It’s funny that through most of my life, I had never heard of the John Carter of Mars series. In those decades, Carter has always been completely overshadowed by Tarzan, the far more well-known creation by writer Edgar Rice Burroughs.
I remember occasionally spotting “John Carter” comic books as I vigorously collected in the 1980s and 1990s. And I remember the “Tarzan” action figure line of the 1990s that included a John Carter figure with an accompanying green Martian.
I even remember looking at that Martian and saying “Wow, that’s really generic looking.”
Little did I know that the reason it was so “generic” is that Burroughs’ Martians were essentially the template for nearly every other alien of popular culture.
The only main change in the “generic” version is that popular fiction’s aliens became “little green men” rather than 14-foot-tall green men of Mars.
In the last year, I’ve been sampling the Burroughs-inspired Martian comics from Dynamite Entertainment and particularly enjoying the lush art in the Dejah Thoris series. In fact, I only knew of the Dejah connection to Mars after spotting some lusty original art pin-up drawings featuring Dejah. Those pieces were always of a scantily clad, raven-haired beauty who was fiercely proud of herself. That’s the kind of lady I liked so I soon found myself learning a lot more about Burroughs Mars series.
Then in the last year, I heard news of an upcoming “John Carter” movie and decided it was time to look in to the original novel.
A PRINCESS OF MARS BY EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS
First published in 1912 (and rarely out of print since), “A Princess of Mars” was clearly a groundbreaking book and put forth a heap of ideas that were original at the time.
In the book, for example, John Carter finds that on Mars he has some incredible powers. He has enhanced strength and reflexes, owing to the difference in gravity on his home planet and Mars. He also soon develops a level of telepathy that he uses to read the thoughts of his friends and enemies.
These powers, minus the telepathy, mirror the changes a certain Kryptonian developed by moving to a new world.
With that in mind, “Princess of Mars” was certainly one of the earliest exploration of superpowers in modern fiction. Sure, before that we had Paul Bunyon and his super strength, but it was never put together quite this way.
Likewise, I was impressed with the way Burroughs explained the telepathic powers Carter developed. His telepathy is only barely mentioned in the book, but he uses it to pick up the surface thoughts of those nearby. Such an ability gives him an amazing edge as a fighter and negotiator.
Burroughs’ concept of an alien world is interesting as well. He surmises that Mars wouldn’t have a breathable atmosphere and decides that the architects of Martian civilization would build a giant factory to transform the atmosphere. This idea came long before real-world scientists (and fiction writers) theorized about doing the same thing in the form of terraforming.
Utilizing the scant information available about the red planet at the time, Burroughs comes up with an idea on how the native Martians used their canals — They use them to periodically flood their farmlands with melted polar water
Burroughs even gives us a reason why Mars is a totally uniform color — it’s covered in a planet-wide patch of moss. While we know that isn’t the case in the real world, it’s an interesting concept.
Probably the weakest part of the book is Burroughs efforts on instilling any sort of characterization in his cast. As narrator of the book, John Carter should have been intensely in tune with all the beings he came across. After all, his telepathy, even if the power just “skims the surface” of a person’s thoughts, should have made him an excellent storyteller. Instead of simply saying a character was angry, we needed to be permitted inside their mind to see the churning emotions inside.
John Carter is cast in the mold that would follow so many other heroes of fiction. Stalwart, proud, uncompromising and ready to fight for his beliefs. This is all fine, of course, but Burroughs doesn’t make it very interesting. He just does what he does because he wants to do it. There is nothing particular to drive him, except his passion for his girl. He’s not even terribly interested in returning to Earth. We don’t really know why Carter holds any of his convictions. And he only demonstrates them with leaden efficiency. Instead, it seems like Carter simply woke up one day and decided to go on an adventure and we’re along for the ride.
Dejah Thoris, the love interest, turns out to be the better character in the book because she faces some difficult choices about her society versus her interest in John Carter. Carter, on the other hand, just barrels ever forward doing only what he wants to do.
A number of secondary characters add a little to the book — often explaining the back story and functions of the world — but offer little to grip the reader.
“Princess of Mars” isn’t entirely plotless — but it sure seems that way for a the first three-quarters of the book. Toward the end of the book John Carter races to save the planet, but for the 100 pages leading up to it, you wonder if he’ll do anything other than give us a “National Geographic” look at the planet and pursue his lust for Dejah Thoris.
But hold on. This lack of plot isn’t entirely horrible. Since this is the first Barsoom novel, it’s “tour of Mars” aspect actually works quite well. Burroughs does an amazing job at world-building and each new discovery keeps you eager to read more, even if there’s no real plot in evidence other than “this guy’s touring a strange world.”
And mind you, once the plot gets moving, Burroughs does a fine job. You just wish he sent us down that path a lot earlier in the book so we could wonder “How’s John Carter gonna make everything right?”
Far more important, and vital to every reader and the reason people still read this book a century later, is the fact that there’s lots of action in this book. From solo battles between the super-powered John Carter and the monsters of Mars to massive military actions between the armies of Mars there’s always some sort of clash to witness.
It is that collection of images and moments that, when sewn together by Burroughs, compels you to keep reading. This is an amazing world to discover.
The important thing to remember about “Princess of Mars” was published just about a century ago. Back then, it was remarkably innovative. Even today, a reader can’t help but be surprised by the concepts Burroughs developed and find the book fairly gripping as a result. The ideas he generated were ideas that were written down for the first time ever. That’s what makes this book worth reading. That’s why I’ve already bought the next in the lengthy series.
That’s also why I’ve become instantly excited by the tantalizing trailer for Disney’s “John Carter” film. I read the book first and then saw the trailer, and instantly recognized characters, scenes and creatures. This should be good, and you owe it to yourself to read “Princess of Mars” just to get the inside track.