Thursday, January 29, 2015

Old Bestsellers: A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A review by Rich Horton

This is hardly a forgotten book -- it's one of those old bestsellers that has remained popular for a long time, though when it first appeared I bet few would have predicted that.

In 1912, before such a thing as SF existed as a separate genre, I'm not sure how the serial in All-Story called "Under the Moons of Mars", by "Norman Bean" (the magazine editor's typo for "Normal Bean"), was received. Probably simply as an adventure story, one that harkened back pretty clearly to the lost race tales of the likes of H. Rider Haggard. (And to be sure at the very same time Edgar Rice Burroughs was publishing the first of his Tarzan stories, which much more overtly can be placed in the "lost race" lineage.) "Norman Bean", of course, was a pseudonym for Edgar Rice Burroughs, and in 1917 "Under the Moons of Mars" was reprinted in book form as A Princess of Mars, under Burroughs' own name. (As far as I or anyone I have asked can tell, the two versions of the story are identical.

art by Frank Schoonover
(photograph from "Mars Book Covers: Science Fiction and Fantasy")  

Burroughs (1875-1950) was born in Chicago. He had a spotty early career, attending a couple of private high schools, failing to get into West Point, and serving briefly as a soldier before being invalided out. He worked for his father's company for some years, apparently with little distinction, before decided that he could write stuff better and more interesting than the junk he was seeing in pulp magazines. And he was right ... "Under the Moons of Mars" was his first sale, followed quickly by the first Tarzan story. Tarzan made it to book form first, but by 1917, with four further Barsoom serials already having appeared in magazines, A. C. McClurg published . Interestingly, Burroughs is the great-grandfather of one of my favorite movie directors, Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel).

Burroughs was for a long time one of many perhaps surprising lacunae in my SF/F reading. I knew much of him, naturally, and I have a dim memory of reading a chapter or two of Tarzan of the Apes at a cousin's house long ago. I rectified that in 2004 when I found a paperback of A Princess of Mars. (At the time a movie was supposedly in development, to be directed by Kerry Conran of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but that never happened, perhaps because of the relative failure of that movie. Alas, the eventual movie version of A Princess of Mars, directed by Andrew Stanton and called John Carter, was a bit of a mess.)

How necessary is it to describe the plot of A Princess of Mars? Briefly, Civil War veteran (for the South) Colonel John Carter and a friend discover a gold mine in Arizona. They run afoul of Indians, and while hiding in a cave, Carter is mysteriously transported to Mars. There he encounters the rather brutish "Green Martians", and is taken captive by them. They are constantly battling each other, and the rather more civilized (and humanoid, though egg-laying) "Red Martians". They capture a Princess of the Red Martians, the beautiful Dejah Thoris. After a rocky start, John Carter and Dejah Thoris fall in love. The leader of the Green Martians plans terrible tortures for them, so it becomes necessary to escape. They become separated, and Carter makes his way to a rival city of Dejah Thoris's. He and a friend plot to undo the dastardly plans of this rival city, and rescue Dejah Thoris's city, which they do in very adventurous fashion. By the end, John Carter has managed to effect positive political change among both the Red Martians and Green Martians, and he and Dejah Thoris are husband and wife, awaiting the hatching of a child, when a crisis in the air-manufacturing plant intervenes.

The whole thing is a wild mess of faintly plausible SFnal ideas, totally ridiculous SFnal ideas, and pure fantasy. Much is absurd, but much is really quite fun. The writing is rather stilted but occasionally striking. The characters are very stiff. The attitudes are consistent with the time -- the references to Indians are pretty racist, and there is no reason to believe that the Confederate John Carter would be any more admirable in his attitudes toward black people, but on the whole these aspects are much in the background. It can't be regarded as a great book, but it remains appealing.

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