02 January 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars, Part 1: A Princess of Mars

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

The year 2012 C.E. is the centenary of the Reader Revolution. Two novels published in pulp magazines that year, A Princess of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes, re-shaped popular fiction, helped change the United States into a nation of readers, and created the professional fiction writer. One man wrote both books: Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In celebration of this anniversary, and in anticipation of the upcoming Andrew Stanton film John Carter based on A Princess of Mars, (read my review here) I will tackle all eleven of ERB’s Martian/Barsoom novels in reviews for Black Gate. I also have something special in store for Tarzan of the Apes. This endeavor sounds a touch insane, but come on, but this is the centennial of the series! When else am I going to do it?

Let us turn back the calendar a hundred years to the beginning of all things. . . .

Our Saga: The adventures of Earthman John Carter, his progeny, and sundry other visitors, on the planet Mars. A dry and slowly dying world, the planet known to its inhabitants as “Barsoom” contains four different human civilizations, one non-human one, a scattering of science among swashbuckling, and a plethora of religions, mystery cities, and strange beasts. The series spans 1912 to 1964 with eleven books: nine novels, a book of linked novellas, and a volume collecting two unrelated novellas.

Today’s Installment: A Princess of Mars (1912)

Secret Origin

In 1911, Edgar Rice Burroughs was thirty-five years old and selling pencil sharpeners out of an office in Chicago. His post-military service career was so far a series of undistinguished jobs that kept him and his family barely above poverty: an associate in a mining company in Idaho, a railroad policeman in Salt Lake City, a manager of a stenography department, an owner of a stationery store, and a partner in an advertising agency. No position lasted longer than two years.

Burroughs spent part of his time at the pencil sharpener office scanning the company’s ads in the pulp magazines. In a moment of frustration with his whole life, Burroughs decided to write a better story than the drivel running in the rough paper pages. He started writing down a daydream on the backs of old letterheads during breaks at the office. He finished the book, an adventure on Mars inspired by the popular theories of astronomer Percival Lowell, while at his next job, working in a stationery manufacturing company. He sent the first part of the manuscript to editor Thomas Newell Metcalf at Frank A. Munsey’s Company, and after re-writing and negotiating, he received $400 to have it serialized under the pseudonym “Norman Bean.” (Originally “Normal Bean,” but a copyeditor caught the “mistake” and fixed it.)

This first novel appeared in serial form as Under the Moons of Mars (a name often used for the “John Carter Trilogy” that fills the first three books) in Munsey’s All-Story, February-July 1912. When A. C. McClurg published it in hardcover in 1917, the name changed to A Princess of Mars, and thus do we know it today.

The public loved it. A career was born, and science fiction (a term not even in existence yet) took a leap into grandiose, outrageous adventure. At the end of the year, All-Story ran Tarzan of the Apes complete in one issue, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, impoverished stationery salesman and failed miner, suddenly emerged as the most popular living American writer.

The Argument

This novel inaugurates the tradition of opening with a prologue featuring a fictional version of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who states he was five years old before the start of the Civil War. (The real Burroughs was born in 1875.) Pseudo-ERB explains how he came upon the incredible manuscript which follows: it was the property of his uncle John Carter of Virginia, who disappeared for a decade but came back seemingly un-aged. After Carter was found lying dead in the snow, ERB took possession of the manuscript, but only now—twenty years after its author’s death—can he at last release John Carter’s personal account of his astonishing adventure….

After the conclusion of the Civil War, Captain John Carter of Virginia seeks his fortune in a gold hunt in the hills of Arizona. After a run-in with Apaches, he takes shelter in a cave. Through an unknown property of the cave, Carter leaves his corporeal body and is able to project himself to the bright red mark of Mars in the night sky. (Astrally? Magically? Teleportation? Yes?)

Carter discovers the lower gravity of the planet gives him immense leaping prowess and relatively increased strength. He also possesses a telepathic power allowing him to catch other telepathic messages, while remaining unreadable to others.

Soon after his arrival, Carter falls into the clutches of the green Martians, fierce fifteen-foot multi-limbed warriors. When attempting an escape, Carter slays two of the giant white apes of Mars and earns the loyalty of his “watchdog” Woola, a creature called a calot. Under the kind care of the female Sola, the captive earthman begins to learn the language of the Tharks, the tribe of green Martians who captured him.

Carter encounters another Martian race, humans with a coppery skin color known as the red men, when the Tharks down one of their floating skiffs. Carter gets his first glimpse at the lovely Dejah Thoris, Princess of the city of Helium (who is also completely naked, to the delight of adolescent boys in 1912). When Carter strikes down a Thark who attacks Dejah Thoris in the plaza before an audience, he earns the respect of the other Tharks, particularly vice-chieftain Tars Tarkas, and gains rank among them. But John Carter is already planning his escape with Dejah Thoris.

Carter recognizes he is in love with the Martian woman, but through the “communication errors” that would become a Burroughs’s trademark, she at first resists him. When the tribe marches to the city of Thark, where the cruel Tal Hajus is jeddak (emperor), Carter must hatch a quick scheme to escape before the jeddak executes him and Dejah Thoris. He receives the help of Sola, whose mother died at Tal Hajus’s hands because she would not reveal her secret lover. Sola tells John Carter that her father is none other than Tar Tarkas, something the Thark warrior does not even know.

John Carter and the two women manage to escape the city, but he valiantly lets the green men recapture him so Dejah Thoris and Sola may slip away. But Carter’s captives are not Tharks, but another tribe called the Warhoons. They put Carter into the first Arena Battle™ in the ERB canon. He fakes his death in the final round with the help of his new ally, Kantos Kan of Helium, and sneaks out of the arena to freedom.

He eventually reaches Zodanga, a city of the red Martians at war with Dejah Thoris’s city of Helium. John Carter learns that the princess is a captive of the jeddak of Zodanga. The plot, already moving at a sprinter’s pace, goes to ballistic speed, and John Carter ends up leading an army of Tharks along with Tars Tarkas to rescue Helium from the Zodangan besiegers and stop Dejah Thoris’s forced wedding to the jed of Zodanga, Sab Than.

However, neither John Carter, his beloved Dejah Thoris, nor Barsoom are destined for “Happily Ever After” when the planet’s decay at last reaches maximum. John Carter must go on a sacrificial final mission that may separate him forever from his love and his unborn son.
The Upside

Much of what I’ll say about this book, both positive and negative, is of zero importance; I am a speck of dust in the cosmos that Edgar Rice Burroughs built. A Princess of Mars is one of the most influential and important novels of its century, and science fiction as the world understands it today would not exist without it. If Burroughs didn’t write it, somebody else would have to, otherwise the imagination of the human race would turn stagnant.

These are facts, not opinions. I’ll move on to opinions now.

A Princess of Mars is a monument to the power of imagination. The tidal wave of wild concepts crashing against the reader begs the question: why was Edgar Rice Burroughs wasting the first half of his life in mundane jobs? His head should have exploded from all the crazy notions caroming around inside with no outlet. Thank the Muses he found his true talent, and spent the second half of his life gushing out amazing tales. (And a few clunkers.)

The opening of John Carter’s narration is filled with the magic of great tale-spinning. Whatever other pitfalls the author experienced writing this first book, his need to express something grand and greater than the life he led before explodes in this magnificent first page. The rest of the novel delivers this promise of an astonishing story. ERB molds his experience in the American West into the canvas of an alien world, where fights between cavalry and Apaches and horse chases turn into duels with radium guns between giant green Martians and aerial pursuits in gravity-defying ships. This is the essence of escapism as art.

Starting with the framing device opening, the novel has a compulsive readability that a century has not lessened an ounce. I’ve read this books perhaps three times before, and even with this previous knowledge, I had to force myself to put the book down in order to write notes on it. It’s astonishing that a novel filled with as many plotting errors and structural problems as this can maintain constant momentum, but Burroughs’s enthusiasm pulls off the magic of hiding his neophyte bungling. The last third is a frenzy of action, warfare, and resolutions—handled with the surety of a kindergarten teacher on her first day working with a class of ADD students—but the tsunami cannot be held back.

John Carter is a Hero deserving of the capital letter H. He has a tendency toward arrogance, which will increase in the next two books, but for sheer foolhardy bravery there are few action heroes in literature who can match him for carrying along a story at a reckless pace. In the first chapter, Carter describes his core quality:
I do not believe that I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes, because, in all the hundreds of instances that my voluntary acts have placed me face to face with death, I cannot recall a single one where any alternative step to that I took occurred to me until many hours later. My mind is evidently so constituted that I am subconsciously forced into the path of duty without recourse to tiresome mental processes. However that may be, I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me.
So he’s not a hero; he’s simply so straightforward brave that he looks like a hero. This is actually John Carter in a modest mood.

It sounds laughable, looking at ERB’s Barsoom from a distance, to think of “scientific accuracy” in a story of an inhabited Mars with fifteen-foot-tall green men, multi-armed apes, and mysterious “rays” that negate gravity; but Burroughs used much of the known science of the day (many thanks to Precival Lowell) to help create the backdrop. Earlier authors of expeditions to other planets focused on pure fantasy. Burroughs grounded his many marvels in kernels of fact: the lighter gravity, the proximity of the two moons, the desolate landscape, the lack of water. For 1912, this Mars seemed like a possible place, even if the inhabitants were exaggerated; and those inhabitants received detailed biologies and cultures that made sense within the greater scheme of Barsoom. It is nothing like the actual Mars, but it feels like a genuine planet.

The subgenre of “Dying Earth” finds early precedent here, although this is not Earth. Mars has a green and lush glory in its past, but now suffers as a dry and deprived world. The legend of a great progenitor race would find echoes throughout science fiction and fantasy that came after. Leigh Brackett’s classic The Sword of Rhiannon, also a tale of Mars, takes Burroughs’s concept of the mythic past of the planet and makes it the focus of its epic.

This Mars is also seeded with future possibilities: talk of the River of Iss that leads to the Valley of Dor, from which no inhabitant of Mars has ever returned, creates a sense of a grander setting and a deeper history. In the next novel, Burroughs sends his hero into those mysteries, but even here where they are only an illusion of depth they serve the purpose of making a believable world.

The supporting cast is wonderful. Sola’s tragic history provides a good parallel to John Carter’s adventure that doesn’t need to weigh him down with excess psychological baggage, although Burroughs ties it up too fast. Woola is a delight, one of the best animal sidekicks in fiction. Tars Tarkas is the best ally character Burroughs ever created, but his best days are ahead of him. Tal Hajus is a despicable villain, who unfortunately comes to a rapid, disappointing conclusion.

The finale with the malfunction of the atmosphere station comes roaring out of the clear Martian sky, but it’s a gutsy downer of a wrap-up. This would seem to be the end of the Mars saga, with Carter returned to Earth to live out the remainder of his life, unsure if any living thing on Mars survived. However, ERB left himself an out with Carter’s mysterious tomb that opens from the inside. The adventure is only beginning….

The Downside

It’s the first Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, it started his most consistent high-quality series, it’s an established genre milestone . . . but A Princess of Mars has many shaky sections that show ERB’s inexperience as a novelist. As a whole, the book comes up short compared to the best novels in the series that will follow in short order. A Princess of Mars contains many great parts, but Burroughs had yet to figure out how best to fit them together, and we end up with an energetic but sloppy story.

Burroughs needed a touch more practice before he perfected his action formula. (Not much, since after writing The Outlaw of Torn, his next novel, Tarzan of the Apes, shows a writer practicing his craft at near perfection.) There are large chunks of Martian data dropped for the readers’ benefit in the first half, and most of it doesn’t come from Carter uncovering it; he transports what he will eventually learns and sticks it into the present. This doesn’t hurt the pacing, even during a chapter exclusively dedicated to describing the Thark’s method of child-rearing, but it does make the story feel cluttered and takes away some of the wonder of revelation. It also prevents the narrative from getting to the actual adventure story until after Carter escapes from the city of Thark.

The story should ramp up right after Carter finds Dejah Thoris, a beautiful woman in need of rescue. But after a fast dispatch of one Thark that threatens her, Carter settles in for a calm chat with her about Martian customs, then dithers about with his new household staff. Carter and Dejah Thoris next spend a long chapter in a bonding conversation to set up their love and arbitrary conflict, but it’s all static dialogue with no other action occurring, something that Burroughs rarely let happen again. The story remains in this holding pattern (Sola’s backstory is another static pause, and it fails to develop later in the book) until the escape attempt in Thark. ERB had yet to pick up the skill to grab a potential conflict and dash like mad with it, perhaps because he still needed the confidence of a developed setting to make him feel at ease letting the story fire ahead. The meld of world-building and story plotting will become second nature to him very soon, but it’s terribly uneven in A Princess of Mars.

And Burroughs had trouble with the world-building this first time out as well. The problem isn’t with the ideas, but how Burroughs introduces them to his audience. He often uses Barsoomian terms as if the readers were already familiar with them, and then clumsily remembers to explain them later: He first uses jed and jeddak without any indication that they are titles. John Carter makes the strange assumption that Dejah Thoris and the red men of Mars also hatched from eggs, like the green men, even though he has no reason to know this. At one point, Burroughs has to cram in an explanation as to what a calot is within brackets. Burroughs had wonderful concepts this early in his career, but didn’t exactly know how to unveil them or make necessary editorial tweaks to fix the problem. This is another skill he would rapidly master, but A Princess of Mars often has a wobbly first draft feeling, perhaps because it was all a “daydream” that Burroughs scribbled onto the backs of scrap paper.

The wobbly plotting continues through to the finale, which rockets along far too fast. Carter runs from captivity among the Tharks, to captivity among the Whoorans, to a stop at the atmosphere station, then to Zodanga where he becomes a pilot, and joins the jeddak’s bodyguard, and finally races across Barsoom to rally the Tharks to join Helium in the battle against Zodanga—all in the space of a few dense chapters. The pace gets so frenzied that Burroughs skips over moments that should carry more impact, such as an important duel between two major characters that he discards in a mere sentence.

The action moves in spurts and starts: a strong build-up, a sudden ending; or vice versa. The first battle in an arena in an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel disappoints; having Carter easily fake his death and then walk out of captivity is cruelly unsatisfying. The Arena Battle™ would become one of ERB’s specialties, and feature as the centerpiece of The Chessmen of Mars. But here, he doesn’t know how to milk the possibilities.

Foreshadowing a problem that plagued Carson Napier in the Venus novels, John Carter has telepathic powers that he rarely uses, and for long stretches forgets he possesses them—probably because the author forgot as well or found them inconvenient. The telepathic powers should have been dispensed with entirely as they add little to the story except some plot-convenient short cuts.

The witty and satirical Edgar Rice Burroughs hasn’t arrived yet, aside from a wisecrack about lawyers (see below). A Princess of Mars unfolds with only a few sparks of humor and almost nothing in the way of the barbed shots at civilization that make the author’s mature work so lively even when the action isn’t pulsing.

I don’t know if this counts as something that doesn’t work for the book, but Barsoomian technology sure is bonkers. Radium guns, anti-gravity floating skiffs, atmosphere-producing station… but no advanced communication technology, and people still pull out swords and rely on draft animals.

Craziest bit of Burroughsian Writing: ERB packs in the new words: “They did not molest us, and so Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, and John Carter, gentleman of Virginia, followed by the faithful Woola, passed through utter silence from the audience chamber of Lorquas Ptomel, Jed among the Tharks of Barsoom.”

Best Moment of Heroic Arrogance: John Carter faces down a thousand advancing Tharks with one radium rifle.

Times a “Princess” (Female Lead) Needs Rescuing: 3

Best Creature: By Ares, take your pick! This is a smorgasbord of awesomeness. I’ll go with the white apes, which grabbed my imagination when I first read the novel twenty years ago.

Most Imaginative Idea: The whole damn thing.

The Real Author Shows His Hand: “In one respect at least the Martians are a happy people; they have no lawyers.”

Should ERB Have Continued the Series? Of course! This Mars is too amazing a place to leave it at one-and-done. The calots are loose now, there’s no stopping the revolution!

Next Up: The Gods of Mars

I would like to acknowledge John Flint Roy’s A Guide to Barsoom (1976) and Richard A. Lupoff’s Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure (1965) for aiding in the research for these articles.