Pulp Corner: A Princess Of Mars
If you don’t know, A Princess Of Mars is the first novel to detail the adventures of John Carter on Mars. Amazingly it was published all the way back in 1912 by Tarzan author, Edgar Rice Burroughs (sadly no relation to William Burroughs) and is a genuine science fiction milestone. It has influenced everything from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to Avatar.
The book starts on Earth, in the Southern United States. Virgina to be exact. Civil War vet, John Carter has taken up prospecting as a way to a mass a fortune. Carter’s partner runs into town for some more supplies and is ambushed by Apache Indians. We then see what becomes a John Carter trademark. Without thinking he dashes head first into the tribe’s camp blinded by rage and seriously outnumbered. Forced to retreat he holes up in a small cave on a cliff. Mysteriously (in a Narnia esque moment) he finds himself transported somewhere else…Mars (or Barsoom as the Martians refer to it as).
Carter discovers that because of the planet’s gravity he has great agility and strength, he can jump the same height as buildings. Soon he is found by a group of Martians called the Tharks who are 15 foot tall green creatures that stand up right with two sets of arms. John Carter is quickly enslaved by them and treated like a side-show because of his strange abilities. Later, when his rage gets the better of him he punches a Thark officer across the face and accidentally kills him. It is Thark custom that within their society if you kill one them you receive everything that is theirs. Their rank, weapons, house, riches, women, etc. Through this loophole the enslaved John Carter begins to earn respect and work his way into Thark society.
One day he sees them escorting an enslaved, beautiful and voluptuous Martian that looks similar to a human. The only difference of note is her dark bronze skin color. He soon finds out that this is Dejah Thoris, Princess of the kingdom called Helium where the “red” Martians and bitter enemies of the Tharks reside. This changes everything for John Carter, because once he sees her, he knows he can never rest until he is with her. This becomes the axis which the book revolves, but it is not so simple or straight forward as one may think…
Burroughs does a great job writing simply and effectively. He doesn’t get bogged down by details and technicalities the way some sci-fi writers tend to do. His style is firmly rooted in the pulp tradition and operates under the pretense that anyone could read this book from age 12-82. It’s presented as the author being the scribe of the events as told to him by the novel’s protagonist in much the same way as Maxwell Grant in The Shadow novels. Before A Princess Of Mars was published, it was serialized in a magazine so many of the chapters are of course cliff hangers with the novel’s ending being the ultimate cliff hanger, paving the way for the second book in the series.
As a creator, Burroughs imagination is astounding. Especially at a point in time when little was known about the planet Mars. It’s not just the array of creatures he creates but the customs, traditions and mythology of the planet are so in-depth without being overwhelming. The book is a rock licking adventure from page one to the very end. As your read through, it’s easy to see so much of what came after it. This book is part Conan the Barbarian, part Flash Gordon, part Spartacus and part Western. It’s a combination of so many different things that all work so well together. It might seem common place now, but at the time the mixing of genres in that way was almost inconceivable. Burroughs’ Mars is a planet that has long since mastered advanced technology but it’s also a dying planet whose time is almost running out. So space ships and guns exist along side of swords and creatures that are a stand in for horses. While you read it, it all feels so familiar yet new at the same time and that’s the beauty of it. The fact that a 100 year old book could still be that fresh today is utterly astonishing.
There are 11 books in the John Carter or Barsoom series. The first three (A Princess Of Mars, The Gods Of Mars, and The Warlords Of Mars) focus mainly on John Carter while the others shift to his descendants. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect before I read it, I must admit the movie trailer had turned me off. They made it appear as if it was a plotless ultra violent blood circus. The book has its share of violence but all things considered it’s quite tame and muted by today’s standards. I’ll definitely be watching the movie soon to see how it compares.
The copyright for the first half of the series has expired and lapsed into the public domain, which means you can acquire copies for very cheap or even for free. In fact, you can read the first five novels at the Edgar Rice Burroughs webpage right here for nothing! My advice is to seek these books out, but look carefully and don’t overpay. I recommend a collection containing the first three books in the series. They are required reading for any true science fiction fan.
The Evil Geeks haven’t seen the last of John Carter yet…
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