Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic tale of a human getting transported to Mars in the blink of an eye, becoming a legend, and saving a world, is now over a hundred years old. Before science fiction was popular, science fantasy, and all the swashbuckling adventures that the ‘sword and planet’ genre held therein, reigned supreme. Before lasers were invented, and ray guns became popularized in fiction, rifles and brute force were the tools of choice. The Barsoom series, or as its more colloquially termed, the John Carter books were pioneers in storytelling and concepts, and they influenced many important works and have inspired authors and filmmakers alike since – most notably Star Wars.
John Carter, an Arizona man coming back from the Civil War, finds himself caught amidst an Apache Tribe and runs for it. He finds himself trapped inside a sacred cave, and they leave him be. Only for him to realize that he is suddenly, miraculously, swept away as he wakes up on the red planet, which the natives call ‘Barsoom.’ He is captured and enslaved by the green martians, known as the Tharks, a warring tribe of creatures with 6 limbs and great tusks. He soon learns that, due to the low gravity and air pressure, he’s much stronger on Mars, can leap up to 50 feet, and can outlast any warrior in combat. However, it’s not until the Tharks also enslave a princess from the red human tribe of Helium, named Dejah Thoris, that John Carter decides to take the time to fully learn the language of the Barsoomians.
Which he literally learns in the matter of a couple days, thanks to a kind thark woman named Sola (whom he befriends early on). Now, I know I should be predisposed to suspending disbelief at this stage of the story. I can get behind the magical happenstance that brought him to Mars in the first place. And the science that augments his physical attributes, although wonky, is explainable. But for a normal 19/20th century dude who was plucked right out of Arizona to live amongst the species of another planet and learn an entirely new spoken language in the matter of days? To the point where he’s actually relating full conversations so eloquently that he’s found several notions and words that don’t correctly translate? C’mon! The majority of the novel takes place during a 3-month period. Far too short a time still to learn a language that thoroughly.
Like that or not, the story moves ahead very quickly, as John Carter quickly becomes entrenched in the politics of the world. He fights, kills, wars, and wins. Constantly. And it really is all in the name of his love for Dejah Thoris. She is a looker, apparently. The novel says she wears nothing, although the many variant covers throughout the years have her sporting something, be it a metal bikini, or a simple sheet of silk. I would find it hard to believe that George Lucas wasn’t influenced for the Slave Leia outfit, from these many images of Dejah Thoris in the almost-nude.
No, the novel can’t be said to place powerful women in the appropriate light. Many, many times John Carter must save the princess in one manner or another. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test by any means. But Burroughs’ can’t solely be to blame for this fault in misogyny. It was the type of pulp story people wished to read a century ago, of a man saving a princess in need – and eventually taking her hand in marriage.
Events after the second half of the novel begin moving quicker and quicker, to the point where you’ll blink and another scene will already be upon you. Very little transition takes place. Much of the action is summarized in but a few short sentences, if that, as opposed to the lengthy explanation Burroughs would give at the outset of the novel. Issues and hurdles that seemed enormous, earlier on, all seem to resolve themselves, as if they were simply dominoes that needed a shove. By the end of the novel I felt the author was just being lazy. But what a cliffhanger. I’ll likely grab the second book if only to find out what happens next to Barsoom and John Carter.
Despite all it’s mistakes, the novel is a precursor to science fiction/fantasy as we know it today. Words like Jed and Jedak are clear influences on the noble Jedi, as is a padwar to a padawan. The idea of a man becoming super directly fuels the classic superhero mold. We have grand arenas where our heroes fight incredible monsters. We find love on distant planets. We see John Carter teaming up with alien races. All common themes in sci-fi/fantasy. It’s important that we recognize where these ideas spring from, although they weren’t quite perfected here.
A Princess of Mars, the first novel in the Barsoom series, is okay at best, jumpy and inconsistent at worst, but overall it’s a fun romp. It’s short when compared to novels nowadays, so it’s a good idea for a between-novel-read, when you need to take a break from a series or genre to enjoy something short, sweet, and different.
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