Friday, April 17, 2009

Forgotten Books: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

(My latest entry for Patti Abbott’s Friday Forgotten Books. For the complete list, head on over to her blog.)

Based on the cover painting of the late 70s edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912), there is only one question: how the hell do you have sword fights with green aliens when you’re naked?

To be honest, as I re-read Burroughs’ first Martian tale—his first book, period!—I kept an eye out to see if the characters really did wear loin clothes, robes, or what. Turns out no one wears clothes. Strange Martian custom. But, then again, strange was the way our hero, John Carter, found his way onto Mars.

A Civil War vet, Carter and a friend found a gold lode in the mountains of Arizona. There’s a problem, natch: Indians. They kill Carter’s friend and come after him. He’s holed up in a cave, waiting to go down with guns blazing when a strange thing happens: he becomes paralyzed. He hears the Indians approach the cave entrance…and then turn in fear. Great, thinks Carter, whatever scared them is behind me and I can’t do anything about it. Turns out, the thing behind him is…himself. He’s some sort of phantom and, before he knows it, he ‘wakes’ up on Mars.

And he’s Superman. He can leap tall buildings (most of the way) in a single bound. His strength is beyond that of mere mortal Martians. Lucky for Carter the Warrior the first beings he meets, the Green Men of Mars (huge hulks—heh—that stand nearly fifteen feet tall with a set of intermediary limbs below the arms and above the legs) only speak War, Bravery, and Combat Prowess. He woos them, even though he’s ostensibly a prisoner.

Almost the entire story is a travelogue of Mars. Carter learns how martian babies are born, how navel vessels fly through the air, how the thin Martian atmosphere is treated, and how water is preserved on a planet without any surface water. Along the way, he doesn’t even bat an eye that he, and everyone else, is naked. That would include Dejah Thoris, the princess of the book’s title. She is captured after a battle and Carter falls for her. Well, of course. She’s naked. The rest of the book is his attempt to return her to her land and her people usually with many valiant sword fights and battles.

I read this book over thirty years ago and, as I’ve had a reawakening of my love of SF, I thought I’d read some of the classics as well as some of the modern books and stories being published. Burroughs’ books and stories inspired countless creators of science fiction literature and films throughout the twentieth-century. There were a couple of places where you could see directly how George Lucas was inspired. At one point, Dejah is taken before a giant, ugly monstrosity. Jabba the Hutt and Princess Leia anyone? Speaking of Leia, I think we all know what she told Darth Vader in the first Star Wars movie. Come on. Do I have to quote it exactly? “I am on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan.” Now, cut to this exchange between Dejah and her captor:
"And the nature of your expedition?" he continued.

"It was a purely scientific research party sent out by my father's
father, the Jeddak of Helium, to rechart the air currents, and to take
atmospheric density tests," replied the fair prisoner, in a low,
well-modulated voice.

"We were unprepared for battle," she continued, "as we were on a
peaceful mission, as our banners and the colors of our craft denoted."
Of course, I see Star Trek in there, too. How many missions were merely for “scientific research”?

The remnants of Victorian prejudices still color Burroughs’ characters. The Green Men of Mars basically are communists. They all live together each person owning nothing individual. One exception is Dejah herself. Like Leia and other damsels, yes, Dejah’s in distress but she holds her own, even helping out Carter a couple of times. It speaks to her character and the fact that Carter doesn’t put up a fuss makes him a better man for it.

A Princess of Mars is certainly a fun book. And there are ten more after it, eleven in all. Not all feature Carter and Dejah but Mars is the real featured player in these stories. Well, that and all our eleven-year-old imaginations that still live within us. You read this book and these stories and you will soar to the heavens with great abandon, losing yourself amid epic tales of heroism and courage, adventure and love. And, let’s be honest: isn’t that one of the reasons you read books anyway?


pattinase (abbott) said...

This sounds like a lovely book. Almost like Frank Baum-probably from the same era.


Scott - I kick aliend butt naked all the time.

David Cranmer said...

Ha! Gary's comment. What's going on over there :)

I have not read enough Edgar Rice Burroughs. I will pick up a copy of this or another this weekend.

Randy Johnson said...

Loved these books as a young man(all Burroughs for that matter). I have a great nephew(fifteen) that reads anything he can get his hands on and for Christmas one year, I gave him the SF Book Club" three book Omnibus of the eleven titles.

Scott Parker said...

Patti - I have never read any Baum. Well, I take that back: my mom read Wizard of Oz to me as a kid. Need to return to Oz.

Archavist - Where's the YouTube footage? ;-)

David - I'm planning on reading some Tarzan throughout this year as well as more of the Martian tales. ERB's writing style is a bit convoluted but it's still swift.

Randy - I bet your grand nephew will thank you for a long, long time. He'll write a book in the future and dedicate it to you, thanking you for those books.

James Reasoner said...

I remember exactly where I was when I read this book the first time, more than forty years ago. I love it when that happens.

Burroughs is great. Even his lesser work is very entertaining.

Barrie said...

I thought I read this book. But I'm not so sure....

Nik said...

I agree, the Martian trilogy is superb - non-stop action, bravery, colour, spectacle and the beautiful Dejah! I first read them over 40 years ago then in 1986 reread them again for an appreciation article 'Barsoom Revisited' for the BFS magazine Dark Horizons. I concluded that 'To John Carter it was not weakness to show mercy to the vanquished enemy... He, like us, desired peace. That he had to wage war all over the Martian globe to achieve it is merely a reflection of the great paradox of our time.'
Forget the critics and enjoy a fantastic journey - soon to be filmed (at long last).

Scott Parker said...

James - I wonder if you're like me when you remember where you were when you read the book. I have certain associations down to the comic book issue number for certain titles. Interestingly, whenever I read my old comics, it's always summertime in my mind.

Barrie - It's certainly a fun way to pass a few hours if you're in the mood for classic SF.

Nik - Thanks for stopping by. Did the tales change for you when you re-read them? This first one did for me. But I think that's a good thing, in some ways.

Nik said...

Yes, the tales were better for me at rereading because I'd read a couple of Burroughs biographies and appreciated that there was more depth to the stories than at first thought.