Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Source of book: Free download on my Kindle.

This book is one in my ongoing series of books that I read while waiting for my turn in the courtroom.

Before Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the first of his Tarzan books, he primarily wrote science fiction. A Princess of Mars was serialized in 1912, and released as a complete book five years later. Recently, the book was turned into a movie, John Carter, which was a bit of a flop.

Burroughs was a largely unsuccessful middle aged man who bounced between low paying jobs in Chicago and Idaho, and never seemed to find regular wages. During a time of minimal employment, he started reading pulp magazines, and decided he could write better stories than those he was reading. A Princess of Mars, which was originally entitled Under the Moons of Mars, was his first commercial success. Ten sequels would eventually follow, but it was the Tarzan stories that would make him a superstar.

A couple of other interesting facts about Burroughs: he signed up as a war correspondent during World War Two - in his late 60s, making him one of the oldest war correspondents ever. Second, the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Tarzana (a mere 10 miles from where I was born) is named after Burroughs’ ranch of the same name, which he named after his character.

I would say that this book is definitely the cheesiest thing I have read this year. I knew that going in: it is, after all, pulp. That said, the writing is better than the average representative of that genre, which is probably why Burroughs has inspired and influenced science fiction writers for the last 100 years. There is little about the writing itself that is wince-worthy, but not much that is better than good either. In fact, this book would serve as an excellent example of the difference between competent writing and poor writing, on the one hand; and between competent writing and excellent writing on the other. It does its job, but doesn’t transcend. In this genre, that isn’t a bad thing.

The basic gist of the story is that John Carter, a human from Earth, finds himself inexplicably on Mars. He is initially captured by the savage “green martian” race, earns respect and makes a key friend. He also meets a captive member of the more civilized “red martian” race, falls in love with her, and eventually makes his escape with her. Later, he is able to more completely rescue her and win her heart. He also manages to bring some civilization to a branch of the “green martian” race.

On the plus side, Burroughs creates an imaginative world, complete with two contrasting civilizations. The Mars he envisioned: a planet in decay after a glorious past, with the survivors of a massive climate change clinging to survival has endured as a science fiction meme, and its influence can be seen in so many later stories.

His portrayal of the “green martian” civilization is interesting as well. They do not bond with each other or with their offspring, which are scientifically selected and incubated, and no one knows which children belong to which parents. (In some ways, this is a more “primitive” version of the vision in Brave New World. It is easier in this case, because Martians all lay eggs, rather than birth live young.) This lack of emotional connection leads to a violent society, focusing on war and on glory, but never on love or friendship. The change in their society occurs because one of their warriors dares to fall in love, and later bond with his daughter.

The sour note in Burroughs’ vision is the rather obvious modelling of the “green Martians” on Native American stereotypes. This is hardly unique to Burroughs, of course. Many adventure writers from his era and before tended to have colonialist and racist prejudices that were taken for granted by readers of the era. Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard come to mind. The tired old trope of “white man enlightens the savages” has been with us for centuries - as has the competing and equally tiresome “myth of the noble savage.”

I find it interesting that the movie (and some others that likewise attempt to revive old school science fiction) had difficulties at the box office. In the last few decades, the technology to bring imaginary worlds to life has been perfected. It would have been unimaginable to attempt to duplicate the beasts and Martians until recently. However, public taste has changed. A story like this would have worked in the 1950s, but could not have been made convincing given the state of special effects at the time. However, the plot seems silly to our modern tastes, and we are too jaded by CGI to really care about whether the effects match Burroughs’ written descriptions. Hollywood far too frequently forgets that a compelling story trumps star power and special effects, no matter how expensive. If the story doesn’t speak to us, it’s just explosions and adrenaline.

I should also mention the fascination that nudity held for writers like Burroughs and Haggard. Part of the mystical appeal of the “savage” was the lack of clothing. This story keeps to this tradition, although there is nothing graphic. A kiss is as sexual as it gets - unless you count an egg in an incubator at the end. However, some of the book covers are more than a bit suggestive. 

Not a bad read, but nothing particularly special, in my opinion. A good adventure tale, but not particularly deep.

One of the few non-racy covers.

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