Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (first of the Barsoom / John Carter series)

Former Confederate captain John Carter, left with no means of income after the war, heads to Arizona and strikes a quartz mine. Trying to rescue his partner from Apaches, Carter takes a wrong turn and comes to a cave, in which he finds a large room, where he is overthrown by a paralytic gas. With a supreme effort, he attempts to move his muscles, but instead his spirit/soul/whatever leaves his body, and he thus exits the cave completely naked. Staring out at the night sky, Carter sees the planet Mars and feels called to by the god of war. He reaches out his arms, senses cold and darkness, and opens his eyes "upon a strange and weird landscape. I knew that I was on Mars."

If you can get past that extreme leap of faith, the rest of A Princess of Mars is pretty easy to stomach. Author Edgar Rice Burroughs (author also of the numerous Tarzan stories) peoples his debut novel (expanded from the short story "Under the Moons of Mars" and serialized in All-Story before being published as a novel in 1919) with characters that are easy to identify with, though they happen to be green-skinned Martians. Though I had long heard of the stories, I was first intrigued to try this one due to its being listed in the Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns, which stated that it falls firmly into the subcategory of Space Western (the same category under which Star Wars falls).

It was primarily this, but also the fact that I had enjoyed Tarzan when I read it so long ago, that led me to seek it out — preferably in audio, through which I do most of my literary experimentation. I found the Books In Motion audio at the library. Jack Sondericker reads A Princess of Mars from the perspective of time, much as the early part of the novel suggests. His voice is that of an man much older than the protagonist, leading a semblance of retrospective realism to this fantastic tale. (The Librivox audio is also a solid interpretation, with Mark Nelson offering a professional-quality reading that can be downloaded for free.)

Because of the lighter gravity of Mars ("Barsoom" to the locals), Carter finds himself a superman among his new neighbors, able to leap 30 feet in the air and 100 feet away when threatened. The early chapters of A Princess of Mars are mostly given to writing of the expository sort, involving Carter's observations of the strange details of Martian life, peppered throughout with feats of his prowess, which impresses the seemingly unemotional Martians in the only way important to them. Carter even becomes a chieftain of the Tharks after defeating one of them.

I don't usually get into books filled with made-up names and long descriptions of the differences between Earth and whatever planet the story happens to be set on, but Burroughs manages to make it interesting through sheer imagination, with just enough things not so different to balance the very different. A Princess of Mars is such a mythic success at this, it is impossible not to get involved in the exploits of John Carter and the female prisoner he comes across, who looks very different from the green-skinned Martians and who turns out to be Dejah Thoris, red-skinned princess of Helium.

The rest of the book involves the duo's escape from Thark, as they fall for each other, get separated, then reunited, and eventually make a go of it. The ending would be a downer if I didn't know that there are numerous sequels, the first of which is The Gods of Mars. But if you're looking for a full reading experience, with plenty of action, adventure, and even romance, you'd do well to pick up a copy of A Princess of Mars.


Evan Lewis said...

Fine review. I love this book, and have been eager to read it again. You'll have to read at least Gods and Warlord - they form the John Carter trilogy. The other books are related, but feature other protagonists. And I hear there's a movie in the works.

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for the recommendation of the next two books. There is indeed a film being made.

It involves the Pixar crew (directed by Andrew Stanton of Finding Nemo and WALL-E), but since it's live action and not intended to be G-rated, it will officially be released by Disney. (Pixar is a "family only" brand.)

Willem Dafoe is listed on the IMDb as playing Tars Tharkas, which should be interesting.

KentAllard said...

Been a long time since I read these. Nice to hear they hold up

deuce said...

Nice review, Craig. I recently reread APoM for a possible podcast. I have to say the fact that this was basically ERB's first attempt to write anything, let alone a novel that has influenced 4 or 5 generations of novelists (I believe such generations to be shorter than normal ones), should be kept in mind. APoM does have its flaws, but the novel's sheer, unbridled (and unprecedented) imagination coupled with its narrative drive makes such things inconsequential in the end. Believe me, the next two novels, especially "Gods", blow away their elder sibling.

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for the kind words, Deuce. I believe what you say can be applied to most pulp-era fiction: the passion to get the story told carries the reader along, and very often outweighs the sometimes poor writing.

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