Tuesday, 17 November 2015

A Princess of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs A Princess of Mars (1912)
Whilst I appreciate the general concept of Edgar Rice Burroughs as an institution, I've had some trouble with his books, or at least with the two I've read. Both Tarzan of the Apes and Pirates of Venus seem reasonably well written but suffer from certain cultural details so resolutely of their time that I just couldn't get past the sound of my own wincing. A Princess of Mars, so I was told, was the one to go for, written before Burroughs' prose began to crumble under the pressure of curling off yet another sequel every three days; and against all odds, I enjoyed the recent film adaptation for what it's worth.

Just to get it out of the way, I suppose we should acknowledge that A Princess of Mars is roughly what has come to be known as pulp fiction, a term deriving - at least so far as I understand it - from the more populist magazines, the Astoundings and Amazings, having been used as pulp to pad out crates of more important stuff during the war - reet classy leather-bound editions of The Lord of the Rings for example, proper books which might be read by doctors or dentists. Whilst it's true that the tastes of the reading public tended to dictate the general kind of story which appeared in the Astoundings and Amazings, pulp as a vaguely pejorative term equating to gob-punching tales for thickies is misleading and generally akin to returning that Ramones album to the record store because you got it home and found it sounded nothing like Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Of course, some pulps were shite, but this is generally true of publishing regardless of whether it's the sort of thing one might find in the home of Margaret Attwood or people with 'O' levels; so it really comes down to either personal taste or snobbery, specifically the ideas that literature can do only one thing, or that there are certain things which it should refrain from doing if it wishes to hang out with the cool kids. The most amusing example of such double standards I have encountered was, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the book section of a Doctor Who bulletin board where discussion of Cody Schell's Señor 105 novellas prompted one individual to ask but are they not a little pulpy? I suppose I can see how our man might have wished to be forewarned in the event of his unwittingly dedicating time to the perusal of something of less philosophical complexity than Doctor Who and the Giant Robot. In my view, art must be judged principally on how well it does that which it sets out to do. Whether that which it sets out to do was worth doing in the first place is a quite different thing.

Returning now to the author of Tarzan of the Apes and Pirates of Venus, A Princess of Mars turns out to be similarly of its time, but not cripplingly so, at least not beyond allowing for the fact that swashbuckling adventure aimed at a particular kind of audience will tend to involve goodies and baddies. John Carter is a proud southern gentleman with most of the attendant associations, and yet nothing reading too much like the politics of a nutcase; and of course, he arrives on Mars with certain advantages over the people who actually live there because he's a white bloke and he understands chivalry and being a good egg and suchlike, although if that is an issue then it's one you probably should have anticipated before picking up a book with Edgar Rice Burroughs identified as author on the cover.

The only real problem here is that for my money, A Princess of Mars is barely science-fiction in so much as that it does very little of the stuff I like my science-fiction to do, the things which tend to keep me interested; and for all that it's at least as well written as anything by Wells, A Princess of Mars could just as easily have been set in North Africa, the wild west, or anywhere on Earth where English isn't spoken and they eat a different part of the cow. So it doesn't really do a great deal outside of the traditional adventuring furniture of captive princesses and bad-tempered natives who grudgingly accept you as one of their own after you've beaten up that one guy on the high council whom no-one really liked in the first place. To be fair, the Martian element - presumably in part inspired by Edwin L. Arnold's Gullivar Jones - is well drawn, but low on detail beyond a few faintly unsatisfying excuses made about special kinds of ray; and so the bulk of the page count is spent on fighting, with different groups of Martians battling each other for reasons which were probably mentioned somewhere or other; or on the well-being of a Princess -  quite a nice looking one too, surprisingly; or on our man coming up with all these great ideas and everyone agreeing how brilliant he is.

I suppose how much you're likely to enjoy this sort of thing depends on how much you enjoy this sort of thing, and whilst I don't actually find it offensive, and I can appreciate that Burroughs had an agreeable turn of phrase, A Princess of Mars just isn't my bag. That isn't to say I particularly disliked any aspect. On the contrary, there's plenty to recommend this one, not only the local colour and the pleasant, well-tuned prose, but even the fact of at least one party of warring Martians almost certainly amounting to Red Indians in space and revealing, in this instance, a degree of cultural sensitivity I hadn't really expected from Burroughs.


  1. A good review, this. For some reason I've always wanted to read this book but have never got round to it. Same goes for the Moorcock tome you reviewed earlier.
    I think you need an index on this blog as I'm sure there are a lot reviews I'd like to read but going one by one through the whole lot of what you've written is a huge and daunting task...

    1. Unfortunately so would be indexing the thing, otherwise I'd do it. :(