Book Review: A Princess of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs)

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A Princess of Mars
by Edgar Rice Burroughs
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (November 13, 2013)

A Princess of Mars was originally published in 1912 (and subsequently printed as a novel in 1917), before World War I, before the Prohibition, and a decade before Charlie Chaplin made his feature film debut. That’s a hell of a long time ago. Over a century. There’s no doubt that these books are considered classics, but the influence they have had on both pulp literature and contemporary science-fiction is simply phenomenal.

The story was originally serialized in a pulp magazine under the pseudonym Norman Bean. Interestingly, Burroughs originally submitted his manuscript as “Normal Bean” (as in, “normal being”). Why? Because he feared that he would be ridiculed and mocked for writing such a tale that took place on Mars and had giant green monsters. Thus the satirical pun was born, only to be mistaken for a typo and printed as Norman Bean. It’s fascinating that still, a century later, the mainstream literary crowd still withholds a prejudice for speculative fiction and pulp literature. Even in the “literary” SF/F community there’s a negative reaction to fiction that’s unapologetically pulpy. Granted, the volatility is nowhere as intense as it was back then, but you can’t even contemplate the guts that the man possessed to pen this story and send it out, fearing the backlash that he did. It’s disappointing that the hostility towards the genre still hasn’t eroded away—and likely never will, but that’s a whole review entirely on its own.

Let’s turn to the book’s plot.

War veteran John Carter is in a spot of trouble. Hiding from his pursuers in a cave he is suddenly transported to Mars, the low gravity granting him extraordinary strength and abilities. He shortly meets a dangerous and powerful woman, becomes involved in planetary politics and a treacherous conflict between the Green and Red Martians as he struggles to find a way home.

It’s about as pure of an adventure as you’ll find. Burroughs weaves beautiful and gratuitously lavish (yet occasionally dry) prose with loving descriptions of weapons, landscapes, and monsters to create a fantastic tapestry of a tale. The work has clearly aged, made apparent by the rather awkward dialogue and self-awareness that seems to linger throughout the piece, but that’s forgotten pretty quickly as you become absorbed in truly creative alien cultures and swashbuckling action that deftly intertwines science-fiction and fantasy together with the occasional thread of the western. It’s a romanticized vision of Mars, one where discoveries made later in the century did not hinder the suspension of disbelief that there could very well be all these tribes and castles and spaceships and cities dwelling on the dying planet. Today, novels such as Andy Weir’s The Martian (2014) represent the complete opposite end of the spectrum and paint Mars as a lonely and barren wasteland, complete with minimalistic prose and a plot that relies on hard science instead of the clashing of swords. Not that there’s anything wrong with such a representation, but it is interesting to see how the same planet is portrayed after a century of scientific discoveries and the evolution of language, as well as the era it was written in and the impact it had on the novel’s themes.

A Princess of Mars is significant not just for its themes of the final frontier and interplanetary (and one might argue, interspecies) romance, but as a seminal example of the science-fantasy and sword-n-sorcery genre, along with Robert E. Howard’s Conan. These genre-creating and defining books inspired many of the sci-fi greats we read today, including Arthur C. Clarke, Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, as well as many scientists such as Carl Sagan. In the world of film and cinema, we see this influence in James Cameron’s Avatar and George Lucas’ Star Wars, among many other works throughout the years.

Everything ages. It’s just a matter of how well something ages and if time has managed to mellow it or slowly eat it away. I’d say that A Princess of Mars has a bit of both. In this day and age you’d have seen this story hundreds of times in various forms. But it’s not the story that makes something unique. It’s the execution. And this series has got that nailed down.

Packed with hair-rising danger, absurd creatures and plenty of action, A Princess of Mars is pulp fiction at its most prime; all borders on the imagination have been torn away. The entire sword and sorcery genre owes its success (or even existence) to the Barsoom series. The chunky prose can be a little hard to swallow at times, but the taste is well worth the effort. And with the rights expiring, allowing a free, legal e-copy of the novel to download (but honestly you’ll want this one on your shelf) you have absolutely no excuse not to dive in immediately.

Welcome to Mars!

Find below a selection of works by Edgar Rice Burroughs:

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Jeremy Szal

About Jeremy Szal

Born in 1995, Jeremy Szal is a Writers of the Future finalist and the author of more than forty publications. His fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in venues such as Nature, Abyss & Apex, Perihelion magazine, and his nonfiction has appeared multiple times in Strange Horizons, Grimdark Magazine, and Fantasy Scroll.

  • hugh centerville

    Burroughs, and the rest of the pulp writers produced some really great stuff (RE Howard’s Kull has always been my favorite,) and if they’re period pieces today, that just makes them all the more fun to read. The author of this review is 19 years old? Seriously? I’m impressed.

    • Jeremy J Szal

      Thank you very much! I have a great fondness for pulpy classics, and I seriously don’t read enough of them. You can disregard the hard science and have a slash-buckling comp on Mars or Venus without the consequences of realism.

      I was 19 when I wrote the review, but I’m 20 now. But thanks anyway. =)

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