MUST READ SFF: “A Princess of Mars”

  • by Gitabushi

I just finished re-reading “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

tars and john

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.


16 thoughts on “MUST READ SFF: “A Princess of Mars”

  1. Nice write-up, Gita. A couple thoughts –

    I think you’re on to something when you talk about expectations. And on that note, although I’ve come across people who say a Princess of Mars was highly adherent to the science of the times (I’ll leave that to other people to delve into; it bores me somewhat), I think it’s largely considered Science Fantasy. So yeah, there were a few scientifically plausible elements, but that’s not one of the main “rules” of the story and certainly not a limit ERB held himself to.

    Second, regarding the plot and writing and how you say it would be better if created today – you may be right, but once again I’m going to have to plead the “tastes differ” case. As far as form and style, I find that I actually prefer the older writers. ERB, Leigh Brackett, Fritz Leiber – they may not have had the same degree of command of the language as Howard or Vance for example, but they knew how to write technically well. All those old greats who are still floating around did. As far as plot goes, that’s just a certain type of story. Look at modern TV or (in my mind anyway) comics – deus ex machina and convenient coincidences abound. It’s not for lack of skill – it’s to expedite plot and satiate an audience who is more interested in action and pace than extreme plausibility or realistic-ness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you like the older works because their strengths speak to you and their weaknesses don’t bother you.
      That doesn’t erase that there are significant writing flaws in the older works.
      Which, in turn, doesn’t ruin their value as good stories or good literature.

      I assert (though cannot prove) that if the stories were re-written to fix those issues without also stuffing in modern tropes and modern writing flaws, you’d enjoy the old stories even more.

      Which is kind of the point of the Pulp Revival, I think.

      That’s what I’m trying to do now with the stories I’m writing. I might not be skilled enough to pull it off; I might be weak in the writing elements you enjoy most (which, I conclude from things you’ve said, is often top-notch description and word-smithing); I might not be as good at modern writing elements as I fancy; heck, I might just turn out to be a bad writer. But I’m going to try to write stories you would enjoy.

      …I’m almost hoping I’m fated/cursed to be a successful, famous, and wealthy writer only by writing a style/genre I don’t actually like very much.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The basic problem with Burroughs is that, unlike Howard or Tolkien, he had imitators who improved on what he was doing entirely.

    Being in the middle of reading a Stephen King series, I can’t agree that a modern writer can’t get away with regular dues ex machinas…

    ERB was frankly better on race than many on the Left today, and much better than he was given credit for. He served in the U.S. cavalry and greatly admired Native Americans. At the Earth’s Core has a minor sideline that apparently exists only so ERB can show an admirable Native American society analog.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. well, we wouldn’t still have the term “deus ex machina” if it weren’t still being used.

      No story is perfect. Other good elements can make up for bad (or less-good) elements.

      A “deus ex machina” is just a weak or poor element that can be improved with more care or better writing.

      It doesn’t necessarily ruin a story, but it *is* a bad writing characteristic that an aspiring writer should try to avoid.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. But it comes back to what you consider “good” writing. Is it entertaining and fun? Does it read well? If so, why do you consider it inferior? Look at the Greek myths – you may subscribe to the idea that writing and stories evolve over time, but many of those old stories are timeless. And a lot of the time stuff happened just because the gods did stuff. Almost literally deus ex machina. Now you can try to make the case that the Iliad or the Trials of Hercules would be better if they were written by a contemporary author, but you’re going to be hard pressed to convince many fans of the Classics.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m not trying to say that “older = inferior”.
        But I *am* trying to push back on any argument that “older = better”.

        I over-analyze everything. It’s a blessing and a curse.

        However, as difficult as it is to separate “good” from “I like”, I think we are better for trying to do it.

        It is not only possible to analyze all the great enduring works to find out what is “good” writing, it has been done.

        In the same manner, it is possible to like the Beatles better than Beethoven, but to argue that the Beatles music is more skilled than Beethoven is just silly.

        Based on the known elements of good writing, much of pulp falls short. Based on the known elements of good writing, the better pulp writers use more of those elements. But based on the known elements of good writing, even the better pulp writers like ERB and REH are still not perfect, and many later writers like RAH, Niven, and Cherryh use more of the known elements of good writing.

        Still, it is possible to dislike stories with more elements of good writing (see: someone who likes Toto more than Brahms). And it is possible to have stories with more elements of good writing that somehow still fail (probably due to fatal weaknesses in other elements of good writing).

        But when you review a book and mention what you like and dislike, and why, the elements of good writing are going to come up. And people are apparently going to be butthurt.

        So be it.

        re: “Deus ex Machina”
        There is a discussion worth having regarding Tropes. The point of a story is to entertain, perhaps, but the reason we tell stories that entertain is to teach values. To that end, a story that is too predictable loses its ability to entertain; values don’t get taught if the listener’s mind wanders out of boredom.
        One could argue that one aspect of “good writing” includes avoiding overused Tropes; I think I disagree agree…it would mean that a well-written work like Romeo and Juliet could become a poorly-written work if the Romeo and Juliet Tropes are all overused. I’m not a fan of revising history based on modern fashion.

        But since the categorization of Tropes seems to be a more recent thing (in my awareness, at least), I need to think more on how to include analysis of Tropes in terms of good and bad stories.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Some of your points are well-taken. And I’m not saying that older = better, either. There was plenty of shit in the pulp magazines and prior. I do think we need a common set of guidelines or definitions for what you’re talking about as “elements of good writing.” Like for me, I love Howard’s stuff because he’s got an almost poetic rhythm to a lot of his prose. It can be beautiful. I really liked Neutron Star, but I’m not of the opinion that Niven’s writing was objectively better than Howard’s. We can revisit this if you want to lay out some tangible quantifiers here that.

        I’m also still not convinced that good fiction *has to* teach values. It certainly can and maybe it often does. But not all mediums and forms are equal. Not all forms of entertainment have the same depth. Sometimes entertainment is meant to relax, and some people want to shut off their brains (or at least give them a break from working), and simple, fun stories can serve that purpose.

        Don’t mind the butthurt. It comes with the territory (SFF fandom and just the internet in general).

        Liked by 1 person

      4. mmmm…I wasn’t trying to say “Niven objectively better than Howard.”

        If I put it that badly, I apologize.

        What I was trying to convey is that there is a State of the Art of writing techniques, just as there is for music composition, painting, etc. The best artist of the time of neolithic humans was probably just as talented as Rembrandt, but didn’t have the materials or knowledge of techniques enough to do more than that stick drawing of a buffalo on the cave wall.

        So based on the State of the Art, Niven has a much more refined arsenal of ideas of “how” to structure and pace a story, how to develop characters, etc.

        Niven may or may not use all the ideas at his disposal, but he has a better defined toolbox.

        Howard, I assert, relied more on his talent and sense for a story to write his works.

        So I would say that Niven’s writing talent is below that of Howard’s. Howard really puts you *there* with a few sentences. Niven often skips over descriptions, focuses more on the dialogue and actions of the characters.

        However, there are many, many elements of a good story. No writer is good at all of them. A story is good if it includes more good elements than it lacks.

        Liking a story or not probably goes back to which elements of a good story matter to you and/or contribute to your enjoyment.

        Analogy: there are dozens of different ways to be a top NFL running back.
        Is Ezekiel Elliot a better RB than Curtis Martin or Franco Harris?
        Hard to say, they all have different elements. But one *can* say that explosiveness is important to good RBs, and modern weightlifting techniques help Elliot develop his explosiveness to far outstrip Harris’. It doesn’t make Harris a bad RB. It doesn’t even make Elliot a better RB. But it can be objectively stated that Elliot has greater leg strength than Harris, and that adds to Elliot’s explosiveness that helps him succeed as a RB in today’s NFL, whether or not you like Elliot.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. re: values
        I’m also not saying good fiction *has* to teach values.

        However, I think I can say with confidence that humans communicate for reasons. Telling stories is a form of communication. We tell stories for reasons. The listener may listen merely to be entertained, and the storyteller may just want the benefits of telling the story (a sleeping child, or reward for telling a good story (praise? money? food?). But storytelling evolved as a tradition and endured because it was an effective way to pass on values. And stories that pass on values in an entertaining way are *exactly* the stories that endure.

        So the best stories will most likely, whether intentionally or not, include persuasive values.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. If Princess of Mars was written today, it would have all of the flaws of the Stranger Things and Iron Fist television series. It would be completely unremarkable and disappointingly uninspiring. Because while standards of writing may have gone up under talents like Howard, Brackett, and Leiber… in practically every other area, they have deteriorated in subsequent decades.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “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.”

    Am I the only person that caught that John Carter is not an earth man but an ancient Martian?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a fascinating theory, and it *really* fits his long life-span.
      However, the atmosphere factory guy said he John Carter wasn’t a Martian because a scan of his body showed different internal organs in different arrangements.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I am with jeffro. Have you read David Foster Wallace? And you have said older = worse many times.

    If techniques improve and each generation is better than the rest. Why do Pollack and Rothko suck more than Rembrandt and the cave man?


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