Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is my favorite story so far from the early days of science fiction. Two main reasons: the emotions and logic behind the actions of the protagonist do not ring false, and the ending doesn’t descend into romantic sociopathy or some flavor of Uncle Andrew’s high and lonely destiny(1). John Carter might bring about a battle wherein a million red and green Martians die to save his princess and her kingdom, but it’s safe to say he would not kill a dog for the sake of abstract progress. I can get behind a man like that.
The main virtue of a Princess of Mars is that it is a ripping good story. John Carter is gratifyingly brave, noble and humble, a true gentleman of Virginia and a fell hand in war; Dejah Thoris is wonderfully brave, noble and beautiful, what any Princess should aspire to be. The various races and cultures of Mars are developed with insight and sympathy, no matter how appalling their behavior and appearance might be. Doc Smith in Skylark, for example, would have made the green Martians mere monsters and the red Martians mere victims and heroes. But Burroughs gives even the hideous animals personality and depth.
The tragedy of a dying planet is consistently echoed in the tragedies of the red and green Martians. Even the cruel Thark lords who Carter kills are not simple monsters but are creatures of a brutal culture that arose under brutal circumstances. In the end, the better angels of the natures of all the races are revealed. Considering that Carter was a rebel soldier in the US Civil War, that’s an interesting outcome.
Onward: John Carter and James Powell, a buddy who fought with him on the losing side of the Civil War, decide to go seek their fortunes prospecting in Arizona. (Aside: Burroughs’ description of the Arizona landscape is dead on an beautiful.) They find gold, and decide Carter will guard the claim while Powell registers it and gets some men and supplies to start exploiting it.
From the claim, Carter has an excellent view through the clear Arizona air of Powell’s path – he can see for many miles his partner pick his way across the landscape. Finally, as the day wears on, Powell’s form vanishes into the shadows of distant mountains. But three ‘dots’ soon appear on his trail – Indians!
An heroic but ultimately futile rescue attempt ensues, with Carter chased by the pursuing Indians into a mysterious cave, where he prepared to make his last stand. But as the Indians find him, he is overcome by some mysterious force, and, while conscious, cannot move from his spot on the floor. But, equally mysteriously, the Indians panic and flee just as they get to the cave.
Carter, now alone, hears mysterious sound in the cave, and fears that whatever frightened off his pursuers will now do him in. With heroic effort, Carter attempts to escape, but cannot make his body move – until he finds himself standing, naked, looking down on his own body. Moments later, he finds himself on Mars!
This issue of transportation – how does somebody get to Mars in the 1860s, anyway? – is really just magic (although perhaps explained in the sequels? I kind of hope not). But that’s it – once on Mars, Burroughs sticks to speculation not at all unreasonable from the state of science at the time. That Barsoom – what the natives call Mars – is a dying yet well-populated world with several varieties of at least 2 intelligent races in near-constant war with each other provides a complicated political backdrop for our hero’s adventures.
We’ve got fights to the death, political intrigues, learning the language and customs, an opportunistic ambush, more fights to the death, a captured Princess, yet more fights to the death, escape, more political intrigue, more fights, more escapes, rescues – the action rarely pauses. Throughout, Burroughs introduces customs and creatures and a vast alien landscape – just great fun.
In the end, a whole bunch of threads need to be tied up: the heroic Tars Tarkis must claim leadership of the Tharks and be revenged upon the evil Jeddak Tal Hajus, for the torture and murder of his wife; Dejah Thoris must be freed from the clutches of the Jeddak of Zodanga and the coerced marriage to his son; the siege of the great capital of Helium must be lifted, and the animosity between green and red Martians must come to an end.
And the Hero has to get the Girl – can’t for get that. Makes for a great last few chapters.
Epic. Wonderful. Available free on the Web. Go read it now. BTW: the movie was stupid and captured virtually none of this.
- I assume all three of my regular readers get this, but just in case Google sends some poor lost soul here:
“You mean that little boys ought to keep their promises. Very true: most right and proper, I’m sure, and I’m very glad you have been taught to do it. But of course you must understand that rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys – and servants – and women – and even people in general, can’t possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.” – Uncle Andrew in the Magician’s Nephew