A Princess of Mars by Burroughs, Edgar Rice, 1917

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One of the earliest commercially successful science fantasy novel series was Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series, and A Princess of Mars was the first book in the cycle. Though it was not as commercially successful as Burroughs' later Tarzan novels, he did make his mark on SF with these books. In my opinion this first one is the best. It's a big book with multiple sub-plots and a moderately large cast of characters. So rather than get into what is sure to be a hectic description of the plot, I will just touch on that, and then discuss Burroughs' use of themes. Three out of five stars, with reductions for sub-par writing style and what appears to me to be a lack of a clear outline and path to resolution. Keep in mind though that Burroughs was not a traditional SF writer. His work largely predated the modern genre, and his works were considered "scientific romances," in that they were largely updates of the old romance stories with a few scientific gizmos and ideas thrown in for the purposes of modernization.

This is the story of a young man recounting a tale from a manuscript left to him by his dead uncle, a former confederate soldier from Virginia. It is a fantastic tale and the man, John "Jack" Carter, was worried he would be ridiculed if he told his story while he was alive, so he left it to be found after he died. Carter had lost all money and status in the war, so he went to the Arizona Territory to prospect for gold with a partner. One day his partner left to go do some business, leaving John alone. A few hours later an Apache party set upon him. Fleeing from the band of Indians after he attacked them, Carter was chased into a cave where he died. His body lay at rest there for ten years, not corrupting or decaying at all. Carter's "spirit" awoke and left the cave, and when he looked up outside the mouth, he was mysteriously on the planet Mars, called Barsoom by its inhabitants.

Barsoom had a breathable atmosphere, though that was only through a technological device that flooded the atmosphere with oxygen. Because of the lower gravity, Carter had enormous strength, and could leap enormous distances. Carter was befriended by the green Martians, who were impressed with his physical prowess. The green Martians took Carter from the ancient dry sea bed where he was discovered to an enormous ancient city that was largely abandoned, save for the 1,000 or so encamped green Martians. They had a high technology, but lived close to the ground, and were in virtually a constant state of war with other races. They had advanced medical treatments that could keep them alive for up to 1,000 years, though virtually none of them lived that long. They also had advanced alloys and used radium projectiles in their weapons. Carter fell in with these green Martians and eventually became a trusted companion. He went on a series of adventures across Barsoom with them, then with the more human-appearing red Martians, where he met and fell in love with their princess, Deja Thoris.

Thematically A Princess of Mars is all over the place. This is an adventure story that has only light elements of SF, along with western, fantasy and Lovecraftian horror. It is a long epic fantasy-journey set on Mars; a tale of a superman who has enhanced physical abilities and telepathy. Burroughs spent much time detailing cultural variation, anthropology and archaeology. Its also a sword-&-sandals epic with plenty of exciting combat and warfare. Burroughs does not shy away from any of those tropes, though he does deal with sexuality and gender relations in an archaic Victorian manner. I give him credit too for taking on the issue of abortion, even if it was practiced by the Green Martians and not the humans.

On the anthropological front, at least in the first half, Burroughs provided a detailed picture of what everyday life was like for the Green Martians. They were an advanced race that has access to many different high technologies, but they lived in squalor, probably because of their proclivities for war. Carter believed that this came from their inability and/or unwillingness to care for and nurture their young, who were also trained for a life of battle from the very first. Burroughs described their cities, agriculture, world view, reproduction cycles, society and social mores, and much more. This tale also turned on the conceit of superiority. John Carter knew that he was superior to the Martians, and while the story never degraded to a "great white hope" tale, it felt like it was headed that direction many times.

On a side note, I saw a lot of similarities between the Green Martians and the Fremen of Frank Herbert's Dune. The Green Martians lived in a desert and dreamed of a time of abundant water, they were brutal and highly effective fighters, they were terse and showed no outward emotion, the women were excellent warriors, they had a strict code of morals that was centered around fairness and combat, they picked their leaders by attrition, and they had a high technology that they did not avail themselves of frequently. Just like the Fremen; I have always credited Burroughs as a huge influence on Herbert.

Is this science fiction? I think so. Burroughs seems to me to have had a lot in common with H.P. Lovecraft. Not only was Burroughs capable of writing Lovecraftian style horror (if you don't believe me, just read the early chapters of this book where John Carter is trapped in the cave by the Apache), but the two have another similarity. Lovecraft told many of his stories from a first person perspective. As a natural consequence of the stories that he was telling Lovecraft's characters often acknowledged to readers that their tales were hard to believe; so hard to believe that they themselves had trouble swallowing it all, but that they were confident that in the future science would find some way of verifying them. Burroughs relied on this motif in A Princess of Mars as well, and this differentiates him from other writers of his era such as H.G. Wells, who often spent quite a bit of time establishing the scientific credentials of his story. As a result this book probably has more of a fantasy feeling then, for example, War of the Worlds. It is after all a sword-&-sandals epic, but there are enough scientific elements here to satisfy even me, who generally shuns fantasy.

As an important example of pre-SF, I think that this book holds a critical place of importance in our genre. I certainly do not think that it is a prime example of what the SF genre can produce, but it is an example of the kind of story that one day would feed the pulps with what they needed to actually get the genre going and going strongly.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)


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