- by Gitabushi
I just finished re-reading “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
I read it the first time in my teens, and liked it okay. I think I read some of the sequels but got bored with it. But I can’t remember. And that should tell you something.
I re-read “A Princess of Mars” when the movie “John Carter” came out. I was disappointed then, because I was reading it with a reading standard of Lois McMasters-Bujold, Steven Brust, CJ Cherryh, Lee Child, Robert Heinlein, Niven/Pournelle, and many other more modern writers. And to be blunt, it doesn’t measure up to the more advanced versions of SFF in terms of plot, characterization, science, etc.
A few years later, I encountered various members and fans of the Pulp Revolution. As part of my attempt to understand both Pulp and the reason for its resurgence, I expressed my unpopular opinion, and was chastised for it.
However, the standards you bring with you do have a huge impact on whether you can enjoy something, whether you can suspend your disbelief or not. If you judge an off-road vehicle by the standards of a sports sedan, the off-road vehicle will be horrible. But the opposite is true, too.
So I decided to re-read it, with a new viewpoint in mind. I decided to re-read it with a viewpoint informed by what Pulp is, and its place in history. I also wanted to analyze the elements and fully grasp the universe because I have plans for a story (or even a series) in the same universe.
Armed with my new viewpoint, I started re-reading. It wasn’t a difficult read. Looking at it as heroic planetary romance, written for people who want to read about a heroic bad-ass, it was enjoyable.
That doesn’t mean it was without flaws.
There are too many times that things work out for John Carter just because ERB wanted them to. Some of the plot developments are rather contrived. That John Carter had to wait until almost literally the last minute before he realized he had the key to save the planet was a pretty ham-handed method of adding dramatic tension. The revelation of what scared off the Apaches from the cave at the beginning of the book was really lame. The payoff wasn’t worth the build-up at all.
Those who say “A Princess of Mars” is decent SFF because ERB used the science of the times (incorporating canals and a grasp of gravity disparities) are wrong. Sure, those elements comport with the known science of the time, but the introduction of the Barsoomian discovery of the 8th and 9th rays…sheesh. It doesn’t even work well as magic, much less science. And the idea that John Carter could successfully mate with a being that lays eggs, and whose very internal organs are different, defies even the most generous of disbelief suspensions.
But for all that, there are some very good elements to the book, as well. ERB sets up some dramatic moments very well, and often resolves them in a way readers don’t feel cheated. We get a good sense of John Carter’s character, and commitment to doing what’s right.
As a discussion of Race vs Culture, however, this book really shines. Originally, when I didn’t think as much about messages in stories, in my memory of previous readings, I just thought of the Tharks (green men) as possibly standing in for earthly blacks, because, hey: black vs white is the primary racial issue in the United States, and has been since before its creation. But upon re-reading, it struck me that the Tharks are supposed to represent Native Americans, and the Red race is supposed to represent whites. I wouldn’t be surprised if ERB deliberately chose to make whites “Redskins” and Native Americans an entirely different color to try to highlight that skin color doesn’t matter one bit, that it is culture that makes the real difference.
And he showed that. It might be contrived that it took John Carter to re-awaken normal human emotions and compassion in the Tharks (sort of…it was Sola’s mother and Tars Tarkas that apparently ignited the spark…it just took John Carter to coax it into a full flame), but the point fits with what I believe about people: most of the differences we see between races in the modern US is due to culture that largely (but imperfectly) corresponds to race. You can change the character of a race without changing skin color by making decisions to change individual behavior that then changes direction of the culture.
And I think his message is underscored by the fact that the worst people in the story are of the exact same race as the best people. If all it took to be honorable and good were to be of the Red Skin race, then the Zodangas wouldn’t be such horrible people. But they are.
I think it is good writing, and ERB is a good writer, but I do think the standards of writing, as a performance skill, have improved immensely since ERB’s time. I think if “A Princess of Mars” were written today, or if ERB had been born 100 years later and then wrote the stories, it would be essentially the same story, but with better pacing, fewer deus ex machina elements, better scientastic explanations for anti-gravity, atmosphere generation, and similarity of appearance between Red Barsoomians and Earthlings, etc. It would be the same story, but better.
Still, it is what it is: a landmark work in the history of science fiction. You have to be in the right mindset to read it, however. You have to judge it by its own standards to fully appreciate and enjoy it. Maybe the Pulp Revivalists do it more naturally. Or maybe most readers, whether into pulp or not, are able to suspend disbelief more easily than I can. I don’t know. I do know that I enjoyed it much more after changing my perspective.
So…final analysis: Good book, good story. I will keep reading in the series.
Edited to add: related.