Born in 1875, Edgar Rice Burroughs worked a number of odd jobs until, at the age of 35, he decided to pick up writing. Recalling in 1929 that, “if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, that I could write stories just as rotten.” So, in 1911, he started writing what would go on to become A Princess of Mars, the first book in his Barsoom series. Shortly thereafter, he would go on to create Tarzan – one of the most seminal characters in early 20th century fiction (both in print and on screen). That creation reportedly garnered him the biggest paydays from Hollywood of any author of the time.
The impact that A Princess of Mars had on the world of speculative fiction is hard to over state. Ray Bradbury, HP Lovecraft, Carl Sagan, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, James Cameron, and Michael Crichton have all referenced the impact these books had on them, or otherwise paid homage to these books within their own works. John Carter was hopping around on Mars decades before Superman was doing the same in Metropolis. He is also the inverse of John Carter, in that Kal-el left a ravaged planet to find super powers on Earth, while John Carter left Earth for the ravaged planet of Mars (where he found super powers). Both Superman and John Carter represent celestial bodies: the sun and Mars, respectively.
But no discussion of the legacy of the Barsoom series is complete without drawing attention to the connection to Star Wars. The term “jedi” traces it’s roots to “jedda” or “jeddak”, which was a term for a leader among Martian humans. There’s also a term for a lower ranking officer (“padwar”) which reminded me a lot of “padawan” from Star Wars. I don’t know that George Lucas was inspired by the former when he created the latter, but there appears to be a similarity there.
Famously, George Lucas wanted to make a film adaptation of the old Flash Gordon serials he loved as a kid, but he couldn’t obtain the rights. So, instead, he created what was originally a thin veneer on the property and called it Star Wars. What’s often left out of that anecdote is that Flash Gordon was created by a syndication company to compete with Buck Rogers. They, in an interesting parallel, wanted to adapt the Barsoom series for their own comic strip, but weren’t able to obtain the rights. So, they slapped a thin veneer on the property and called it Flash Gordon. And, within this tangled mess of influences, even Buck Rogers was heavily influenced by the John Carter series. They share the same basic plot outline, and Buck Rogers was created some fifteen years after A Princess of Mars was published.
To make a long story slightly longer: John Carter has vital legacy in American adventure fiction.
This is the second time I’ve read A Princess of Mars, and I found it just as entertaining as I did about 10 years ago.
John Carter is a Civil War veteran and is prospecting in Arizona when, after striking it rich, he is forced to flee from a band of Apaches. He hides in a cave, but finds himself mysteriously immobilized and is transported to Mars. He finds himself capable of amazing feats, such as strength and leaping great distances. After getting captured by the Green Martians, he impresses and eventually befriends them due to his martial prowess. They capture a princess of the Red Martian humanoids, and Carter falls in love with her. He helps her escape, and then gets embroiled in the political turmoil on the planet, eventually leading in battle the Green Martians he originally encountered.
There’s virtually no chaff in this book. It’s as straight an adventure book as you’re likely to find.
With all of that said, this book may not have aged particularly well. Not exclusively through any fault of the author, but because it’s been copied and repackaged so many times without, itself, remaining popular that it ends up feeling derivative even though it predates the stories we’re so familiar with. So you can compare this to something like The Lord of the Rings, which still seems fresh and novel. There is a strangeness to the inhabitants of Mars that still gives it an alien quality, but the humans themselves (John Carter, particularly) feel pretty wooden.
Like so many people, I only came to this book because of the aborted movie franchise that utterly failed to take the world by storm back in 2012. I quite liked the movie at the time, even with its faults, and remember being disappointed that it failed to capture the public’s attention. But I haven’t seen it since seeing it in the theater. I might give it another watch, just to see how it holds up.
I think this is an important book, and well worth reading – but it doesn’t hold up as well as I’d like. I give it 3.5 stars.