Mars Needs—Virginians?

There are many books that don’t live up to by memories of the first time I read them (as you’ll have noticed if you read my Movies and Books entries), but I was delighted Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian trilogy is as good as I remember.
While Burroughs is best known for creating Tarzan, his first book was A Princess of Mars, in which Virginia gentleman and Civil War veteran (by 1912, the idea of the Gallant Heroes On Both Sides had replaced old images of the South as traitors and slavers, so that was doable) John Carter is trapped by Apaches while prospecting for gold in the Southwest. Somehow his spirit is yanked form his body and transported to Mars (where it’s fully solid). Mars is a dying world where the limited resources (an air-making factory is the only thing sustaining life) have made the people hard, strong and singularly warlike.
Carter falls in first with the Tharks, a tribe of six-limbed green men, where he falls for their beautiful prisoner, Dejah Thoris (red-skinned, like the dominant human race of Mars). As he tries to return Dejah Thoris to her people while winning her love, he has to cope with monsters, green warriors, invading armies and other threats. Having finally won his woman and an honored place among the red men of Mars, he then sacrifices his life to keep the oxygen plant running, and wakes up restored to Earth.
It’s not often a writer can create a fictional archetype, but Burroughs created two. Tarzan is the definitive jungle man and Princess of Mars established the “planetary romance” a subgenre would go on to give us Adam Strange, Alan Akers Scorpio series and (god help us) John Norman’s Gor. While Burroughs wasn’t the first of this type or the last, he’s the one that endured best (Gor may endure, but it’s not the swashbuckling adventure that does it).
In its day, the novel seemed so outré, Burroughs submitted it under the pen name Normal Bean (i.e., I’m Not Crazy). It was a smash hit and led to the sequels Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars; other Martian books followed, but the first three (which I reread in an omnibus edition finely illustrated by Thomas Yeats) form a united whole and stand apart.
In Gods, John Carter returns to Mars after ten years and finds himself in pell-mell battle first against the Therns—a white race that uses religion to control the rest of Barsoom—and then against the black pirates of a subterranean land. In Warlord, John Carter literally crosses pole to pole to rescue the imperiled Dejah Thoris. Both books move faster than Princess, which may mean Burroughs had a quick learning curve, or just evidence of how awkward origin stories are.
The books aren’t perfect. Burroughs relies heavily on coincidence; I can buy him materializing on Mars near his best friend in Gods, but to then wind up in a cell that by sheer coincidence holds his son?
We never get an explanation for Carter’s transportation (which I’m okay with) or how he learned to control it to travel back and forth to Earth (which bothers me more). Nor is there any explanation for the stated fact he’s also immortal; this makes him a fit mate for Dejah Thoris (Martians can live for a millenium) but I can see several other ways Burroughs could have made that work without dragging in a mystery.
And of course, Burroughs is the product of his time. Dejah Thoris is way tougher than most heroines of a century ago—faced with certain death, she never screams, faints or cries—but her role in the book is to love John and be rescued from A Fate Worse Than Death (which she’s threatened with a lot). If you require a story where the woman has a purpose apart from the hero, I don’t think this will work for you.
But I’ve got to admit, they sure work for me.

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8 responses to “Mars Needs—Virginians?

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