Love Letter to a Princess of Mars

Well, that day which every science fiction Dad looks forward-to has finally arrived at the Wright Household.  For bedtime stories, I have previously read to my children such works as Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron (where the Mushrooms are the good guys) and The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall (where the Mushrooms are the bad guys) and, best of all, The Mad ScientistsClub by Bertrand R. Brinley (where the Mad Scientists are the good guys).

All this was merely to lay the groundwork. This day I started telling my youngest son, whom we have named Number Three Son Wright, all about A Princess of Mars. He became interested in the story, and so I pounced, and I read him the first five or so chapters last night. I don’t own a copy myself, but the work is pre-1929, and in the public domain, so I printed it off the Gutenberg Project site, may God bless their efforts.

I read my boy his first honest-to-Barsoom sci fi book. This day, he is one of us, no more to be counted among the muggles. KAOR!

He was so taken by the story that he insisted I draw for him the Thark and the Calot and the other Martian life described in the book, and he insisted that he would invent a game like D&D but where you are transported to other worlds to spelunk in the buried cities and encounter hostile monstrosities, starting with Mars.

I was also taken by the story, and this came as a surprise.

Well, let me tell you, I had forgotten how good this book is. We fancy-pantsy elitist intellectuals (and I include myself) who read Homer in Greek and Milton in, uh, English, tend to look down our supercilious noses at mere pulp writing, but we hard-working sciffy lowbrow hack-writers (and I include myself) should pause to admire the economy and craftsmanship of this seminal work of scientifiction.

I thought I liked this book. No. Upon rereading it, I realize I love it. Let me tell you, dear reader, why.

The story opens with the cryptic line explaining that the narrator does not age, has no memory of being a child, and is a century old, or many centuries.

The action opens in the Old West of 1866, just after the Civil War, when the Confederation captain John Carter of Virginia, finding himself without a trade in peacetime, and the cause to which his sword had been pledged abolished, seeks his fortune in gold mining in the territories;  the reader is lulled, or thrilled, into thinking this is merely one more Western Adventure tale, since the whole of the first chapter concerns John Carter’s vain attempt to rescue his partner from being captured and tortured to death by Apaches, and he sets out in a cross-country trek by moonlight.

Let me just tell you, dear reader, that Indians never seem scary until you are reading about them to a young child, who, not being infected with the poison of Political Correctness, regards the prospect of being captured and tortured slowly to death as a serious drama, not as a cliche nor an insult to the savage warriors who (in real life, I should mention) practiced such dark deeds.

In chapter two, the story changes again, into some sort of Edgar Allen Poe or Arthur Machen tale of mystery and horror, as our hero, venturing into an empty but once-inhabited cave, is overcome by a mephitic fume of some sort, as lies paralyzed, awake and eyes opened, while the Apache gather at the cave mouth, terrified by whatever apparition they, but not the narrator, and not the reader, see with sadistic slowness and deliberation creeping toward our helpless protagonist.

Then our hero DIES, and stands naked and looking down at his own corpse, fully clothed and motionless. Yet instead of being a spirit or shade, our hero is still breathing, possessed of a heartbeat, and every evidence of life.

Then he steps outside, sees the Red Planet low on the horizon, mystic, wonderful, alluring, dreadful, and raises his arms as if in salute or prayer to the pagan god of his profession, the soldier’s god Mars. Then he wakes on that remote sphere, a landscape coated with yellowish-red moss, near the incubator of the four-armed goggle-eye Martians; he finds he cannot walk under the low gravity of Mars, as all his muscular habits are wrong, and must relearn the art like a baby; he is nearly speared by an adult band coming silently upon him, riding a fantastical many-legged cavalry; and he is taken prisoner into the vast ruins of an aeons-old civilization, domes of ivory and gold, that these gigantic greenish savages in nowise would have built.

A Warrior of Savage Mars. Note Radium Rifle with 200 mile range.

To you, if you are a fan of science fiction, the scenario might seem trite. All I can report is that the reason why these books have remained in print for nigh a century is that the author does very well and very handily what he sets out to do.

If you think it is easy, you try it.

Let me mention, and I do not mean to pick on the fellow, that I have just this month read Michael Moorcock’s pastiche and homage to Burroughs, Warriors of Mars, Blades of Mars (also published as City of the Beast, Lord of the Spiders) and found that it utterly failed to hold my interest. I don’t think of myself as that hard to please — I like complex themes and daring insights into human nature and literary allusions as much as the next pencil-necked bespectacled intellectual, but I also read books like The Shadow’s Shadow by Maxwell Grant for pleasure, not to mention comic books and other cotton candy of the land of letters.

But Moorcock could not carry it off. He tried and failed.

(No dishonor to Moorcock! The man is a masterful writer himself, the father of a literary movement, the inventor of some of the best beloved and well remembered characters in the sci-fi pantheon. But in this case, he failed to achieve the desired effect.)

Let me mention a single example of one of the literary problems with this type of adventure story, a problem Burroughs solves handily, but which Moorcock does not.

In a first person adventure tale, the hero must be heroic, but being in first person, he cannot seem to brag or boast, as nothing is more annoying (as we can tell by listening to the lyrics of half the rap songs on the radio these days).

Burroughs handles this by a bit of self-deprecating humor at that outset: when John Carter charges alone by moonlight, armed only with  carbine, in the camp of some four hundred deadly savage Apache warriors, he calmly tells the reader that he is NOT brave, on account of the fact that he did not think about merely sneaking away and leaving his partner to his grisly fate until some time the next day.

Carter as if reluctantly admits that honor is “something of a fetich” with him, but again he says (or jests) that it is a character flaw, because he cannot imagine behaving any other way.

Burroughs also handles the paradox of having a brave first person narrator not call himself brave by describing Carter’s reaction to being paralyzed in the cave: he admits his fear and terror at that time, but of course, this is an almost supernatural terror, very different from the type of threats an active man armed with courage in his heart and steel in his hand can face.

There is a next scene where one of the gigantic Green Men of Mars yanks Carter roughly by the arm,  commanding him to perform his antics of jumping for the Thark Chieftain: Carter not only answers the brute by breaking his jaw with a fist, but he fully expects to die for his act, putting his back to the wall and resolving to kill as many of the foe as he might before he falls under their greater numbers.

Now, the kind of character who is willing to die rather than to be manhandled or enslaved is quite slippery, by which I mean it is far too easy to slip up, and leave the reader thinking the attitude is corny, one-dimensional, or unbelievable. But this scene takes place one chapter after we saw the same hero in the cave of fear, petrified literally and figuratively. The craftsmanship of the contrast make he courage of the second scene seem more realistic.

Again, John Carter also risks death to save the corpse of his fallen friend, not wishing the body to be savaged or mutilated by the Red Indians (who have no more notion of civilized or Christian practices than, say, your average modern man raised with modern pseudo-scientific education). It is a gesture that shows Carter to be a man who values something nobler and greater than his own gross bodily pleasures, vainglorious self-esteemery, and trivial worldly self-interests without the first-person narrator needed to explain or emphasize the point.

Modern readers who have no idea what honor is need not be distracted by the point, because it passes by so quickly, and can merely enjoy the action, whose pace, by the way, never slows.

Moorcock, on the other hand, does nothing to establish his character Kane as being a man of honor or a man of particular courage before he is transported to Mars. Michael Kane is a professor working on a teleportation machine, whose malfunction sends him back to Mars of the ancient past, when it was still a green and inhabited world.

Moorcock does have Kane say, at one point, that he yearns to return to Old Mars, not only because his lady love is there, but because the sense of honor he finds nowhere on Earth, there still holds true. This is a very stirring sentiment, and it captures in one line the heart and soul of what makes Planetary Romances and all Burroughseque yarns appealing: they are meant to be the romance and danger of the Old West in SPA-AA-ACE, when men were men, and honor was honor.

The problem with Kane’s statement is that the book in which he appears does not bear this out: neither the Argzoon nor the other foes of the City of the Green Mists have any particular sense of honor or chivalry, nor does Kane himself risk anything or make any gestures in that direction, except, perhaps, once, when he interrupts a domestic dispute between Shizala (the space princess of this epic) and her fiancee: but the point of the scene is undercut, first, because Kane is portrayed as a dope who does not realize the obvious either that he loves Shizala, nor she him, nor that she is engaged: and second, because he upbraided by the space dame for his clumsy interruption.

The contrast is between a man who smites a brutal captor and expects to die for it and a man who interrupts a domestic quarrel and beats a cad manhandling his (the cad’s) betrothed. The second example rings a bit hollow, doesn’t it? It is the kind of thing someone from the Hippie Generation thought someone from the Victorian Generation acted like, but not what they actually acted like, which is more represented by the first example.

Likewise, when John Carter first addresses Dejah Thoris, he speaks in words rare or impossible to see these days: “Suffice it, for the present, that I am your friend, and, so far as our captors will permit, your protector and your servant.”

Michael Kane of Old Mars I am sure is a fine and stalwart fellow, but he does not express his love for his princess by declaring himself her friend, protector, and servant. That ideal comes from a more civilized era.

The point of fact is that Burroughs actually “gets” the concept of the honorable soldier, and naturally has his characters act this way; whereas Moorcock, writing half a century later, regards the concept, perhaps, in this case, fondly, but from the point of view of an outsider, and his characters pay it lip-service only. He is not sympathetic to the concept of heroism even if he wants to be: he does not “get it”.

Moorcock is of course at a terrific disadvantage. When one sits down to write a pastiche one deliberately set’s one’s imagination to be unimaginative. The tale must follow a model of the original. But the original is actually original.

How original? When I read the scene to my boy where Carter learns that all Green Men are raised from eggs indifferently by all the women of the tribe, no man knowing mother or father, but all children merely raised in common by the community, and defective eggs smashed or children abandoned and left to die of exposure by the eugenics of the Green Men, he was properly horrified. When Dejah Thoris pleads with the Green Men for peace and amity between their peoples, she specifically identifies the communal lifestyle, the communism or Spartanism, as the trait that has driven all finer emotion, family love, fellowship, and friendship out of the Green race. Rereading this with adult eyes, I was struck to the core by the clarity of the insight. These words were written in 1912.

One pivotal character whom I did not recall from when I read this in my youth was Sola, the Green Martian woman who tends and teaches John Carter during his captivity. She is explicitly said to be an atavism or throwback from a million years ago, when Mars had water, and softer emotions still existed. (It is later revealed that she, unlike her peers, actually recalls her father and mother.)

My young son was properly outraged when one of the reptile-hearted women of the tribe dismissed Sola’s sympathy and mercy as degenerate, and their own Spartan or Soviet inhumanity and cruelty as progress. Number Three Son exclaimed in indignation, “Don’t they realize they are just going backwards!” (I explained that all corruption is described as progress by the Progressives.) He was disheartened to hear that the Green Men did not reform by the end of the series.

This tale fathered its own genre called Planetary Romance, or Sword-and-Planet adventures, in much the same way that Tolkien fathered the genre of High Fantasy: but their flatterers and imitators in both cases imitated surface features and missed the pith. Tolkien’s masterwork is about the fortitude to endure when all hope is lost. Burrough’s is about honor. If the writer of an homage or pastiche does not take fortitude or honor seriously, his homage will be no real homage.

Let me emphasize the those tropes which seem to us trite were first invented, and used and re-used, because they solved certain difficulties which otherwise hindered the reader’s enjoyment of the tale being hammered together.

The Green-skinned men of Mars, for example, are perhaps the first depiction of an otherwordly species which is both exotic enough to excite wonder, human enough to be human, and not supernatural. Their hairlessness, bulging eyes that operate independently of each other, savage tusks, great height and extra pair of limbs, described (at least at first) was being either arms or legs, creates quite a different impression than, for example, HG Wells’ depiction of a creature composed almost entirely of brain, with hands of great strength and sensitivity.

Wells’ Martians are simply monsters. They are the image, or the nightmare, of what Darwinian theory would portray future man or superman to be: as the Englishman was thought to be less robust than the caveman, the future man would likewise be more delicate and less hirsute than the Englishman. As the brain and the hands of man granted Man’s dominion over the Earth, likewise the older planet Mars, suffering a longer span of evolutionary ascension, would bring forth a master race of greater brains and finer fingers.

(Let me correct one word: “Darwinianism” properly so called is a biological theory which makes no predictions. You need crackpot philosophers, Hegel or Nietzsche or Marx, or playwrights like Shaw, to propose a theory that evolution is directed to the end of producing finer or more manlike descendants to Man. Wells was playing off this popular yet false conception of directed Darwinian evolution. He plays with the theory more honestly by predicting the Moorlocks and Eloi of The Time Machine. )

But I am lost in a digression: the point here is that Wellsian Martians never speak, and if they did, it would break the spell. They would seem less horrifying, less supremely ultra-evolved than man. They would just be bald men with big heads, as, indeed, the countless copies of Wells made them out to be in later books and comics.

But by adding limbs and tusks and removing hair, Burroughs creates something alien and savage, but at the same time human enough to make Tars Tarkas not merely a character, but a man of honor and a warrior worthy of fellowship and admiration: yet a character no less appalling and impressive than some giant or titan, a Goliath or a Svargotyr, from tales of old.

Why green? Nowadays the concept of green men from Mars is so trite as to be a joke. But the hue is innately alien and jarring, not being white, black, red, or yellow. Why extra limbs? It is a quick and elegant solution to make the Martian beasties seem unearthly without making them so unlike anything we know that the reader has no stock emotional reaction to them: an eight-legged hairless horse critter, or a ten-legged lizardy lion will still carry the connotations of horse and lion to the reader without further ado.

Again, with the depiction of Mars as an ancient, dying planet, peopled by forgotten races clinging by means of failing technology to a depleting atmosphere, Burroughs creates a setting so memorable, so eerie, so melancholy, and yet with such promise of romance, action, and adventure, that he solves at one stroke the several problems of how to please those readers who wish for swordfights as of the days of yore, those who wish for radium-pistols or flying machines as of things to come, the antiquity of Angkor Wat and forgotten cities of the jeweled and perfumed jungles of the Far East, the romance of the savage wilderness of the Old West, and so on. Future and past, East and West, everything is neatly drawn up in a single and elegant concept: Mars is ancient and senile, a dying world, noble as Rome eroding into a Dark Ages, with Viking and Paynim on opposite horizons: a time fit for a warlord who worships the war god.

Has the concept, or others of his, been overused and shop-worn? If you read to your child, you will find they are as fresh and new as springtime, which indeed returns every year, but indeed is ever new.

What is the appeal of such books? Oh, come now.

Bloodshed, Monsters, Honor, Savagery, True Love, Dying Cities, Flying Machines and Naked Folk Armed to the Teeth. What is not to like?

 

 

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