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Much like it’s protagonist, Civil War veteran John Carter, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is a big, bold, testosterone-soaked piece of pulp fiction and adventure fantasy. Containing elements of science fiction, planetary romance and old westerns, the book is a landmark of genre fiction – having inspired countless future scientists and science fiction masters (such as Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke). Even though the novel’s scientific underpinnings and predictions about the landscape, conditions and inhabitants of Mars may have turned out to be false (having been based primarily on the writings of Astronomer Percival Lowell who speculated that Mars was a dying, Earth-like world with canals built to disperse the planet’s dwindling water supply), that fact makes the tale no less engrossing and readable. While we may now know for certain that this version of Mars never actually existed, Burroughs’ skill and imagination at conjuring a brutal, exotic and relentless world make us wish it had.
A Princess of Mars Summary: Although he’s probably best known for creating the character of Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs’ second most well known creation is the heroic, honorable and almost supernaturally gifted fighter John Carter. A Virginian gentleman and war veteran, Carter narrates his own astounding tale of Galactic adventure and romance. After the war, Carter goes to Arizona to prospect for gold. While hiding from a band of marauding Apaches, he is mysteriously transported to the planet Mars (no explanation is ever given). Once there, he is overtaken and held captive by the Tharks, a tribe of giant, green, four-armed warriors who seem to be in a constant state of war with all of the other races on the planet. Through his physical prowess and fighting skill, Carter eventually wins their respect and becomes a part of the tribe. But when the Tharks destroy a passing fleet of enemy ships and capture the beautiful Martian princess Deja Thoris (of a race of humanoid looking Martians), Carter goes into hero mode once again to free her and return her to her people.
In the process of rescuing the princess, Carter becomes embroiled in the politics and conflicts of the various warring factions on Mars (called Barsoom by its own inhabitants), eventually leading an army of Thark warriors against the enemy state of Zodanga in order to protect the people of Helium. In doing so, he is able to finally unite the Green and Red men of Mars into an alliance and end centuries of fighting and war. Carter eventually marries Deja Thoris and becomes Prince of Mars, living happily until an accident occurs at the Atmosphere Plant (which helps distribute Mars’ dwindling supply of oxygen). Always the hero, Carter rushes to the planet and seemingly gives his own life in order to restore the machinery and save the planet. But in just as mysterious circumstances, he awakens back in the Arizona desert having been gone for almost 10 years. While the existences of several sequels suggests that he eventually finds his way back to Barsoom, we never actually see him return to his newly adopted planet.
A Princess of Mars Review: It’s easy to look at Princess of Mars as simply a stereotypical male-oriented adventure tale about an American hero who is able to triumph in battle and win the hand of the girl through sheer force of will, goodness and humanity, but that wouldn’t do justice to the groundbreaking nature of Burroughs’ vision and his ability to capture the imaginations of readers everywhere. While this type of space/adventure/romance tale may seem commonplace and derivative to today’s reader, at the time they seemed incredibly new and intriguing. With close up images of our neighboring planets starting to circulate for the first time around the turn of the century and scientists predicting what strange and wondrous things we would find when we got their, the public’s appetite for speculative fiction and adventure was immense – and Burroughs’ gave them exactly what they wanted. Even if reality may not have fallen in line with his unique vision, this book makes it possible to imagine a time in which it was still a possibility – even if just in our collective imagination.