I just finished reading A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s the first book of his John Carter or Mars series, and also the inspiration behind the Disney movie John Carter, which came out in 2012. I found the movie to be cheesy but also fun and incredibly charming, so I decided to read the book. This decision was met with great approval from my dad, who loved the series as a kid, and from whom I got my abiding love of all things science fiction.
This book is pure male fantasy wish fulfillment. John Carter, a Civil War veteran on the Confederate side, “gentleman of Virgina,” as he calls himself, is, by his own report, the very picture of chivalrous and courageous manhood. Seriously, if he was any manlier we would have to come up with a new word to describe him.
He is suddenly and mysteriously transported to the surface of Mars, where he finds out that he is Superman. Due to the lower gravity of Mars, he is supernaturally strong, fast, and agile, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Shortly after arriving on Mars, he discovers and rescues a fair and helpless damsel, who happens to be a princess, from monstrous green monstrosities. She clings (literally) to her rescuer and (of course) has fallen madly in love with him.
Oh, and she’s naked.
Apparently the entire planet is like Avatar – no one wears clothes, only jewelry. John Carter was whisked away to a nudist colony!
The chapters that introduce his lady love, Dejah Thoris, are full of professions of his great love for the princess, appropriate for the average love-at-first sight fairy tale. Yes, John, of course we believe that the beautiful naked woman you just met is your soul mate.
Princess of Mars has lots of just-go-with-it moments. The plot is continually forwarded by happy coincidences. For example, all races on the planet, despite being deadly enemies, all speak the same language. They are also all telepathic. John Carter learns to telepathically read the thoughts of everyone around him, yet, for some reason, no one can read his thoughts. After escaping from the monstrous green monstrosities and almost dying of dehydration, he just happens upon someone how feeds and shelters him just in the nick of time.
John Carter’s planning sessions with his allies often proceed in the same fashion you would expect in a Dungeons and Dragons game. They are facing deadly enemies and unfavorable odds, yet they somehow have time to make detailed plans and even draw maps. Furthermore, though they supposedly make every effort to see that they are not being overheard, the same character is spying on them nearly every time.
For a planet of almost continuous warfare, the civilized nations of Mars, or Barsoom, as they call it, are surprisingly advanced and surprisingly backward, at the same time. They have telescopes that let them watch individual people on the surface of Earth, yet they don’t have spacecraft. No one steals from their fellow man, yet assassination is common. The government owns all production, and yet the planet is dying because water and atmosphere have to be created artificially. (Oh wait, I think I detect a cause and effect relationship here, not a contrast.)
Missing from the book is the character Shang and the magical transportation medallions found in the movie. How John Carter got to Mars and how he returned to Earth is completely unexplained.
Even though I have completely lambasted this book, I actually really enjoyed it. It’s much the way Star Wars fans talk about those movies – no one is harsher on George Lucas’ creations than his undying fans.
Don’t expect a lot out of this book – it’s not great literature, and it requires an awful lot of suspension of disbelief. It is a fine example of pulp fiction.
It is also a very fun and enjoyable book. It’s full of excitement and adventure. After a bit of a slow start, the action becomes very fast-paced. There is very little meandering – all adventures head straight for the climax. I will definitely continue reading this series.