Back to Barsoom

Today, I’m taking a look at a couple of older science fiction novels from the book collection I share with my wife. These are two of the later volumes in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous John Carter of Mars series. The series had its start in 1912 when Percival Lowell still argued there were canals built by intelligent beings on the surface of Mars. John Carter himself was a former Confederate soldier prospecting in Arizona when his human body died in a cave and he found himself resurrected on Mars, known to its inhabitants as “Barsoom.” What’s interesting about this back story is how much it resembles the fate of Camille Flammarion’s heroes from his 1890 novel, Urania.

Each of the Burroughs’ Mars novels opens as one of the characters on Mars, usually John Carter returning to his human body, comes home to tell humans a story of recent events on the red planet. I picked up the Mars books where I left off, on volume 7, A Fighting Man of Mars. In this book, the Martians develop Tesla-like long-distance radio to communicate with Earth and the story is told that way. In this novel, John Carter is relegated to the role of minor supporting character. The protagonist is Tan Hadron, a warrior infatuated with one of Barsoom’s noblewomen, Sanoma Tora. The plot moves into full swing when raiders capture Sanoma Tora and Hadron volunteers to rescue her. It’s good fun action and adventure that makes a lot of twists and turns. Along the way, Hadron meets a slave girl named Tavia who proves to be a capable and competent fighter. It’s a set up that could easily have become cliche or fallen into tropes of romantic adventure fiction that were tired even then. At worst Burroughs teeters on the edge of those tropes before giving us a rousing conclusion.

I had so much fun with this book that I continued into the next book in the series, Swords of Mars. This one is focused on John Carter, who returns to Earth to narrate his story to an old friend. In this tale, Carter travels to the Martian city of Zodanga to break up an assassination ring. While in Zodanga, Carter learns that two scientists are racing to build rockets to travel to the moons of Mars. When the assassins learn Carter is on their tail, they use one of the space vessels to travel to Carter’s home of Helium and kidnap his wife, Dejah Thoris. They then take her to Mars’s moon called Thuria with plans of holding her for ransom. Carter takes the other space vessel and goes in pursuit.

These two novels were published in 1930 and 1936 respectively. At this time, there were still questions about whether or not Mars could support life. Although these novels first appeared when my parents were young children and they do fall into “damsel in distress” plots, Burroughs does make a point of showing women as capable and competent, which felt refreshing after Voyage of the Space Beagle with its all-male crew.

Can one still find relevance in pulp fiction written nearly a century ago, set on a planet we know has no ancient cities linked by canals? I think the answer is yes. In both books, John Carter has a motto: “I still live.” The idea is that while Carter still lives, he has a chance of finding his way out of even the most difficult situations. In these challenging times, I take comfort in Carter’s motto. I also appreciate how the heroes in these novels stand up for the oppressed despite terrible odds. Percival Lowell may have imagined a Mars with canals and ancient life, but Edgar Rice Burroughs imagined a Mars that I would, at the very least, want to visit and explore.

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