A Princess of Mars (Barsoom, #1)by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Seelye Published 30 Jan 2007
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Her oval face was beautiful in the extreme, her every feature finely chisled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Similar in face and figure to women of Earth, she was nevertheless a true Martian--and prisoner of the fierce green giants who held me captive, as well!
First book in Edgar Rice Burroughs's Mars series.
"A Princess of Mars (Barsoom, #1)" Reviews
Some years back David Bowie asked the musical question, "Is there life on Mars?" Had he read A Princess of Mars he might have known the answer.
Back in the early 60’s I fell in love. Not with a girl, (well, there were one or two cracks opened in that young heart, but we do not speak of that now) but with reading. And the brazen hussy that led me down that path was none other than Edgar Rice Burroughs. Of course there were others, all vying for my immature attention, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, H.G. Wells, Robert Heinlein, Jules Verne, and plenty more from that gang of idiots. I remember the glee I felt when a parcel would arrive, the soft packaging that sprinkled to the floor if you opened the pull-tag a little too energetically. Lift the treasure to your nose and inhale deeply. No, wiseass, no glue involved. No glue actually needed. Paperbacks, Ace and Ballantine mostly. This was the way I got one of my first scents of the lifetime of reading that awaited. It was intoxicating. Prime among the treasures to be found in those bags were the Barsoom novels of ERB. I followed the adventures of John Carter the way readers of a certain detective followed his exploits in issues of The Strand. Reading ERB as a kid was one of the best things about being a kid. So one might imagine the anticipation bubbling up when I learned that a film was in the offing. Good, bad or mediocre, this was must-see territory. And to prepare it seemed that, fifty years after having first encountered Barsoom through books, it was worth giving at least some of the books a second look.
Taylor Kitsch as John Carter in the film
John Carter, a soldier (Civil War veteran), mercenary, and apparently occasional miner, begins on Earth. He is trapped in a cave by hostile forces, when he wishes himself, pretty much, to Mars, the god of his profession. The film of course had to come up with a better excuse than that. He is taken prisoner by a group of Tharks, a race of six-limbed, twelve-to-fifteen foot tall green warriors (think taller, thinner, ancestors of Klingons), led by one of their less bloodthirsty sorts, a fellow named Tars Tarkas.
Tars Tarkas - from the film
TT was most impressed by JC’s fighting prowess and his ability to leap tall building in a single bound, a benefit of having muscles adapted to the much higher gravity on a different planet. (ERB’s hero appears twenty years before that Kal-el character, and Jerry Siegel has said that JC was indeed influential in the creation of that better known super-guy.) Tarkas and Carter find common cause eventually and thus begins a beautiful friendship. TT had put a guard dog (actually a Shetland-size, many-tusked critter called a calot ) in charge of JC. But as the locals treat their gigantic ferocious domestic critters rather harshly, it turned out to be receptive to JC’s kinder treatment, so we add a loyal-to-death pet, with the blood-curdling name "Woola" for our hero. Can the girl be far behind? Not a chance.
Woola - from the film. What a cutie!
After the Tharkian horde does battle with a race of human-like sorts, they take a prisoner, a female. Dejah Thoris is princess of the city-state of Helium (and no she does not speak with a silly-high voice) and of the book title, and is notable for her regal bearing, smokin’ looks and courage under duress. (The film pads her resume with some science credits) Having established his warrior cred by kicking several Tharkian butts, JC has some wiggle room among Thark society and manages to learn a fair bit. He is, naturally, curious about the new resident.
Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris - from the film
Oh, there is one other item missing from the checklist, the baddie. Well, there are several, a crude Thark leader, monsters aplenty, but most of all a professional sneak-thief-liar-betrayer of a Thark named Sarkoja, who does all she can to foil TT and JC in whatever they might want to do. All she lacks is a broom and some striped socks. [The film includes her, but substitutes a different evil-doer for many of the story’s later intrigues.]
Ok, so this is not exactly great literature. Sweden will not be calling any time soon. Carter finds himself in a seemingly endless series of battles, large and small. People are captured. People fight. People flee. Friends help friends. Baddies behave badly. No one really changes much. Oh, they rise in rank and esteem, and prove their mettle, and some character is revealed in time, but really, nothing is told about these people that we did not know very early on. There is silliness and many shortcuts are taken. ERB makes use of deus ex machina so much he must have had a mechanic on call. Carter learns that a large amount of Martian communications occurs via telepathy and bingo, he is telepathic too. What luck! Also, Martian language has devolved to mostly a single tongue. No, really. And he learns it in a twinkling, with the help of a kindly female Thark named Sola. Whenever someone needs a rescue there is always a rescuer, either now or eventually. The cavalry comes riding over the hill a bit too often to avoid eye-rolling. The fights are pretty much pro-forma, with almost mandatory nods to the honor and skill of the thousands of opponents, after, of course, Carter knocks them out or kills them with a single blow to the chin. Puh-leez.
In between, Burroughs offers bits and pieces of his vision of life on Mars. We learn how Thark children are joined with parents, get some info on Barsoomian visions of death and afterlife, consider a bit the problem of scarce air, and may wonder at the ancient human ruins now occupied by other species. They have some nifty tech on Barsoom as well, having discovered a special 9th ray of light that is used for energy. Radium is a useful power source as well. Airships of all sizes speed about, but seem to function mostly as boats with negative draft. There will be swashbuckling.
There are some elements in the book that do not travel well through the years. The women have some wonderful qualities but there is little e-quality to be found. Also, slavery is still a very active element of Martian society, and while ERB shows sundry characters shackled to those chains, and does his best to free those, he does not seem all that upset about the institution. In one commentary on communistic elements of Tharkian society, ERB notes
Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common.This was published in 1912, so a quote like this might not have stuck out so much back then. Of course there are many much more ancient items that seem quaint today, such as
You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's.I guess ownership is in the eye of the beholder.
Social systems seem to be widely of the royal persuasion, although combat figures large in determining leadership in some groups. And just as girls have been led to hope for a prince to come to the rescue, so here our hero is not panting after any ordinary female. Dejah is a bona fide , card-carrying princess.
Then, there are some elements that might stand up rather well. Carter applies his knowledge of animals to persuade the locals to treat their beasties much better. The moral superiority of races is not at all determined by color, or in this case, even sentient species. Honesty, motherhood, and I am certain that if the ingredients grew there, apple pie would come in for some ERB support. Courage is also a highly valued trait. Physical prowess in battle is paramount here.
Frank Schoonover's cover illustration for the first book version-from Wikipedia
Ok, so bottom line. This is a very dated book. It is, after all, one hundred years old. It contains antiquated, sometimes offensive notions. Many of the characters are pretty thinly drawn. But this was not intended to be a thoughtful, adult novel. It is pulp fiction, literally, as Barsoom made its first public appearance in All-Story Magazine in 1912, and its focus is on three things, action, action and action. Burroughs was appalled that people got paid to write the trash that appeared in such publications and said, “I could write stories just as rotten.” If that is ok with you, then A Princess of Mars is a fun read, a buddy movie with a bit of love interest, (no real sex, although a fair bit of nakedness) a lot of fighting, capturing and being captured and escaping, a nifty vision of a faraway place. Overall, good fun. It helps to be a ten-year-old boy. Look at those cavemen go.
The home page for Edgar Rice Burroughs, the corporation, where you will learn that
A Princess of Mars was originally published as “The Moon of Mars” under the pseudonym Norman Bean in All-Story Magazine as a six-part serial, February through July 1912.He had first submitted it to All Star as Dejah Thoris, Martian Princess
You can read A Princess of Mars on Gutenberg
Here is another, hyper-texted version, which includes links to other such volumes in the Barsoom series.
Or listen to an audio version here
10/25/16 -National Geographic is producing a documentary series about our favorite red-tinted neighbor (no, not the lady across the way who got too much sun. Put those binoculars away NOW). Coverage in the latest issue includes a whole passel of things Martian. Enjoy. Mars: Inside the High-Risk, High-Stakes Race to the Red Planet
From the August 2017 National Geographic - This Is What a Martian Looks Like—According to Carl Sagan - By Natasha Daly
Painting by Douglas Chaffe - from the above NatGeo article
A SYNOPSIS OF THE BOOK A PRINCESS OF MARS!
John Carter travels to Barsoom to live, love, and fight amongst the Green Men, the Red Men, and the White Apes! his Earthman physique combined with Barsoomian gravity means he's incredibly strong and can jump like a giant-sized super-grasshopper!
John Carter arrives there nekkid! everyone is nekkid! they only wear weapons and ornaments! the Red Race knows what Earthers look like and they think all the clothing we wear is apalling and disgusting! i agree!
John Carter is transported to Barsoom from Frontier America directly after a bloody conflict with the dread and savage Red Man (in this case, the Apache)... and on Barsoom, his adventures involve the alternately warlike and peaceful Red Men, who he views as the closest thing to human. coincidence?
Green Men do not believe in love or friendship or marriage or parenthood. they only laugh when another creature is in its death-agonies. they are a war-like people, to say the least. they also share everything. apparently their customs came from an ancient society based in communalism... dare i say, communism? coincidence?
The Princes of Mars in question is a two-dimensional creation: in love with John Carter except for those predictable moments when predictable misunderstandings occur, a Red Princess of the city-state Helium, beautiful, haughty, brave, a woman of her word, etc, etc. her name is Dejah Thoris.
Burroughs writes clean prose that is easy going down and surprisingly modern in its smooth, no-frills style. this is the opposite of a laborious read. the narrative is perfectly straightforward and the infodumps were relatively pain-free. the characters are enjoyably cartoonish. i read this on my droid over the course of maybe a half-dozen bus rides. a charming experience.
the novel features a cute Barsoomian dog-thing - my favorite character!
A SYNOPSIS OF THE MOVIE JOHN CARTER!
John Carter travels to Mars to live, love, and fight amongst the Green Men and the Red Men! his Earthman physique combined with Martian gravity means he's incredibly strong and can jump like a giant-sized super-grasshopper!
John Carter arrives there fully clothed! and then he changes into something more revealing! The Red Race also prefer revealing attire!
John Carter spends an inordinately long and tiresome period of time in Frontier America that is nonsensical and bored me to near-sleep. this inordinately lengthy sequence features conflicts with some Native American tribe, some jail time, and some character bits for a completely non-essential supporting character. on Mars, he comes across the "Red Men", who actually are not red at all but look like they spend too much time at some cheap tanning salon. they should be called the Orangey Men.
Green Men are monstrous humanoids. their children are adorable little widgets.
there is a Princess of Mars and she is perhaps the most three-dimensional character in the film: a scientist and a kick ass warrior. she is played by Lynn Collins, who was strangled by a serial killer in the first season of True Blood.
the film is co-written by Michael Chabon! what! the film is directed by Pixar house director Andrew Stanton. i watched a sneak peek of this at Pixar itself, after indulging in a few free drinks at one of the Pixar bars. i got drunk!
the film features a cute Martian dog-thing - my favorite character!
It can be said at the outset that Burroughs was not a very deep nor a very disciplined writer. His disdain for research often shows in his work, and it does here; and in his science fiction (he would write voluminously in this genre --this novel sparked a series, and he produced two other popular sci-fi series as well) consistent and well-thought world building wasn't his strength. For instance, his Martian children incubate in eggs and hatch only when they're able to eat solid food --but his Martian women have physiques like those of human women, busts and all. If there were ever a writer who overused coincidence in plotting, it would be Burroughs, and his plot developments and devices can strain credibility; science fiction writers of that day were quite taken with astral projection, but John Carter's ability to, in effect, simply will himself to the Red Planet, as a means of space travel, is definitely a stretch.
For all that, though, his work continues to fascinate readers. Partly, this is because of the enduring appeal of his theme of "primitivism" or "feralism," of which Tarzan, of course, is the archetypal example, but which constantly reappears in his work: the saga of a scion of modern high- tech, regimented civilization, transported to a primitive, dangerous world where he can be free to be his own boss, but must meet physical challenges in order to survive. And his heroes earn our respect, because they're not egoistic brutes who revel in a chance to be predators in a jungle; rather, John Carter and the others are instinctively moral men who model what Burrough's generation thought of as "masculine virtues" (which actually aren't gender-specific!) --courage, loyalty, a sense of honor, determination, generosity of spirit. (Of course, they're also larger-than-life heroes with strength, ingenuity, and competence.) This gives his work a dimension of meaning, both as an implicit criticism of a stultifying and constraining social order that tries to reduce us to cogs in a constantly smooth-running machine and as a positive endorsement of qualities we recognize as worth honoring and imitating, that still resonates with readers today, and I think always will. He's also a master of pacing, and of exciting adventure that can keep you turning the pages; and the broad canvas of his picture of Mars --an arid, dying world balkanized among a plethora of warring tribes and kingdoms, violently struggling for survival-- has an undeniable imaginative power that grips the reader.
He died at 75, with a wish-list for the afterlife: “I want to travel through the space to visit other planets”.
Edgar Rice Burroughs outsold the combination of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, at his time. He ventured far (and wide) in the realm of imagination. Maybe he "caught" kids and teens first, then adults, definitely. I was one of the "caught-ups" in this vast world imagined, when I was a teen; I read Tarzan whenever possible and all the pulp fiction I could grab.
Ray Bradbury was right saying about Burroughs: “astronomers and biochemists fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan; B. put us on the moon; all technologists read”… him. So, no wonder Bradbury called him the “most influential writer of the world”. I agree in some way, for a certain genre of writing.
The Barsoom world (which this novel of John Carter adventures on Mars is a part of) started before Tarzan. It was a shy start up, so to speak, because Burroughs didn’t even pen it with his own name, but under the name Norman Bean. The 1st version was called Under the moons of Mars; later then it became A princess of Mars, published in 1912. Burroughs was in a sort of “existential desperation”; the business of writing saved him; he had started at 35; he acknowledged: his earlier career had been disappointing.
APoM struck me first for its introductory lines. John Carter the civil war hero (the one we all love, writes the narrator,…grey eyes ,black-hair…a typical southern gentleman), finds himself looking for gold in the Arizona landscape; his musings inside a cave are lapidary: >“I am a very old man…possibly I am 100 possibly more…I have always been a man of 30”.
And shortly after he’s catapulted to another sphere: Mars; he’s just seen his terrestrial body laying inside the cave; now, he’s bare naked contemplating this incubator of eggs…of strange creatures, hatching.
The whole panoply of creatures will unfold before his eyes: male, green Martians with “scrawny” bodies, “6 legged creatures”, 15 feet high, 400 pounds of weight.Then females, 10 to 12 feet tall. Beings made for war; “naturally” selected and raised for war. A population with curious statistics: of 300 years of average life,they can live up to 1000 years, only 1 in 1000 dies of disease; there’s a continual warfare between their communities. Carter's only friends are Martian Sola (a "motherly" young woman of 45), a loyal watch "dog"…and surely the girl, the loved princess, Dejah Thoris.
A “nomadic race”…whose only thoughts are for "the today". A race of brutes. Five million martians.
Carter discovers his new abilities on the surface of Mars: he’s capable of super human leaps: 30 feet into the air. Even Martians are astounded. He noticed some buildings are “out of proportions” when compared to these green Martians; maybe another civilization, a different one, had been responsible for its construction.
But there are other types: the colossal ape-like white creatures:”hairless except a bristly hair upon its head”. And more.
The two Martian moons are closer than ours; so nights are different; if both moons visible, than light,...if not, total darknesss.
Nights are cold, on Mars.
So much has been written on these stories of Burroughs; from so many angles…. Recently, I’ve read this political (Marxist) view (by a blogger): "the politics of A Princess of Mars are rooted in a 19th century colonialism that more accurately reflects the wishes and problems of modern imperialism"*.
I think you can read politics in (to) Burroughs. His aim will always go far beyond that; because imagination needs no politics. When I was a kid,my eyes didn't read politics; I was mesmerized,
...not by ideology, certainly not.
Forever young,...like Carter.
I came to this having enjoyed the terribly-named movie version much more than I had expected. Not deep, but pulpy fun. (Seriously, John Carter? "A Princess of Mars" was too girly? "John Carter of Mars" might have, what, given the impression it takes place on Mars?!?) I didn't know how much of the book had made it into the movie, but I was hoping for some of the same kind of pulpy fun from this.
Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.
In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
Let's not try and pretend that Princess of Mars is some kind of unique trailblazing original that Science fiction and fantasy writing owes some huge debt to. Authors had been writing about Sci-fi concepts involving other worlds and other cultures for a long time, and as early as the 17th Century we have an example (The Blazing World) of a writer imagining another world full of beasts and bird-men, whose entrance is located at the North Pole. Popular Victorian author Edgar Bulwer Lytton wrote about a subterranean race with telepathic abilities known as Vril in The Coming Race and of course H G Wells wrote a much better book about Martians, War of the Worlds , 15 years before Burroughs turned his pen towards Bharsoom.
Edgar Rice Burroughs popularity benefited from a burgeoning interest in sci-fi concepts that presumably happened as Astronomy and Science gradually brought these matters to our attention. This coincided with cheaper cheaper means of production and distribution of material, and an uneducated population more able and willing to read meant that the fantastical stuck and the pulp phenomenon was born.
Much of the scorn poured upon popular pulp writers of the day is perhaps less to do with the fantastical nature of their topics than their unwillingness to write material that's genuinely thoughtful. Of course, the writing wasn't meant to engage on any deep level, just entertain and pass the time, and so more and more supporters of the writing of this era have protested against Academically inclined literary snobs who dismiss work of this ilk, arguing that there's a time and place for these kinds of genre thrills. A long-time fan of Robert E Howard and HP Lovecraft I've always sympathised. There's an art to crafting entertaining stories with atmosphere or panache and there's cultural value in understanding the minds and the pens that are able to create them.
Something problematic has always haunted these works, though. Since they were written to be consumed by an early twentieth century racist and patriarchal working class population, there's more than a tinge of uncomfortable ideology about them. For Howard black men are rarely more than brutish and dumb, whilst women for the most part serve the sexual needs of a dominating male population. For Lovecraft black people are synonymous with evil occult magic. Lovers of this literature frequently swiftly step over this troubling tendency in the pulp work they love, dismissing these attitudes as “a little dated”and going on to enjoy narratives steeped in offensiveness.(hardly dated though, since racist and sexist thought still dominate) And sure, if one is highly alert to issues of feminism or imperialism one can still enjoy these books for their fine writing and expertly crafted stories
But sometimes the pendulum swings too far the other way and supporters of pulp begin to decide that because something is superficially fun and easy to enjoy then matters of ideology are entirely irrelevant. They miss the difference between something not being PC and being the offensive ideological building block on which their culture is founded. There's an obvious reason why Disney, the corporation of conservative family values, decided to make the movie John Carter of Mars in 2012 and that's because this book on which it was based is not just the precursor to all things Disney, it pretty much promotes the entirety of Disney's values and became ridiculously popular in doing so; being as it is an unabashed wish fulfilment American Dream imperialist patriarchal fantasy.
In other words, it really fucking sucks.
When HG Wells decided to write a book about Mars he spun an intelligent and probing anti-imperialist narrative that asked how life would look for humanity if we were in somebody else's shoes, imagining Martian invaders treating the British with as much dispassion as the British Empire itself had shown towards alien cultures . Wells' was a harsh critique and a sobering lesson; not listened to of course, but as a work of literature it shows an extraordinary depth of understanding and is a deserved Science Fiction classic.
One could almost view Burrough's work as a response to Wells' apparent pessimism. Certainly one can do nothing else than view Princess of Mars as a jingoistic, ultra-patriotic affair whose only main goal is to convince its readership of the greatness of being a white American alongside the importance of being rich , prosperous and important. There are big clues in the first chapter of the novel. John Carter and his friend are gold-hunters and successful ones too. Yep, they've struck riches before the novel even starts because, let's be clear, John Carter is awesome. He's never really characterised in a way that we can care about him on an emotional level, we just know he's awesome because of the things he gets handed to him and the fact that people indiscriminately love him (unless they suck and they hate him, in which case they die, mostly). Unfortunately the pesky Indians kill John's friend and chase him away from his gold. If one is enjoying the colonial nature of this narrative already then one is probably in ideological trouble, but don't worry it gets worse. John is whisked away to have an adventure on Mars where – note this – only he is white. Everyone else is Green or Red (they're different – get it?) And only he expresses American values (or honor as he keeps calling it). Now here's the real problem. Mr white man waltzes into a strange land, full of funny coloured people, and is instantly better than everybody else. He doesn't even need to try h e's just better. He can fight better jump better, think better than everybody Oh and the most beautiful girl who is a princess is instantly in love with him because he's better (and he loves her because she looks good naked, or something). Wish fulfillment, they call it, but the problem here is what's being wished for and also the way it's expressed. Here's a fairly typical paragraph
“Their foster mothers may not even have had an egg in the incubator, as was the case with Sola, who had not commenced to lay, until less than a year before she became the mother of another woman's offspring. But this counts for little among the green Martians, as parental and filial love is as unknown to them as it is common among us. I believe this horrible system which has been carried on for ages is the direct cause of the loss of all the finer feelings and higher humanitarian instincts among these poor creatures. From birth they know no father or mother love, they know not the meaning of the word home; they are taught that they are only suffered to live until they can demonstrate by their physique and ferocity that they are fit to live. Should they prove deformed or defective in any way they are promptly shot; nor do they see a tear shed for a single one of the many cruel hardships they pass through from earliest infancy. “
Not only is John Carter faster, stronger, better … he knows more. He's more “humanitarian” he understand people better, society better, emotions better. John Carter is fucking so much better than … Martians. The Other. He's American, get it?
If you're not ideologically frightened yet you really should be because this book isn't an imaginative fantasy about Mars, it's a patriotic racist travelogue that not only has no interest in exploring any cultural ideas outside its own, it exists purely to pour scorn on the idea of “the other” to America. The message of this book is “if you don't do it the American way, you lack finer feelings, but if you do then you'll win hot women and people will love you.” Or something like that.
And I'm not going to comment on the attitude towards women in this book beyond the following quote
“Then aloud she said: "Do you remember the night when you offended me? You called me your princess without having asked my hand of me, and then you boasted that you had fought for me. You did not know, and I should not have been offended; I see that now. But there was no one to tell you what I could not, that upon Barsoom there are two kinds of women in the cities of the red men. The one they fight for that they may ask them in marriage; the other kind they fight for also, but never ask their hands. When a man has won a woman he may address her as his princess, or in any of the several terms which signify possession. You had fought for me, but had never asked me in marriage, and so when you called me your princess, you see," she faltered, "I was hurt, but even then, John Carter, I did not repulse you, as I should have done, until you made it doubly worse by taunting me with having won me through combat.”
My question is simply this. At what point do we brush aside “not entirely PC” values and accept that a book's sense of wish fulfilment is simply not entertaining thanks to the nature of those wishes. And how do we feel about books that form the basis for offensive ideological beliefs in our culture by expounding them and becoming bestsellers? If this were Ayn Raynd would we be having a serious conversation, or simply be mocking? The frightening thing is that these wishes must still be relevant to people because clearly people find this book still fun to read. And the reason I say this is because, unlike Howard or Lovecraft there's nothing else that one can glean from this book beyond its puerile wish-fulfillment. Burroughs writes with a deliberately dull-edged prose in order to get his weak political points across to as many stupid people as he can. This isn't a thoughtful or well written book and its entertaining insomuch as one sees John Carter as the ultimate heroic fantasy, a blank-slate all-American whose personality comes entirely from the reader who wants to to indulge his American-wet-dream sensibilities and pretend – or not bother to understand - that there are no real-life consequences.