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A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

If ever there was a fictional Mars that has seared itself into the imagination of the public, then it is the one into which Edgar Rice Burroughs catapulted his Southern gentleman explorer John Carter in 1912. The Mars he arrives on, or Barsoom as its many hued inhabitants call it, is a world mired in conflict and bloodshed, a place of warring races, dastardly intrigues and repulsive lascivious appetites. In short, it is just fantastic good old-fashioned fun, a rollercoster ride of a story that reads like a Flash Gordon Republic serial with a cliff-hanger at every turn of the page. Carter is forever falling into and out of frying pans, getting charred and singed along the way, but never giving up in his quest to rescue the beautiful princess Dejah Thoris from the diabolical clutches of the green Martian hordes.

The story begins in the old west in the years soon after the civil war. Carter and a fellow prospector are digging for gold in the wilderness when Indian braves waylay them. His friend is killed and Carter flees, seeking refuge in a mountaintop cave, but there a mysterious gas paralyses him. Unable to move, Carter is stunned to find himself looking down on his body. It as if he has become a ghost, but then glimpsing Mars in the sky he finds himself irresistibly drawn toward the red planet, streaking across space in a flash.

Alighting on the planet, he finds himself very much a creature of flesh and blood, but possessed of fantastic strength thanks to the low gravity of Mars and his well-developed muscles. There is something of the early Superman about Carter (was Carter an influence perhaps), as he is able to leap prodigious distances and is possessed of great fighting strength. These prove to be useful abilities, as he is swiftly confronted by a hoard of immense green skinned giants known as Tharks, each with 4 arms and a fearsome temperament. Carter has chanced on one of the Tharks secret incubators, where their young are hatched from eggs and looks set to have his visit cut fatally short by the suspicious creatures. But his newfound abilities come in handy, allowing his to leap away and thus impress the Martians sufficiently that they take him prisoner.

Thus begins his indoctrination into the Green Martian horde, for he finds that they live to fight and respect nothing but strength and brutality. Though still technically a prisoner, Carter earns their admiration and begins to rise in the ranks of the horde, though it is one of the puzzles of the novel that Burroughs has Carter register horror and revulsion at the torture and ugly death of his friend at the hands of the American Indians, then has him enter with a certain amount of gusto into the equally bloodthirsty pastimes of the Martians. Yet he is never entirely comfortable with their vicious existence and when they capture a beautiful and very human looking women, he realises that the time has come to escape. Befriending the women, he learns that she is Dejah Thoris, a haughty princess of the city of Helium. Her people (the Red Martians) have been in a state of war with the Green Martians for centuries, both of them fighting over the dwindling resources of a dying planet. Naturally Carter falls in love with her, and by the conclusion of the novel will move heaven and Mars to be with her.

For a former soldier of the American South, you would expect Carter to bring with him to Mars a certain perception of the non-human inhabitants, but Burroughs rather confounds the reader in this regard. There is nothing overtly racist about Carter and his dealings with the Martians, though Dejah Thoris is menaced by her captives in a way sure to arouse the indignation of any true Southern gentleman. If you really wanted to read between the lines, it is not impossible to suggest that Burroughs was making some sort of allegory about the Southern pre-occupation with the purity of the white woman, but I feel this is a stretch. Burroughs was born in Chicago and so was not likely to be a natural racist (charges have been levelled at him over his Tarzan novels), but though you can read something of the sort into the story, he does not strike you as a complex man in this regard. As legend has it, he simply got into writing because he read a pile of pulp magazines and realised he could write something just as bad. It turned out he was wrong, he could write something much better.

A Princess of Mars is then a rather curious piece of work that resists a precise categorisation. On the one hand, on casual examination it's very much a pulp story and it seems Burroughs was even a little embarrassed by it, choosing to have it first published under the pseudonym of "Normal Bean." It was meant to be a humorous statement, that despite penning such a ludicrous tale, he was still in his right mind. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the joke fell flat when a typesetter changed "Normal" to "Norman" because the name looked like a typographical error.

But on the other hand, regardless of his true feelings for the material, Burroughs writes with enormous gusto, creating characters and situations of rich and surprising complexity, though he is not shy of inserting a little titillation; Dejah Thoris is first encountered in a state of near total undress! His Mars is very much modelled after the ideas of Percival Lowell, with great canals and a super scientific society maintaining (literally) the air supply against the tide of barbarism. Yet his fearsome Green Martians are not simply the token bad guys and Burroughs creates a great deal of sympathy for them in the mind of the reader. These are not entirely mindless savages, but a mighty fallen race that scratch a living in the ruins of greater past civilisations, secretly lamenting the brutal existence forced upon them by the pitiless rigours of Mars. Some are even struggling to cast aside their baser instincts and Carter becomes not only a comrade in arm, but befriends them. As such, and despite the pulp trappings of the novel, it is in fact a very interesting read, full of sophisticated contradictions and ambiguities.

A Princess of Mars (first published in 1912 as "Under The Moons of Mars" in the pulp periodical All Stories Magazine) was the first of 10 novels that Burroughs would write about Mars. He also wrote an unrelated series set on Venus and of course is most famous as the creator of Tarzan. The series has, like The War of the Worlds, enjoyed many re-inventions and a movie has long been in gestation, with a big budget version due in March 2012 from Disney.

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See also

Books

Dying Planet by Robert Markley

Dying Planet by Robert Markley. A detailed and in-depth exploration of the planet Mars in both fact and fiction, and how the two have become intertwined.

The War of the Worlds: Fresh Perspectives

The War of the Worlds: Fresh Perspectives. A collection of intriguing essays by some of the best science fiction authors in the world.

Gullivar Jones: His Vacation by Edwin Lester Arnold

Gullivar Jones: His Vacation by Edwin Lester Arnold. A sailor is whisked to Mars on a flying carpet and encounters a strange society.

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