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REVIEW: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

REVIEW SUMMARY: A long-overdue read of a science fiction classic that was every bit as enjoyable as I’d hoped it’d be.


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.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

20 Comments on REVIEW: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

  1. When I was a kid, I read the Mars and Conan books until the pages fell out. I think you can get away with little scientific issues merely by invoking your hot Virginian blood. The FTL particle guys at CERN should try it.

    I have to admit, the movie trailer worries me a bit, but I’ll be there. Cuz its Mars.

  2. Like you, John, I only read ERB’s Barsoom books fairly recently. Like you also, I was thrilled. A Princess of Mars is technicolour pulp at its joyous best.

  3. Liam Cash // January 6, 2012 at 1:43 am //

    It’s this series, the Doc Savage books, and some other references of thissort that got me into writing and getting published.
    Thank you for giving thise book such a wonderful review. It’s well-deserved.

  4. Jason McDonald // January 6, 2012 at 2:08 am //

    Really? I completely disagree with this review. I found a Princess of Mars to be a boring slog fest of overly verbose descriptions of completely inconsequential things. I had to force myself to actually finish the book.

    ERB takes an entire chapter to detail the birth cycle and habits of the Green Martians. Who cares? It has nothing to do with anything that actually happens in the story and adds nothing to the narrative. And, the story doesn’t really get a whole lot more interesting from there.

    No thanks, I’ll pass.

  5. Kicking it old school!

    There appears to be a Mars boomlet these days. The SFF Audio guys did it, there was John C Wright’s paean to it in a recent mind meld. There’s going to be that anthology John Joseph Adams is doing…

    And as you discovered, the original does still hold up

  6. I love ERB (and this is my favorite series by him) but he tended to get tired after the third book or so in any series (how many lost cities are there on Barsoom?). In this series, it got a little reboot with Volume 6, The Master Mind of Mars, as another Earthman makes an appearance on Mars (and he’s even a fan of the books!). Lots of wacky stuff in the series like the Chessmen, flying boats and more. I recently started downsizing the book collection, but at one point I think I had five or six different sets (different covers and/or interior art).

    • I’ve heard that they trail off elsewhere. If my current reading track record is any indication, it’ll be be centuries before I get to ’em. 🙂

  7. There’s a really good podcast of the mars books here: The guy is an actor and was recently on Sffaudio.

    You realize everyone on the planet is nekkid right?

  8. I couldn’t agree with your review more! The Barsoom books are just a pure joy to read. Every chapter ends in a cliffhanger and it just propels you through the story. You can tell it was a serial story. I can just imagine the agony of having to wait a whole month for the next issue to come out.

    I read the books years ago but I’ve been brushing up on my ERB for the movie by listening to The Fantastic Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs ( Actor David Stifel “That Burroughs Guy” is reading through all the Mars books and is up to book 5, The Chessmen of Mars, now. His voice is deep and resonant and some how old-fashioned which fits the story perfectly. He clearly loves what he’s doing and his enthusiasm is infectious. Highly recommended!

  9. TheAdlerian // January 6, 2012 at 1:00 pm //

    You repeatedly call it “pulp” but it’s not. The term “pulp” implies meaningless action stories and John Carter as a series is about defeating religion and racial division. That’s not just me reading into the story but is flatly said in the text.

    Burroughs Mars stories are a page out of atheism written in a precommunist environment and keeps with that message. An international religion exploits and murders people at will and is entirely driven by people, not gods. That’s the overall plot.

    Also, both Carter and Tarzan have the initials “JC” which could mean they’re types of “Jesus Christ” in that both characters are motivated by wanting peace,ethics, etc. There’s more going on in the stories than monsters and sword fights.

  10. White Messiah out-natives the natives, saves them from themselves and has high-ranking native females fighting to have his babies. Color me unthrilled.

  11. TheAdlerian // January 6, 2012 at 7:46 pm //


    You’re incorrect.

    The French had the idea, I think in the 1700s, that a blended human race would eliminate racism. Tarzan seems to be a copy of Voltaire’s story Ingenious and I believe Burroughs was influenced by French ideas.

    Anyway, Mars is supposed to have Black, White, and Yellow (literally) races that are all ancient. The White race is the worst of them all. The Red race is supposed to be a blend of all of the others best adapted for survival in the harsh place. It’s suggested that the Green Martians might be a genetic experiment.

    John Carter doesn’t care what people look like, only what they act like, and doesn’t care if his kids are blended. Also, he attributes his positive qualities to Earth culture, not his race, etc.

    Thus, the story is about life on Earth and how religions (fake elitist politics) manipulate people to kill each other and waste life on fantasy. It’s about how no matter what people look like, ugly or beautiful, they’re only as good as their noble actions.

    That message is extremely timely in light of current events.

  12. Was thrilled to follow your Twitter link over there to see that you had the same experience I did with A Princess of Mars when I read it a few years back. In my opinion the book embodies the spirit and sense of fun that makes me continue to seek out and experience the classics. There is something tangibly different about these stories. It isn’t that they are better or worse than contemporary science fiction, they are just different.

    For me part of that difference is the thrill of wondering what the mindset was when the book was released, especially seeing the differences between what was known/assumed about the planets in our solar system back then vs. what we know now. Knowledge is wonderful and exciting but so is that innocent sense of wonder derived from a time when one could still hope that we would find life on our nearest neighbors.

    I have huge doubts that the film will capture the sense of wonder of the books. I believe a film like that *could* be made but I am not certain this is it and sadly if it flops we’ll probably never get another shot at it. It is a series that makes me wish someone with the passion that say Peter Jackson had for making LOTR or King Kong would take it on and do it justice. I do hope the movie is fun, but I don’t expect it to be the same kind of fun.

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