A Princess of Mars and a Messiah of Mars

In honor of Leap Day, I thought I should write a post in honor of the most famous long-leaper of all, the clean-limbed fighting man of Virginia, John Carter, Warlord of Mars.

I have recently been rereading the ‘Barsoom’ novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs to my boys, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my memory of them as trivial boy’s adventure tales was an underestimation.

They are honest-to-goodness science fiction, written with at least as much speculative thought and speculative wonder as anything by, say, Robert Heinlein, but with this difference: Burroughs was more a Victorian writer than a modern one, and did not buy into the conceit, so prevalent in modern writers, that assumes that man’s nature, nay, manhood itself, is a by-product of environment.

An examination of these two writers, one who portrayed a man named Carter on Mars, and the other, a Martian named Smith on Earth, is instructive.

Robert Heinlein is called the ‘Dean of Science Fiction’ because of his role as a  pillar of Hard SF from the John W. Campbell Jr. stable of writers, and one of the writers defining Hard SF.  He is clearly in the ‘Man is what upbringing molds him to be’ camp.

Allow me by way of illustrative example to quote a passage from Robert Heinlein’s most famous work, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, which concerns an orphaned child, Michael Valentine Smith, raised from infancy by Martians.  Captain van Tromp is the chief officer of the second expedition to Mars, who recovers the now-grown Smith from Mars and returns him to Earth. At a hearing, he explains to the typically Heinleinian dunderhead (whose only purpose in the plot is to contrast the truth and clarity of the author’s viewpoint) the nature of Smith:

Captain van Tromp decided that it was time to throw a tantrum. “This man Smith–This ‘man!’ Can’t you see that he is not?”
“Smith . . . is . . . not . . . a . . . man.”
“Huh? Explain yourself, Captain.”
“Smith is an intelligent creature with the ancestry of a man, but he is more Martian than man. Until we came along he had never laid eyes on a man. He thinks like a Martian, feels like a Martian. He’s been brought up by a race which has nothing in common with us–they don’t even have sex. He’s a man by ancestry, a Martian by environment. . . “

The jest of the novel is that Smith is a reverse Mowgli or anti-Tarzan, raised by beings to whom we Earthlings, with our monogamy and monotheism, are but savages.

More to the point, Smith is the anti-John Carter.  That first and famous human visitor to Mars showed the savage and remorseless inhabitants of that warlike and dying planet the advantages of compassion toward lower animals and the romance of marriage.

As I said, It is often overlooked that the seminal space adventure novel A PRINCESS OF MARS was actually a legitimate science fiction story. The scientific conceit, which was indeed consonant with the science of the time, was that Mars an older planet than Earth, webbed with canals to draw water from the arctic regions by a shrinking but highly advanced civilization to extend their few remaining years on the dry and dying planet as far as possible.

Edgar Rice Burroughs further hypothesized that the Green Men of Mars were egg-layers who practiced remorseless eugenics and held all property in common, and hence raised their children communally, with no custom of courtship or marriage, no institution of motherhood or fatherhood. Consequently, the Green Martians are cruel and savage and dour to the point of insanity, having never known family or love.

John Carter is the only man on Mars who shows compassion to the monstrous domesticated animals of that globe. Woola the ghastly Martian hound-dog is one of the best loved characters of the piece. The blood brother and companion in arms of Carter is  Tars Tarkas is the only Martian who ever loved his wife and knows the identity of his child.

It is significant to me that Burroughs always speaks of John Carter’s “advent” on Mars, a word that, to me, has religious overtones, even if not so intended by the author. John Carter perhaps is not a messiah, but he does save the planet from an global atmospheric disaster, he does overthrow the corrupt pagan religion of the South Polar regions, and he eventually becomes Warlord of the entire globe, the Jeddak of Jeddaks even if he is not the King of King and Lord of Lords.

As befits a scientific romance of the Victorian Age, John Carter shoulders the ‘White Man’s Burden’ mentioned by Kipling, of bringing notions of compassion and civility to a society both older and more barbaric than our own, albeit (since this is a Victorian romance) a society which retains the military virtues and sense of honor our own has lost.

Romantics of the Victorian Age were constantly admiring the native peoples their armies were so adroitly conquering, and suffered the haunting sense that industrial civilization was unsuitable for man (and idea common to this day, and still found in science fiction yarns: Cameron’s AVATAR springs to mind as an example).

A cynical Victorian man is likely to recoil from the romantic notion of noble savages on the grounds that savages are not noble; a ideologically correct modern girl is likely to recoil from the romantic notion of noble savages on the grounds that savages are not savage, and that it is judgmental, if not an insult, to think them so. John Carter, I am happy to say, is neither cynical nor ideologically correct. He is simply a gentleman of Virginia, with both the compassion and the valor that that implies.

But whether Burroughs intended it or not, there is a slight messianic overtone to John Carter’s advent on Mars, where he uses his strength and talents to win the admiration and love of the natives, and bring a measure of civilization and civility to that cruel world of war.

By bringing human compassion to Mars, John Carter revolutionizes the planet, restoring what the ancient Martians of a greener world once knew, then lost.

Heinlein’s Martians, perhaps by no coincidence, have an asexual communal child-rearing strategy similar to the Green Men of Barsoom. The young in their larval form, as nymphs, are left to fend for themselves in the arid and cold Martian wilderness. Heinlein likewise has his ‘Martian’ named Smith scorn family life in favor of free love, and scorn monotheism in favor of a particularly sterile and juvenile heresy called Gnosticism, which preaches all humans are gods, or at least free of obedience to the Ten Commandments.

In the course of the novel, Smith fornicates freely if sterily (no child ever comes of his many sexual encounters), commits acts of cannibalism (and the Heinlein yammerhead brought on stage for that purpose is decreed to be a bigot for objecting to it) and murder (but only of policemen doing their duty and convicts lawfully imprisoned and also of a religious leader who was, of course, merely a con-man) and is stoned to death, whereupon he is wafted to a oddly godless heaven, wearing comic-opera wings and halo.

He feeds no hungry, cures no sick, raises no dead, and preaches nothing to the poor. The mission of the poor, as best I can tell, is to be weeded out.

But he has begun the ‘Church of Nine Worlds’ (Pluto was a planet in those better days of long ago, if you recall) which will convert the elite of mankind to superbeings with Way Cool Mind Powers, who will live in sexual orgies and share all property in common, adoring themselves as the only self-aware gods on the planet.

By bringing Martian dispassion to Earth, Smith likewise revolutionizes the planet, abandoning what ancient Humans have always known.

The most touching and memorable scene in A PRINCESS OF MARS is when John Carter learns the story of Sola, the only woman of the Green Martian race capable of compassion. She was, in defiance of Martian custom, raised by her own mother, and loved by her real father, for for the two met and loved without the eugenic rape necessitated by remorseless breeding programs. Since her parents knew and loved each other, the birth was secret, and Sola’s egg was not placed in the communal incubator by her mother. The mother is discovered visiting the child in secret to raise it, and for this forbidden display of maternal love, the mother is seized by the tribal chieftain, and tormented cruelly to death. The father, who was away at the wars during the tragedy, returns, conceals his rage, and waits many long Martian years for his revenge against his own chieftain. He is motivated by a passion, romantic love and fatherly compassion for his own daughter, which is unknown to the barren souls of the Green Men of that barren world.

The most grotesque scene in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND is the scene where Mike the Martian (who in addition to being raised by Martians is the genius child of two genius astronauts of the first ill-fated expedition to Mars) becomes a carney, a Carnival showman, and comes to understand that the great majority of man are “chumps.” His immortal words are “I grok that they are chumps.”

(“Grokking” is Martian meditative unity, in this case meaning “full understanding.”)

This means that we rubes exist only to be mulcted of their pay by the cheap showmanship, lurid showgirls, and fake danger of the sideshow. When, at the zoo, Mike the Martian sees a big monkey beat a smaller monkey (who, in displaced rage, rushes off to beat an even smaller) he erupts into the laughter his Martian heritage had hitherto denied him, and announces that he now understands mankind.  We are all stinking apes and bullies and cowards and victims. And chumps.

Oh, did you think Mike the Martian mean that everyone else aside from you was the chump? Ah! That was the way I also read the book when I was young, and a chump, and I was played for a chump by this flimsy and coarse make-believe cynicism. You see, if we actually were nothing but smelly apes and cowards and bullies, we would not laugh about it. To take joy from the sorrows of the world is a work of angels.

For that matter, to take simple and rustic joy from the antics of a carnival is neither despicable, nor it is a matter, as the Martian sees it, of the cunning exploiting the stupid. If a farmer pays to see a wire walker perform what is admittedly a useless albeit difficult antic, or let his children watch the tumbling of slapstick clowns, where is there room for contempt in this? Would the wire-walker rather do farm work, and leave the farmer with no break in the monotony of his long days? The contempt that Mike the Martian has for common people is quite intoxicating and quite subtle: you do not notice yourself jeering at honest men and women along with him.

(As a man in the entertainment field myself — and I assure all and sundry that clown-acrobatics for a traveling circus is a more difficult and honorable profession than my own– I am grateful for every last one of them, because I know there are other and better things they can do with their book-buying dollar. I do not grok that my patrons and employers and beloved readers are ‘chumps’.  I grok that I should be grateful.)

In a later scene, the last before his martyrdom, Mike the Martian confesses to his mentor, the Heinlein stand-in for Heinlein, Jubal Hershaw, that the teaching of Way Cool Gnosticism to the elite, which somehow cures original sin and makes all the cool kids live together in perfect harmony, may have a bad side effect of hindering Darwinian evolution:

“I am beginning to wonder if full grokking will show that I am on the wrong track entirely — that this race must be split up, hating each other, fighting each other, constantly unhappy and at war even with their own individual selves… simply to have that weeding out that every race must have.”

The poor messiah is sweating as if blood in his Gethsemane of his despair because there may not be enough death and destruction to cull the chumps from the herd and usher in the glorious birth of the superhuman like himself! Jubal Harshaw, his teacher and mentor, hurries to assure him:

“If one tenth of one percent of the population is capable of getting the news, then all you have to do is show them — and in a matter of some generations all the stupid ones will die out and those with your discipline will inherit the Earth. Whenever that is — a thousand years from now, or ten thousand — will be plenty soon enough to worry about whether some new hurdle is necessary to make them jump higher. But don’t go getting faint-hearted because only a handful have turned into angels overnight. Personally, I never expected any of them to manage it. “

I would like you to pause and grok, water brothers, the truly dismal and hateful nature of Jubal Hershaw’s philosophy, and, I presume, Mr Heinlein’s.  He is saying here that you and I, the chumps and apes of life, ought and shall and will die off to make room for the superman, who in turn will die off when challenges proportionate to their existence rear their heads. Only through killing the weak does the Master Race evolve!

Ironically, this is also a notion as Victorian as the ‘White Man’s Burden’ of Kipling; it comes straight from the pen of Nietzsche, who somehow misreads Darwin to be a primer on moral ethics rather than an hypothesis on how new species arise. Part and parcel of the pseudo-Darwinist notion  is that there is no such thing as human nature. If species evolve from one to the next, there is no fixed standard against which to judge whether or not an individual is acting properly or not for his species. Any aberrant behavior which is self destructive in one environment might by blind chance be the exact thing needed to insure the survival of many children in the next environment.

It is to be noted, of course, that STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND is a satire after the fashion of Jonathon Swift or James Branch Cabell, and is not meant to be anything other than that. Satires are like lemonade: they are meant to leave a sour taste in the mouth. A PRINCESS OF MARS is an adventure story. They are red meat stories. Such a tale is meant to nourish souls who hunger for adventure, and perhaps even to tell young men how to behave with the courage and chivalry demanded of Christians, or at least the courage and honor demanded of Pagans.

I am not criticizing a satire for being satirical, but I am proposing that the cream of the jest requires a belief that man is not man, that he has no fixed form or guiding spirit, no purpose in life other than to seek orgies and fight wars and father babies, preferably for other men to raise. It is an odd mix of Darwinism, lofty individualism, and rank hedonism.

On the other hand, for the adventure yarn to be an adventure, the image of man must be a heroic one. Indeed, the greatest adventure of all is begun when one recognizes that the image of man is the image and likeness of God.


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