Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars
by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Duke Classics, 2012 (originally published as a serial in 1912)
195 pages

I love that my adult book club asked to read this book. True, it was more "I heard that John Carter [the Disney movie] was based on some books, wasn't it? Can we read that?" but still. They're game for anything and I really appreciate it. Not least because I get to fill in some gaps in my reading I otherwise might not.

This is very much a pulp adventure story, and contains science fiction elements and close attention to detail that would go on to become standard in the genre. I love reading books that are foundational to genres I enjoy, and so reading A Princess of Mars, despite its (copious) flaws, was a fun and maybe even enriching experience. But flaws, yes, and so in some ways my experience was mixed. And it wasn't just the typical historically-based flaws one might expect to encounter: some flawed science, and pretty egregious racism and sexism. There were also a couple of internal inconsistencies of character that bugged me, particularly in relation to the end of the book.

Okay, so for those who, like me, have managed to stay pretty much ignorant of the storyline of this tale: John Carter is a veteran Confederate soldier who escapes from a band of Apaches into a strange cave that turns out, somehow, to be a portal to Mars. Once he lands (naked!) he discovers that, in Mars' lesser gravity and less dense atmosphere, he has incredible strength and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, which is pretty lucky because he almost immediately is set upon by a group of warlike, enormous, mean green bug-like brutes. Happily for John Carter, the green men are exceedingly impressed by his physical prowess, and so rather than shooting him, they take him as an honoured captive. From there, he continues to have several preposterous adventures, finds himself attached to a guard "dog" named Woola, a surprisingly sympathetic green female named Sola, and finally the titular princess enters the picture (naked!), a captive of the green martians, conveniently beautiful and human-like and in need of a super-human sort of rescue. More completely preposterous adventures ensue. And unlike what the cover above might have you believe, the adventures all take place without any clothes on. This is less sexy than one might hope.

I probably should have disliked this book, is the thing. The phrase "feminine reasoning" enters the picture shortly after Dejah Thoris, the princess, does, and you can probably imagine how well that flew with this reader. So the question here is how was I able to get past the embedded racism and sexism? The answer, I think, is world-building. And maybe a bit of understanding, if not forgiveness, due to the time period, and the audience Burroughs was writing for. And the fact that Dejah Thoris is indeed a limp fish, but not quite as much of a limp fish as I expected, which was a pleasant surprise. But mostly world-building.

The first chunk of the book, and other parts throughout, read almost like an anthropological study. Which again, I am not sure why this works so well, but it really does. For an adventure novel that packs a lot of plot, there is an incredible amount of exposition. In other books I would be tempted to call it one long infodump, but something about the narrative voice (John Carter, in first person) precludes that, and we build up a relatively deep understanding of the culture of Mars (or Barsoom, as the locals call it), its history, and its environment. The detail is astonishing in some cases, and equally astonishing is that my eyes didn't glaze over, nor did I start skipping descriptions of how things worked or how societies were structured. What comes out the other end is a very thorough understanding of the environment in which John Carter is operating, and a huge respect for Edgar Rice Burroughs' creativity.

I loved the detail. I loved the differences between our world as John Carter knew it and Barsoom. I loved the images and the intricacies of the cultures of the green martians and the red martians, the idea of the long-lost great civilization, the post-post-apocalyptic feel of the Barsoom John Carter finds himself on. Actually, I really loved that the societies of Mars were the way they were due to a long decline, not some single huge catastrophic event.

I loved that the green martians, the Tharks, weren't entirely villains, though they very easily could have been; I loved that some of the complexity of their culture was shown, and that John Carter displayed a willingness to work within it and even attempted to befriend some of the strange creatures he found.

I kind of loved that I spent a lot of time wondering how people -- men, in particular -- rode their thoats comfortably without any clothes on.

I didn't love the inconsistencies in John Carter's character. He is a great character, almost too great, really. He's quite likable.  He's got this super-human strength, but then he's also super-humanly dutiful and brave and good and smart and tolerant, too. EXCEPT for when he's not, which is when Edgar Rice Burroughs needs him not to be for the sake of the plot. There are two specific instances that bothered me, both towards the end of the book. Both are pretty outright cruel or stupid, neither of which things John Carter has ever appeared to be earlier in the text, and were so out of character that they threw me out of the book in a way that even the most unbelievable coincidences and preposterous feats of agility/strength/daring/intelligence didn't.

So the verdict for me on this book is ... it's kind of recommended? I'm really glad I read it, because as I say, the world-building was magnificent and incredibly creative and really interesting. But it also has the kind of appallingly casual racism and sexism that one might expect of a pulp adventure novel of the era, and that's grating. And while some of the writing is really quite excellent, which is why I think this book has lasted so long in the public imagination and the classic science fiction canon, some of it is inexcusably bad, with the characters and events contorting painfully to get to the place where Burroughs wants to go. I don't know that I'll ever go out of my way to read the second or third or following books in the series, but I won't rule it out either.


Jill said...

A friend of mine read this last year and periodically sent me cringe-worthy snippets from the book that we laughed about. It can be hard to separate some of that stuff out and still find the book enjoyable - it takes a very open mind! I think you managed that - kudos. There's a lot to like with Burroughs, but wow, there's a lot that makes me cringe, too!

Unknown said...

It really, really can be hard to separate; I think my saving grace was that I expected it to be worse than it turned out to be. Which doesn't mean it wasn't bad. Oh, some parts, was it bad. But I expected the whole to be worse, and what I found was that the whole was mostly really inventive and creative and interesting and even occasionally surprisingly forward-thinking.