A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Book Club, August '22)

And now for something completely different! August’s book choice is A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

This novel is considered to be a classic example of 20th-Century pulp fiction. It was first published in a magazine, in serial form, in 1912. The original title was Under the Moons of Mars, with the title changed to A Princess of Mars when Burroughs novelised the story in 1917. A series of Barsoom novels followed, and became an inspiration for later writers such as Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke.

In an article on the evolution of science fiction, the Encyclopaedia Brittanica writes that in this novel, Burroughs:

“transformed European-style ‘literary’ science fiction into a distinctly American genre directed at a juvenile audience. Combining European elements of fantasy and horror with the naive expansionist style of early American westerns […]”

and that:

“Burroughs’s hero remained an SF archetype, especially for ‘space operas,’ through the 1950s.”

So what sort of book is it? Wikipedia describes the genre of A Princess of Mars thus:

“While the novel is often classed as science fantasy, it also belongs to the subgenre of planetary romance, which has affinities with fantasy and sword and sorcery; it is distinguished by its inclusion of scientific (or pseudo-scientific) elements.”

It sounds intriguing.

You can download a copy of the e-book from Project Gutenberg or Standard Ebooks, and several audio versions are available from LibriVox. But any unabridged edition (paper, digital or audiobook) is fine.

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A forum member (and longstanding Burroughs fan) has been in touch to share some information on A Princess of Mars, writing that “Burroughs really mastered the adventure novel – there is a sense of wonder and exploration as well as a huge dollop of derring-do”:

It might interest your book club to also know that the John Carter Barsoom novels are the direct inspiration/precursor of Superman and Star Wars. Princess of Mars was also made into an ill-fated Disney blockbuster, JOHN CARTER. Part of the reason it failed was that so many elements of the story had been previously mined by other movies in past decades that it seemed overly familiar.

the Barsoom series is one of the earliest successful examples of the subgenre of “space opera.” Other familiar titles in this genre include Star Wars, The Fifth Element and Dune.

Also of note: Barsoom was the first runaway best-selling series for Burroughs. They had merch, radio plays – John Carter was a big deal back then. It was the biggest book series until Burroughs invented Tarzan.

In one way, I didn’t know what to expect of A Princess of Mars, and in another way, it wasn’t at all as I expected.

The novel is very filmic in flavour, and very much like an action movie. I’m not a fan of lots of action in films, and I find action scenes as unengaging in print as on the screen (I have to admit to skimming over some of them when reading), but I still enjoyed this. It is quite a romp!

For a book written in 1912, its composition is strikingly modern in many respects. It starts in a world of (relative) normality, then the hero is transported instantaneously to Mars. This reminded me of the “ordinary world” and “call to adventure” stages in the skeleton structures that you see in texts such as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces or Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers. Apologies if I have misrepresented those texts, as it is a very long time since I read them; perhaps someone with greater knowledge of such models may be able to expand on this.

After the shift to Mars, the next few chapters felt a lot like Gulliver’s Travels, as the new world and its inhabitants are introduced and their social practices documented. I found this the most interesting part of the book; it is fascinating to see the features that Burroughs felt it important to focus on when building his imaginary world, and he does a very good job of it.

There is a rather predictable boy-gets-girl sort of plotline underpinning the more epic Barsoom power struggles. The hero and his beloved are extremely stereotypical, and not very nuanced — in fact, all of the characters are two-dimensional. But somehow the whole thing hangs together very well. The ending is quite poignant, but I won’t spoil it in case you intend reading the book or haven’t finished it yet.

It’s actually a very good read. For its time, it must have been very unusual indeed, and I can see why it became a huge hit.

There are spoilers in this review, so don’t read on if you plan to read the book. :scream_cat:

I don’t believe I’ve read much pulp fiction, at least not in the last few decades. When I was in grammar school, I was a fan of HG Wells’ scifi, and have fond memories of staying up past my bedtime with a flashlight reading War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and the First Men in the Moon. I don’t know whether Wells is considered pulp, but my recollection of those stories is that they move along fairly briskly and you can more or less put your brain on hold and just enjoy them. (I recently picked up The Lost World and came away disappointed, so I don’t know if I’d feel the same way now about those others that my ten year old self so thoroughly enjoyed.)

While I find HP Lovecraft’s stories a mixed bag–for me he’s either really good or really bad–I’ve read a lot of them and he definitely qualifies as a pulp author.

So that’s my experience in this genre. Although it’s possible I picked up one of the Tarzan books at a yard sale when I was a kid, I’m fairly certain I haven’t read Edgar Rice Burroughs before.

For the most part, reading A Princess of Mars reminded me very much of those nights reading with a flashlight under the covers and going along for the ride.

Except, that is, for the very first chapter, where I very nearly stopped reading due to his references to the “cunning Apaches”. I was literally one more reference to “savages” or “merciless clutches” or “red rascals” away from filing the book in my Kindle’s Abandoned collection. Perhaps there was some irony intended by Burroughs here, by having Carter tangle with the dastardly redskins on Earth yet bond completely with the Martian redskins on the planet of war. If so, it went right over my head.

But thankfully Burroughs switched the scene to Mars, so I didn’t have to deal with that unfortunate aspect of his writing any longer.

From that point on, I have to admit that I enjoyed the book. It moves. After the framing device of the Foreword, the chase, and the mysterious cave, the story proper begins when John Carter is magically transported to Mars. He gets himself in and out of many jams, during which he earns the respect of the Martians (both green and red), gains the love of a faithful dog-like creature, and ultimately wins the hand of the princess, with whom he has an egg. :egg: He gains telepathic powers, teaches Martians the meaning of friendship, and kills a multitude of Martians with various weapons and his bare hands. Then, after nine years living the Martian good life, when it seems he has everything he could ever want, a catastrophe occurs and Carter’s story ends with him back on Earth, apparently stranded. But viewing this ending in the light of the implications of the Foreword, we can assume that he is back on Mars with his princess and his child, who presumably has hatched. :hatched_chick:

The high point of the novel for me is the voice and language Burroughs’ uses for Carter’s first person narration. I loved it. I guess I’m just a sucker for that artificially elevated tone and overwriting, that pulpy shorthand for getting meaning across. Although sometimes the shorthand isn’t so short!

“However, I am not prone to sensitiveness, and the following of a sense of duty, wherever it may lead, has always been a kind of fetich with me throughout my life; which may account for the honors bestowed upon me by three republics and the decorations and friendships of an old and powerful emperor and several lesser kings, in whose service my sword has been red many a time.”

“I saw no signs of extreme age among them, nor is there any appreciable difference in their appearance from the age of maturity, about forty, until, at about the age of one thousand years, they go voluntarily upon their last strange pilgrimage down the river Iss, which leads no living Martian knows whither and from whose bosom no Martian has ever returned, or would be allowed to live did he return after once embarking upon its cold, dark waters.”

“This ray, like the ninth ray, is unknown on Earth, but the Martians have discovered that it is an inherent property of all light no matter from what source it emanates. They have learned that it is the solar eighth ray which propels the light of the sun to the various planets, and that it is the individual eighth ray of each planet which “reflects,” or propels the light thus obtained out into space once more. The solar eighth ray would be absorbed by the surface of Barsoom, but the Barsoomian eighth ray, which tends to propel light from Mars into space, is constantly streaming out from the planet constituting a force of repulsion of gravity which when confined is able to lift enormous weights from the surface of the ground.”

“This girl alone, among all the green Martians with whom I came in contact, disclosed characteristics of sympathy, kindliness, and affection; her ministrations to my bodily wants were unfailing, and her solicitous care saved me from much suffering and many hardships.”

Lord help me, I love this stuff. It’s equal parts hilarious and effective. Perhaps that’s why I still enjoy Lovecraft even when he’s at his worst, as his writing very much has the same sort of feel.

Besides the objectionable material in the first chapter, for me the greatest weakness of the novel is that Carter gets out of his scrapes just a little too easily. He encounters many problems–which is good–but I can’t recall any for which he didn’t have a ready solution or for which he paid any great price. About halfway through the novel, I realized Burroughs wasn’t planning on throwing anything at Carter that his hero wouldn’t be well able to handle. This decreased my enjoyment a tad. I still went with it, enjoyed the writing and finished the book, but as a result it didn’t make for very compelling reading.

When I was done, I reread the Foreword and the first few chapters to see how and where Burroughs had planted clues about Carter’s final transit back to Mars, and also to determine if there was anything I’d missed that would better explain how he actually moved between worlds. While I didn’t find anything that clarified his means of transportation, I did learn something that thoroughly surprised me–Carter’s mention that he was immortal. “…I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood.”

WTF? I’d completely forgotten about his immortality, so rereading it was a double surprise. No wonder, as it’s never mentioned again and has no impact on any of the events. It seems such an odd detail to include in the story. However, perhaps it’s meant to imply that Carter is really a Martian–a white Martian?–who’d somehow long ago, so long ago that he’d forgotten–become stranded on Earth. This could tie in with the thousand year life span of Martians. This could also explain Carter’s lifelong connection with Mars. “As I gazed upon it I felt a spell of overpowering fascination—it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment.” Perhaps the following books in the series explain this.

Yeah, about Disney’s JOHN CARTER -

I saw the movie a few years ago on cable and promptly forgot it. For kicks, I watched it again shortly after finishing A Princess of Mars.

In my opinion, the reason JOHN CARTER “seemed overly familiar” is not because of similar story elements. Rather, in look and tone, Disney’s movie felt closer to a Star Wars installment than to the novel by Burroughs.

Burrough’s Barsoom is a hard R-rated planet, while Disney’s is a relatively soft PG-13, which tells you whose butts the studio hoped to get in theatre seats. From that marketing decision you can extrapolate pretty much everything that differentiates the Disney adaptation from the source material. They neutered the John Carter character. There’s nothing ferocious about Disney’s CGI green Martians. The novel’s violence and gore were thoroughly dialed down. At no time during the film is there any real feeling of danger to any of the main characters. The main threat in the film is that the princess is going to marry the wrong guy!

While JOHN CARTER wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t very good. It felt like a lesser Disney movie, which is the best and the worst that can be said about it. I can’t claim that an R-rated space opera closer to Burrough’s vision would have been a better movie or performed better at the box office. I guess we’ll never know–although, maybe someday a movie will get made that does for space opera what Game of Thrones did for fantasy.

Best,
Jim

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Thank you, @JimRac – that was a really enjoyable review. And I agree entirely about Burroughs’ writing style. I love the overblown-ness and pseudo-formality of it.

I find this with problem with quite a lot of older books, particularly those from the late Victorian period onwards. Even the Sherlock Holmes book that we read a few months back seemed very awkward to me in that respect.

Me, too. I suspect that more will be divulged in the ten sequels! However, although I enjoyed The Princess of Mars as a novelty and a change from my normal reading fodder, I don’t think I’ll be embarking on those sequels any time soon.

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I think one of the reasons it failed was that the title John Carter didn’t carry enough information to lead the viewer to understand that this was a movie about John Carter of Mars by Burroughs.

I was a big fan of Burroughs when I used to read fiction and enjoyed the Barsoom series. But I had no idea that was what the movies was about until I was well into it, then my memory of it started to kick in.

My mother, who introduced me to Burroughs, was of the same opinion – poor marketing.

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According to this piece about JOHN CARTER, here is how they came up with the title JOHN CARTER:

First, director Andrew Stanton changed PRINCESS OF MARS to JOHN CARTER OF MARS, because if it was called PRINCESS OF MARS “…not a single boy would go”.

Then, at some point later, JOHN CARTER OF MARS was changed to JOHN CARTER by the studio, because a long list of recent movies with MARS in the title had performed poorly at the box office.

(Although in this interview with Andrew Stanton, he appears to say that he changed JOHN CARTER OF MARS to JOHN CARTER, because “no girl would go to see [a movie called] JOHN CARTER OF MARS”.

So who knows. But as usual, your mother was right. :grinning:

Best,
Jim

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Dumb. They could have just called it John Carter and the Princess of Mars - based on the book by E R Burroughs author of Tarzan or something similar.

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