Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Raiding the Stacks: A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Today I'm delving into another old book, in this case A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Originally published in serial form, like most novels at the time, and later collected in book format, A Princess of Mars is the first in the wildly popular series featuring the adventures of John Carter on the planet Mars, or as the inhabitants call it, Barsoom. In addition to the John Carter series, Burroughs was also creator of the Tarzan series and I can see where there might be some overlap between the two. Strong, muscular men who go around without shirts on, saving women and fighting bad guys. Although that's a whole sub-set of pulp adventure novels that used to be wildly popular if they weren't terribly nuanced.

The plot follows the adventures of the aforementioned John Carter who, while prospecting for gold in Arizona after the Civil War, stumbles into a cave to escape from Apaches. Carter finds himself unable to move and then collapses into sleep. Somehow he finds himself standing outside himself and is then transported to Mars, a dying planet where the inhabitants, the green and red races of Martians, are locked in endless battles over dwindling resources. Because Mars has much lower gravity than Earth, Carter finds himself able to kill Martians twice as big as him with his bare hands and able to jump thirty feet in the air. He quickly rises to prominence as a warrior among the Martians and meets and falls in love with Dejah Thoris, a Martian princess. Carter spends ten years living on Mars and then, just as mysteriously, ends up right back on Earth.

The book actually focuses more on Carter's early adventures, his arrival on Mars, integration into Martian society, and eventual rise to prominence. The story then abruptly glosses over nine years of his time on Mars before his return. Which is clever in a way because it left plenty of room for Burroughs to write sequels of Carter's adventures on Mars. The book does a pretty good job of introducing the reader to the world of Mars that Burroughs has created, leaving some room for expansion, if being basically a bunch of exposition lobbed at you.

I was actually able to pin this book down to the decade it was written because of the presence of radium in the book, which I thought was kind of neat. Specifically radium is the Applied Phlebotinum of choice for the book and is used for all sorts of things from weapons to airship engines. There was this really big fad in the 1910's to put radium in everything, including toothpaste, on the logic it was new and it glowed, therefore it must be good! Unfortunately a lot of people then died of cancer because of this rampant use of radium, but it does serve as a means to date the book.

So how does the story hold up compared to modern times? Not terribly well. There is a typical, subtle sort of racism in that John Carter, a powerful white man from Virginia, is a better warrior than anyone else on Mars and is the absolute best at everything. It definitely falls into Mighty Whitey territory. Also, as is typical of pulp adventures from this era there is a ridiculous amount of people who are naked all the time. Which is something I just don't understand. Clothes are useful! They have pockets which let you hold things! Like pocket watches! And there's a lot of fighting and killing and dying, as well as some old-fashioned sexism. It may have been progressive or scandalous when it came out, but it's pretty tame by today's standards.

Is it worth reading? If you like old-fashioned pulp adventures from the early twentieth century, then sure, go right ahead. As much as I like pulp, I have to say this isn't quite the sort of pulp I like. I've never really gone in for the heroic barbarian type so it makes sense for me to be less than enthused with the idea. But if you like you some techno-barbarians? Probably for you.

- Kalpar

No comments:

Post a Comment