2015 Reading Journey: A Princess of Mars

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So I haven’t been very good at keeping up the reviews for the 2015 Reading Journey, but I’m going to start to try to fix that, too. I have five done, which I’ll set to autopost over the next few weeks, and seven (yes, seven) others in various states of completion. Obviously, I haven’t been very good at writing them, much less posting them.

But, let’s get past that.

It’s funny that I remember Burroughs’ Venus novels from my childhood very clearly, and several of the Tarzan books as well, but never actually managed to read any of the Mars series. With the amount of time I spent in school and public libraries, I find it hard to believe that I never found one.

What’s funnier is that I more or less forgot to make notes while reading this one. The story pulled me in to where I was reading it in odd moments standing in line or waiting in the car or not quite putting down the screen at night before switching to paper. So to write this, I had to back up and skim bits and pieces to refresh myself on the things I thought worth talking about.

We begin, once again, with the framing story. A few hundred words about Captain Carter, “Uncle Jack”, as told by Edgar Rice Burroughs himself. They may be getting smaller, but that’s five out of six so far.

Off the top, one thing I didn’t like about the story was the periodic reminders that the hero was writing things down twenty years after the fact. It may have been a stylistic device of the period or of the author, but for me it tends to rob immediacy from the action. I knew everything was going to work out, more or less, so found it harder to care.

But there’s a lot of action. While we never get a real explanation for how Carter found himself on Mars or how he returned to Earth (and I think it likely Mr. Burroughs already had other Barsoom stories planned while writing this one, so didn’t mind saving a little mystery), there’s a lot going on between. John Carter is captured by the Green Men of Mars, twice his size and with four arms, but proves himself a warrior. He travels a long way across the desert surface, rescues a princess, escapes a warlord, learns to fly, learns telepathy, becomes a spy, becomes a warlord, leads a war, marries the princess, has a son, and maybe even saves the whole world. We actually don’t find that out until the sequel, I think.

A Princess of Mars is a strange mix of science fiction, fantasy, and pulp adventure, suitable for the time period. I’m betting that Mr. Burroughs knew that even as he wrote it. There’s science here, but not as much as you think. He’s taken a Percival Lowell vision of Mars, added the few things actually known about the planet in 1910 and produced a slowly dying world, losing its water and air over millennia. It’s a tradition that many writers will continue over the coming decades, and Heinlein, who had several takes on Mars, springs immediately to mind.

But then, continuing in a grand tradition, he just tells the story he wants to tell, making up special colours, rays, devices, and magical technologies and biologies as he sees fit to get him where he wants to go. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s hard for me to consider it science fiction a century and more after it was published. Had I read it as a new book, I doubt I would have batted an eye, not merely because of a lower level of technological sophistication, but because so little was known about Mars. It was a moment when everything was possible. Now, with a very basic understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum and what Mars is really like, it’s a bit harder to read when you get started, but once you’ve got your disbelief properly suspended, the story flows fairly well. I have the feeling that the two different source biologies (one quadrupedal and one not) may come into play in later stories, but it was the one major thing that bothered me about the story. I have no idea if Mr. Burroughs had made any kind of a study of evolution, still a young science at that point.

Another interesting bit to tease out of the story is the whole “red men versus green men” motif. Other than competing biologies (the green men are practically giants and have four arms), I have to wonder if this is an analog for the racism of the day, or perhaps colonialism (which is racism in a different form). Neither sentient species thinks much of the other. The red men (clearly meant to be Europeans) and the green men (I’m thinking Africans here, mainly because of the proximity in time of the South African campaigns of the Victorian period) both consider the other to be barbarians.

I have two main complaints with the book. First, there’s too much exposition. Carter spends a lot of wordage telling us things about Barsoom and its peoples that really don’t matter to the story, particularly about the savage green Martians. How and why their culture developed as it has over the millennia doesn’t really play a part in things except to fill a few paragraphs or pages between action sequences.

That said, my other complaint is that there’s too much story for a book this length. If Mr. Burroughs were a contemporary author, I strongly suspect that this first Barsoom adventure would have been a trilogy with a lot more character development and a lot more detail in the action. It may be typical of the pulps and related novels of the time, but John Carter flies through his adventures so fast, he’d miss a lot if he weren’t paying close attention. As the reader, I feel like there’s a lot missed in the story.

Overall rating: 3 Stars. It was a quick, fun read, and if you’re a fan of E.R. Burroughs work, you’ll be satisfied. I have fond memories of the Venus books as a teenager, but I’m not sure I want to go back and read them after this taste of Mars. I’d rather let them live large in my memory.

(Worth noting, for those of you who might have missed the movie, John Carter held true to the spirit of the story even if certain things were exaggerated, just how high an Earth man can jump in Martian gravity, for example. But the visuals brought Barsoom to life, and the movie is worth watching, though it was poorly marketed.)

Be well, everyone.

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