1910s, 1912, 1917, Barsoom, Bob Abbett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Frank E. Schoonover, Frank Frazetta, John Carter, Mars, Michael Whelan, planetary romance, proto-SF, pulp, science fantasy, science fiction, swashbuckling, sword and planet, The All-Story Magazine
Come now; my timing of this shouldn’t surprise you in the least.
Edgar Rice Burroughs was an utter failure. He’d failed at a life in the military, having a heart condition rendering him ineligible for commission. He’d failed at just about every trade he attempted—no less than eight failed enterprises and dead-end jobs between 1903 and 1913 alone. And he’d fail, twice, at marriage later in life. So I think there’s something commendable in his eventual, single, colossal success—writing—moreso since his driving impetus, like so many authors before him and after, was reading and decrying “I can write better stories than this drek!” In 1911, he sat down to prove just that. The next year, that first novel, Under the Moons of Mars, was serialized in The All-Story Magazine. And in 1917, it saw its first appearance as a bound book, gaining the title A Princess of Mars. It’s been in print more-or-less continually, in one form or another, through the ensuing century.
Do I even need to write a synopsis for a novel whose formula has been copied for time immemorial? Alright, fine, a brief one.
John Carter of Virginia, while off prospecting in Indian Country, is ensnared by an unconvincing out-of-body experience, resulting in a travel through time and space. He awakes under two moons on the barren, mossy desert of an alien world—the canalled Mars of Percival Lowell, called Barsoom by its natives. Soon afterwards, he runs into the savage Green Martians, twelve-foot-tall six-limbed tusked “men,” whom he impresses with the prowess of his Earthborn muscles on this lower-gravity world. For the rest of the early sections, Carter is indoctrinated into the Green Martian culture, learning the language of this planet, meeting and killing hostile native fauna, and coming to understand his new situation.
The second half of the book perks up when Carter’s foster-tribe of Green Martians takes prisoner a Red Martian princess, Dejah Thoris, held either for ransom or to serve in the Greens’ brutal gladiatorial games. Falling in love at first sight, Carter makes plans to save her, escape, and return her to her royal family at Helium. Things don’t pan out, and Carter must overcome various odds and obstacles, and trek back and forth across the hostile Martian desert, to win back his love. Along the way, Carter is captured by an enemy tribe of Greens, fights in the arena, joins a rival Red city-state’s air force, and more, as the novel shapes up to a grand conclusion of epic battles and true love reunited, however brief.
Probably Far Too Much Analysis
The thing to remember going in is that this was written, serialized, and read over a hundred years ago, back before SF was the multi-spectrum juggernaut it is now. To be honest, it reads something like a swashbuckling western set in space; fitting, considering John Carter starts off on the Arizona plains fleeing from hostile natives. SF didn’t exist as a genre back then, thus it didn’t have the depth or refinery you’d expect from a modern story. There wasn’t much else published in the same vein—it’d take ten years and change before Weird Tales, and then Amazing Stories, came around—so Burroughs had the advantage of being first. The series’ driving popularity isn’t necessarily something we can apply to modern sensibilities; it is a testament to its place in time as much (if not more than) its quality. In short: things were different back then, and thanks to time and hindsight, those differences are quite visible.
Which explains a lot of the issues with the novel. Burroughs’ prose for his first novel is stilted and formal—as you might expect from a novel penned in the 1910s. I expected and will accept that, along with the dry, lecture-like bricks of dialogue, another product of the time. What I didn’t expect was the sheer amount of travelogue-style world building. The first chunk of the novel—seven chapters or so—is heavy on world-building, with John Carter relaying various intricacies of life on Mars to you,
his nephew the reader. Thus, the novel is often slow and choppy. Burroughs is a master of world-building, making exotic creations with tangible life, though I wish it didn’t come out in the form of sluggish anthropology. (It really does reads like a travelogue pointing out quaint native traditions and unique flora and fauna; these sections made me think of Mark Twain’s early travelogues, which were the big thing about fifty years before Burroughs came around.)
Later on, we have the problem with a magazine serial: with its slipshod applications of cliffhanger, development, and cliffhanger again, it reads like Burroughs had no clear outline or goal for conclusion, and was instead throwing creativity, and challenges for the protagonist, into the manuscript with rough abandon. The novel feels bipolar: the first half is slow and dry; the second half, while action-packed, is chaotic and unfocused.
But what is Barsoom? Peering under the covers, it’s a pure masculine escapism: the wish of every bullied schoolboy or harried stock-clerk to travel to some foreign clime, gain miraculous powers, punish his enemies, claim the nubile and loving young maiden. Granted, it’s a lot more than that, but there’s a core kernel of male wish-fulfillment fantasy in a realm where one can jump higher and punch harder, and where people wander around without much clothes on.
Yet it’s not a “boys only” novel, and is read often by women; perhaps because of Martian gender roles. As a product of their hostile environment, all Martians are capable of defending themselves, regardless of gender. The Green Martian women are the ones who build the weapons, mine the radium and build the bullets, educate the young in both life and war. One of the Green Martian women, Sola, is presented in a very positive light; she’s as much Carter’s guardian as visa versa, and is a light of kindness on the savage planet. Dejah Thoris is developed as a competent individual, an adventuress in her own right. I get the feeling that if John Carter didn’t need frequent challenges befitting his superhuman status, and if his love for Dejah Thoris wasn’t his Achilles heel, then she’d spend less of her time in mortal peril. (Granted, her strength occurs more in later novels than this one.)
On the bright side, Burroughs only got better at his craft as he expanded his Mars series to eleven novels, and then came up with the most famous character in fiction, Tarzan, plus Carson of Venus, the Pellucidar hollow world, and the Land that Time Forgot. Burroughs’ first entry is full of rough edges, which would be smoothed down as his craft developed. He tended towards the formulaic—the Land that Time Forgot trilogy felt like reading the same story three times, with different cardboard characters—but he knew his novels had a strange resonant popularity with readers, and he had honed his craft, so Burroughs continued to give the public what they wanted.
And he was capable of doing two things better than anyone else at the time. The first was the aforementioned world-building; it may sound quaint today, since we expect SF to be alien, but in 1912 it’s not like anyone else had the imagination and gall to publish such an exotic yet textured world. Milk comes from plants, “humans” born from eggs, solar-powered aircraft ply the skies. Burroughs’ Mars has an array of tech spanning the past (swords and spears) to the cutting-edge present of 1912 (radios, radium, flying craft), and the wild devices of the imagined future (death rays, mind-transplants, atmosphere generators). Mind-blowing stuff from a time when comparative works were yet to be written, with Verne and Wells lurking in relative obscurity.
The second was his flair for the dramatic. Burroughs’ reputation as the first master of SF escapism was earned with good reason. There is more than enough swash to be buckled, kingdoms to be won and lost, great battles in the gladiatorial arena and in flotillas of flying battlecraft, all rubbing shoulders with undying true love. Burroughs could make the action soar and romance sing; despite the sluggish distractions, this is still a rollicking adventure. The second half of the novel consists of action, cliffhangers, and more action; Carter gets in and out of more trouble—and originates more and more stock tropes—in his quest to win back his true love, Dejah Thoris.
Whatever the reason, Burroughs had struck a popularity nerve with Barsoom; how else to explain the eleven subsequent novels and near-constant republication. Or the veritable horde of pastiches and homages that were to come. Otis Adelbert Kline was the first of many successors, starting Mars and Venus series in the late ’20s. Lovecraft’s Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927) shares many similarities to Burroughs, though altered for Lovecraft’s brand of horror. In the ’40s-’50s, authors like Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, Ed Hamilton, and others wrote adventures in the same vein: the genre of sword and planet was firmly nailed down on Brackett’s Mars and Norton’s Witch World, new stomping grounds written by new voices, built on the foundation of Barsoom.
In the mid-’60s, pulp adventures became all the rage once again, and Burroughs fell back into the spotlight as part of a mad scramble to produce planetary romances for a new generation. Robert E. Howard’s unpublished Almuric manuscript was pulled out of somewhere and published posthumously; shortly after Michael Moorcock penned his Kane of Old Mars pastiches under a pseudonym. The ’70s saw the trend continue, with Lin Carter, Kenneth Bulmer, and others penning similar series. While the trend died down, there’s still the occasional resurgence into modern times, such as S.M. Sterling’s In The Courts of the Crimson Kings, and numerous nods in such works as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. The tropes have also moved to film, with Cameron acknowledging its influence on Avatar and Lucas noting its impact on Star Wars. Burroughs’ vision influenced everyone from Bradbury (hence his Martian Chronicles) to Clarke to Carl Sagen.
Burroughs both parallels and subverts Robert E. Howard’s standard view, that barbarism was the purer power and would come to crush civilization. Mars is filled with barbarians and savages of many hues, along with its monsters, warring amongst its dead and dying civilizations. But while Conan and friends excel in the anarchic freedom of barbarism, John Carter remains a true Southern Gentleman: friend to animals, protector of women, always honest, with one hand preaching the power of good and kindness, and in the other, wielding a panoply of Martian arms against those who wish his friends harm.
Others have noted that Carter never defies his principles, giving the stories a firm moral center, and allowing the frequent dichotomy of good versus evil as a centerpiece of the tale. A true and interesting point. Today, choosing a Southern Gentleman protagonist seems an odd choice, given our negative connotations with the Confederacy and slavery. Here, it’s an advantage that Carter fits the idealized stereotype of a kind, honest, charming fellow from the Antebellum South: the noble Virginian aristocrat on the lawless planet named for the God of War, a beacon of civilized hope in a savage, barbaric clime.
The Bottom Line
It’s often the case that originators of the genre don’t stand up to their modern offspring; tastes change, genres evolve, writing and publication styles fluctuate. In SF, there’s only a few grandfather works, “classics,” which have become household names—Verne, Wells, Burroughs—still in print as living dinosaurs; forefathers of the genre, but not really in the genre. Barsoom holds many of the same problems as E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen and Skylark: originators of many science fiction tropes and conventions, but as products of their time, they have since become dated, no longer fitting our ideal of SF.
So, Burroughs’ Barsoom, and some conceits.
You can read it as a history-lesson of where the genre began, just a scant few decades before SF became SF, though in many cases the novel is not an example of what was to come. You can read it as escapist adventure set on another planet, though with its narrative flaws it’s less satisfying in that regard, and I’d recommend other novels over this one. In both cases, realize it’s Burroughs’ first work, a raw and unpolished novel riddled with a stilted formality and too much anthropological discourse, long dry dialogue and quaint characterization. Also consider its brevity: as a result of being divvied up for monthly magazine serialization, chapters are short and florid; its cliffhangers many, its action scenes often quick to conclude. It is not necessarily a work that the new SF reader should aim to begin with, at least until they’ve honed their tastes, or become acclimated to the archaic language of the Edwardian era.
But for all that… Burroughs does hold a special place in the genre for a reason. His savage Mars is unique even after its many devices have become the norm. Burroughs can write thrilling action scenes, and kept up a string of cliffhangers and developments to keep his readers subscribing. Its wild imagination, its adventure, its sense of wonder, all are exquisite. If you can get over its numerous flaws, the novel is pleasant fun. And while A Princess of Mars is the weakest link in the Barsoom saga, its sequels, such as Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars, are the kinds of fantastic adventures that the term Barsoom should bring to mind.