1910s, 1913, 1918, Barsoom, Bob Abbett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Frank E. Schoonover, hollow world, John Carter, Mars, Michael Whelan, pirates!, planetary romance, proto-SF, pulp, religion, science fantasy, science fiction, swashbuckling, sword and planet, The All-Story Magazine
I hadn’t intended to continue on with Burroughs after re-reading A Princess of Mars, but seeing as I hadn’t read any of the Barsoom novels back-to-back before, and wanted to double-check and make sure I wasn’t putting my foot in my mouth with the review, I thought I’d dive into The Gods of Mars. One cliffhanger led to another, so here’s The Gods of Mars with The Warlords of Mars following on its heels, but that’s where I draw the line. I’ve had enough Burroughs exclusivity for the time being; it’s time to get on to other authors and subjects.
Slight spoilers if you haven’t finished the first book; moreover this review won’t make much sense if you’re not familiar with its basics.
When we last left our intrepid hero, he had returned to Earth, unsure if his attempts to save the atmosphere generator were successful. After a decade of worrying about Dejah Thoris’s fate, John Carter undergoes a somewhat more convincing out-of-body teleportation sequence and wills himself back to Mars for more adventures… regaling these exploits in a series of manuscripts he leaves for his nephew, young Edgar Rice Burroughs.
He ends up down the Valley Dor following along the River Iss, stuck in the middle of the Martian heaven. Of course, Tars Tarkas is there by convenience, and the two set out to escape this hellish realm, swamped by carnivorous plant-men and the ferocious white apes of Mars. They also run afoul of the White Martians, called the Holy Therns, the rulers of the River Iss: a foul race of cannibal despots, thinking the rest of the Martian races as a “lower order” and treating them worse than animals.
But even the Holy Therns aren’t all-powerful; their massive subterranean fort and million-man army is a flimsy defense against the raiding Black Martian pirates, the First-Born, the “true” progenitors of Iss and the Martian afterlife. Carter ends up captured by these raiders in his attempts to flee the Valley Dor, and is taken by force to the realm of the First-Born: the sea of Omean, hidden under the polar ice caps. (Yeah, Mars is a hollow world; deal with it.) Here, Carter meets the real Issus, the Goddess of Barsoom, another false deity who delights in cannibalism and barbaric gladiatorial games.
(This is only about the first third of the novel; there’s a lot more development to come before the finale.)
The inclusion of the Black Martian pirates has inspired no little controversy about racism; given that the 1910s were hardly enlightened in terms of civil rights, and that other popular pulpsters like Lovecraft and Howard were more than a little ethnocentric in their writing, there’s a good reason to be suspect. But, truth be told, it doesn’t feel racist compared to other authors of the time. Burroughs makes it clear that these are handsome, powerful people, whose savagery is extreme but not out-of-the-ordinary compared to the rest of the Martians. They’re directed by an evil, lying deity, and the point of the novel is to overturn the rule of Martian gods, with Carter bringing freedom and genteel civility to the planet. Even John Carter, the Southerner, comments on their handsomeness and prowess at arms.
Instead of hulking brute stereotypes, I have the feeling they’re part of a metaphorical dichotomy between the two false Martian religions, themselves hereditary enemies: the Therns versus the First-Born, white versus black, two extremes which are both corrupted and wrong. In fact, I’d argue that the White Martians are more despicable and beyond redemption than the Black Martians, since the First-Born undergo a Marshall Plan-style reconstruction in Warlord of Mars while the haughty Therns refuse to give up their status and cannibalism. It’s less about ethnicity and more about thematic metaphors in some kind of color-coded Martian symbolism.
(Of course, you could accuse Burroughs of being a Racialist, a lesser sin but a sin nonetheles, as each color of Martian has its own exaggerated traits and capabilities. Then again, since we meet many outliers who buck their racial trends—kind Sola for the cold and morbid Greens, for example—I’d put my money on it being just a sloppy generalization. And as I recall, from Chessmen of Mars, some real Martian racists appear and don’t fare so well. What ethnocentric—and sexist, for that matter—faults the books do have are related to them being written in the early 1900s, for an audience of primarily white Anglo-Saxon American males.)
Besides, John Carter wins the friendship and admiration of one of their nobles, Xodar, who becomes a recurring companion. At one point, Burroughs notes the assortment of Carter’s friends and allies, an odd bunch from disparate races, religions, colors, and creeds; I’m struck by its antiquated origins since it could be rightly called John Carter’s Roving Multicultural Brigade. It consists of Carter, of course, a Green Martian, a Red Martian (or twenty!), a Black Martian, a half-breed, and at least one capable, independent woman (Thuvia, Maid of Mars, for sure).
Speaking of which, we have a good firsthand look at strong female characters. We first meet Thuvia of Ptarth in the Therns’ compound; she saves Carter’s life on more than one occasion, knows her way around a revolver, and can communicate with the powerful, lion-like Banths. We also have Phaidor, daughter to the Highest of the High Therns; she also pulls Carter’s bacon out of the fire due to some prowess with firearms. No women swordsmen here, but that they’re impacting Carter’s survival at all is something of a surprise given the time.
On the downside, both of them fall in love with Carter at first sight, and spend some time swooning over the fighting Virginian, who has to explain his undying love and unswaying chastity for Dejah Thoris. Sigh. Burroughs never tried to escape from writing male escapist fantasy—hence all the fightin’—which is painfully clear with his depiction of fawning women. All of Carter’s allies are super-idealized, for that matter: the best of the best swordsmen and tacticians (except Carter himself), all of them indebted to John Carter, forging bonds of friendship incomparable to mortal men. Carter’s friends are the best at everything, his women are the most beautiful and smartest, etc.
In general, all the problems I had with the writing in Princess of Mars have been mollified if not fixed. The writing is still formal—John Carter is a gentleman, see—but it’s less stilted. The dry anthropological sections are gone, for the most part; those that remain are integrated into the narrative better. Those changes alone make it a lot more accessible. The action has increased by exponential levels, the novel starting off with a bang and never slowing. But the aspects that irk more readers and critics are in fine form: Burroughs’ style and serialized nature make the novel formulaic, choppy, and contrived, so cliffhangers—and some transparent plot “surprises”—abound. Those are the hurdles you must overcome to read Burroughs.
Burroughs’ strengths are still his world-building, and that wide-eyed sense of wonder and adolescent adventure his works provide. I don’t think he’ll win any awards based on style, but he can do a stonking great action scene, and imbue Mars with an exotic beauty that strikes through his somewhat archaic prose and sometimes prevails. Read:
It was still dark when we passed the northern boundary of the ice cap and the area of clouds. Below us lay a typical Martian landscape. Rolling ochre sea bottom of long dead seas, low surrounding hills, with here and there the grim silent cities of the dead past; great piles of mighty architecture tenanted only by age-old memories of a once powerful race and by the great white apes of Barsoom.
There are also a few really awkward developments. The most transparent surprise and its glaring, obvious answer confuses Carter for entire chapters, and Carter admits his ability to talk to girls is pitiful compared to his skill at swordplay; this doesn’t so much humanize the character as make him an idiotic bonehead for plot- or pacing-related reasons, even as he’s built into a role of dashing genius at other points.
The novel is something of a satire or reaction against religion and its deceptions, so while on the surface it’s a swashbuckling action-adventure, it has strong undertones of misusing the power of faith. This running theme is the gist of the novel, dealing with two religions, each built on the other, claiming to be the one true vision of a Martian heaven… and each is as distasteful to Carter’s civilized notions as the other. Both the Therns and the First-Born are proponents of false religions: the Therns keeping the other Martians superstitious to keep a steady flow of slaves and food, the First-Born led by the whims of a tyrannical old hag posing as the divine to prey on the Therns.
These elements were supposedly ones that Burroughs’ editor Newell Metcalf suggested he include, back when Metcalf suggested continuing the series, though Burroughs gave some indication that he’d thought about using the River Iss and Martian religion. Burroughs himself claimed not to be against religion, but his concerns about the exploitation of religious power and the abuses of blind faith are frequent themes in his works. In any case, religion is a volatile subject to tackle, yet tackled it was in Gods of Mars.
All told, Gods of Mars is a stronger adventure than its predecessor. You could argue that Princess of Mars set the foundation for its successors, explaining enough Martian culture to prepare readers for following works and hooking them with its characters and setting. But I think Gods of Mars is the better work because it’s more polished, more complex, and boosts a heavier quota of action. Its formulaic nature and dated writing is the Sword of Damocles swaying above every reader’s head, so the novel isn’t a fit for everyone’s tastes. Many developments are reminders of the monumental creativity and originality shown in A Princess of Mars, not replacements. But is it fun? Damn straight it is. The reason people read Barsoom novels is because of their exotic locales, strange creativity, and daring fights of epic proportion. And Gods of Mars delivers the goods better than the first novel. I’d say it’s one of the best in the Barsoom series.
After reading the first novel, you should have a general idea on your feelings for Burroughs. If you liked Princess of Mars, or wished it was faster-paced with more action, keep reading the series! This novel won’t change any strong negative feelings, however. Burroughs is rightfully criticized for his formulaic and contrived stories. He’s also a popular author who serves up a fine dish of pure, unabashed, adolescent entertainment.