Sunday, 18 August 2013

A Princess of Mars review

The cover of my edition of the book. I'm
sad it wasn't a traditional painting like other
great covers from previous editions. I have
to say i'm not a fan of digital painting.

A Princess of Mars isn’t as much about a princess from, uh, Mars, as it is about John Carter of Earth. A Civil War veteran, John Carter is one day accidentally transported to Mars where he encounters several different races of Martians living on the red planet they call Barsoom. There he has adventures, unites two races of Martians, saves a Red Martian city, rescues Dejah Thoris (the titular princess) and he even rescues all the residents of the planet from asphyxiation. Carter also makes a few friends, falls in love, and makes many an enemies. He encounters not only strange beings but their equally strange cultures and way of life. A Princess of Mars was a thrilling read despite it being nearly 100 years since its original publication. There are a lot of old books that are good but for a book that was published in 1917, it’s a page turner. I had a very difficult time putting this book down.

Written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, most famous for being the creator of Tarzan of the Apes, A Princess of Mars is a fine example of a pulp novel. It’s a thrilling planetary adventure novel that feels grand. It’s become very influential over the years. Without taking the time to map out the specific works A Princess of Mars influences in various genres (I’ll leave that to English majors or even entertainment historians) it’s obvious to any reader born after the publication of the book that Edgar Rice Burroughs is a hugely influential writer. His main influence can be felt in the space opera genre, movies and books in the tradition of Star Wars. It’s much more science fantasy than science fiction but not quite enough for me to include it in my The Blog Fantastic series. When you read the novel you get far more sword fights than you get radium gun fights or even flying space machine fights. Heck, the whole thing takes place either on the surface of Mars or Earth.

The book has one of the best framing sequences I can remember off the top of my head. The entire book, except for the framing sequence, is told as a first person narrative. I really like stories told in the first person in which something entirely fascinating and bizarre happens to the narrator and A Princess of Mars is an excellent example of this type of story. Sure, parts of the narration are a frustrating to read (Carter is so full of himself) but I still enjoyed the heck out of the narrative voice. Early twentieth century books really know how to use the first person to its full capabilities.

Edgar Rice Burroughs also manages to include himself in the story and it’s very neat little trick. Burroughs doesn’t have short blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, he’s a full blown character in the framing sequence. He appears as the favourite nephew of “Uncle Jack” and bookends the story of John Carter’s first trip to Mars and his first two encounters with death. The idea that Carter is immortal is very well executed and it’s very surprising that it was mentioned in the very first chapter. I didn’t quite catch it the first time. I reread that page about three times because it was so damn good. One page into the first chapter and already I knew this was going to be a crazy book.

As a character, John Carter is kind of a dick. I say this not based on his actions but on his narrative voice. The novel is presented as being Carter’s journal of his adventure on Mars and is therefore told in the first-person. He’s arrogant and overly sure of himself but it’s not entirely noticeable in his action. Contrary to his high self-esteem, Carter seeks to protect the weak and defend those who need to be defended. He seems himself a simply doing what he feels is right. He’s actually a likeable character because we could see ourselves either doing those very same things or, at the very least, thinking that someone should be protecting the innocent. It’s when he contrasts his morals to those of the green Martians with unnecessary nonchalance that he gives off negative vibes. In short, John Carter’s a dick because he thinks he’s superior to others.

You can push this further when considering race and gender in A Princess of Mars. Dejah Thoris isn’t quite a damsel in distress but she’s always getting into trouble and is rescued. She’s also put on a pedestal. She’s practically a prize for Carter. That’s how I read it when looking exclusively at what happens. When I look at the how I start to think differently. Dejah is a princess and she demands respect if not obedience but she’s also just a strong woman. She doesn’t let herself get pushed around. Yes, she gets rescued by Carter a couple of times but you get the sense she’s giving him the opportunity to rescue her.

When it comes to race, many have interpreted in rather negative ways but I wouldn’t agree with those interpretations of race relations in the book. There are several different races of Martians and Carter views them in similar ways. He’s capable of love for Dejah, princess of the Red Martians, mostly because they resemble humans of Earth except that their skin is red. In the context of the story that makes sense. Other Martians, such as the Green reproduce in very different ways than man and the Red Martians. I’ll spare you the details but eggs and incubation centres are involved. It’s pretty natural for Carter to not be attracted to any of the other races of Martians other than the Red.  If anything, that right there shows you that Burroughs doesn’t seem to have a racial agenda with A Princess of Mars because Carter still partakes in trans-species relations. I know I’m not very good at writing about race in fiction; it’s not something I’m generally bothered with unless an author is being intentionally racist. I don’t believe there are explicit racist elements in A Princess of Mars. If anything, there is a message praising racial diversity and harmony.

For some reason I find it difficult to write decent reviews of books or comics I really enjoyed. This particular review falls into that category because I unabashedly loved A Prince of Mars and after rereading the above post, it’s nothing great. Don’t let that change your mind though, there is plenty to enjoy, to analyse and to study in this great pulp novel. If only out of historical curiosity for the influences it had on the next 100 years of writers and people working in the entertainment industry. Burroughs is clearly an intelligent author but he strikes a good balance between big ideas, intelligent writing and entertaining story.

Note: To all other who have read this book, was it just me or is John Carter mostly naked during his entire time on Barsoom? Did I read that right? Tarzan, the other famous Burroughs character, is also mostly naked in his stories. I’m not quite sure what to make of that other than Burroughs like to have his male characters go around mostly naked. The only thing Carter and the Martians seemed to wear was armour and even that was limited to shin guards, arm bracelets and gauntlets.  

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