A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
As most of the world already knows, A Princess of Mars is the first of 11 Burroughs novels that tell of John Carter’s adventures on the planet Barsoom (Mars, to we Earthlings). This was Burroughs’ very first novel, and one of the first books in the swashbuckling space-opera vein; perhaps the very first. It is a marvel of fast-moving action and imagination; indeed, practically every page offers some new marvel or piece of outrageous spectacle. Unfortunately, the book also displays some of the weaknesses of the novice author, but these weaknesses are more than counterbalanced by the pace, color and detail of the story.
Burroughs’ imagination seemed to be working overtime in this first book. The descriptions of alien life-forms, dead cities, Barsoomian customs and battles are very well drawn, although those battle scenes could have lasted a little longer, for me. (Burroughs might have learned a thing or two from, say, H. Rider Haggard about presenting detailed battle scenes.) There are occasional flashes of strangeness, too; e.g., the ability of Barsoomian psychologists to read the minds of murdered soldiers, and the celibate tax imposed by the Barsoomian government on confirmed bachelors!
A Princess of Mars reads more like a fantasy/fairy tale than science fiction, and the characters are pulpy in the extreme. There are hissable villains, noble warriors, a beautiful princess who needs saving, good and bad monsters, and the like. This book has been so influential that it is amusing, while reading it, to think of all the modern variations. For example, has anybody else been reminded of Princess Leia trapped by Jabba the Hutt of “Star Wars” fame, when reading of the beautiful Princess Dejah Thoris being leered at by the monstrously huge Thark jeddak, Tal Hajus? So many scenes resonate like that, and the book is almost prototypical in this respect. This is a true classic of the genre.
However, like I said at the beginning, there are some problems. Besides the outrageous pseudoscience (I refer here to the “8th and 9th rays” that make possible antigravitation and oxygen manufacture), which I don’t mind at all, there are some real discrepancies. For example, in one scene, Carter is said to be riding in his assigned position at the rear of a troop of Tharks; then he is mentioned as being at the very front! Carter is on Barsoom for only a few days before he picks up the Barsoomian vocabulary, which is said to be a simple one. However, he speaks very grandiloquently, as in this sentence: “I understand that you belittle all sentiments of generosity and kindliness, but I do not, and I can convince your most doughty warrior that these characteristics are not incompatible with an ability to fight.” Pretty good talking, for one who has just learned “simple” Barsoomian a few days before!!! Another problem I had was the scene in which a body of 150,000 Tharks sneak up on the city of Zodanga, unnoticed and unheard. Does this seem possible? As for the scene in which Carter and Kantos Kan fight in the arena… doesn’t all the fighting seem a wee bit too easily accomplished?
And then there is the matter of Burroughs’ writing itself. I mentioned the common mistakes of a tyro writer. By this, I mean repetitive phrases such as “I stole stealthily” and “essayed… to attempt,” as well as endless mistakes of punctuation. I wonder if anybody ever copyedited this book. A Princess of Mars first appeared with the title “Under the Moons of Mars” in All-Story Magazine in 1912, and I’m not sure whether these magazine stories were edited and proofread or what. The book would not have suffered for a professional once-over. But you know what? In the end, all these little nitpickings matter not a whit, because all the minor problems, as I said, are swept away in the drive and excitement of the great story. And that story is as compelling as they come.
I’ll have to be honest here: a lot of my appreciation for John Carter of Mars is based on nostalgia and what I guess I’ll call “seniority reverence.” That is, I had fun with the books as a boy, and I’m tempted to give them more leeway because they’re so old and established. I was one of those fans who kept saying “okay, it might look derivative, but it was actually the prototype for planetary romance!” when the John Carter film was coming out (and like most of those fans, I quietly picked up my soapbox and disappeared once I’d seen the thing). So, yes, I’m a little biased on the subject of John Carter.
But the further we get from the time and literary style in which Burroughs wrote, the fewer children are going to grow up on the books as I did, and of course the average adult reader coming into Burroughs will be familiar with Star Wars and the rest of the works the BARSOOM series inspired by this point. It won’t matter to that reader when Burroughs was writing if the ideas feel tired regardless. So is A Princess of Mars actually any good for the modern reader, or is it just the old relic we’re obligated to respect because it was some kind of trailblazer?
Well, it has good points and bad points. First off the bat, this novel is a bag of Cheetos in literary form, by which I mean that it is half cheese and half cornmeal (but still oddly satisfying, even when it gets a little stale). If you as a reader are looking for some kind of diamond in the rough of pulp fiction, like a sci/fi version of Raymond Chandler, then you will probably be disappointed. Burroughs’ prose is engaging but unpolished. His characters are amusing but flatly archetypal. His plot is rollicking and fast-paced, but it has more holes and rough spots than a country road in Maine (though so did most of Chandler’s, in fairness). It’s unapologetic pulp, but, that said, for the most part the work still succeeds as entertainment on the basis of its enthusiasm, imaginative scope, and genuine sense of adventure. In other words, Burroughs might not be a very good novelist, but he is a gifted storyteller.
The plot goes like this: John Carter is an immortal Virginian soldier (just don’t question it — Burroughs hangs a monolithic lampshade on the concept and then leaves it alone forever) who is living out his immortal life in the American West following the cessation of hostilities in the Civil War. After an attack by Apaches, he takes shelter in a mysterious cave that somehow transports him to Mars (sort of — it seems to more just project him to Mars into a brand-new body, while his real body remains on Earth). Despite being something of a superhero on Mars due to its lower gravity in relation to Earth, Carter is almost immediately taken captive by a species of many-armed aliens called the Tharks, but rises through their society by dint of his extreme manliness and Southern gentility. The Tharks are quite an interesting concept, really, but in short order we get the human-looking Martians too, as the eponymous princess of Mars (or Barsoom, as the locals call it) drops out of the sky and fills Carter’s now-vacated spot as captive. The princess’ name is Dejah Thoris, and she’s a beautiful, intelligent young woman from a nudist society (because of course she is); and Carter immediately falls in love with her (because of course he does). Everyone on Barsoom seems to want to kidnap Dejah Thoris (whether to marry her, hold her for ransom, or maybe just for her sparkling conversation, who knows?), so she keeps getting snatched and Carter has to keep charging off to the rescue. It’s just that kind of book.
To Burroughs’ credit, he puts some effort into the central relationship — a wise decision, as Carter rescuing Dejah Thoris over and over (and over and over and over and ov… sorry) is basically the central conflict of the first three books in the series, so there needs to be a reason to like this pairing. I won’t say that either character is particularly complex or interesting (Dejah Thoris is, for the most part, The Love Interest and no more, and Carter almost literally laughs in the face of character development at a few points), but while the usual “love at first sight” stuff rears its dozy head, we also get a relatively lengthy section of text where both characters get to hang around and have conversations and believably begin to trust each other. It’s all fairly cheesy, of course — you can practically hear the sweeping romantic soundtrack over every “I believe you, John Carter… *poignant stare*” moment — but if you turn off your cynicism, it’s by no means unenjoyable and actually rather sweet at points.
The fight scenes are entertaining at first but a bit numbing after a while, especially as Burroughs tends to proceed with the implication that of course Carter’s going to win. Also, while Carter is a decent enough protagonist functionally speaking, he’s also that annoyingly flawless breed of old-fashioned hero I like to call the Manly-Bot 9000. “Beep boop beep, incipient baby-mama kidnapped. Primary objective: rescue, bluuuurrrp. New points of view are not protocol, beep. Commence pontification about superiority of own culture, boopity blooorp.” It’s not that it’s terrible, or worse than a dozen other examples everyone’s seen before, but politically sensitive readers might find the character a bit aggravating. Finally, while I don’t want to spoil the ending, it arrives a bit clumsily after the main plot has essentially concluded.
I look back over what I’ve written now and I realize it sounds more negative than positive. Well, there are a lot of flaws in A Princess of Mars, and they’re exactly the kind of flaws that become more noticeable when one approaches the text in a critical frame of mind. That said, there’s also a lot of fun to be had, and whenever I return to this book (which I do occasionally), I’m always disarmed at how much Burroughs can play past the limitations of his story. The characters might be thin, but the settings and the descriptions are so cool. Even today, they feel fresh and interesting. The love story might be cheesy and old-hat, but it’s amazing how giving Burroughs an inch ends with him pulling you in completely. I’m sure we’ve all read a lot of books by technically proficient authors who write a lot of very pretty words and very thematically interesting characters, but without any real passion behind it. Burroughs is their opposite number. His characters are simple and his style is clunky, but there’s a fire in his storytelling that enriches the material. Burroughs is a kind of pulpy Rumpelstiltskin, spinning straw into gold by magic or maybe by sheer force of will.
In the end, A Princess of Mars is inescapably the furthest thing from literary fiction. If you do read it and enjoy it, you might have a hard time (as I have) explaining why someone else should do the same. But if you’re looking for a bit of adventure or you have an affection for the old pulps, then you might find that this novel has a certain indefinable something that makes it more than the sum of its parts. You’ll never find that something without turning off your analytical mind, and that might be a problem for some readers. But if you do manage it, you might look into the darkness that follows and see something glittering. Maybe it’s just fool’s gold, but it shines all the same.
Great review Sandy. I particularly like your description of ERB’s “hissable villains.” I also think your point regarding the fact this this is a first published novel by Burroughs, makes the originality of some of his ideas and later much imitated tropes even more impressive.
Also, Burroughs is one of those writers whose ability to be a story teller, especially when describing action scenes, makes it possible for me to overlook some of the examples of poorer writers such as those you mention.
All in all, Burroughs at his best is so much fun. Not sure there’s any other way to describe him. Once again, excellent review.
Thanks again for your very kind words, Steven. I really do appreciate them, coming as they do from one of this fine website’s regular contributors!
Fantastic review, Tim! I laughed out loud several times, and you captured my own feelings about this book and series so well.
Oddly enough, the book in this series that I grew up with was The Master Mind of Mars. That happened to be the only Barsoom book in my father’s fairly extensive classic SF collection, and I swiped it from him as a teen and read it avidly, multiple times. Age and time have dulled the shine on it a little, but my nostalgic affection for it will never die.
I read the first several books in this series later (I never did get through the entire series), but I was older than and it just wasn’t quite the same.