BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Adventurer John Carter becomes trapped on Mars, proves his mettle through his superior fighting skills and tries to free (and win the heart of) Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium.
PROS: Story moves along quickly; imaginative; easily identifiable and likable characters.
CONS: Some plot points will threaten suspension of disbelief for some.
BOTTOM LINE: A wholly enjoyable pulp adventure that became the template for the planetary adventure story.
Much to my embarrassment, I have to admit only recently have I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ science fiction classic A Princess of Mars. Even if the impending Hollywood adaption John Carter of Mars turns out to be worthless, I can at least give it credit for prompting me to repair this glaring deficiency in my science fiction reading.
A Princess of Mars is the first-person narrative of Virginia gentleman John Carter, an adventurer, to say the least, and a perfect specimen of a hero, to say the most. The core of the story is a written account of his adventures on Mars, where he discovers untold wonders, fights with and against giant four-armed Martians (both green- and red-skinned), and — cliché that it is now one hundred years after this was first written — falls in love with and rescues a princess (Dejah Thoris, princess of Helium).
As may already be evident, A Princess of Mars is, in simplest of terms, both wish-fulfillment fantasy and planetary romance. The interesting thing is that it pulls off both of these exceptionally well. This could be because Burroughs avoids longwinded descriptions in favor of a fast-moving plot. It could be because the hero is dutifully driven by his own moral code (even if that code seems a little odd by modern day standards). Or it could be because Burroughs uses archetypes that are, by now, widely identifiable: the bronze hero, the nubile damsel in distress, alien warriors, etc.
More likely, it’s because I’m a sucker for classic science fiction. There’s something appealing about it that current science fiction lacks. Part of it is nostalgia but there’s also an attraction to seeing “how it was done” back then. Take, for example, the science aspects of the story. Some of it uses the science of its day, like properly mentioning the two moons of Mars (at least in quantity, if not by name) or depicting canals on Mars (echoing the popular astronomical belief of the time, which was later proven by more advanced astronomy to be an optical illusion). But other “scientific” aspects of the story are more fantasy than science. The most glaring (and to some readers, insurmountable) scientific faux pas is how Carter arrives at Mars. After a brief skirmish with American Indians while mining for gold, Carter hides in cave, is rendered inert by a noxious gas and, perceiving an unseen threat behind him, withdraws from his body as an astral projection. Upon leaving the cave and looking skyward, he wills himself to Mars. This is how Burroughs dispenses with the non-trivialities of space travel to simply start the story at a running pace. No explanation is given as to how this occurs, nor as to how his Earth-bound body remains unscathed for the ten years he spends on Mars.
Those readers who roll their eyes at such literary shortcut tactics will undoubtedly do the same at Carter’s quickly-learned psychic ability which, along with the extra strength and speed he enjoys under the lower Martian gravity, make him an immediately successful warrior that gains the respect of the warriors who are, in reality, holding him captive. But here’s the thing: this is part of the appeal of classic science fiction. Yes, it’s a bit contrived. Yes, it’s threatens suspension of disbelief. But that’s sort of the point of enjoying the pulp science fiction of a century ago. Modern day science fiction authors couldn’t get away with that while achieving the same level of charm. (One possible exception: Space Vulture by Gary K. Wolf and John J. Meyers.)
And so it is with this love for classic science fiction that I devoured A Princess of Mars in all its pulpy goodness. While the writing is not as tight as it could be, watching Carter move across the Martian landscape, fighting enemies with swords, winning the favor of nearly everyone he meets (except for a few necessary antagonists), always emerging victorious and, yes, winning the heart of the pretty princess, was both thrilling and fun.