I’ve just finished rereading a book I haven’t read in probably 30 years, though I have read it several times previously, first when I was about 13. There was a great deal that I didn’t pick up on that first time.
This is the story of John Carter, a Virginia gentleman and soldier who is mysteriously transported to Mars (Barsoom) after being ambushed by a band of Apaches while prospecting in Arizona sometime in the 1880s. Somehow his body remains on Earth while his essence wakes up on Mars in a new version of his physical form after an “out-of-body” experience.
On Barsoom Carter is stronger than he would be on Earth, able to leap great distances, and to outfight any of the beings he meets. He becomes the captive/guest of a tribe of Green Martians, fifteen foot tall warriors who have four arms, and tusks growing out of their lower jaws. He learns Martian, gains the loyalty of the Martian equivalent of both a “dog” and a “horse”, and meets Dejah Thoris, another captive. She is of the Red Martian race, which looks pretty much human. Naturally they fall in love.
All this happens in about thirty days, which is way too fast, but seems fine while you're reading it.
Burroughs has used a “framework” device in telling this story. Carter is his “Uncle Jack” and the story we are reading is a manuscript that Carter left behind after he appeared to die and was laid to rest in a very strange tomb on Earth. This tells us that he must have returned to Earth after collapsing in that Arizona cave and, in fact, we learn that we are reading about adventures that took place 20 years earlier.
He was returned to Earth after ten years while performing a deed which saved all life on his adopted planet.
Burroughs’ Mars in the first book is pretty much the American midwest, where he served as an army scout earlier in his life. His Green Martians (Tharks) are basically American Indians, altered in form and custom to fit a strange place. He was aware of socialist theory and uses his descriptions of the Tharks' society to argue against its ideas.
The book is a combination of existing genre forms. The land sequences are a lot like Western novels, while the airships of the Red Martians are essentially sailing ships in the air (there being very little water on Barsoom).
Burroughs’ writing had a lot of influence on other creators later on, with numerous pastiche adventures in existence, as well as other types of borrowing. The land-speeders in Star Wars are essentially Burroughs’ air cars. The word “sith” probably comes from the giant wasp-like creatures in book three.
What made me decide to reread this book was that Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil used Carter and several of the pastiche characters based on him in the opening sequence of the second volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which retells H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds, using the cast of fictional heroes from the first volume. The dozen or so pages of that opening chapter made me want to look at these books again.
Burroughs would go on to write eleven of these books, though the first three are the best, and would copy himself in adventures set on the Moon, on Venus, and at the center of the Earth.
A Princess of Mars sets up the trilogy, giving us a "stranger in a strange land" look at Barsoom, a look which still seemed vaguely possible when Burroughs published the book in 1912.
Banished to Earth at the end of book one, Carter spends a decade trying to recapture the conditions which allowed him to make the transit in the first place, and finds himself translated to another part of the planet, to the dread valley of the River Iss, the river of the dead, to which all Martians eventually go if they don’t die by violence at some point in their 1,000 year life spans, and from which none have returned.
Here, Burroughs' antiestablishment agnosticism takes hold of the story, as Carter discovers not one, but two frauds behind the accepted Barsoomian view of the afterlife and almost single-handedly destroys the sham faith that has been preying on Barsoomians for as long as anyone can recall.
Most of the second book, The Gods of Mars, is taken up with his struggle to save his wife from this fate worse than death, and the book ends on a cliffhanger which carries into the next volume.
The Warlord of Mars picks up the story a few months later, as Carter struggles to find a way into the seemingly impenetrable prison in which Dejah Thoris has been entombed with two other women. Of course he finds one, but the story then becomes a madcap race around the planet, and encounters with yet more strange Barsoomian races, from jungle settings to the frozen northern lands.
Burroughs shows no racial favoritism in these books. His heroes and villains come in all shades and shapes of the Barsoomian genome; red, white, green, black, yellow or white, it makes no difference to Carter, as long as a person possesses honour and treats others fairly.
These tales are not high literature by any means, but they make good, light, adventure reading.
Anyone not wanting to read on a backlit screen can obtain the same text between covers from Bison Books (352 pages, illustrated) as Under the Moons of Mars. This was Burroughs’ original title for the first book, but it suits the trilogy well.
There are many, many editions out there, as well as both abridged and unabridged audio presentations of all three books. If longevity means anything, these tales are just shy of being a century old and seem to be classics of their type.