Friday, June 5, 2009

The Martian Tales Trilogy (Edgar Rice Burroughs)

Ok, for real this time. Let's get back to some good old fashioned criticism.


In 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs was basically a loser. He was over 40 years old and had done next to nothing with his life. Without really anything to lose, he decided to become a writer. Somehow that idea actually worked. The three books collected in The Martian Tales Trilogy are A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars, which came out in 1912, 1913 and 1914, respectively. 1912 was also the year Burroughs published the first Tarzan novel, Tarzan of the Apes, so this guy just came out of nowhere and basically became a huge international hit.

These first three books in what would eventually be an 11-book series, all center around the adventures of one character, John Carter. Even though it's technically three novels, the first two both end in cliffhangers that pick up directly in the next book, so it makes sense to read all three as one big book. In that way—and only that way—it might be considered a precursor to The Lord of the Rings trilogy (although to be fair, LOTR is actually broken up into six books, but that's a conversation for another time). Anyway, John Carter is actually a Virginian, and fought in the Civil War, but for some reason seems to have special powers that never get explained. The first chapter of the first book starts out:

I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possible I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty.

So it's weird right off the bat. Fairly early on in that first book, John Carter apparently dies, but somehow leaves his body and travels to Mars (although this is never truly explained either, at least not in these three installments). Upon reaching Mars, he discovers that his Earthling physiology gives him much greater proportionate strength than he did at home, so he is able to jump extremely far and hit people really hard. He is found by a group of monstrous Green Martians—not to be confused with the more human-looking Red Martians, Black Martians, or White Martians that are introduced later—and meets Tars Tarkas, who ultimately becomes his best friend on Mars, and Dejah Thoris, a Red Martian princess of the Martian city-state Helium, whom he immediately falls in love with. From then on it's pretty much 700 pages of swashbuckling sword fights, strange Martian technology, narrow escapes and damsels in distress. No, seriously. That's all it is. And you know what? It's actually pretty awesome.

Burroughs was one of the great early writers of pulp and science fiction novels, so there isn't a whole lot of great literary discourse going on in these books, but they are so entertaining. Every chapter ends in the midst of some kind of conflict, it's riveting. And each time you think things are going to calm down for a second, or that John and Dejah Thoris are finally going to be together, something screws it up. A lot of the writing can get repetitive, and sometimes I was sitting there going "Really? Really John Carter? You haven't slept or eaten in three days, have been stabbed eighteen times, just went on for three pages about how there is no possible physical way to get out of this situation, and are now successfully fighting off three hundred trained swordsman (swordsmartians?), who at the beginning of the book were noted as being the best in existence? Really?" So maybe it's a tad unrealistic at time. Oh yeah, and it's incredibly sexist. Every woman John Carter meets immediately falls in love with him, subsequently gets kidnapped and must be rescued (they're all naked, by the way, Martians don't wear clothes for some reason). But I think I'm ok with all of that. Sometimes it's fun not to have to think too much, and to enjoy the three hundred thousand Martians bearing down on you with only six minutes left to save your beloved princess from being locked away in a revolving tower with no food for a full year while the palace you're in burns down around you. It's so extreme, all the time, it never lets up. And I mean, come on, it takes place on Mars in the early 1900s, and the guy is writing about technology and scientific principles that hadn't even been conceived of yet. He goes into depth about an oxygenation system for the entire planet, cheap and reliable air transport, all kinds of stuff. And then later in the year goes the complete opposite direction and writes Tarzan. It's not something I would put up for the Nobel Prize or anything, but I'm gonna give the guy some credit.


The Martian Tales Trilogy
by Edgar Rice Burroughs

It may not seem as original now, but for the time it was written this was groundbreaking stuff. Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke both cite Burroughs as heavy influences in their work.

If you don't like cheesy pulp/sci-fi stories, these may not be for you. For what it is, though, it's some of the best that's ever been written.

These books are a lot of fun, and sometimes that's all that really matters. They keep you on the edge of your seat as John Carter pulls solutions out of nowhere and saves the woman he loves time and time again.


Keep reading, Genoshans!

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