana Jones and Conan the Barbarian, you cannot do much better than this book.  The book is action-packed, vivid, and imaginative.  But for those who prefer characters whose introspection is a fountainhead of self-doubt, for those who prefer heroines who bristle at the suggestion of rescue, for those who assume morality is a cultural construct: avoid this book.


James Wood said...

I devoured those books when I was in highschool. They're just good.

I also recommend the Tarzan books. He's not the mindless ape-man found in many of the adaptations of the story, but rather learned to speak French fluently and taught himself to read English from books his parents left behind.

Anonymous said...

If you think that this one may be categorized as sexist and racist, try tracking down Burroughs "The Mucker." Chicago tough guy and small time hood from the turn of the century finds out that Shanghai isn't just a city in China and winds up against his will on what is little more than a pirate vessel heading for Japan. There the Mucker ends up fighting samurai with nothing more than his fists and just plain orneryness that can only come from a life lived alongside the worst that the outskirts of the south-side has to offer. The main themes of this tale are that dames are trouble and people who look different from you can't be trusted.


Anonymous said...

I'm shocked at the lack of comments you have received on your most excellent description of one of my most beloved authors! Wonderful summary of an awesome story! Loved this book. If there is an Edgar Rice Burroughs book that happens to find itself on a bookshelf in any used bookstore in the city of Bozeman (or anywhere else for that matter), it is promptly rescued and put into my collection! Haa ..seriously though.