Welcome to the next installment in my Retro Reviews! This time, we’re looking at Princess of Mars, the first in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter series. This is straight up pulp adventure with no pretensions to be anything other than rollicking swashbuckling fun.
It is now time for my traditional attempt at poetical plot summation
There once was a fellow named John
Who woke to find he was no longer upon
The planet named Earth
But found that Mars had no dearth
Of people to take out that fact on
Good lords that’s awful. Oh well. Let’s do this more conventionally, shall we?
What’s it all about?
John Carter is a southern gentleman and former Confederate officer who, at a loose end, has turned to prospecting. One thing leads to another and he has to take shelter in a cave. He falls asleep on Earth and wakes on Mars.
The bad news about that is Mars is filled with hyper-violent giants who find torture hilarious.
The good news is that apparently muscles accustomed to Terra make you a superhero in Mars’ gravity.
When John Carter meets a hot princess who’s been taken prisoner by the giants then you know what’s coming next…
How readable is it?
There was one section in the second chapter that I had to reread about four times to work out where exactly something had appeared.
Looking at other reviews I’m pretty sure I’m an outlier for finding it hard to read, but that I did. Something about the sentence construction causes the words to just slide by my eyes without meaning. I skim read a lot of this one.
Is it any good though?
I respect its argument to be considered a good book, but didn’t like it. I enjoyed parts, I saw the appeal, and was relieved to have finished it.
The first reason I didn’t like it is the reason above. Very difficult to like a book if you don’t like its prose.
The second is that you could rename this story Super Easy Barely An Inconvenience: The Book. I think the biggest trouble John Carter faces all story is that the love of his life won’t talk to him for a bit. Otherwise, there is virtually no problem he cannot cut his way out of. Thanks to the Martian culture’s exaltation of the warrior, he gets all kudos and no onus for such actions. On the rare occasions his problems cannot be solved with a sword and valiant rage, something always comes up for him.
I can see how Princess of Mars has inflamed so many imaginations. It is vividly exotic and high octane. These are things I like. I just like my dishes to have more than one note. This is the book equivalent of a dessert that is sweet and wobbly and not a lot else.
How Important is this book?
Really rather important. The most obvious example is its influence on Leigh Brackett, who’d go on to write her own pulp adventures set on Mars, and in the process exert a large influence on the New Wave of Sci-Fi writers who’d also help bring a big noir-esque counter-culture vibe to fantasy. Where ever fantasy authors ponder the futility of good deeds, there’s a good chance somewhere in their work’s DNA there’s something that ultimately owes itself to this book, which is quite ironic really.
In a wider sense, Burroughs and his work had a startling influence on fantasy, bigger than perhaps many recognise. His work can very much be seen as a precursor to sword & sorcery and he was a direct influence on many of its authors, from Howard and Moore in the first wave to revivalists like Lin Carter, Moorcock, Delany, and Saunders. He’s also exerted an influence on other fantasy writers of big bold adventure like Brian Jacques, Paul Kearney, and Tamora Pierce. Given he’s an influence on Anne McCaffrey, his Mars also might have something to do with Pern.
And it’s been acknowledged by Superman’s creators that John Carter was a big influence on their hero.
Taken on a grand scale, this is arguably the most influential fantasy book prior to Lord of the Rings. Even if you ignore its effect on the superhero genre, John Carter and Edgar Rice Burroughs probably did as much to make fantasy identified with adventure as anyone. I haven’t even mentioned Tarzan’s role here…
What about the author?
Edgar Rice Burroughs came from an old American family, with numerous well known relatives. He didn’t appear to be one of them after a heart condition resulted in his discharge from the army. He worked several different jobs before deciding anyone could write the rot that appeared in the pulp magazines. He forged a successful career there with his planetary romances and inner earth stories before Tarzan took off in a gigantic way and made him very wealthy. Despite his wealth his thirst for adventure remained, leading him to become a war correspondent in World War Two.
Those achievements have earned him considerable honours. There’s at least two communities in the USA named after Tarzan. There’s also a crater on Mars, thanks to the extent his stories inspired exploration of the red planet. He’s also in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Writers Hall of Fame.
He was also deeply racist and a believer in eugenics, something that spilled into many of his works. ‘Utopian’ communities that owe their status to killing off the families of criminals and thus eliminating crime exist in at least two of his stories, and Tarzan himself was meant to demonstrate the inherent superiority of the English aristocracy.
Burroughs married twice, divorced twice, had three children – two of whom achieved a little fame for creative works attached to their father’s work, as actress and illustrator – and adopted another two in his second marriage.
In short, Burroughs’ life gives the impression of a man with a romantic view of the past and his own self-worth, that buttressed a restless, ambitious personality. We are the beneficiaries of that, even if we might wish otherwise given some of what he wrote.
In terms of how much I thought I might like it vs how much I did, this is the biggest disappointment to date. Would I recommend to this to someone who wants a pure adventure story? Yes, but only after I’ve named about a dozen other things at the very least. Too many other people took Burroughs’ ideas and did them better suited to my liking for it to be otherwise.
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