A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice BurroughsApril 3, 2010
The Book: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Originally published in All-Story Magazine as a six part serial, February through July 1912. Edition read was published in 1975 by Ballantine Books.
The Setting: MARS! and a little bit on Earth
The Story: John Carter, mysterious fighting man of Virginia, is chased into a cave by pursuing Apache where he becomes frozen. Ripping himself out of his frozen body, he is transported to MARS! There he finds himself buck naked and confronting 15 foot tall, four armed, tusked, angry green Martians. Decreased gravity on the planet makes him a kick-ass warrior and he kills one green guy dead with one blow. But then they capture him. He lives among them, learns their ways, and finds himself a chieftain among them (kill a chieftain, become a chieftain, easy peasey).
The green men shoot down some airships of a different race and capture Dejah Thoris, smoking hot princess of Mars. She’s the size and shape of normal humans, just red in color. John Carter falls in love with her. Dejah Thoris falls in love with him. But she’s a political prisoner! Together with a sympathetic green Martian (or Barsoomian) and John Carter’s faithful, enormous, ferocious, 10-legged dog-thing Woola, they make their escape. They get lost, separate, and John Carter gets captured. After a lot of fighting and exciting escapes, he finds himself part of the Red Martian (he paints himself) Air Force for the city of Zodangan, and soon a private guard for the jeddak (king of the city) who just happens to be at war with Dejah Thoris’ city and has captured her.
Basically, there’s some intrigue, some fighting, some ally making, and Carter, with the help of Thark (Green Martian) chieftain Tars Tarkas, Carter and the Tharks invade the city where Dejah Thoris is being held, take it over, break up her wedding to the son of the jeddak of Zodangan, and win her back. They return to Dejah Thoris’ home city of Helium and live happily ever after. For 10 years. Then John Carter wakes up in his Earth body, no longer buck naked. Did I mention that everyone is totally naked the whole time? Also, they all come from eggs.
The Science: At its heart, this is an action romance. It’s set on a decaying Mars which has a lot of different bits of scientific things going on. So lets nitpick and look at two bits of the book.
- The entire planet of Mars, once lush and easy to live in, has become arid, desolate. It is only habitable because the Red Men of Mars maintain an atmosphere factory which transforms solar power (of the ‘ninth ray’) into atmosphere, keeping the planet surrounded by air. Now, they don’t exactly go into the technical bits of the transformation, but I’m just impressed that Burroughs was thinking about the sun as a potential source of capturable, usable energy. Pretty neat for 1912.
- Radium. Most everything on the planet is powered by radium. The element was discovered in 1898 and isolated as a metal in 1910. So in 1912, it would have been known and used commercially on earth. And no one would have quite worked out that it kills you dead. So having radium power everything on Mars is like a high powered nuclear reactor. Or maybe Burroughs just thought it sounded cool.
The Reaction: A rollicking good time. It’s amazing how many battle scenes are skipped – but that’s just how much fighting goes on in the book. I also appreciated the low level of background science fiction, like where Burroughs casually mentions that they got dinner in the restaurant by pressing a button. But mostly, just a fun, classic adventure read. Recommended! And I hope the next 10 books maintain the quality…
The Cover: Cover art by Gino D’Achille. Carter fights a Green Martian on the surface of Mars while Dejah Thoris looks on. And everyone has their bits and pieces covered. I don’t think this scene ever happened in the book, and I don’t think the anatomy of the Thark is quite right (also Dejah Thoris isn’t all that red), but I don’t hold it against the artist. It pretty much says what needs saying. Also, this is one of the later published books in the project, and I think the art is part of the 1970s and 80s trend toward women in metal bikinis on the covers of books.
Etc: OMG, Pixar is making it into a movie!
Next Up: The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle.