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.

Dying to Get to Mars

In the novel A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter escapes from Apaches in the Arizona desert by going into a mysterious cave where he succumbs to mysterious gasses. Soon afterward, his spirit is transported to Mars where he becomes substantial again and makes a new life as a warlord of Mars. It seems a very odd way of getting to Mars and one that’s probably doomed to failure if you or I were to try it. However, John Carter was not the first literary hero to get to Mars via this unusual method of transportation.

A Princess of Mars was first published in 1917. In 1889, the French astronomer Camille Flammarion published the novel Uranie (or Urania as it’s known in English). In mythology, Urania is the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. She’s also the great granddaughter of Uranus, for whom the planet is named. Urania is the muse of astronomy. Camille Flammarion was, for all intents and purposes, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Victorian age. His popular works on astronomy inspired a generation around the world. In many ways, he was a true life astronomical muse.

The novel is told in three parts. In the first part, Urania takes Camille Flammarion on a journey to the stars. She shows him worlds orbiting other stars and the life inhabiting those worlds. He learns that life can come in many different forms. So far, this makes Uranie the oldest novel I know that imagines life on planets outside our solar system. In the second part of the novel, we meet one of Flammarion’s colleagues, George Spero, who is courting a woman from Norway named Icléa. George and Icléa have a long, intense courtship that includes discussions of the nature of thermodynamics, orbital mechanics, and the nature of death. Eventually they travel to Norway to get married. Before the ceremony, George decides to take a balloon to make measurements of the Aurora Borealis. At the last minute Icléa jumps in the balloon with him and off they go.

Alas, part way into the journey, the gas valve breaks and the balloon begins a rapid descent. In order to save George, Icléa jumps from the balloon to the frigid waters of the lake below. The balloon begins to rise and George is saved, but he’s unable to go on without Icléa and jumps out. He misses the lake and hits the ground and the two join each other in death. Sad for the loss of his friend, Flammarion goes to a séance. There he learns that George and Icléa have taken on new forms on the planet Mars. What’s more George is now a woman and Icléa is now a man! This brings us to the end of part two.

Part Three is a combination of essays about telepathy and other unexplained phenomena, how they could be, and a ghostly visit to Flammarion from George where we learn more about the couple’s new life on Mars. I won’t say much more, I’ve given spoilers enough. Still, I found it interesting that death on Earth and rebirth on Mars was not unique to Burroughs in early science fiction. I have no idea whether or not Burroughs was directly influenced by Flammarion, but Burroughs would have been a teenager when Uranie was released in the United States and Flammarion’s work was widely read. It was, after all, Camille Flammarion who inspired Percival Lowell to build an observatory in Arizona to study the planet Mars.

If you’d like to read this interesting, science fiction novel, it’s in the public domain in the United States and available to download from Project Gutenberg at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/41941.