Friday, December 27, 2013

Long-Distance Romance: Burroughs's A PRINCESS OF MARS

As if to prove my lack of pulp and SF cred: I had not read this book before.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first John Carter adventure, A Princess of Mars was originally serialized as Under the Moons of Mars. I prefer that more evocative title (the moons being an oft-referenced motif in the story), though in fact, A Princess of Mars suits the resulting story better—and identifies one of the novel’s two chief faults.

The tale starts well enough, and I was familiar with the beginning (or at least its most necessary elements) from the Marvel Comics adaptation from the 1970s. Trapped in a cave by a group of hostile Apache, one-time Confederate officer John Carter steps out of his body and is transported to the planet Mars. Burroughs does a wonderful job setting up his premise, providing teasing bits of information in advance, creating tense scenes, and capturing our hero’s confusion at each turn of events. Then there’s the implied subtext of the novel, with the Native/white man conflict in the U.S. providing a lead-in to warring species on Mars learning to cooperate through John Carter’s intervention (though largely they cooperate in slaughtering other peoples). Though the green, gigantic, tusked, four-armed Martians and the red-skinned, human-like Martians seem to each contain components of Native Americans, the green folks get the sorry end of the comparison, with their communal rearing of children, pragmatic dispatching of the disabled, and their warlike ways seen as barbaric in contrast with the culture of the red Martians, who only make war when they need to. However, by the time the book wraps up, it becomes evident that the culture is not its people, and green Martians aren’t innately bad, just badly led. I’m sure someone’s written a dissertation on how ERB distributes good and bad traits among the various Martian peoples.

I have no idea what the idea is behind the white Martian apes, who, like the green Martians, claim squatters’ rights in the ancient abandoned cities but only show up when the plot requires it.

The story’s main weaknesses are two: the Dejah Thoris thread, and the shaggy construction of the novel’s second half. Once the beautiful Dejah Thoris enters the narrative, John Carter is in love; not a terribly well-defined character prior to this, he now becomes focused on the source of his adoration, and thus his mood shifts depending on his reading of the moods of his beloved. It’s exhausting and not terribly interesting, and Burroughs withholds information so that he can provide us with some late-story entanglements that could have easily been avoided. Also, though the princess gets some bold speeches to indicate her self-regard, she’s a less interesting character than Carter—and somewhat petty emotionally. (This is repaired in the 2012 film version, though the movie was lumbered with a poor choice for its lead and a jumpy narrative.)

There comes a point where the story lapses fully into pulpiness in the style of A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, with psychic powers that come and go, convenient coincidences in every scene, and the clear case of a writer merely chattering away (and sending his characters lurching about) until he’s filled his word quota. Certain fight scenes which seem crucial get rushed as if Burroughs lost interest, while other moments drag out as he works to tie up the many narrative threads. The story does become vivid again near the end, setting up the reader marvelously for further adventures and intentionally leaving several elements unexplained and unresolved.

All-in-all, a mixed bag, but worth it for the premise, the sporadic strong scenes, and the many flights of invention.


Anonymous said...

What disappointed me the most about Disney's movie was that they dropped the subtext that this is a world that is slowly dying, with its demise being held at bay by the atmosphere factories. Still, it was far better than 2009's "Princess of Mars". That being said, I'd have liked to see the adaptation that my friend Melinda Snodgrass had worked on circa 1989, but which was never made.

William Preston said...

Was the 2009 film even released in theaters?

In truth, the filmed Mars looked even deader than the Mars described by ERB. His planet is covered by a spongy, edible plant. It's unclear what's keeping people on Barsoom alive in the movie.

I started reading The God of Mars, which has, again, some truly creative ideas at its heart but feels even more like it was written for the money. It's like a low-budget sequel, with no room for secondary characters (but some fun matte paintings nevertheless); everyone Carter encounters is someone from his past or someone instrumental in the story. It's goofy.

Anonymous said...

As far as I know, the "Princess" movie never had a theatrical release . Not in the USA anyway. It shows up on Syfy once in a while, and stars Antonio Sabado Jr as Carter, and Traci Lords as Dejah.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Disney's Mars does look quite dead, but it's lacking the melancholy feel of a world that's running out of steam.

William Preston said...

It's the presence of Traci Lords that lets you know you're in for a high-quality production. Although Sobato isn't a good sign either.

I forget: How did the Disney version portray the Thark cities? ERB constantly reminds you that they're living in ancient ruins. And was there anything about the oxygen factories? ERB's Mars is much more obviously dying than Vance's "dying Earth."