Friday, October 24, 2014

Review of A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I am agog.  Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 A Princess of Mars is a book I’d never read, that is, until turning the last page today—and I am agog.  Like a genre rosetta stone, I now understand the root of America’s pulp science fiction and fantasy tradition.  Purple prose, heroes of a larger-than-life variety, a plot that continually expands its extent of incredulity, science fiction cum fantasy cum science fantasy—all the pulpy pieces are in place in one big, mythically maudlin male fantasy of the finest, squishiest cheese.  And the blazing sexism, disguised racism, undoubted ethnocentrism—everything WASP-ish, I’m just agog…

A Princess of Mars is the story of John Carter, a man who comes to be the greatest hero Mars has even known.  An officer in the Confederacy, after the Civil War he goes west seeking a fortune in gold in Arizona.  Finding a rich vein, he and a colleague head to civilization to get the equipment and laborers they will need to mine it.  But a tragedy occurs, and Carter is forced to defend himself.  Finding a cave to hide out, strange forces take over, and before he knows it, he lies naked in the middle of the Martian wilderness.

Instinctively knowing he is on the red planet, it isn’t long before the locals make themselves known to John Carter—a four-armed, green, aggressive species that call themselves Tharks.  Bartering a deal in sign language with one of the group, Tars Tarkas, Carter is taken to the Tharks’ city and placed under the watchful eye of a female of the Martians, Sola.  A humanoid species arriving at the city in a fleet of airships soon thereafter, a fierce but quick battle ensues, after which the Tharks take a prisoner: the princess of Helium.  One look at Dejah Thoris, and the rest, as they say, is history for John Carter.  Heroic deed piled upon heroic deed, Carter unites the known world to save his beloved Dejah Thoris from doom.  And Mars is never the same…

There is a wonderful quote by Burroughs I found on Wikipedia in regards to his inspiration for A Princess of Mars:

“...if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, than I could write stories just as rotten. As a matter of fact, although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines.”

And rot it is.  Vapid, shallow, empty—the very definition of meaningless fiction, A Princess of Mars is escapism of the purest variety.  One white man fighting and defeating hordes of enemies thrice his size.  Love scenes so syrupy they make even a high schooler roll their eyes.  Whole cultures implausibly motivated to abandon their own interests to assist one foreigner find his lost love.  But if this isn’t bad enough, worse yet are the disturbing assumptions and indirect comments regarding race (i.e. the “fair-skinned’ exist atop a racial pyramid), culture (i.e. that John Carter, a ‘Virginia gentleman,’ goes amongst the savages to instruct them in the ways of “civilization”), gender (i.e. that a woman is to be valued as an object of beauty and domestic talents, no more), and violence (might makes right for personal gain).  It’s maddening.

And yet Burroughs does possess some gift, some verve for telling the hero’s tale.  I moaned and groaned with every ‘coincidental’ character encounter, rolled my eyes with the high schoolers at the love scenes, and laughed at the number of unbelievable plot points glossed over with hand-waving presented in the most formal of English.  And gods, just look at the covers—images that truly represent the novel.  But, I kept reading.  I still wanted to find out, no matter how unbelievable Carter’s story was, what ultimately became of him.  The Martian surface, Tharkian society, the fantasy creatures, the duels, the revenge, the battles, the soap opera—all kept me turning the pages against my better judgment.  It’s like a girl falling in love with the rebel: deep down she knows he’s bad for her, but that Harley Davidson, the black leather jacket, the cigarette hanging out of his mouth in defiance of the world…

But there comes a time when the girl finally realizes the rebel is, in fact, not rebelling against anything, and is no more cool than any of the other boys. It’s all just an image.  A Princess of Mars is, perhaps, no different.  An insipid planetary romance, it has gone on to influence generation after generation of genre writers through the power of over-the-top space opera but possesses nothing beneath the veneer.  It is a male fairy tale—a fairy tale that might be ok to pass off as innocent wish fulfillment were it not for the variety of bigotry and indirect discrimination present.  Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, David Gemmell, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, and others produce a similar gush load of pulp these days, but their political stances do not float so freely to the top.

A side note regarding the film adaptation: John Carter is, surprisingly, an honest rendition of Burrough’s Barsoom.  Seemingly a perfect project for Disney (i.e. the storyline is so far from reality they don’t have to worry about actually dealing with real issues facing society), the result is a special effects masterpiece.  While the plots don’t align between the film and the novel due to the screenwriters’ desire to incorporate elements of other Barsoom novels, the spirit of Burrough’s story is fully evident.  It’s thus when critics of the film state: “"While John Carter looks terrific and delivers its share of pulpy thrills, it also suffers from uneven pacing and occasionally incomprehensible plotting and characterization," I have to wonder if they read the book.  A Princess of Mars is precisely an implausible story featuring larger than life characters participating in pulp thrills—to the max.  So why the complaints?  If anything, blame the source material.


  1. So, are you modifying your Verne vs. Wells divide? Hehe. I loved these as a kid -- I have all of them still, somewhere. They are not "good" but definitely fun to read. I found The Chessmen of Mars to be the best in the series.

  2. Yes, I owe Verne an apology! :)

    I made it as far as The Warlord of Mars before the formula became annoying. I've got so many more tempting books to read that I don't know whether I'll ever make it further.

  3. This book is on my "Still haven't read it, still need to" list. One day I'll conduct a study on exactly how often books make it off that list... But by golly, I still do need to read this book.

    1. I would say leave it on your pile, but you seem to like the books I have doubts of... :)