Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars

I’m currently working my way through Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom series of pulp adventure novels. A Princess of Mars, the first of the series, was a surprisingly enjoyable romp reminding me of a mix of Gulliver’s Travels, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. While I’ve always been aware of John Carter, I’d not read any of the books in my youth. I’m not sure why as it would have been the sort of thing I’d have loved.

Burroughs – who is possibly more famous for penning the Tarzan books – secured publication of A Princess of Mars (initially titled Under the Martian Moons) in All-Story Magazine in 1912. It was his first novel. It relates the adventures of a Confederate soldier named John Carter who is mysteriously transported to Mars and, owing to his superior strength and tenacity, manages to unite the warring races and rescue a princess. It’s clear the influence this series had from Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the 1930s to Star Wars.

What is most striking is how elaborately Burroughs describes the geography and cultures of Barsoom, the native name for Mars. It reads very much like a travelogue and recounts Carter’s extraordinary adventures across the planet. Despite its advanced science, the people’s of Barsoom spend a great deal of time in violent conflicts. They seem to revel in getting up close and fighting each other with swords. While the plot is straightforward – and 100 years later – almost entirely predictable, it’s Burrough’s world-building that is the attraction for me.

Bearing in mind the period it was written, what I’ve read of the John Carter series so far gives me the same impression I had when I read the Tarzan books: Carter plays the role of a white saviour (he literally is the only white man on Mars!) who brings peace to the warring red and green races. Equally, Dejah Thoris, the red princess plays a far more passive role than I expected and is little more than a love-interest for Carter who is always in some sort of danger (she’s always presented as an assertive, dynamic character in the Dynamite Comics).

Even so, I would quite happily recommend A Princess of Mars and The Gods of Mars as companion reads to The First Men in the Moon and Autour de la Lune or even as a gateway into the adventures of pulp heroes like Zorro, Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage, The Shadow and even Biggles (oh, how my junior school teacher, Mr Lee, encouraged us to read Biggles!).