Friday, March 30, 2012

A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs


The adventures of Confederate Civil War veteran John Carter, who is mystically transported to the planet Barsoom (Mars), where he encounters violent, six-limbed Tharks, wild thoats, an incredibly loyal calot, vicious white apes, a moss-covered desert, flying machines, and (of course) a beautiful Red Martian princess by the name of Dejah Thoris.  Time after time, Carter's physical prowess and southern sensibilities enable him to save the day . . . and the planet.

The first time I read this book, I remember being rather underwhelmed.  It was just so . . . cheesy.  The adventure was ok, I guess, but John Carter is so conveniently good at everything.  And the love story is just ridiculous.  It reads like an 8th grade boy's (non-pervy) fan fiction.

On this second read through, I realized . . . that's the entire point.

This is old school pulp fiction. It's supposed to be ridiculous and naive. It is a space western, and John Carter is the cowboy every young man wanted to be.  He rides into town to save the lovely Dejah from a fate worse than death.  He can knock down the strongest enemies with just one blow.  Women want him, but he is loyal to Dejah, and is a perfect southern gentleman and treats her with total respect. He has a strong moral center and a passion for justice, but he also knows the value of mercy.  Animals love him, for the simple reason that he is kind to them, through his kindness, the harsh Tharks learn the value of treating their animals with kindness.  He is an advocate for the bonds of family over and above mere community ties.  Men of every race follow him.  They count him a friend, but he is first and foremost a solitary man (fitting, as he is literally, the only human on Mars).  He is not a complicated man, nor is he given to deep thoughts.  He is a man of action, and his actions invariably succeed.

And while this is by no means a 'deep' book full of ethical conundrums or complex characters, it is still a fascinating example of American literature--there are few literary characters more quintessentially American than the cowboy, and John Carter is nothing if not a cowboy.  He is, perhaps, a bit too joyful to be a sort of Space John Wayne--there is no noir in John Carter, no jaded past or cynicism, no reluctance to join the fray.  John Carter leaps in, lit with the joy of battle.  Unlike many solitary cowboys, he loves what he does.  There is an innocence to John Carter that is almost nostalgic.  And along the way, the rather simplistic John Carter has a lot of interesting things to say about the American view of mercy, justice, romance, animals, families, ecology, war, violence, death, and religion.

At the end of the day, though, it's just really fun (and funny) to read about John Carter gallivanting all over Mars, beating the tar out of everyone without even really trying.

I read somewhere that the director of the new John Carter of Mars movie thought (rather mistakenly) that John Carter was as recognizable to guys today as Batman or Superman any other classic superhero.  Sadly, John Carter does not have that kind of presence in modern pop culture.  He is not that well known.  But gosh darn it, he should be!  This is great stuff!  If you've got preteen/teenage boys who love adventure stories, you could do a lot worse than the chaste and far from graphic adventures of John Carter.  And if you're a grown up who appreciates the naive appeal of the ridiculous, you might want to put this on your reading list as well.

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