A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Posted January 2, 2014on:
published in 1917 (but serialized earlier)
where I got it: purchased used. This cover art is the version I bought it is from Fall River Press, printed in 2011, with cover art by Kekai Kotaki.
A Princess of Mars is one of those sword and sorcery / planetary romances that I’ve been meaning to read for ages. The movie came out in 2012 got mixed reviews, but I loved the visuals, thought the Tharks were great, and gently ignored the plotting that made no sense. Anyone who is anyone has named Barsoom as an influence to their love of science and science fiction – Carl Sagan, James Cameron, George Lucas, and Ray Bradbury, just to name a few.
Blending science fiction, fantasy, pulp adventure and western, John Carter is the epitome of the American Man – strong and independent, intelligent and well spoken, very handsome, keeps his promises and knows how to throw a good punch. Guys wanna be him and girls wanna date him. If this book had been written today, John Carter would be conceited. He’d *know* he was the hero of the story. In the words and the mentality of nearly a hundred years ago, he’s just a man who does what needs needs to be done with grace and dignity.
This book is nearly a hundred years old. The statute of limitations has run out on spoilers, so sorry, but I’m going to tell you what happens at the end. Copyright has run out too, and the book is in the public domain now and on Project Gutenberg, and an audio is also available as a free download on Librivox.
After a mishap in Arizona, Carter wakes up on Mars, also known as Barsoom. Thanks to the lower Martian gravity, Carter finds he can jump and leap incredibly far, and his muscles, developed for the gravity of Earth, offer him what is seen as super strength on Mars. Shortly after arriving, he runs into a band of Tharks the 15 foot tall green men of Mars, led by Tars Tarkus, and is taken back to their camp as a curiosity/prisoner. He looks like the humanoid red men of Mars, but he can’t speak their language, and he hasn’t a clue about Barsoomian customs. A Thark woman, Sola, is assigned to Carter to help him learn their language and customs, and he is guarded by Woola, a watch-dog of sorts. I thought it was hilarious that Carter can’t bring himself to call Woola a dog, so he calls him a “watch-thing”.
It’s not long before Dejah Thoris enters the story as a prisoner of war, and perhaps it is because of her beauty, or perhaps it is because she’s the first humanoid Carter sees on Barsoom, but regardless it is love at first sight for John Carter. When Carter learns that the Tharks plan to take Dejah Thoris to the Thark capital to be tortured and killed, he decides he must rescue her and help her get back to her grandfather who rules the city of Helium.
I’m not going to go into the details of what happens next, but suffice to say, there’s a lot of wonderfully fun pulpy adventure, with fights and monsters and flying machines and chase scenes and hand to hand combat and a crazed lonesome scientist and romantic misunderstandings. I know the story is about John Carter and Dejah Thoris, but Sola and Tars Tarkus stole the show for me.
The Thark culture is unloving and warlike, with respect for bravery and violence. Romantic relationships are unheard of, and only those showing choice genetics are allow to breed, with the offspring being raised by random adults within the tribe. Both Sola and Tars Tarkus pay the price for wanting to be different. Sola is castigated by the other women of the tribe for her kindness and caring. She’s seen as an atavism, a throwback. Her “humanity” is seen as weakness, and thus she will never be invited to breed. Many years ago Tars Tarkus fell in love with a woman of his tribe, and broke all rules for her. His woman paid the price with her life, but not before hiding their infant child. Unknown to Tars Tarkus, that child was Sola. Sola trusts Carter, and shares the secret of her parentage with him, and Carter chooses the perfect moment to tell Tars Tarkus. In fact, Tars Tarkus gets the absolute best line in the book, when he approaches the Thark who betrayed Sola’s mother.
A Princess of Mars does not read like your typical science fiction book. The pacing is very even and rather slow, the sentences are more descriptive than evocative, and Carter takes every opportunity to describe Barsoomian flora and fauna, often giving information in the flashback narrative that he didn’t learn until later (such that there is only one mammal on Mars, and the human-like red men are *not* that mammal).
The story does ramp up quite a bit towards the end. Dejah Thoris’s home city of Helium is at war with the city of Zodanga. The forces of Zodanga are winning, and agree to end the war if Dejah Thoris marries Sab Than, the heir of that city. To save her people, Dejah Thoris agrees. In grand heroic tradition, John Carter rallies the Tharks to his cause, and an army of Tharks and red Martians rain down on Zodanga, saving the princess and forging a much needed alliance between two Barsoomian races. The story has a bittersweet ending, with Carter eventually being forced back to Earth after many happy years with Dejah Thoris.
I was immediately struck by the similarities between Barsoom and Arizona. Arid atmospheres with scarce resources, and a portion of the populace that is war-like and semi-nomadic (possibly how Burroughs viewed the Native American tribes?). Was the entire adventure a fever dream, hallucination, or coping mechanism of starvation in the Arizona desert?
The framing of the story is also a lot of fun. Burroughs himself claims to be a relative of John Carter, and that this very manuscript was actually left for him in Carter’s will with the promise that it not be shared until so many years after his death.
A Princess of Mars is written so differently from contemporary speculative fiction that you have to change your expectations. Do not go into this novel thinking it will be anything like your standard pulp adventure or sword and sorcery or adventure story. I for one am fascinated by the changes seen over the decades in storytelling style. What will our prose styles and storytelling styles be like a hundred years from now?