By Philip Schweier
September 16, 2014 - 18:34
Edgar Rice Burroughs
It’s been said that the pivotal age for a science fiction fan is 13. It’s usually at that age that our sensibilities for geekery are formed, usually through exposure to a specific TV show or movie.
The John Carter books were my entry point into the world of science fiction. As I hit my early teens, my older sister gave me a boxed set of the first four Mars novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It is a common starting point for many future sci-fi geeks; suitable as it sometimes represents the birth of modern science fiction.
Today, 100 years after the first novel’s publication, many of Burroughs’ ideas appear somewhat derivative, but in truth many of them predate virtually all other science fiction. Like Flash Gordon, John Carter is the story of an Earthman transported to a hostile alien world. Winning one battle after another, he is able to unite the planet’s warring peoples under a single sword. The stories feature beautiful alien princesses, extraterrestrial people and evil despots.
His first novel, published as Under the Moons of Mars, tells how John Carter, a Virginia cavalryman, is transported to the dying world of Mars, known as Barsoom by its inhabitants. There, he encounters a variety of races living in constant conflict. He falls in love with Dejah Thoris, a princess of the city of Helium, and by befriending Tars Tarkas, a leader among the green men, he is able to unite the people of Mars. John Carter is happy to remain on Mars, but a looming crisis threatens the dying planet, and he is returned to Earth.
Burroughs submitted to All-Story magazine in 1911 under the pen name “Normal Bean,” fearing such a fantastic story would draw only ridicule, and ruin him as a businessman. However, a typesetter error led to the story being credit to “Norman Bean.” The story was a hit, garnering an immediate sequel and republished in book form in 1917 as A Princess of Mars.
The second book, The Gods of Mars (1918), chronicles John Carter’s return to the red planet. He arrives in the Valley of Dor, regarded by the people of Barsoom as the afterlife. It is ruled by the Therns, who are believed to be ascended beings. John Carter challenges their use of superstition to dominate others. In fact, many of ERB’s adventure novels use the exploitation of religious faith as a plot device.
John Carter is reunited with Tars Tarkas and Dejah Thoris, but once again the book ends with the two of them separated, leading into the third book, The Warlord of Mars (1919). It introduces yet more species of Martian people, the yellow and the white races. Combined with the two earlier novels, the three books represent a trilogy chronicling John Carter’s ascendancy to the position of Warlord of Mars.
It could be argued the original Star Wars trilogy is structured in the same way. Part one is more or less a stand-alone story, part two ends in a cliffhanger, and part three resolves everything.
The next two books in the series shifts the focus from John Carter and Dejah Thoris to their children, Carthoris and Tara.
In Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1920) Carthoris is accused of kidnapping the princess Thuvia. He flees Helium to rescue her and thereby clear his name. The Chessmen of Mars (1922), introduces the game of Jetan, a Barsoomian version of chess played with living people. When Tara’s flier is sent off course in a storm, she finds herself among the Kaldanes, a race of beings consisting of oversized heads and spidery legs. The Kaldanes can attach themselves to headless torsos called Rykors, living a symbiotic existence.
A Fighting Man of Mars (1931) features the story of Tan Hadron, a low-ranking soldier in love with the haughty Sanoma Tora. When she is kidnapped, he attempts to rescue her, and in the course of his adventures helps a slave girl, Tavia, escape her captors. Eventually Tan Hadron realizes Tavia is more deserving of his devotion than the shallow Sanoma Tora.
Swords of Mars (1935) featured the return of John Carter, and is for all intents and purposes two stories. In the first half, John Carter leads a clandestine war against Barsoom’s Guild of Assassins, in an effort to wipe the vile practice from the face of Barsoom. However, when he discovers the assassins have targeted his beloved Dejah Thoris for kidnapping, the story becomes a rescue mission to Thuria, Barsoom’s lesser moon. Here, he of course encounters more strange races before returning home to Helium.
John Carter continues to be the featured character in The Synthetic Men of Mars (1940), though the book is told through the eyes of Vor Daj, a member of his personal guard. The genius Ras Thavas returns – this time in a new body, of course – as John Carter goes in search of him, that his master of surgery may heal his Dejah Thoris. But first, John Carter and his companions must fight their way through hormads, artificially created men who hope to conquer Barsoom.
Llana of Gathol (1948) was the last of the Mars books, in a manner of speaking. ERB died two years after the publication of this tale of John Carter’s adventure with his granddaughter, the daughter of Tara. It is actually four stories: "The Ancient Dead," "The Black Pirates of Barsoom, "Escape on Mars," "Invisible Men of Mars,” originally published in Amazing Stories seven years earlier.
The final book in the series, entitled John Carter of Mars is a weak entry into what had been a rather entertaining adventure series. It is comprised of two separate stories. The first, “John Carter and the Giant of Mars,” has been attributed to ERB’s son John Coleman Burroughs, and had been written for a Whitman Big Little Book in 1940. It is noticeably different from all the other stories in that it is not told in the first person.
The second story, "Skeleton Men of Jupiter," was first published in Amazing Stories in 1943. Like Llana of Gathol, the plan was to collect the novelettes into a single book, but Burroughs died before subsequent stories could be written. “Skeleton Men” tells the story of John Carter being kidnapped by the warlike people of Jupiter who intend to invade and conquer Mars. Apparently, ERB ran out of room on Barsoom for yet another race of extraterrestrial challenges for his hero. The story – and the series – ends, with John Carter and Dejah Thoris marooned on the planet Jupiter.
As with many of Burroughs’ stories, the Mars series features a strong element of romance, as women are kidnapped and later rescued by the hero who is in love with them – or may simply not know it. There are also common themes of science gone awry, foreshadowing the ethical dilemmas of genetic engineering, as well as excessive intellect resulting in a disassociation form humanity.
John Carter is credited for inspiring later science fiction adventures such as Flash Gordon and Superman. However, it never met the enormous success of Burroughs’ Tarzan. An animated cartoon was planned in the 1940s but never realized.
The John Carter character perhaps holds the record for the most time spent in Hollywood’s “development hell.” Since as early as 1931, the character has been in some form of development for film, most notably as an animated feature under the direction of Bob Clampett. It wasn’t until The Asylum released A Princess of Mars (2009) that John Carter made it to film. Starring Antonio Sabato Jr. as John Carter and Traci Lords as Dejah Thoris, the low-budget movie deviates heavily from Burroughs original story. It features Carter as a military sniper transported to Barsoom in a government program.
Rather than a strict attempt to adapt the original novel, the story uses A Princess of Mars as a framework, shoring up some of ERB’s shortcomings as a novice writer with a more modern approach to storytelling. Though the film was well received by fans of the novels, the movie performed poorly at the box office, perhaps due to a less-than-enthusiastic marketing campaign. A sequel is listed on the Internet Movie Data Base, but it is unlikely to be produced.
Part 2: Pellucidar
Part 3: Tarzan of the Apes