When I was a kid, right around 10 or 11, I would have loved “A Princess of Mars,” the first book in the John Carter series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. But I didn’t know about the series; I didn’t even read any of Burroughs’ best-known series, the Tarzan books.
With the big film version, “John Carter,” coming out today, I thought I’d give the book a try. It’s the story of a man who, just after the Civil War, heads out west to prospect for gold and then is mysteriously transported to Mars. How? Who cares? (It actually reminded me of the plot catalyst in Stephen King’s latest, “11/22/63.” Big strange thing happens, and the protagonist just goes with it.) Because of the lighter gravity, Carter gains all sorts of powers, finds love and adventure, and transforms Martian society.
For a first novel that’s nearly 100 years old (Burroughs released it in novel form in 1917, but it was published as a serial a few years before), it’s a pretty good read, but it feels like Burroughs was trying out everything he could think of. Carter is, apparently, immortal. He also learns that all Martians are telepathic. Both of those could be, you know, significant factors in the story. But they’re mentioned in a matter-of-fact way and then hardly brought up again. It’s like the author decided he had enough going on with the whole super-powered alien story, and didn’t need any of the other stuff.
There are other issues with Burroughs, who possessed some pretty awful ideas about non-white, non-American peoples. In his review of the Burroughs biography from John Taliaferro, “Tarzan Forever,” Washington Post critic Michael Dirda writes of Burroughs’ “shoddy treatment” of Africans, Germans and Japanese, and his “enthusiasm for eugenics coupled with an undisguised horror of miscegenation.” There’s not a lot of that in “A Princess of Mars,” although Indians are called “red savages,” among other things. (It may not be chance that John Carter, Burroughs’ first hero, is a Confederate Army veteran.)
As for the “John Carter” movie, which hits theaters today, I’ve read a couple of reviews which essentially say, it’s a big dumb movie, but at least it’s fun, and the filmmakers seem to know that it’s a big dumb movie. The screenplay was written by, among others, author Michael Chabon, who’s no stranger to “genre” fiction. His works include the alternate history “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” and the Sherlock Holmes pastiche “The Final Solution,” and his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” chronicles the early days of the comic book industry. So it’s got that going for it, at least.
Back to the book: I’d be hard-pressed to recommend “A Princess of Mars” to anyone who wasn’t curious about its historic value — but that historic value is significant. As Dirda notes in his review, Edgar Rice Burroughs was the king of the storytellers for several decades in the early 20th century, and this is the book that started him on his way.
If you’d like to read “A Princess of Mars,” it will cost you exactly nothing; besides the usual option of your local library, the book is free (legally) all over the Internet.