Book Review: “A Princess of Mars (John Carter)” by Edgar Rice Burroughs (3 Stars)

12 Dec

John Carter is kind of a jerk, but Mars seems cool.

Burroughs is the grandfather of pulp and heroic fiction. Many people have been influenced by him from Clarke to Lucas. His Mars story has some interesting world-building elements, but ultimately this is not his strong suit. Rather, Burroughs excels at telling a fast-paced adventure story. Given the context of this story (slightly before the Golden Age of Science fiction) and mankind’s scientific knowledge and development at the time–this story is quite sensational. However, Burroughs’ style sort of fails for me and I ended up feeling like I was sitting on a bar stool with some alcohol-breathed drunk spitting in my face about how great he was back in high school. Not that it’s not interesting. It just sort of makes my nose cringe at times.

John Carter is an ex-cavalry man who heads out west to strike it rich in gold-prospecting. Just as he does, some Native Americans chase him into a mysterious cave where he seems to die, but mysteriously reawakens on the planet Mars. Just accept it. Once there, Carter finds that his earth-honed muscles are much more powerful on Mars’ lower gravity atmosphere. This turns him into a superhero who can dominate giant 15-foot Martians and bound across the surface of the planet like a common deer tick. Carter is soon captured by some hulking, multi-armed, nomadic green aliens who revere physical might over compassion. He ends up currying favor among them, due to his enhanced abilities and even receives some coveted titles of status as a result of his prowess. Despite their brutality, Carter discovers (in typical Burroughs fashion) some noble savages among the denizens, namely his caretaker Sola and the chieftain Tars Tarkas.

As the plot continues, Carter learns that there is another alien species, the Red Martians, who resemble humans in many many ways. Despite earning the respect of the Green Martians, Carter immediately sort of turns away from them when he sees they have captured a beautiful red Martian princess, Dejah Thoris. The novel then becomes a travelogue as Carter courses across the Martian landscape trying to help Dejah Thoris escape the Green Martians and return to her people in the city-state of Helium. A series of misadventures ensue and we are introduced to a slighter wider view of Martian society and all the infighting going on between the various species.

In the end, Carter seeks to unite his friends among the Green Martians with those among the Red Martians in an effort to defeat and repulse all the really awful and bad representatives of their respective species who only seem to want to wreak havoc. There is also an interesting twist at the end, when Carter must once again save the day by sacrificing himself and making the obligatory return to earth.

The writing style is a little tough at times, but not how you think. Yes, the book was written in the early nineteen hundreds and has some occasionally archaic terms, but this didn’t bother me. The story does suffer from a lot of “telling” versus “showing” but that could be a thematic choice given that it’s written in the first person. However (as others have noted), the main character is a braggart with a capital “B.” He is the greatest at everything he does, and while he is a trained soldier (and likely in great physical shape) he owes much of his physical prowess due to the fact that he’s from earth and earth has heavier gravity. It just gets kinda old listening to the character champion himself over and over and over again. Sure, he’s helping out others, but I just didn’t feel as connected with him as I should have to go along with all the bravado. And yet, this was written in the pulp-era and in that context the writing style might be perfectly fine. So, you have to feel that one out for yourself.

Some people may claim, that Burroughs did not adequately research even the limited knowledge of Mars that was available at the time. This is completely forgivable, and wasn’t really an issue to me. The pulp-era view of Mars at that time helps to sort of flesh out this fantasy world. All the tropes are there, including Mars’ infamous canals—which Burroughs weaves into his world-building in a fun way. Right or wrong, I get it. I buy into it. He also sort of develops a (albeit weak) magic (rather it’s supposed to be scientific) system with using “rays of light” to power things. The strongest part of his world-building was the setting of a once-flourishing world which has now turned barren and bleak. The Green Martians (Tharks) make their existence via a nomadic living where they travel between ancient abandoned ruins left behind from a glorious past society and set up temporary residences. A Mars trope if ever there was one, but a great one. Oh yeah, and water is scarce too. Most probably, a lot of the associations we have today with Mars mythology originate with Burroughs.

Some reviewers complain that Burroughs’ characters tend toward the melodramatic. Perhaps they do, however not completely. Tars Tarkas and Sola among the Tharks (Green Martians) certainly have depth to them as they are in opposite to their societal norms and struggle to find their place among their people because of it. Sola has an especially interesting story to tell about her past that certainly makes her anything but flat. Perhaps it’s the villains who people don’t care for as much as they are more good vs. evil and lack a lot of depth. However, this story isn’t really that kind of story. It’s an adventure travelogue not a character study. The adventure in this interesting world is the story, with the swashbuckling quest taking precedence over the setting.

Overall, I’d say that I don’t love the main character, but the story moves at a decent pace and the little tidbits you get about the world are fascinating enough (even more so when you consider the context of the writing) to stimulate my curiosity. So, I’m tempted to delve deeper into this series, but I’m not compelled. I’ll get back to checking out another one sooner or later.

Lastly, I’ll make note that the story is in the public domain and you can literally get an ebook version for absolutely nothing. At that price you can’t go wrong. It’s always great to check out cult classics like this, a well spring for which many other great stories have sprung.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes or our website:

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Posted by on December 12, 2014 in Book Reviews


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