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Book Note: Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars

I read this book about 29-Jul-2011. This is the first time I've read this book. The book is copyright 1912. This note was last modified Saturday, 03-May-2014 08:17:22 PDT.

This is book 1 of the "Barsoom" series.

This note contains spoilers for the book.

 

First of his Mars books ("Barsoom"). ISFDB tells me this was first published as by "Norman Bean".

I pretty definitely didn't hit these at the right age. In fact, this is the first time I'm reading them. I know I watched some Tarzan movies, and I think I may have read the books (though I don't have them in the library), and I might perhaps have read At the Earth's Core, maybe (but I know I read The Lost World, so more likely I'm just getting an echo of that).

In my circles, they don't have a very good reputation; excessively pulpy, thinly plotted, pure action-adventure, not good worldbuilding.

So you could say I was starting without excessively high expectations.

But I ran into them on Gutenberg, and they're classics of the field, and Heinlein was very fond of them (a contributor to my disliking The Number of the Beast so much).

This first one is a strange mix. He clearly knows he's writing science fiction (which in 1912 is remarkable, since it hadn't been labeled as a genre yet). When John Carter first finds himself on Mars, he notices the light gravity, and it takes him a while to learn to move adequately again. The atmosphere is only kept thick by constant effort of the atmosphere plant. The moons "hurtle" past because they're so close (but they're way too bright, as is the sun). (Heinlein's exact phrase "the hurtling moons of Barsoom" doesn't occur in the first book, though.) To conserve water, it's delivered directly to irrigated crops through a network of tiny pipes leading it directly to their roots; we're just starting to do that on a large scale on Earth.

Now, there is nonsense that's not the slightest believable as science. The spectrum there has additional colors, and the rays of one of them provide propulsion to their airships, for example. And of course the explosive radium projectiles. But then radium was discovered in the form of radium chloride in 1898, and the metallic form was isolated in 1910, just two years before this story was published.

Then there's stuff that he just makes no attempt to explain. Carter dies on Earth and ends up on Mars (after a brief out-of-body experience), for no reason he or anybody else knows.

I expected John Carter to be more of an asshole. After all, he's a Confederate soldier and a Virginia gentleman. But, on Mars, mostly he's teaching them how to respect, like, and even love each other. He gets his animals to behave better than anybody else just by treating them decently.

Martians are telepathic with each other, and with their animals, but this doesn't seem to lead to any empathy. Carter can receive their thoughts, but they cannot read his. This isn't thought through; not in the character interactions, and not in the societies described.

And there's the Romantic Love thing presented as the one true way. I wonder if he ever shows signs of getting smarter? Smith did.

There's a bizarre bit where he describes how the hatching of children from eggs, in large clutches, and the raising of the children by random adults they attach to, makes the whole society loveless. "Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common." "Parental and filial love is as unknown to them as it is common among us. I belive this horrible system which has been carried on for ages is the direct cause of the loss of all the finer feelings and higher humanitarian instincts among these poor creatures." Doesn't that sound like something that a 1950s anti-communist would cite? But this was 5 years before the Russian revolution.

So, in the end, I liked this a lot more than I thought I would. The action plot isn't bad, the risks are high, and it's not primarily a sociological screed.


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David Dyer-Bennet