Friday, January 13, 2012

A Princess of Mars

You may have seen the film previews for the movie "John Carter," which is scheduled for release in April.  The genesis of this story is from one of the founding fathers of Fantasy Fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In 1912, at the age of 36, Burroughs published his first novel, entitled "Under the Moons of Mars."  The title was changed to "A Princess of Mars" a couple of years after that.  The story is told in first person from the viewpoint of John Carter of Earth, who in the late 19th century is mysteriously transported from the Arizona desert to Mars.  Carter first discovers that, due to the lesser gravity and thinner atmosphere on Mars, he is tremendously stronger and faster than on earth, accidentally flinging himself several feet through the air while trying to stand up.

Carter journeys through a world full of bizarre species of beasts and "men."  Among these are the Tharks, a tribe of warlike, six-limbed 12 - 15 foot tall with four arms (not forearms - four arms).  From them he learns that the other dominant race of peoples on "Barsoom" are the red Martians, who more closely resemble the humans of earth, although with a coppery, reddish caste to their skin.  The first red Martian he encounters is Dejah Thoris, the beautiful princess of one of the dominant Barsoomian city-states.  Dejah Thoris is of course, the "princess" referred to in the book's title.

While not technically a work of "science fiction," it is interesting to look through the book and find references to many things we take for granted in the early 21st century.  Burroughs depicts flying warships engaged in air to air battles using missiles and bombs.  While the concept of aerial warfare seems commonplace to us now, remember that Burroughs wrote "A Princess of Mars" in 1912, two years before the outbreak of the First World War.  And even at the beginning of that conflict, powered flight was barely out of its infancy, and aircraft were first used primarily for reconnaissance.  Burroughs describes how the Martian aviators are able to set a heading into their craft to keep them on course, even if they were required to make detours.  This was DECADES before GPS technology came in to being.  And a key factor in the story is the Barsoomian's atmosphere processor, the operators of which are responsible for maintaining all life on the planet.

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote several different Barsoomian novels, and John Carter, along with another of Burroughs' protagonists, made him internationally famous.  The "other protagonist"?  None other than John Clayton, Lord Greystoke.  Better known as "Tarzan of the Apes."  But "A Princess of Mars" precedes the lord of the jungle by a couple of years. 
"A Princess of Mars" is an exciting adventure story, and is viewed by many as the first significant work in the genre of fantasy literature.  I would highly recommend it for anyone looking for a fun diversion.  There is violence in the form of hand to hand combat, and muted sensuality (the Martians don't wear clothes, but various combinations of jewelry, belts and harnesses used to help them carry their weapons and other equipment).  But there are no overt descriptions of sexuality.  I first read this when I was about 12 or 13 and, apart from giggling a little when I first realized that these people were naked, it wasn't a big deal.

Burroughs' writing style has always been such a pleasure to me.  His stories are filled with a rich vocabulary, but are nonethless fairly easy to read.  I read the book again in December, and it was like seeing an old friend again.  He made me want to write stories.  He apparently made a lot of others want to write, too.  According to Wikipedia, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan and John Norman are among the well-known authors who cite him as a source of inspiration.

Alan Andrews

1 comment:

Unknown said...

However, do not watch the movie called Princess of Mars, because it is pretty much horrible. I wondered if it was based on a book, and now I want to read it, just to get the movie out of my mind.