Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Review: A Princess of Mars

A Princess of Mars, which originated as a series of short stories written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, tells the tale of Confederate veteran John Carter. While he is prospecting in the wilds of Arizona, Carter is mysteriously transported to the dying world of Mars (known as "Barsoom" by its inhabitants). Thanks to the planet's lesser gravity, Carter discovers he has great strength and superhuman agility. As he travels across the deserts of Mars, he comes into contact with a race of giant humanoids with green skin and six limbs known as "Tharks", the beautiful princess of the Martian city of Helium named Dejah Thoris, and finds himself embroiled in a war that threatens to tear two city-states apart.

While John Carter's popularity and notoriety has diminished over the years, A Princess of Mars and its sequels are considered classic examples of 20th century pulp fiction. The "Barsoom" series inspired a number of well-known science fiction writers, such as Jack Vance, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and John Norman. The series also inspired a number of scientists in the fields of space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life, including Carl Sagan, who read A Princess of Mars when he was just a child. While A Princess of Mars is an incredibly influential work that has touched many readers over the decades, there are two questions that need to be asked.

Is A Princess of Mars actually good and does it deserve the praise heaped upon it?

From a writing stand point, A Princess of Mars has a few problems. First, there are a lot of scenes in the book that are simply glossed over and have the action take place "off screen". While this is annoying from a reader's stand point since I firmly believe in the "show, don't tell" school of writing, these scenes are probably a result of how these stories were originally presented and the fact that Burroughs most likely had both a time and word limit.

Secondly, the way the narrative is structure presents some problems as well. A Princess of Mars is presented a collection of memoirs written by Carter. Because Carter is our only narrator, we occasionally receive a large exposition dump that can cause the pace of the story to slow down. However, I will admit the 1st person perspective works here because we, as outsiders, get to see the dying world of Mars through the eyes of an outsider. So, there is at least an excuse for the exposition dumps.

Even with the technical problems, I found myself really enjoying A Princess of Mars for its characters and the world that it presents. While he is not a very deep character, Carter is the type of pulp hero I can't help love. He's brave, a skilled combatant, a quick learner, and willing to do whatever it takes to save the people he cares about. There is just something rather refreshing about a hero that is so simple and straightforward.

However, if you want characters with layers, Burroughs gives you the Tharks named Tars Tarkas and Sola. Both characters were born into a brutal and violent society, but possess tragic histories and personality traits that separate them from the rest of the Tharks and make them some of the most interesting characters in the book.

The setting of Mars also kept me interesting and made me really wish I could explore Barsoom for myself. For reasons that escape me, the idea of Mars being a dying planet inhabited by such desperate societies who have developed airships and other wondrous technology fascinating. I can understand why so many people were inspired by it. Hell, this depiction of Mars makes me want to write my very own Martian stories.

A Princess of Mars is a book that has its fair share of technical problems, but I can see why people consider it a classic pulp fiction story and has inspired so many people. If you can get past the technical problems and just enjoy the setting and characters, you will enjoy A Princess of Mars.

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