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Monday, March 25, 2013

A Princess of Mars: Part 1: Under the Moons of Mars


My wife tells of how her father used to own a collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs first editions, which he kept in a glass cabinet in their living room. She would covet those books when she was little, longing to look at the books with the marvelous and exciting covers; but her father told her that she was not allowed to touch them until she learned how to read. That was all the incentive she needed. By the time she started kindergarten, she had taught herself how to read well enough for her father to relent and grant her access to the book cabinet and to the incredible worlds of ERB.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was possibly the most successful writer of pulp fiction of the era. He is best known for Tarzan of the Apes and it's many sequels but he also wrote stories of swashbuckling interplanetary adventure. Planetary Romance stories, tales which split the difference between Sword & Sorcery and Space Opera, existed long before Burroughs; but one can argue that Burroughs codified the genre.

His very first professional sale was a serial published in All-Story Magazine in 1912 entitled "Under the Moons of Mars" and using the pseudonym "Normal Bean"; which was finally published as A Princess of Mars.


The story starts with a brief forward in which the author explains the the reader how he came to be in possession of this story; a narrative frame that we don't see that much anymore. Burroughs uses it to one extent or another in many of his books and it seems to pop up frequently in Planetary Romance. I suppose the author feels that the reader will wonder how he can be reading the account of someone's adventures on another world and needs an excuse to justify it.

In this case, Burroughs begins with a description of his uncle, John Carter; a dashing, charismatic cavalry officer from Virginia who, after the Civil War, went out west prospecting for gold and disappeared for several years. He returned, over a decade later, a more thoughtful and pensive man bearing some secret. He gave his favorite nephew a manuscript he had written and instructions on what to do if he should die. This manuscript forms the rest of the novel.

I go into this because I find it interesting what Burroughs has done here. He has not only invented a fictional uncle to be the hero of his tale, he in effect invents a fictional self. Burroughs describes himself as being five years old when Uncle John went off to war, when actually he wasn't born until 1875. He has given himself, as the transmitter of John Carter's narrative, a more respectable background to lend more credibility to his outlandish adventure.

Eventually, Carter is found lying outside his home, facing upward to the heavens with his arms outstretched as if in supplication. He is presumed dead, and per his instructions in buried, unembalmed, in the special ventilated coffin he has prepared and interred in the sealed mausoleum which can only be opened from the inside. And now that the specified space of time has passed, the author is free to release John Carter's own story.

Carter begins his tale with a brief description of himself. He considers himself a gentleman and a Virginian; that almost goes without saying. He also makes the interesting remark that he is not sure exactly how old he really is, and that as far as he can remember he has always been approximately in his mid-30s. This is never really explained. Like many things, Burroughs leaves this as a mystery. He is a warrior by profession. He does not consider himself a particularly courageous man; he simply does not generally think of the cowardly course of action until after he's already taken the brave one. He serves with distinction during the Civil War. Then,
I found myself possessed of several hundred thousand dollars (Confederate) and a captain's commission in the cavalry arm of an army which no longer existed; the servant of a state which had vanished with the hopes of the South.
He and a friend go off to the Arizona Territory looking for gold. While prospecting, they are attacked by Apaches. His friend is fatally wounded before Carter can rescue him and Carter is forced to take refuge in a hidden cave. There he finds himself overcome by mysterious fumes; he falls to the floor of the cave, and dies.

Or does he? This next part is rather enigmatic, because we only see things from his point of view and there's a lot which he never sees until much later and still more which he never learns at all. He remains conscious, but his body becomes paralyzed. With a great effort of will, he manages to break his consciousness free, so now he seems to have two bodies: his physical form which lies inert on the cave floor, and an astral form, standing naked over it; no less real than the other (he pinches himself to be sure). He leaves the cave and looks out upon the desert landscape.
As I stood thus meditating, I turned my gaze from the landscape to the heavens where the myriad stars formed a gorgeous and fitting canopy for the wonders of the earthly scene. My attention was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon. As I gazed upon it I felt a spell of overpowering fascination -- it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment. As I gazed at it on that far-gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void, to lure me to it, to draw me as the lodestone attracts a particle of iron. 
My longing was beyond the power of opposition; I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of though through the trackless immensity of space. There was an instant of extreme cold and utter darkness.
The next thing he knows, John Carter is on Mars. He doesn't know how he got there, or even why he's so sure it must be Mars; although his first attempt at walking on this new planet, where taking a step under the lesser gravity propels him high into the air is pretty good confirmation.

He comes across a strange structure with a thick glass roof. Looking down through the roof he sees what seems to be an incubator full of large eggs, each about two and a half feet in diameter. A few are hatching, revealing strange green six-limbed creatures: his first glimpse of native Martians.

His next glimpse comes when a party of adults shows up to check up on the eggs and finds him there. These are the Green Martians, a race of beings about fifteen feet in height with four arms, huge bulbous eyes and big honkin' tusks. This is one of Burroughs's specialties; he fills Mars and his other worlds with visually striking and memorable aliens. The Green Martians are a Proud Warrior Race, similar in some ways to how the white men viewed the very Apaches Carter had escaped from earlier. They ride upon eight-legged mounts called Thoats; (multiple limbs being a theme in Martian biology).

At first the Martians are hostile and suspicious of Carter, finding him as they did fooling around on top of their nursery. But they are amused by his incredible leaping abilities. Carter tries to make gestures of peace and friendliness, which the Martians seem to accept. The leader of the party, Tars Tarkas, takes him with them back to their home, the city of Thark.

The city his captors live in is an ancient one, and one apparently built by a different and more sophisticated civilization. Here Burroughs is following the view reflected in War of the Worlds and popularized by the astronomer Percival Lowell that Mars was an older world than Earth; one which once had a lush environment and oceans which have since dried up. The famous Canals of Mars were created to channel the planet's dwindling water supply to it's cities and it's former oceans were now great desert basins.

The dwindling resources and fight for survival have made the Martians, competitive and warlike. The Green Martians in particular have expunged all softer emotions of friendship and love from their society, and their sense of humor is particularly grisly. Early on during his stay with the Tharks, he rashly punches one who had been manhandling him and knocks the Martian cold, (thanks to his superior Earthly strength), possibly killing him (we aren't told). The other Martians find this hilarious.

Tars Tarkas assigns one of his retinue, a female named Sola to look after Carter; and she in turn procures a "watchdog", a huge frog-like creature with several rows of sharp teeth which ultimately becomes his faithful companion, to help guard him. Exploring some in the uninhabited portions of the ancient city, Carter encounters more Martian fauna, a pair of White Apes, huge gorilla-like creatures with four arms. The watch-beast, Woola, comes to Carter's rescue and helps him fight off the White Apes. It is only afterwards that Carter learns that Tars Tarkas and his comrades had watch the whole fight, enjoying the spectacle. His success against the apes had gained him respect in their eyes.

In these chapters we get a lot of National Geographic stuff: descriptions of the Martian culture, biology and society; and this is really one of the hallmarks of the Planetary Romance: the description of exotic alien lands and the strange people and creatures which inhabit them.

The eggs in the Martians's incubator are all hatching now and Carter witnesses the ceremony by which the females of the tribe choose hatchlings to take care of. Sola gets one, and since both Carter and his new "brother" seem to be equally developed in terms of Martian education, she trains both of them simultaneously. The Martian language turns out to be fairly simple and easy to learn; in part because it seems to have a telepathic component. Carter discovers he has a latent telepathic ablilty of his own, and under Sola's training enhances his senses. He also learns that although he can with concentration catch the thoughts of other Martians, they cannot read his own; something which becomes very useful later on.

Next:  John Carter meets a new kind of Martian, and everything changes.

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