I don’t think these novels were even in print when I started this blog, but, thanks to Disney’s film adaptation (opening this Friday, though I probably won't manage to see it), this book is probably firmly reinstated in even the most mainstream and shallow versions of the science fiction canon. It’ll probably make the next NPR top 100 science fiction and fantasy novels, after missing the last version.
Not that its place in the canon was ever really in question. Started around the same time as his even-more-famous Tarzan novels, Burroughs' chronicles of John Carter’s adventures on Mars have had a long-lasting influence on the genre as a whole, and especially on the pulps, which is really where American science fiction begins (with a couple of notable exceptions). A whole subgenre of “planetary romance” owes its existence to Burroughs' works as well, and homages abound (one won a Hugo for novelette last year).
John Carter was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War (and he reminds us of his Virginia roots quite often). At the end of the war, he wanders into the Arizona desert, gets chased by some Apache, and ends up in a strange cave that teleports him to Mars. On Mars, he meets a variety of new peoples, including giant four-armed and betusked “green martians” and a bunch of humanoids with exotic skin colors (especially the beautiful “red martian” princess Dejah Thoris from the city of Helium). Carter, because of differences in gravity between Earth and Mars, and because he’s an all-American badass, can jump extremely high and pound multiple opponents into submission. He becomes a hero and a leader, and eventually he’s overthrowing savage warlords and leading Martian armies.
It’s fairly fun stuff, though there are plenty of problems. The book’s morality is based on western and male chauvinism. Dejah Thoris is a damsel in distress, seduced by Carter’s ability to brutally murder the alien culture that’s imprisoned her. All of the Martian cultures are inferior to Carter’s American values, and there’s even some racist material tossed at Indians in the beginning for good measure. A lot of this is to be expected from this timeframe, but it did seem a bit egregious to me. The prose is turgid and awkward. Burroughs isn’t adverb-happy like Lovecraft, but he does like the passive voice and run-on sentences.
Where Burroughs really shines is in his originality. He merges the detail-oriented world-building of contemporary fantasy writers with a few of the scientific details of Verne. As he reveals the details of the moss-covered, dying red planet (including a giant atmosphere machine that runs on the “ninth ray"), the uniqueness of this setting begins to emerge, and the lasting appeal along with it.
Pulps don’t age well. I don’t know if it’s the audience they’re trying to appeal to, the speed with which they were produced, or the differential aging process of genre work. Nevertheless, the escapist fun and the lasting influence of this work made it a worthwhile read as we approach the hundrenth anniversary of publication.