The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared. There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life, just as there are a large number of persons who believe they are the Prince of Wales; and I am told that both classes of people are entertaining conversationalists.It is in this vein that I invite you to contemplate the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs, that prince among hacks. And when I say "hack", I mean it in the most complimentary of terms, as referring to a man who, despite catering to the most unsophisticated desires in humanity to go chopping up enemy hordes into little pieces, does it all while lauding the very basic and very Christian virtues of courage, fidelity, chivalry, and mercy.
Welcome to A Princess of Mars: John Carter, fighting man of Virginia, finds himself drawn through the trackless wastes of space with the speed of thought to the planet of his vocation. On Mars--or Barsoom as its inhabitants call it--he quickly wins the respect of the four-armed, warlike Tharks with his courage and incredible strength (fresh from Earth's more weighty gravity). The Tharks know neither love nor mercy, and when an airship falls from the heavens and the sole survivor is captured--a beautiful red princess, the incomparable Dejah Thoris of Helium--John Carter knows that his duty is clear. The princess must be rescued and returned to her family in Helium. And so begins an incredible adventure across Martian deserts, through duels to the death, gladiatorial arenas, and corrupt courts...
In some ways this book was just as I remembered it--a penny dreadful if ever there was one, complete with monsters, buckets of gore, not a lot of clothing, and The Love of All Time between John Carter (Warlord of Mars) and the incomparable Dejah Thoris (Space Princess).
And yet...and yet it wasn't that bad. Let's begin with ERB's philosophy. The man was not a believer by any stretch, and (in this book at least) substitutes romantic love for the glory of the Lord and God of creation as the chief end of man. John Carter for one is quite clear on the fact that his chief end is to serve Dejah Thoris and slaughter her enemies forever. So far, so bad.
But ERB was writing during a time that was still imbued with the morals of Christendom, and he himself retained her standards. And thus, although the action takes place on a strange planet, filled with war from one end to another, John Carter begins to transform the society of Mars with his remarkable practices of kindness, gentleness, and mercy. And although the action takes place on an exotic planet, in the cities and wastes of Barsoom, the hero dutifully rescues and preserves the Space Princess from all perils until they can be duly and correctly married.
John Carter is, in fact, rather like an old knight of Christendom--savage to his enemies, meek to those under his protection. And ERB, though he denies the source of this ideal, still wishes to preserve the ideal itself. Thus princesses are rescued, friends are stood by in battle, beasts maddened with ill-treatment are soothed with kindness, and four-armed eight-foot-tall tusked green alien women are referred to as "my fair companion."
Additionally, A Princess of Mars is genuine science fiction--that is, it is genuinely concerned with what life on Mars might have been like going on the best scientific theories available at the time of writing. And so in addition to all the adventuring, the story is also deeply concerned with science and cultures. The Tharkian society is one with no private property, and a ruthless eugenics program in which the young are raised by harsh foster-mothers: in the words of Dejah Thoris,
A people without written language, without art, without homes, without love; the victim of eons of the horrible community idea. Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common. You hate each other as you hate all else except yourselves.Flawed as it is, Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars remains an imaginative tour-de-force and a strong influence on subsequent science fiction. I enjoyed it this second time around, and consider it one of the best penny dreadfuls.
Librivox recording (which I have heard and can recommend)
A movie based on this book, titled John Carter of Mars, was released in 2012. John C Wright, Space Princess aficionado, science fiction writer, and classical scholar has written an excellent review of it. The short version: "If you have not read, or do not particularly adore, the source material, the movie is a fine, if unexceptional, entry into the Space Princess genre of space opera. There is action, humor, spectacle, swordfights, gunfights, flying machines, mystery, romance, monsters, and everything a Space Princess story should have, including a space princess. The only thing it lacked was John Carter." I completely agree with him. The long version goes into more detail on both book and movie and is well worth reading.