Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars

Before I watched John Carter last month I reread A Princess of Mars for the first time in many years. I realised I’d forgotten most of the plot but very little of the feel of the place – for all its problems (and they are legion) Barsoom is a truly epic setting.
Because I am a lazy person, this month’s short column for Kindle magazine was about A Princess of Mars.

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For most of human history we have known very little about space – for that matter, we still do. Dreams of space travel once focused primarily on the moon, the heavenly body most visible to the naked eye. But then telescopes were invented and we began to learn more about the planets, our knowledge growing with improving technology.

In the 1870s the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered a strange feature on the surface of Mars – the appearance of straight lines. He called these “canalli”, or “channels”. When Schiaparelli’s findings were translated into English the relatively innocent “canalli” was translated as “canals”, the latter word carrying the connotation that these lines were man- (or martian-) made. This was probably the reason behind the flowering of fiction about Martians at the turn of the twentieth century.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is one such work of fiction, published in 1912. It tells of John Carter, a former confederate soldier and now gold prospector who, while fleeing from savage apaches (racial sensitivity is not one of the strong points of this book) stumbles into a mysterious cave and, in an incomprehensible series of events, has an out of body experience and is transported/astrally projected to Mars.

Carter’s early hours on Mars do at least pay lip service to the fact that it would be difficult to survive on a planet other than one’s own. He has trouble adjusting to the difference in gravity, and does not speak the language of the natives – Mars, or Barsoom, is home to various species of alien but they share a common tongue. This state of affairs does not last for long. Soon enough he is adopted by the four-armed green Martians (known as the Tharks), and it seems a matter of days before he has mastered their language, and begun to rise in their ranks. If all this seems something of a cliché, it’s because A Princess of Mars is one of the founding texts of the genre. It’s also why Carter is the least interesting thing about this book. Things get a lot more fun when the titular princess, the humanoid Dejah Thoris of Helium, shows up. In what is a rather scattered plot, Carter and Dejah Thoris escape, bring down a rival ruler, and unite the green and “red” (humanoid) Martians.

Yet the plot isn’t really that important. What makes A Princess of Mars work is Barsoom itself – a dying planet with a failing civilisation. We’re told very little of the history of Barsoom. We learn that there were once more humanoid races; that, like Earth, Mars once had seas. We’re told almost nothing of the strange old men who operate the machinery that keeps the Martian air breathable.

It’s easy to see why in John Carter, Andrew Stanton’s 2012 adaptation of the novel, the director should have chosen to jettison most of the plot, cobbling together a new one and focusing on the visual depiction of the planet. Because A Princess of Mars isn’t really a very good book, but Barsoom? Barsoom is glorious.

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One Comment to “Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars

  1. This book has been on my bookshelf for a couple of years now, I don’t know why I haven’t read it, I suppose it just hasn’t appealed to me yet, well not until I heard Elaine Charles’ review on it yesterday! I normally miss the actual Book Report show, which isn’t a problem, as I can still listen to it online on the website (http://bookreportradio.com/)

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