A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
I think I first discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels when the first few discussions about the upcoming Disney adaptation (HA!) were circulating around io9. Before that, I only knew Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, but A Princess of Mars interested me for much the same reason the more traditionally fantasy elements in Star Wars interested me—it’s sci-fi that hits a little closer to home for fantasy-addicted me. Plus, it was in the public domain, so there was really no reason not to pick it up and give it a shot before the film comes out. And guys, I think I have a new series to follow.
A Princess of Mars is framed as a manuscript written by Burroughs’ uncle figure, John Carter, and published by Burroughs after his death. A mercenary to his core, John Carter was a little lost after the American Civil War and went West to prospect with a friend of his. When the two are set upon by Indians, Carter takes shelter in a cave. After a terrifying night, he finds himself transported to Mars—or Barsoom, as the natives call it. Discovered by the alien Green Martians, Carter uses physical prowess (which improves on Mars’ surface) and his brains to eek out a position for himself in their society. But when the Green Martians kidnap the Red Martian princess Dejah Thoris, Carter determines to rescue her and take her back to her own people, an intention that might change the politics of Barsoom forever.
Guys, A Princess of Mars is tons of fun. It’s short, brimming with swashbuckling, and actually a little complex to boot. While the Wikipedia page dismisses it as full of black and white morality, I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Carter is refreshingly honest about the fact that he is, ultimately, a killer, and does it with little compunction. The residents of Mars are equally as warlike—while the Green Martians are particularly degenerate, what with a society that stamps out all human (or Martian) connection, they’re still fundamentally capable of being rounded and loving people, and the idealized Red Martians glorify war just as much. It says something when the triumphant kiss between the leads occurs during a bloody siege and surrender involves captains committing suicide. This isn’t to say that the novel itself delights in gore and violence, but it’s simply a fact of life, and there’s a reason that Carter, a mercenary, ended up on Mars. In the beginning, he even considers it his lucky star.
There’s plenty of swashbuckling, daring rescues, fights to the death… heck, there’s even a section where Carter finds himself at the mercy of another horde of Green Martians and is forced to be a gladiator. The women are beautiful—well, Dejah Thoris is beautiful, and, while she does function as a damsel in distress to be rescued a lot, she’s more at the mercy of restrictive custom and duty rather than being simply incapable. When Carter, during an escape attempt, tries sends her off to safety with Sola, a friend of theirs, she immediately wants to stay and die with him; he has to force her to leave. It’s better than what I was expecting from a novel published in 1917, to be honest. In fact, A Princess of Mars doesn’t feel dated at all; in a way, it’s technically historical fiction, since the story is set in 1866, which allows it to escape the confines of its own time. The first person narrator helps, too, especially in the opening encounter with American Indians—it’s clear that this is how Carter thinks, not Burroughs. (Although Burroughs might have, for all I know—in any case, it comes off as characterization.)
Barsoom itself is an especially fantastic location—a dying planet where feudal and feuding nations exist alongside more traditional sci-fi technology. The nudity also helps, which is why I’m concerned about Disney taking the reigns for the film instead of releasing it through a different studio. Refreshingly, although it’s probably a product of the time it was written in, the nudity is rarely referred to. It’s just a fact of life. The Green Martians reminded me of the orcs from Warcraft, to be totally honest—it’s the tusks, most likely, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a touch of the Green Martians in modern orcs. But the sweeping deserts, the ornate cities, and war as a way of life add up to an interesting and unique place that I’d like to visit again. Thankfully, there’s nine more books in the series—and the next three are in the public domain! Nice.
Bottom Line: A Princess of Mars is short, brimming with adventure and action, and actually a little complex to boot. And Barsoom—as the natives of Mars call their planet—is a fantastic and unique world. Well worth a read.