Thursday, July 21, 2011

Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars Reviews: A Princess of Mars

With the movie coming out and interest in the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars books at an all-time high, it's my hope to review all 15 of the Barsoom series. Lots of people call them the John Carter of Mars series, but that's a little misleading since unlike the Tarzan books, Burroughs's Barsoom novels were about an "ensemble cast," and John Carter is only the hero of a few.

A Princess of Mars

Though I enjoyed this one a lot, it's a good start point but it all just gets better from here. It's got everything: a man's friendship with giant monsters who are secretly capable of love and affection despite the fangy exterior. The most memorable character is Woola, a lizard the size of a grizzly with a mouth like a frog who turns out to be a loving, loyal and devoted as a brave dog despite the ugly looks. Mention the name "Woola" to an ERB fan and it's an icebreaker that instantly delights, like mentioning R2-D2 to a Star Wars fan.

If MacGuyver is a hero because of his ability to improvise, John Carter is a hero because everything he does is something nobody's ever done before.

Barsoom must be a dream-world for entrepeneurs: in the book John Carter arrives naked and unarmed, becomes a chieftain of Apache-like Green Men, something no normal human's ever done before. He arrives in a Red Martian city and instantly is allowed to become a pilot without even a background check or any evidence he'd been behind a stick before, a fast track for aviators even John McCain would envy. At the end, he sacks an unsackable city (something never done before) with an army of Green Men (who like the red men as much as gangbangers like a honkey in the projects, so it's something never done before - see a trend here?).

A lot of ERB-fans like Lupoff rank this as one of the best of ERB's books, which I simply can't believe. It was a dynamic first-time novel by a first time writer (Burroughs would write Outlaw of Torn and Tarzan of the Apes later the next year) but Burroughs had obvious gifts as a storyteller but needed to get some practice and polish in. In particular, the first half of the book had a style so baroque, so overwritten that at first I wondered if it was parody...but it was just a first-time writer getting into the swing of things and finding their feet. The high point of the Mars series was yet to come with Gods of Mars.

The Green Men are pretty cool

The story of Princess of Mars is the story of how John Carter fell in with the Green Men of Mars, the first people he encountered, and how he lived with them and got their help to save a red-skinned princess he liked.

What's impressive to me is that Burroughs obviously started out using the Green Men as a metaphor for how he didn't like Communism, a science fiction moral lesson that could have been cloying and obvious, much like the "evil feminist" race from Pellucidar who were giant brutes with beards, or how in ERB's books all religions usually end up being some kind of scam.

But somewhere between idea and execution something extraordinary happened: ERB obviously started to like the Green Men, and they became extremely cool and likable. After all, how can you possibly hate a race that has no lawyers? And the proof is at the end, the hordes of Green Men help John Carter save the day.

At first Burroughs starts off talking about how the Green Men are the victims of having no loving parents, but the more we discover about the Green Men the cooler they are. They're brave, fierce fighters and have tremendous loyalty. If a Green Man or woman hates you, you know it because they pull their gun out on you...and there's something admirable about that, especially if you have zero patience for indirectness and passive-aggressiveness.

And the Green Men laugh when horrible things happen to other people, which is an extremely dark but extremely endearing character trait. John Carter tries to pretend it's some perverse alien characteristic, but the truth is, there is nothing more human than schadenfreude.

In the words of Mel Brooks: "tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when I fall down an open manhole cover and die."

And while the Green Men don't have many feelings of intimacy or family, that also means sociopaths, perverts and criminals are a lot rarer with them than with us. Tal Hajus, that evil fat toad ogre, for instance, is extraordinary because he's a rare atavism.

True, the Green Men have a Spartan culture where unfit children die, but all of the obvious flaws in their society made them feel like an imperfect but real world society - in short, they're worthy enemies that eventually Burroughs gives up condemning moralistically because they make for good bad guys and allies.

Burroughs was born with a horrible disability: he was a reactionary. However, unlike other reactionaries, Burroughs was likeable because he had a sense of humor and wit that made him catch himself before he fully gave in to puritan moralizing. He reminds me of Archie Bunker, who was so funny even liberals liked him, and who was like an old dog always learning new tricks.

The book had some moments that were unintentionally hilarious. My all time favorite was when John Carter kills a Green Martian by launching his flier at them full-speed and then decapitating them.

Tars Tarkas - the real hero of the book

Is it just me, or is Tars Tarkas the real hero of A Princess of Mars?

Think about the last act. It was Tars Tarkas, not John Carter, who kills the villainous Tal Hajus, and for the best reason of all: Hajus was responsible for the death of TT's wife and it's time for revenge. It was Tars Tarkas's gift for statesmanship, not anything John Carter did, which united the green hordes together and made the fall of the city of Zodanga possible at all. In short, Tars Tarkas played a bigger role in the rescue of Dejah Thoris than John Carter did.

In literature, it's trendy now to make books that are basically retelling an entire story from the perspective of a minor character or even the villain. Grendel, Wicked, and The Wind Done Gone. Somehow I think Tars Tarkas would lend himself to this treatment better than most. It would be possible to rewrite Princess of Mars so that it's basically Tars Tarkas's story and he only occasionally interacts with the side-character of John Carter. There was a lot going on when John Carter arrived (Tars Tarkas hiding his disgust with Green Martian societ with a perfect poker face while he climbed the ladder hoping for revenge), a lot going on we didn't see (how did Tars get the hordes together, anyway?), and presumably a lot going on afterward (as we saw in Gods of Mars, where Tars Tarkas experienced as yet undocumented adventures trying to find his friend).

John Carter of Mars

As someone that's primarily a Tarzan-fan, I always looked on John Carter as being a less interesting guy compared to someone with such a unique personality and worldview as Tarzan. John Carter was an "11th-level Fighter," to use a D&D term.

Reading Princess of Mars again forced me to re-evaluate that statement. John Carter was introduced to us by a nephew as a fighting man, but a guy with good humor. He's a solid, honest gallant sort of guy, and not terribly intellectual; it's his son, Carthoris who's the mechanical genius. John Carter's also kind to animals, which marks him as a fundamentally decent person, but which also shows he's far from totally serious and straight-laced. He's a gentleman capable of gallantry and sentiment. He says he's not a true romantic, but I don't believe him...

The "incomparable" Dejah Thoris

Thus far, I've had nothing but good things to say about this book. Here's where that changes.

When I wanted to review Edgar Rice Burroughs books, I thought it might be interesting to give an award for the most annoying character in the book. I nixed that idea because I quickly realized it would be the main love interest every single time.

In the history of adventure fiction, was there any female as shrill and awful as that living, breathing McGuffin, Dejah Thoris? John Carter wants her because she is the first woman John Carter sees on Mars that isn't a giant monster.

We're told over and over she's superbeautiful (her only virtue) but honestly? After being surrounded by tusked grotesques all the time any near-human woman would look pretty darn good.

Actually, I take that back. I would actually choose a Green Woman like Sola over Dejah Thoris. I am being serious, here. Sure, Sola is a giant monster, but looks aren't everything. For one thing, Sola actually has positive personal character traits: her motherliness, personal protectiveness and loyalty, a great contrast to Dejah Thoris's haughty snottiness. She was cruel to John Carter for no real reason other than he was an earthly stranger that didn't get her vibes.

Dejah Thoris goes from unsympathetic and needlessly cruel to downright crazy-person bipolar in one final conflict in Zodanga, a scene that is frankly unbelievable, where Dejah wins the coveted "Lois Lane Award" for arbitrary out of character behavior done in order to squeeze conflict out of a story. She refuses to marry John Carter because she promised herself earlier - not even a marriage, just a promise - to some horrible jerk.

What gets me is, there's no need for Dejah Thoris to do the "if you had come just an hour before, when I promised myself to Than Kosis" bit. No need! While Dejah was absent, the navy of Zodanga took advantage and all-but conquered Helium. If Zodanga, wanted, it could have totally crushed Dejah's home country. Dejah Thoris would have looked actually heroic and self-sacrificing if she said she would marry a man she didn't love in order to save her entire people.

That's not what Dejah does, though. She pettily insists she would have gone away with John Carter even if that would have destroyed her entire race, if he just accepted her vow of love and marriage, a ritual he didn't even recognize as he was an earthman stranger to Mars - an ugly "gotcha" game. Rather, the reason she went with Than Kosis is because a little earlier (and bear in mind there had been no actual marriage) she said she would.

It's frequently a part of the belief system of moral midgets that giving one's word and keeping it no matter what awful things you're forced to do, no matter what horrors result, is the height of personal integrity. There was a really great indictment of how Oath-giving can be evil and destructive in the Fritz Lang silent movie Kriemhild's Revenge, where the Nibelungen were forced to close-ranks and protect the murderer of Siegfried from his justifiably angry widow's deserved revenge. The Nibelungs died pointlessly for no reason at all in a burning building, protecting a murderer and killer from Kriemhild's just revenge, simply because Siegfried's killer was one of them and they promised to circle the wagons. Kriemhild's Revenge is a tragedy about how keeping an oath no matter what can be tragic and self-destructive and anything but heroic.

Dejah Thoris is a beautiful woman, but that's about it. Like Jane, she's a pre-feminist liability to these books. In every single media version of Dejah Thoris, she becomes a sword wielding Valkyrie. Many people suspect that's due to feminism and political correctness, but I don't think so...many other pre-feminist characters have remained noncombatants, like Jane Porter, Dale Arden and Lois Lane. Rather, I suspect the reason Dejah becomes a warrior woman is because if she became courageous, she'd have a single positive character trait.

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