Tag Archives: Edgar Rice Burroughs

From Pellucidar to prep school: books

When I first read AT THE EARTH’S CORE years ago, I hadn’t yet read Edgar Rice Burrough’s earlier Princess of Mars and didn’t realize how much they resembled each other. Like John Carter, David Innes enters an alien world — Pellucidar, the land inside the hollow Earth — and becomes enslaved by an alien race. Just as John Carter alienated Dejah Thoris at first by defending her without claiming her as his wife (on Barsoom, that implies he sees her as a whore), David Innes does exactly the same thing when fighting for Dian the Beautiful.

That said, this is a fun book to reread. Innes finances an experimental mechanical mole designed by inventor Abner Perry, but it locks up on its maiden voyage and doesn’t stop drilling until the pass through the Earth’s crust and enters Pellucidar. The perils here include dinosaurs, prehistoric mammals, various types of man-apes (in one of Burroughs’ racist moments Innes compares one trace of monkey man to black Africans) and the Mahars, a race of telepathic reptile women (they eliminated their menfolk after developing the secret of parthenogenesis) that preys upon humans. In one scene Innes watches them engage in a ritual feast and seeing their hypnotized prey stand there, letting the mahars rip them apart, is chilling.

Another unique feature of Pellucidar is that with no day and night — the inner-Earth “sun” is a gaseous ball at the Earth’s center that provides constant, unchanging illumination — time ceases to exist. It turns out it’s a purely mental construct; while Innes escapes the Mahars and has multiple adventures, Perry has dinner, sleeps and wakes up, thinking less than a day has passed. There are other nice touches, such as a reclusive culture where your manhood is measured partly by the number of secret routes out of the village you can memorize.

The story does have a better framing sequence than Princess had. It opens with Burroughs meeting Innes after he’s returned from Pellucidar. ERB helps equip him for the journey home, but it’s unclear whether David made it before the neighboring Arabs attacked. Although Burroughs set up a telegraph relay for Innes to communicate with the outer world, we learn in the ending that a sandstorm has wiped out the landmarks in the area; he has no way to find the telegraph and learn if Innes made it back to Pellucidar or not (something resolved in the sequel, of course).

Edited by Kevin McCarthy, “THEY’RE HERE …” Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute proved just as useful for Alien Visitors as it was when I was writing about the film for Screen Enemies of the American Way. One article, for example, points out that no matter what interpretation you put on the ’56 film — anti-communist, anti-conformity, anti-consumerism — it’s success isn’t because of the underlying message but because aliens replacing everyone around you (and you’re next!) is an inherently creepy concept. The assorted essays cover Jack Finney’s career (they paint his nostalgia for the 19th century with affection I don’t share) and interview with Kevin McCarthy (remarkably entertaining), backstage stories on the first three films (this came out right after the 1993 Body Snatchers) and pondering about what the various films mean. Good, though it has its share of dud entries as well.

As a kid, Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books — about J.C.T. Jennings and his best friend Darbishire and their experiences at Linbury Court Preparatory School — were among my very favorites, reread endlessly. So for Christmas I asked TYG to buy me an omnibus edition of the first four novels, then I spent Boxing Day reading Jennings Goes to School. Here the two protagonists arrive at school, meet the rest of the future cast, learn school slang, play soccer, run away from school, write a mystery novel (“All you have to do is think up some characters and a plot.”) and unintentionally send in a false fire alarm. Buckeridge’s flair for comedy, Wodehouse-style writing and incomprehensible kid conversations (“Isn’t it lucky I’m not him, sir?”) is as much fun as I remember. I was surprised, looking Buckeridge up online, to learn that this was actually written in the 1950s as I assumed them to be contemporary when I read them 15 or so years later. But from the point of view of a pre-teen boy, I guess the world hadn’t changed that much.

#SFWApro. Cover by Roy Krenkel, all rights remain with current holder.

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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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