In 1911, a 36-year old loser, his latest business venture crumbling into insolvency, started to while away his idle hours at the office by writing a novel for the then-new "pulp" magazines. It was about a man going to Mars.
The story he wrote, a swashbuckling tale of action, adventure, and romance set on the dying Red Planet, was so outré he used the pen name "Norman Bean" lest the readers think the author a bit cracked.
That novel, serialized in All-Story magazine and later published in book form as A Princess of Mars, was enough of a hit to inspire Edgar Rice Burroughs to try yet another career. His next effort, a turgid historical romance, was a dud. But his third novel, Tarzan of the Apes, put him firmly on the path to becoming one of the best-selling authors of the 20th century. But while the Tarzan books overshadow everything else he ever wrote, the eleven volume Mars series is arguably Burroughs' best and most influential work. With Andrew Stanton's film John Carter of Mars due out in 2012, it's the perfect time to look back at this pioneering science fiction series.
Thanks to Tarzan, Burroughs is seldom thought of today as a science fiction writer. But in his day he was one of the leading writers of the "scientific romances" that evolved into the genre we all know and love. Rare was the Golden Age science fiction writer who didn't grow up on Burroughs serials in Bluebook and Argosy and later, Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures. And it's not to hard to see the special appeal of the Mars series. Not only do they still make for good reading, they're arguably the first multi-volume series with a fully-conceived alien (as opposed to fantasy) setting.
Barsoom, as the inhabitants of Burroughs' Mars call it, is a dying world. Its oceans have long ago dried up, leaving the shorelines dotted with abandoned cities. The famous canals are but shadows of their former selves. The thinning atmosphere is kept breathable only by a massive "atmosphere plant." But Martian civilization is far from dead. While the bulk of the planet is under the control of hordes of nomadic, semi-barbarian, 15-foot tall, 4-armed green Martians, a humanoid race of red Martians keep civilization alive in an extensive network of perpetually warring walled city-states.
Burroughs bestowed Mars with an odd mix of technology designed to maximize the action, not stimulate the imagination. The principal form of transport for red Barsoomians are "flyers," aircraft rendered immune from gravity via reservoirs of the "8th Barsoomian Ray." Ranging in size from single-person flivvers to heavily-armed naval dreadnaughts, they can reach speeds of 200 mph. Ground transport, on the other hand, is by "thoat," the eight-legged Barsoomian horse. For weapons, there are hand-held "radium guns" that shoot explosive projectiles for 100 miles with perfect accuracy. Yet Barsoomians have a universal preference for lances and swords. Even bow and arrows are rare.
Burroughs' Mars books weren't about technological speculation. They're "scientific romances" in the modern sense. The engine driving every Mars book is the old boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back routine that was old when the oceans still covered Mars. But a story-teller like Burroughs imbues these hoary plots with considerable excitement. Burroughs liberally sprinkled his world with imaginatively-conceived lost races, strange monsters, hidden cities, and even a few mad scientists for the heroes to contend with. Along the way, the hero pits his sword against endless series of enemies and countless numbers of Mars's massive multi-pedal fauna. Who needs monsters in a world where the watchdogs ("calots") are the size of ponies, and the four-armed "white apes" as tall as giraffes and as ferocious as lions? Burroughs' theory that "the better the fighting the more appreciated the winning" ensured swordplay of the highest order. Barsoom is such a swashbuckling world that Burroughs approached the King of Swashbucklers himself, Douglas Fairbanks, to star in a projected movie.
And Fairbanks would have made a hell of a John Carter, the central figure of the Mars books. A seemingly ageless, immortal fighting man most recently of the Confederate cavalry, Carter is a classic swashbuckling hero. A master swordsman (sadly, only in the literal sense), he is upstanding, loyal, honorable and brave, but never dull. He's the sort of guy who would rather face a dozen 10-legged "banths" (Martian lions) armed only with a sword than abandon his faithful calot. He goes about his swordplay with a dry wit and a sense of élan seldom seen in the genre. When John Carter plunges into a room of enemy swordsman seeking to free the inevitable damsel in distress, not only do you know he's going to win-he's going to win with style.
Fortunately for the cause of interplanetary romance, Barsoomian genitalia are fully compatible with homo sapiens, and they can reproduce successfully. Connoisseurs of alien sex practices, however, are doomed to disappointment. With an eye to the censors, Burroughs kept all hints of sexual activity well offstage. Even the inevitable leering villain threatening the equally inevitable heroine at his mercy with the usual fate worse than death just never gets around to it.
But even without sex, swordplay isn't the hottest thing on Mars. Outside the polar regions, everyone runs around essentially naked. The universal Martian costume is the "harness," an arrangement of straps and belts designed for little more than supporting weapons and ornaments. While Martian women may be oviparous, Burroughs makes clear that they can easily pass for fully equipped mammals. So scanty is Martian dress that even steamy illustrations by Boris Vallejo and Frank Frazetta (see above) are more modest than the real thing.
While they may not be great literature, the Mars books are still great fun. We'll be taking a look at all 11 volumes in the coming weeks, in a series of posts, so you can see the multiplex isn't the only way to have a great time on Mars.
John Marr is the editor and janitor of the zine Murder Can Be Fun. He blogs at the Murder Can Be Fun Library.