Book Review: John Carter of Mars (2009)

Categories: Book Reviews
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Published on: 2011.01.29

Title: John Carter of Mars
Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Fall River Press

Don’t get excited. E.R.B. hasn’t risen from the dead and published a new novel. “John Carter of Mars” is a three-book collection published recently, comprised of three Burroughs novels from the 1920s: “A Princess of Mars” (1912), “The Gods of Mars” (1913), and “The Warlord of Mars” (1914). Burroughs actually published 10 books in the Barsoom (Mars) series, before dying in 1950. He is perhaps most remembered by the public for inventing Tarzan (“Tarzan of the Apes,” 1912), but his influence on literature is certainly most felt in science fiction.

I hadn’t read the Mars books since I was in junior high, and recently saw this beautiful hard-bound, brand new edition in a book store. It was certainly worth the bargain price I paid.

Though some of Burroughs’ science was questionable even in his time, and is now a century out of date, his knack for telling a quick-paced adventure story is fresh and real. The pages flipped by as I re-read these stories. It’s easy to see why a movie is being made based on these books (but difficult to understand why one has never been completed).

Burroughs’ Mars stories are categorized as “planetary romance,” a sub-genre of science fiction.

However, I personally cannot categorize these stories as “hard science fiction,” or even “speculative fiction,” but rather simply as fantasy. Because even if you accept that space travel was unheard of in Burroughs’ day, and that knowledge of space was limited then, there are still parts of a story that require suspension of disbelief before you can enjoy them.

The hero, John Carter of Virginia, is a Civil War veteran, which is believable enough. But as it turns out, he’s immortal and has a magical, unexplainable ability to “die” on one planet (Earth) and then appear suddenly on another planet (Mars, called “Barsoom” by its inhabitants). When he’s done on Mars, he’ll “die” again, only to reenter his Earthly body and keep on living. If you can accept those two points, the rest of the story is workable, especially considering what little Burroughs could have known of Mars, physics, space travel, and so on.

During Carter’s first magical trip to Barsoom (“A Princess of Mars”), he’s taken captive by an ugly race of vicious and uncivilized giants, yet eventually earns their respect, and rescues another of their captives, who turns out to be Princess Dejah Thoris, the most beautiful woman on Mars. Carter is helped by the fact that his Earth-conditioned muscles are far superior under the weak gravity of Mars.

Various battles ensue, with fierce sword-play, endless close calls, and an epic ending. I won’t give away what happens, but Carter is called upon to save every living soul on the planet.

The next two stories together describe Carter’s second trip to the Red Planet. In “The Gods of Mars,” he helps the entire planet debunk a dangerous religion that they’ve believed for centuries, by showing them the true nature of their “Gods.” In doing so, he risks certain death a dozen times, rescues a handful of gorgeous scantily clad women, defeats gruesome creatures (with a little help from his friends), and bloodily kills hundreds of enemy combatants.

It ends in a cliffhanger, and the narrative continues in “The Warlord of Mars,” which finds Carter trekking from one pole of the planet to another to save his beloved princess yet again. More and more, Carter relies on help from his friends, and from strangers who respect him by reputation, but it is always Carter’s dashing bravery and unmatchable sword skill that wins the day.

More than any other books or stories I’ve read, John Carter is the forerunner of today’s Hollywood action hero. He’s clearly described as “a splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of the trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear cut, his hair black and closely cropped, while his eyes were of a steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative. His manners were perfect, and his courtliness was that of a typical southern gentleman of the highest type.”

Burroughs’ descriptions of “Barsoom” is also worthy of today’s high budget science fiction movies. The planet is filled with delightfully beautiful mountains, animals and planets, and peopled with several types of intelligent life, almost all of them warlike in nature.

Strangely, though Burroughs regularly mentions that Mars’ civilization is much older than Earth’s and that it’s been dying for centuries, everything Carter experiences there is brighter and better than Earth. The Martians are richer, braver, deadlier; the stones are jewels, the mountains are of solid gold.

Unlike many adventure novels today, Burroughs rarely attempts to slip in any political or social messages, even subconsciously. Aside from a few veiled references to the way Carter (a Southern white man) felt about the “red” Martians and the “black” Martians, which were surprisingly progressive, these are just adventure stories, plain and simple. Rip-roaring from the word go.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, pick up a copy.

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