My current project is to learn more about fantasy and science fiction. A friend loaned me the first four Mars novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and I started at the beginning, with A Princess of Mars.
Fifty years ago, Burroughs’s ideas about Mars would have been considered laughably old-fashioned. Today it’s possible to appreciate what Burroughs actually accomplished without being distracted by the antiquated bits.
The mechanics of space travel being, in 1912, nearly unimaginable, Burroughs didn’t waste a moment worrying about them. The journey of his hero, John Carter, begins in an utterly mystical manner: Carter enters a cave, is overcome by a toxic gas, hears a mysterious monster in the depths of the cave, is so overcome by terror that he steps out of his body, emerges from the cave (still in a sort of astral body) to see Mars overhead, stretches out his arms toward Mars — and boom, he’s on Mars. In what is from then on described as a very physical body.
The science fiction elements must have stunned readers in 1912. (The term “science fiction” itself seems to have been coined in 1851, but was utterly ignored until the late 1920s.) Carter encounters Martians who are hatched from eggs and have extra arms. He finds that he’s able to leap large distances because of the lesser gravity. Telepathy between Martians and their animals is alluded to. The Martians know, in a general way, what’s going on on Earth, because they have amazingly powerful telescopes. Carter explores the abandoned cities of an ancient civilization, finds an enormous facility where the atmosphere is manufactured, and eats food prepared entirely by machines, which is ordered by pressing little buttons. He flies around in a one-man wingless aircraft.
The story, as it develops, is strictly an action adventure — a beautiful princess (entirely human), hand-to-hand duels to the death, betrayals, and so on. But so what? Star Wars was strictly an action adventure.
Carter learns the Martian language with complete fluency in only a few days. But so what? Burroughs was aware of the language problem, and that counts for something. In Star Trek (the first generation, which was the only one I ever watched), the language problem was mostly ignored.
Burroughs’s Martians had been preceded by more than a decade by H. G. Wells’s Martians (in War of the Worlds, published in 1898). But Wells’s Martians were simpler: They were an alien menace, nothing more. Burroughs gave his Martians the rudiments of a culture and history.
He introduced his readers to ideas and indeed to an entire exotic world that they had never encountered before. That’s what science fiction is all about. Okay, we’d have to rewind the clock another century to visit the very first modern science-fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But the world of Frankenstein was the world we know — or rather, the world that was known at the time.
Burroughs’s world had already been transformed in myriad ways by technology: the telephone, photography, electric lights. Technology doesn’t figure much in A Princess of Mars, but it’s clear that Burroughs’s readers were far better equipped than Shelley’s to encounter and appreciate strange new things.
Burroughs knew that. He stepped up to the plate and swatted the ball out of the park.