Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Review of The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars (1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs is one of the most over-the-top novels ever written.  Inspired by pulp and in turn inspiring pulp to this day, its heroic absurdity—ahem, sentimentality possesses a verve for storytelling that plumbs the depths of exaggerated and imaginative fiction like few other period works of such length. And once the train starts rolling, it’s tough to stop it.  The Gods of Mars (1914), sequel to A Princess of Mars, sets the dial to twelve for John Carter’s wild return to Barsoom.

Transported back to Earth amidst an oxygen crisis at the end of A Princess of Mars, John Carter never learned whether the woman he loved, Dejah Thoris, or the son they were waiting to hatch (hatch!!!) suffocated or not.  Praying to the sky above his New York home one night that he might return to know their fate, at the outset of The Gods of Mars John Carter once again finds his corporeal-self transported away from Earth.  Arriving in an unfamiliar land, he’s unsure whether he’s on Barsoom or not. Strange plant men assaulting him in an exotic landscape that is nothing like his memories of the red planet, it isn’t until he meets up with his old friend Tars Tarkas that the truth slowly unfolds: he has arrived in Dor, the land of the dead.  All manner of exotic adventure unraveling, Carter must fight through peril and danger to escape a land no Barsoomiam has ever escaped from to learn what has befallen his beloved Dejah Thoris and son in the ten years since he last set foot on Mars.

Illogical, incoherent, wildly implausible—whatever you want to call the plotline of A Princess of Mars, Burroughs makes no changes to mode in The Gods of Mars.  Once again cycling through capture and escape, showdowns and duels, chases and battles, the sequel features no shortage of swashbuckling, planetary adventure.  But the setting is developed further.  Having explored and explained Tharkian and Helium cultures in Princess, Burroughs heads to new lands and new cultures in Gods.  There are travels to the South Pole, a meeting with the black pirates of Barsooom, a visit to the temple of Issus, and an underwater journey—amongst other new aspects.  There are likewise new characters, including Carter’s son.  None adding any complexity to the story, the women remain sensual, beautiful, and falling head over heels in love with Carter as he rescues them, while the son exhibits the ultimate male fantasy: a father creating offspring just like him—a mini-me of John Carter.

No review of The Gods of Mars could be complete without mentioning the original cover art (pictured above).  Like space Moses raiding a 747, its cheesiness sums up the novel in ways words cannot.  The scene taken directly from the story, the anachronisms (pistol wielding man vs. sword wielding man, flight technology vs. leather harness and loincloth technology, etc.) locate the novel, and series, firmly on the camp side of science fantasy—as if there was any doubt at the end of the previous novel.

Before concluding this review, a note should be made regarding the ending.  A Princess of Mars concluded on a minor cliffhanger.  John Carter was transported back to Earth with every part of his story wrapped up save the oxygen crisis on Mars.  The hero’s tale told and Carter safely back on Earth, it’s possible to walk away satisfied.  The Gods of Mars ends differently, however.  The cliffhanger a major one, the events which follow in The Warlord of Mars are intrinsically connected.  For those bound up in the story, it’s essentially impossible to walk away from Gods feeling satisfied that things have been tied off nicely: Carter is not transported back to Earth and that the last chapter ends rather abruptly.  Things at the end of The Warlord of Mars wrapped with a pretty pink bow, Gods should thus be considered as the opening story (or if one wants, the bridge story), and The Warlord of Mars the conclusion to the trilogy. 

In the end, The Gods of Mars is the same addictive pulp trash—ahh, planetary romance as A Princess of Mars.  Burroughs was smart enough to realize he couldn’t simply re-hash Princess, and instead explores new lands and peoples of Barssom to keep things smelling fresh. But despite the new settings and characters, the plot is just as embellished as the first.  Time and again Carter beats unbeatable odds; coincidences are piled on top of coincidences; the most unlikely of scenarios fall fast and furious; and escape after escape after escape from the jaws of death are effected. It’s therefore undoubted that readers who enjoyed Princess will slip into Gods without missing a beat. 

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