John Carter and the Origins of Science Fiction Adventure: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

In the days before the First World War, while the term “science fiction” had not yet been coined, there were authors beginning to write works that would clearly fit into that genre, authors who included H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. In 1911, an American author joined their ranks with his first published story, “Under the Moons of Mars,” which appeared in All-Story Magazine. That story featured a Confederate cavalry officer from the Civil War named John Carter, who found himself mysteriously transported to the planet Mars and propelled into one adventure after another. The readers loved the story, and demanded more—and some of those early fans went on to become writers themselves: writers who would forever remember, and be influenced by, the evocative world that inhabitants called Barsoom.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most widely known character is Tarzan, the Englishman who was raised by African apes after his parents were killed, and became known as the Lord of the Jungle. The Tarzan books were wildly popular, and are easy to find to this day. I reviewed one of those books, Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, here. Tarzan’s popularity became even more widespread due to the many movies based around the character—especially those starring Johnny Weissmuller—which made him a fixture in popular culture.

But, despite Tarzan’s fame, it is Burroughs other iconic creation, John Carter, who is most beloved by those who enjoy the science fiction genre. So beloved, in fact, that I am rather overdue in turning a spotlight on the character’s adventures here in the column. The proto-science fiction stories that preceded John Carter’s introduction certainly contained elements of action and excitement, but I can’t think of any that moved with so much sheer energy and exuberance from one adventure to another.

In fact, John Carter’s adventures spawned an entire sub-genre of science fiction now known as Planetary Romance. These stories don’t dwell much on how the adventurers travel from planet to planet, but instead focus on the dangers and wonders that they encounter at their destinations. And many of them, like the tales of John Carter, blend elements of science, magic, and fantasy together with wild speculation involving strange creatures and exotic settings. I have previously reviewed work in this vein from Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, and even some newer anthologies influenced by the older works here. And while Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles explores Mars from a different perspective than that of Burroughs, he credited Burroughs with igniting his youthful interest in the planet.


About the Author

Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) was an early American science fiction author who had a tremendous impact on the genre in its early days and remains a lasting influence many decades after his death. Whether he was depicting the adventures of John Carter on Mars, Tarzan on Earth, Carson Napier on Venus, David Innes and Abner Perry in the Earth’s core, or any of his other myriad of characters, the emphasis was always on action and romance. His scientific speculation had little grounding in the real world, but was always wildly imaginative and evocatively described.

If there is one common element throughout Burroughs’ wild tales, it is the concept of wish fulfillment. His protagonists are generally large, strong, skillful with weapons, and brave. They have strict moral codes and do the right thing without hesitation, throwing themselves into the fray without the second-guessing that hampers the actions of most people. Burroughs portrayed heroes who are not as we are, but as we wish to be.

The character of John Carter, a former Confederate cavalryman prospecting in the American West, was strongly rooted in Burroughs’ own life and experiences. He had grown up hearing Civil War veterans describe their wartime service, had himself served in the fabled Seventh Cavalry, and had at one point had prospected for gold.

Burroughs’ writing sometimes reflected the pervasive racism of his time, although this is not as apparent in his Barsoom stories, where the races that hate each other are fictional Red and Green Martians, as it is elsewhere. And in A Princess of Mars, John Carter acts as an agent for peace, refreshingly, between those warring races. While Dejah Thoris’ primary role in the story is as a love interest, she is a remarkably independent and outspoken female character for her time, with plenty of agency.

As with many authors who were writing in the early 20th Century, a number of works by Burroughs, including A Princess of Mars, can be found free of charge on Project Gutenberg.


The Adventures of John Carter in Other Media

Unlike Tarzan, who is widely known in popular culture from all sorts of appearances in various media, John Carter is known primarily from the book series. He first appeared in pulp magazines, and then in a series of ten novels published from 1912 to 1948, with another appearing posthumously.

John Carter appeared in a few Big Little Books, which were a kind of short, fat, illustrated novel geared toward children. There were apparently discussions for the character to star in a daily newspaper comic strip in the 1930s, the heyday of this form of entertainment, but sadly no agreement was reached. Eventually, a short-lived newspaper strip appeared from 1941 to 1943, but the war years proved to be a difficult time to launch a comic strip.

John Carter comic books have been issued over the years by a wide variety of publishers, including Dell, Gold Key, DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and Dynamite Entertainment, with all of them lasting for fairly short runs. The fact that Barsoomians went about their lives mostly naked presented a challenge for comic illustrators, who mostly decided to give the characters at least scanty clothing. The recent comics from Diamond Entertainment, however, focus more on Dejah Thoris than John Carter, and the nakedness is treated more as a feature than a bug.

Because of the popularity of John Carter within the science fiction community, quite a number of John Carter appearances and homages have appeared in other works over the years.

At one point, there was an animated anthology cartoon based on the characters of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which included John Carter. It was unfortunately short-lived, and I never got to see it, but it did lead to some nice action figures, which allowed me to display John Carter, Dejah Thoris, and Tars Tarkas on a shelf in my den. I also have a number of 25mm gaming figures portraying Barsoomians, so there must have been role playing games available in that setting at some point.

There have been two movies based around John Carter, one a low-budget film released in 2009 that went directly to video/DVD. The second film, however, was a big-budget Disney film, John Carter, directed by noted animated feature director Andrew Stanton. The release of this 2012 film marked the hundredth anniversary of the character. Unfortunately, the film’s advertising campaign did not capitalize on the history of the character, and the trailers, to people unfamiliar with Burroughs’ work, made the movie seem like a derivative copy of many other science fiction films. The fact that the John Carter books had been the original source for so many of the classic tropes we now consider clichés was lost in translation. The film was very expensive to produce, did not do well at the box office, and is largely seen as a failure—this is a shame, because I, along with many others, enjoyed the film, which was largely faithful to the original source material.


A Princess of Mars

The book opens with an intriguing statement informing us that John Carter is far older than most humans, and doesn’t remember his birth. His connection with the Carter family is more of an “honorary uncle” than a blood relation. It is hinted that his adventures on Mars are only one aspect of many strange things about this man’s life, but this idea is never expanded upon.

Carter is at loose ends after the Civil War, a warrior without a conflict, and heads West to find his fortune. He runs afoul of some Native American warriors, who pursue him into a mysterious cave, where he inhales a mysterious gas. The warriors see something in the cave that frightens them away, and Carter suddenly finds himself standing above his own body, in some sort of astral form. He steps out of the cave, looks up at Mars in the sky above him, and suddenly finds himself transported to the faraway deserts of that planet.

The planet Burroughs describes is actually quite current with the scientific thinking of the time in which the story was written. It was thought that while the atmosphere of Mars might be thinner than that of Earth, it would still be breathable, and that the lines astronomers seemed to see on the surface might be canals constructed by inhabitants of that very dry planet. And Burroughs paints an extremely evocative picture of this alien world. One thing immediately convinces Carter that he is now on another planet: His muscles have a far greater effect than they did on Earth, and he has gained the ability to make prodigious leaps. He encounters a mysterious incubator full of eggs…and then some giant four-armed humanoid warriors, who don’t like the attention he is giving those eggs. Carter is saved from immediate death by his leaping ability, but is taken captive.

His captor is a chieftain called Tars Tarkas, of a tribe Green Martians known as the Tharks, and he is placed in the custody of one of the women of the tribe, Sola. He is also constrained by a fierce ten-legged doglike creature named Woola (in general, Martians have two to six legs more than their Earth counterparts). Carter befriends this creature, and instead of a guard, finds he now has a loyal companion. Before long, Carter has learned the language, and has killed some of the white apes of Mars that threaten the community, which impresses the Tharks. A fleet of airborne vessels flies over the ruined city where the Tharks are encamped, and are partially destroyed by them in a fierce battle. From one of the warships, a woman is captured—a woman who, save for her coppery skin, looks a lot like Carter. And he is immediately smitten.

The captive is Dejah Thoris, daughter of the ruler of the mighty city of Helium, which is inhabited by a race called the Red Martians, who are at constant war with the Green Martians. Carter witnesses her interrogation, and when one of the Tharks attacks her, he immediately swings into action and slays him. Instead of punishment, he finds the action wins him status among the Tharks. He also gains the gratitude of Dejah Thoris, who is intrigued by this pale-skinned man living among her people’s enemies.

The Tharks plan to take Dejah Thoris to their greatest chieftain for judgement; during their journey, Carter accidently says something that offends Dejah Thoris deeply, and she begins to give him the cold shoulder, just as he realizes he loves her. But he refuses to talk about his feelings, creating a dilemma that may seem odd to modern readers, who live in a time where everyone shares a little too much of their feelings with each other, on occasion. Carter faces a dilemma. He has won a place with the Green Martians, but he feels no love for them, and he has a bond with Dejah Thoris that calls him to protect her, despite her coldness. I won’t give any more details here, because if you haven’t read the book yet, I don’t want to spoil the fun. Before the book ends, though, Carter will forge an unlikely friendship with Tars Tarkas, protect his princess, fight many battles, completely upend the culture and political situation on Barsoom, and save the entire population of the planet from certain death. And along the way, the headlong action and adventures Carter experiences at every turn will sweep the reader right along with him.


Final Thoughts

For anyone who loves science fiction and is interested in the history and roots of the genre, A Princess of Mars is a mandatory read. While modern readers might roll their eyes at some of the science, the impossibility of some of the battle scenes, and the behavior of some of the characters, it is impossible to read this book without having fun. Burroughs’ work is the opposite of boring, and keeps you turning the pages right up to the end.

And now I’m done talking, so it’s your turn: What are your thoughts on the book, or any other tales by Burroughs? Did you see the movie version, and if so, what did you think? And what other planetary romance tales have you enjoyed?

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.


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