Naked Came the Earth-man

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912; revised 1917): The first hit novel for Burroughs, who would soon also create Tarzan. A Princess of Mars holds up well as a science fantasy that inspired such later works as Star Wars (words that include Sith, Banth, and padawar crop up in the Mars series, as do numerous plot and conceptual similarities). Former Confederate soldier John Carter gets teleported to Mars (known as ‘Barsoom’ to its inhabitants) in a second body while his first body remains in a cave on Earth. Interplanetary shenanigans ensue.

Burroughs draws at least partially upon Earth history for his alien races: the green-skinned, six-limbed Tharks come across as a debased Sparta to the Athens of the red-skinned, human-like residents of Helium. John Carter reintroduces concepts such as compassion and kindness to animals to the Tharks and his best Thark buddy Tars Tarkas, leading to major social changes among the green-skinned giants.

Carter has certain advantages over Martians: he can jump relatively long distances and kill enemies with a single punch thanks to his much denser body, caused by Earth’s greater gravity. These things impress the Hell out of most everyone he meets, as does his white skin colour. And he does take up the White Man’s Burden, helping to (re)civilize the civilizations of Mars. Burroughs really should have paid Kipling royalties for this and Tarzan.

And Carter will eventually fall in love with the red Martian princess Dejah Thoris. Oh, and everyone on Mars is naked most of the time with the exception of ornamental jewelry and/or armor. Hubba hubba! Of course, almost all species on Mars — including red and green Martians — are oviparous. Will John Carter and Dejah nonetheless be able to produce viable offspring? What do you think?

We’re also shown the canals of Mars, here the last remnants of the great Martian oceans, and various ancient Martian cities, decaying and occasionally inhabited by the green Martians, who no longer build anything themselves except for weapons and, well, more weapons. The civilizations of Mars are all ancient and somewhat retrograde: Burroughs was taking some of his cues in this from contemporary Western theories about China, the standard example of a decaying civilization living off the momentum of long-ago glory. John Carter is the first truly new thing on Mars in centuries or perhaps millennia.

There’s plenty of swashbuckling here, along with pitched gun-battles, strange sights, giant white apes, loyal frog-dogs, and a gigantic atmosphere plant to keep everyone on Mars alive and breathing. It’s all quite a bit of fun. And it ends on a cliffhanger! Recommended.

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