Monday, July 24, 2017

A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Confession time: I've wanted to read this book for a very long while.

Edgar Rice Burroughs is my favorite author. Certainly others have occupied that title at different places and times: Mark Z. Danielewski weaves incredible meta-narratives in everything he writes, and John Keats had a poesy to him unparalleled to this day, but ERB had the spark of true genius within him, evident to me from my first reading of Tarzan of the Apes at the tender age of 12. His writing was simple yet elegant, with neither the flat affect of Ernest Hemingway nor the bombast of F. Scott Fitzgerald, two other titans of the early 20th century American literature scene. I won't be reading all of his books on the list at once, for too much of any good thing is poisonous, but I would be lying if I said I hadn't been waiting this entire time to begin the John Carter saga.

And what a saga it is! 11 books detail the daring exploits of Virginian gentleman Captain John Carter on the Martian world of Barsoom. This world, far removed from our own and yet similar in many ways, sets the stage for a tale of powerful love, unending strife, and the bitter resolve of a dying planet. If it sounds like I'm gushing, it's only because I am; I absolutely loved this book, that which kickstarted the "sword and planet" genre that Leigh Brackett later revitalized. 

I could spend the rest of this article giving you a synopsis of the story, but that wouldn't be very interesting and I'd feel like I was competing with the good people over at Wikipedia. Instead, I'd like to talk about why I like ERB so much, and why I've (paradoxically) read so little of his works. Burroughs had the idea that most anyone could be a hero, and it came through in his writing. Tarzan was the child of British nobility left alone and nursed on a gorilla's teat. John Carter is an (admittedly immortal) everyman soldier, who begins the story searching for gold in the then-uncharted West. David Innes of the Pellucidar series is blue-blooded investor. These are all interesting backstories, to be sure, but they lack the deterministic "half-blood child of a god/demon/monster" that later fantasy would popularize. At heart, Burroughs characters were ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and their stories revolved around how they reacted to and solved the problems they faced.

Say you're a child growing up in not the richest part of town, with not the best grades and not the best looks, who maybe had not the most friends or the most romantic opportunities or the most self-confidence. And you head on down to the second best library in town because they still have the old books and you pick up a tattered trade paperback with a burly dude clutching a half-naked woman on the cover. You take that book, and you sit down in one of the over-stuffed, patched chairs the library has and you start to read. And you learn that cover dude? He wasn't always burly. He didn't always have the woman. Hell, 20 pages in and he's naked and nearly dead after being chased down by giant green Martians with four arms. But you keep reading, and you get to the part where he romances Dejah Thoris, the titular "Princess of Mars." You read about the fights he gets in, the wars he influences, the way he changes the entire Martian society just because of how inherently different he is and for a moment you stop thinking you're so powerless. Maybe you start thinking you can be great too.

I don't have much more to say about this book; at least, I don't have much more that wouldn't sound like the ramblings of a man who should probably consider re-upping with his therapist. Go on and read some old adventure books, it'll be good for your soul.