Sunday, April 12, 2015

Book Review: A Princess of Mars

© 1912 by Edgar Rice Burroughs

What was the first science fiction novel?  Who was the first science fiction writer?

Ah, interesting questions for buffs like Yours Truly.  From what I’ve read, a good percentage of those in the know tend to go with Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.  Me, I see where they’re coming from, I like to kick the can down the road a half-century and go with Jules Verne.  Definitely, at the turn of the century, H. G. Wells cemented the new literary form yet to be called science fiction (I believe it was called “scientifiction”, though perhaps even that nomer was still a few years away).  But a little over a decade after Wells a man came along with created the science fiction pulp novel.

That man is Edgar Rice Burroughs.  He of Tarzan fame, as well as lost world tales like At the Earth’s Core and The Land that Time Forgot.

Not sure which came first, published or written, but 1912 saw both Tarzan and  A Princess of Mars come hot off the presses.  The latter became a dozen-or-so-novel franchise that would become entry-level sci fi fodder for uncountable boys over the past ten decades.  I myself read it forty years back, probably in fourth grade if memory – ever sketchy – serves.  A terrible movie-by-committee was made a few years ago by Disney (please don’t judge this work by that!).  Repackaged and reprinted probably close to a couple hundred times, I am reading Burroughs’s Carter series in a very respectable Barnes and Noble hardcover holding the first five novels.

So, what’s all the fuss about?

This: Action.  Adventure.  Swordplay and swagger.  Monsters and bad guys – plenty of bad guys.  Beautiful scantily clad women.  Barbarians and barbarity.  Empires, emperors, and all the perilous intrigue you’d expect.  Heroes who outwit – or, more likely, out-punch, out-stab, out-slash, out-shoot, or otherwise out-muscle – those legions of baddies.  And it never lets up after a brief, establishing opening chapter to the exciting, climactic penultimate one.

That’s pulp.  There’s no hard science fiction in this tale.  Even pre-atomic era hard science fiction found in Verne and Wells.  Our hero, John Carter, finds himself transported in some vague, dreamy way to a breathable, Earthlike Mars.  Gravity on the smaller world is taken into account, however, and turns out it provides Carter with his great advantage over the natives: superior strength due his Earthling musculature and the ability to airborne leap hundreds of yards at a pop to escape difficult fixes.

There are warlike, six-limbed Green Martians, the human-like Red Martians (of which the titular Princess, Dejah Thoris, is the prime example), monstrous dog thingies, banta-like uh banta thingies.  To whatever extent necessary Burroughs delves into the anthropology of the two groups.  Presumably there are more variations of different colors, perhaps to be revealed in following novels, and a possibly extinct possibly not extent race of advanced Martians is hinted at through great though abandoned ancient architectural wonders dotting the red planet.

A good, quick read when taken for what it is: a trip down memory lane.  While I read Burroughs as a kid, I consider Asimov the writer upon whom I cut my teeth.  But I still enjoy the thrill of abandoning myself on the sands of another world, vicariously watching the barbarians butcher and the dashing hero get the Princess.

Grade: B+  (B for the actual story, an extra “+” for creating a subgenre)

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