John Carter of Mars – Book 1 – The Princess of Mars
It appears yet another book is being made into a movie. This time it’s the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I just finished book 1 of this 6 part series – A Princess of Mars.
First off, some interesting tidbits about Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs had a very difficult early go in life despite his promising start. He was born to a prosperous family in 1875. He served in the 7th Calvary in WW I but never saw action due to a heart problem. After his discharge, however, he worked at all sorts of odd and very low-paying jobs such as railroad policeman, office manager, and even pencil sharpener wholesaler. None of these endeavors were successful and he and his small family lived in near poverty for many years. At 35, he wrote the Mars series for All-Stories magazine. This started his writing career and lead to a great number of works including the most famous, the Tarzan series.
But back to the book. This was a quick audiobook ‘read’ coming in at only 6 discs, or 6 hours, of listening. The first thing that will strike you is the tone. You can tell this was written in turn of the 1900’s language and style. The men speak more like English gentlemen and the ‘science’ part of the sci-fi is problematic and dated to say the least. Still, he does get a number of things partly right – which is pretty good considering what was known of other planets at the time.
Our hero, John Carter, is transported to Mars via an encounter in a mystical cave. Once there, he has the strength of 20 men and can leap great distances with little effort due to the low gravity of Mars. He encounters the warlike green men of Mars and earns a place with them through combat. During his adventures with the green men, he meets the captured humanoid princess Dejah Thoris. His attempts to win her hand and save both her and her city Helium from various armies leads to epic battles and adventures.
The battles and fights certainly portray the signs of Burroughs’ times. There are clear echos of white man vs Indian/’savage tribe’ attitudes, battles that themselves would be considered brutal and morally questionable by today’s standards. But that does not terribly detract from the story. In fact, if anything, it add something Burroughs never expected: historical insight. In many ways, Burroughs’ writing echos the prevailing attitudes towards indigenous peoples and what was considered the height of culture and understanding of his days. It’s a good reminder to always have a healthy dose of skepticism as to our own perceived ‘we know much better and are so much more sophisticated’ attitudes and political/social agendas. In some ways, his world is much more civilized such as in the case of the duel-like rules of personal combat. In others, such as reasons for battle and killing every last man of your enemy, appear barbaric.
Still, with so much story to tell in such a short time – the writing is anything but eloquent. One person has (mostly correctly) said it reads a lot like an adventure written towards teenage boys. Sure, you can get some dialog exchanges that are simplistic to a point of being almost comical. The sci-fi part is clearly dated and wrong in many ways. This isn’t intellectual reading. But is it a good story and worth the read? Yep!
It’s a ride at a carnival. The set pieces and characters are mostly painted walls, and the dangers only as real as you imagine them to be; but that doesn’t make it any less fun. It’s an escape from the mundane into the somewhat ridiculous and far-flung. It’s just good fun when you can see beyond the shortcomings and enjoy it for what it is. A crazy romp to another planet where a southern gentleman meets and falls in love with the most beautiful woman he’s ever met with a pet monster as a bosom friend while swash-buckling his way through epic battles.
Overall, I give it a solid B and I’m looking forward to the movie version as there should be some great opportunities for crazy creatures and epic battles.