I think I may have written this book in a past life. So much of A Princess of Mars reminds me of my 2004 novel, The Dark Age of Enya, I feel that I must be the reincarnation of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It has everything I love about fantasy: exotic locations, weird creatures, feats of derring-do, death defying close calls, and of course, heroes that always take the moral high ground. And if that wasn’t enough, just like Xandr and Thelana, both John Carter and Dejah Thoris spend a majority of their time in the buff. A Princess of Mars also shares many of The Dark Age of Enya‘s faults, from wordy sentences to excessive literalness to a number of cliches.
But what is considered cliche these days was original fare in 1912, so you can’t fault Burroughs for having his hero fall madly in love, save the day and get the girl (even stopping a wedding at the last moment!). Burroughs’ themes became cliche because they resonate deep in our subconscious. What adolescent boy hasn’t fantasized about finding himself with super powers, becoming an object of praise and winning the girl of his dreams? We no longer believe in heroes like John Carter, that always do the right thing because it’s right. One hundred years after A Princess of Mars was first published, we’ve become a more cynical culture. When John Carter’s love interest, Dejah Thoris, tells him that they cannot be together due to Martian custom, he doesn’t scoff at the custom, he simply tries to work around it. Modern day critics argue that morality is too relative to have any meaning, giving birth to the anti-hero. I can’t mention titles, but in books published in the past ten years, I’ve been put off by protagonists who rape, torture and murder. It’s no wonder so many teens don’t read books anymore, identifying, instead, with video game heroes like Master Chief and Commander Shepard, “good guys” that owe a great deal to John Carter. John Carter may be cliche for many, but for many young people, such stories need to be told, in the same way the Ancient Greeks recited their myths to their youth for generations.
The downside to having been written in 1912 is that the book lacks many of the literary advances made over the past one hundred years. There is a subplot concerning an alien race, the green martians, that know nothing of love due to the fact that they are not permitted to raise their own children. In fact, as a community, the green martians share everything, including children and lovers, which made me wonder whether Burroughs was commenting on socialism, which is possible, considering the Communist Manifesto was written in 1884, even though the Communist Revolution in Russia didn’t happen until 5 years after, in 1917. Other than that, A Princess of Mars is excessively literal. Every character wears his motivation on their sleeves; there is no psychology, no symbolism, nothing deeper than what exists on the surface. When, for instance, John Carter first meets Dejah Thoris, the love of his life, she is completely naked. Being that he is from 19th century Virginia, you might expect him to react with surprise, embarrassment, or some sign of sexual tension. Instead, Carter gives no reaction whatsoever. Sadly, Burroughs treats the nudity as entirely incidental, having no bearing on plot or character.
As for the writing itself, Burroughs is a good story teller in need of a good editor. Despite a density of story in its 200 pages, A Princess of Mars suffers from wordiness and convoluted run-on sentences. Just try making sense of this,
Had nothing further than my own safety or pleasure been at stake no argument could have prevailed upon me to turn away the one creature upon Barsoom that had never failed in a demonstration of affection and loyalty; but as I would willingly have offered my life in the service of her in search of whom I was about to challenge the unknown dangers of this, to me, mysterious city, I could not permit even Woola’s life to threaten the success of my venture, much less his momentary happiness, for I doubted not he soon would forget me.
Oddly enough, the writing is so direct and simplistic at times, I found it adding to the credibility of the story. I imagine a scenario where a non-writer, in this case John Carter, is whisked away to Mars, who then tells his story the only way he knows how, just as testimonials are written by survivors of wars and natural disasters. And here’s another wonderful thing about 1912—novelists in those days could sell wild fantasies as true stories. In the Forward to the book, Burroughs claims that John Carter was his uncle, and that the story was left to him after his uncle’s death. I find it hard to believe anyone, even in 1912, believed A Princess of Mars was true, but Mars is a real place you can see in the night sky, and no land rovers had yet been sent to determine whether life existed there. No doubt, many believed something similar to Burroughs vision could, in fact, be real. It must have been an exciting time for speculative fiction.
Overall, I highly recommend A Princess of Mars for what it is. Though simply written, it lacks the pretentiousness and cynicism that mars so many modern titles these days. A Princess of Mars is, above all, a story, a straightforward action/adventure/romance, with a beginning and a satisfying conclusion, and a hero you can identify with. I only wish more books like this were published today.