A Princess of Mars is serial fiction at its finest. Long before Netflix perfected the algorithm to keep us glued to our seats for episode after episode, Edgar Rice Burroughs had that s**t down.
Originally serialized in the magazine The All-Story in 1912, A Princess of Mars tells the story of John Carter. He’s a a former confederate soldier who, while on the run for his life, stumbles into a mysterious cave that transports him to Mars. As you do.
Once he wakes up there, the first thing he has to do is relearn how to walk, because thanks to the lesser gravity and atmospheric pressure, each step sends him shooting into the air.
Hold on. A man gets sent to another planet, and the different planetary conditions give him superhuman strength? Why does that sound familiar…
John Carter is often cited as one of the inspirations behind Superman, just to give you an idea of what a huge influence A Princess of Mars has had on the science fiction genre.
So yeah, John Carter gets super-strength, which he uses to impress the Green Martians, a war-like tribe of fierce, tusked, four-armed “huge and terrific incarnation of hate, of vengeance and of death.”
They’re actually pretty cool, though, and while John is their prisoner at first, he eventually impresses them so much by his sheer badassery that he gets sort of adopted into the tribe. He learns their customs and language–and how to speak telepathically, because that’s apparently a thing you can learn on Mars.
The story is written from John’s point of view and presented as if it was his journal, so the reader learns about the culture and history of the different Martian races as he does. And guys, Mars is amazing. Seriously, it’s such a rich, fantastic world, and the writing presents it in lush detail. A Princess of Mars is one of the first examples of the planetary romance genre, and I am absolutely in love with it.
And I haven’t even gotten the actual princess yet! John meets Dejah Thoris when the Green Martians shoot down her airship while she’s on a scientific mission and capture her. He rescues her, and their romance is lovely. John, being ignorant of Martian culture, puts his foot in his mouth a lot around her, but Dejah Thoris doesn’t hold it against him.
“What a child! A great warrior and yet a stumbling little child.”
“What have I done now?” I asked, in sore perplexity.
“Some day you shall know, John Carter, if we live; but I may not tell you. And I, the daughter of Mors Kajak, son of Tardos Mors, have listened without anger,” she soliloquized in conclusion.
Then she broke out again into one of her gay, happy, laughing moods; joking with me on my prowess as a Thark warrior as contrasted with my soft heart and natural kindliness.
“I presume that should you accidentally wound an enemy you would take him home and nurse him back to health,” she laughed.
“That is precisely what we do on Earth,” I answered. “At least among civilized men.”
This made her laugh again. She could not understand it, for, with all her tenderness and womanly sweetness, she was still a Martian, and to a Martian the only good enemy is a dead enemy; for every dead foeman means so much more to divide between those who live.
But don’t think this story is all love and romance. The quiet moments between John and Dejah Thoris take place between fights with giant apes, chases scenes across the Martian desert, and epic clashes between armies. Above all else, A Princess of Mars is an adventure.
Now, I can’t recommend this book without a few disclaimers. It was written in the early 1900s and isn’t free of some unfortunate products of its time. The forward is from the perspective of John’s nephew, who in describing him says, “We all loved him, and our slaves fairly worshipped the ground he trod.”
So… Yeah, yikes. Not what I want to read in my fantastical stories about adventures on Mars. And there’s not a lot of that kind of thing, but I understand why it would stop some people from wanting to read it.
What we really need is an update of the story, something that keeps the action and adventure but re-envisions it for modern times. Which brings me to…
I have mixed feelings about the movie. It was incredible to see the world of Mars brought to life on the screen, and many of the sequences were great. Others were… Well, there was definitely missed potential.
John Carter’s character was off. They gave him a dead wife and daughter in his backstory and made him all brooding and rude.
Dejah Thoris… In the book, she’s reluctantly accepted an arranged marriage to the antagonist because it would help her people, though her father and grandfather were completely against it. The movie tried to update it by having her run away from the marriage, which her dad was forcing her into.
We’ve been seeing stories of princess running away from arranged marriages for decades. I honestly feel that the original version, with her putting her duty above her own happiness, is the more interesting take.
I still like the movie, but I’m not sure I would feel the same way if I hadn’t read the book.
Long story short, I want another adaptation. This story is so great, the work such a huge part of the foundation of science fiction–and not enough people know about it. I think A Princess of Mars would be perfect for a series, since it’s already in a format for serialization and the pacing is perfect. Disney Plus? Netflix? Somebody make this happen.
I’ve also seen some Dejah Thoris comics out there, though I’ve never read one. Anybody know if they’re good?
You can read A Princess of Mars for free at Project Gutenberg and other places around the web, since it’s in the public domain. Let me know what you think, if you do.
11 thoughts on “Vintage SciFi Month: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs”
I read the first three of these a year or two ago and really enjoyed them, though I agree about time not serving them well in some ways. Another thing that cracked me up was all of John Carter’s self-aggrandizing. He didn’t let the fact that it was first person narration stop him from waxing eloquent about his own bravery and skill. LOL.
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LOL. You’re so right. Everyone thinks John Carter is awesome–including himself. 😀
I loved this book as a kid although I think it was the Michael Whelan covers on the versions I had that drew my attention. And your first line- so true! Talk about cliffhangers. 🙂 Anyway yeah the world is amazing- the dead sea bottoms, the atmosphere plant (how cool is THAT?), all those ruined cities. Plus fliers. I want a flier.
I used to always laugh at phrases like “the best swordsman of two worlds” (humble much?) and “the incomparable Dejah Thoris”… ah good times.
Also I think the first three books are the best… the series gets a little less good as they go lol.
Greg, I just Googled the Michael Whelan covers, and dang, those are awesome.
The atmosphere plant is definitely the coolest! I love the concept of Mars as this once great world where civilization has crumbled and the survivors are fighting over the remaining resources. And I totally want a flier, too.
And now that you mention it, I think the fourth book is where I left off in the series. I guess Burroughs was ahead of the game when it came to “popular series that goes on for too long,” too. 😉
I had heard about this book for forever, and it just never looked like something that I’d like. Then i saw the movie and loved how ridiculous and over the top it was. Seeing that cheesy movie got me to finally read the book, and I really enjoyed it!
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Yay! I’m glad you liked the movie AND the book. I hope the movie introduced a lot of people to the Barsoom series.
It’s so cool that you went back over a hundred years for this post! I’d never heard of A Princess of Mars before, but now I’m intrigued about it. 🙂
Do you think you’ll try to read anything pre-1912 for next year’s Vintage Science Fiction Month?
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What a great question! I thought I couldn’t possibly go farther back in time–until I saw the Little Red Reviewer’s Frankenstein review! I’m always up for Victorian era stuff and might try one for next year.
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You know, I’ve never wanted to read A Princess of Mars, and now I do! 🙂
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Yay! That makes me happy.