Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Carl Sagan has a lot to answer for. In 1980, the famous astronomer and rationalist (Dawkins would have loved him) wrote the book and TV series Cosmos. The book kicked around my house until I was of an age to read it, and I found it a real treasure- a sprawling account of the universe and our relationship with it, told through science, myth, history and literature. No stone remained unturned- in a chapter on Mars, Sagan rightly devotes as much time on the impact writers such as H. G. Wells and Burroughs had on the public’s perception of the red planet as the 1970’s Viking missions.

Sagan grows particularly misty-eyed as he recalls the exploits of Burroughs’ hero John Carter of Mars. He recalls daring adventure, exotic locales and beautiful heroines. He recalls the best damn two-fisted adventures in the history of literature. All in all, he recalls too much.

It was many years later that I finally got my hands on a Burroughs book. It was A Princess of Mars, the first book Burroughs ever wrote (in 1912), and the first one that featured John Carter.

Carter is a good ‘ol boy from Virginia who, at the end of the Civil War, finds himself destitute, and with ‘his only means of livelihood, fighting, gone’ (Not to worry, John. There’ll be plenty of fighting where you’re going). While prospecting in Arizona, Carter gets trapped in a cave by some marauding Indians. Apropos of nothing, he suddenly looks up to the sky to the planet Mars, and announces that, actually, as a fighting man, he’s always had a fascination with the planet of the god of war, don’t you know. He finds his spirit somehow transported to Mars, while his body lies in the the cave on Earth.

On Mars, Carter encounters a version of the red planet that was very much in the public mind of the time- a dying world of dried-up seas, cris-crossed with canals as ancient civilizations carry out last-ditch efforts to make the planet habitable. He encounters the Tharks, eight-foot tall green men with four arms who live to fight. He fights alongside them and earns their trust and respect, and eventually goes on an expedition to rescue the beautiful (and notably more human) princess Dejah Thoris from the clutches of an enemy people.

As Sagan notes in Cosmos, the popular idea of an old, dying Mars was largely due to an American named Percival Lowell, who also influenced Wells. Lowell was an astronomer who believed he could see canals on Mars using his telescope, and produced remarkably consistent maps and globes of their positions over a period of many years in the late 19th century, even going so far as to name many of them. He was a respected astronomer and no crank, and whatever it was that he was chronicling is still something of a mystery today.

So that was the state of Mars in the public perception, circa 1912. What Burroughs brings to the table is that his Mars is a place of ADVENTURE! Unfortunately, what 'adventure' means to Burroughs is endless captures, escapes and fights. Carter faces pulpish creatures on almost every page- in cities, in deserts, in arenas- but he’s such a designated hero that none of it seems to matter. He’s such a hardass that we never believe he’s in the slightest danger. Couple this with a ‘heroic, manly’ attitude reminiscent of Sir Galahad, and Carter quickly becomes a bore.

I am not prone to sensitiveness, and the following of a sense of duty, wherever it may lead, has always been a sort of fetich (sic) throughout my life; which may account for the honours bestowed upon me by three republics and the decorations and friendships of several lesser kings, in whose service my sword has been red many a time.

Not a humble chap, our John. He’s almost like Flashman played straight, and while this uncynical view of manliness and heroism is often part of the charm of early 20th-century fiction, here it grates immensely. Carter never admits a weakness. He’s nothing but a tremendous Mary Sue- a stand-in for the author, only faster and stronger and more popular. His black-and-white world view is vindicated by all the characters he meets- Thoris is good because she is a beautiful woman who knows her place and falls in love with him immediately. Tars Tarkas the Thark is good because, though a barbarian, he has a sense of honour and duty similar to Carter’s own. And bad characters are similarly flat- jealous and conniving from the moment they are introduced. Character development is not one of Burroughs’ strong points.

So is the novel saved by the exotic locales and fantastic events? For the most part, Burroughs neglects to describe the scenery and architecture of this I’m-sure-it-would-be-fascinating-if-I-could-see-it world. In fact, his most poetic prose appears instead on those rare occasions where he lets us know what the narrator is feeling- when he is scared, or anxious, or lonely. Of course, Carter is such a manly man that he doesn’t allow this to happen too often.

There are few ideas here beyond a straightforward adventure story. Attempts to flesh out the details of the Tharks alien society do add some depth and interest, but once we discover that these underachieving ‘barbarians’ are in fact merely squatting in the ruins of great cities built by a lost utopian race, who were of course wise, noble and very white, the charm does fizzle somewhat. As Carter is looking at the frescoes of one of the most beautiful buildings-

They were of people like myself, and of a much lighter colour than Dejah Thoris. They were clad in graceful, flowing robes, highly ornamented with metal and jewels, and their luxuriant hair was that of a beautiful golden and reddish bronze. The men were beardless and only a few wore arms. The scenes depicted for the most part, a fair-skinned, fair-haired people at play.

This is such a common trope amongst fiction of the period that it quickly becomes tiresome. Did anybody of the time, even just once, posit a utopian society that did not have elitist, racist undertones? Finding it in this novel, mentioned briefly and with no relevance to the plot, is quite disheartening. It’s like Burroughs interrupts the narrative to shout ‘hey kids, I know it’s not really relevant, but I thought I’d remind you that only white people can be civilized- even in fantasy!’

Perhaps it's unfair to ask such things of a rock-em sock-em pulp adventure. But the truth of the matter is that other authors have done this kind of thing, before and after Burroughs, far better. According to Sagan, there’s a lot more books where this one came from, but don’t be expecting a review of them to pop up here anytime soon.

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