Book Report: Princess of Mars

I've always meant to go back and read some of the really old scifi that people have always talked about but I've never read.  Now is finally that time. As a fan of mainly 50s through 70s (Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Niven), I've rarely read anything earlier than the late forties. (Jules Verne being a notable exception.)  My goal is not so much to read the novels for pure enjoyment, but to determine if they really are worth of their place in history?  Were they really that good? Did scifi get better? Has it gotten worse again?   In that spirt, lets the the time machine to 1917.

A Princess of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1917, 326 pp

I've read a few of the Tarzan novels by and never felt drawn into them.  With the upcoming film adaption, John Carter, I thought it was time to finally get into the series.

A Princess of Mars is the story of Civil War vet John Carter searching for gold out west in the 1870s. He is mysteriously transported to Mars and quickly captured by a race of tall multi-armed green martians.  Thanks to his fighting skills, resourcefulness, and a body accustomed to the heavier Earth gravity; he quickly learns the language of his jailers then escapes with the captive princess Dejah Thoris of the red martians (who conveniently look like really attractive humans).  Throughout the book he goes on various adventures across the planet, gaining fame and glory among the martians all while learning the secrets of their planet.

The Martians call their planet Barsoom, so you will often hear the novels known as the Barsoom series.  Burroughs wrote 10 more in the series over the next thirty years though I get the impression they get progressively derivative as time goes on.

Princess of Mars was his first novel but it's much better than I expected. The science is horrible by today's standards because it was written in a time when we believed Mars had canals, water, and possibly intelligent life, but for the time it was pretty visionary.  He reasonably explains the different societies, lighter than air travel, light based power sources, and the thin but sustaining martian atmosphere. Pretty good for the time it was written.

Make no mistake: this is a swashbuckler.  People of the teens and twenties liked their buckles fully swashed, and swashed they shall be. The Princess of Mars has exotic women in skimpy outfits, green bug-eyed villains, oodles of chase scenes, and sword fights by the score. It's quite fun to read and imagine it played in a theater between The Lone Range and Flash Gordon. Being public domain and free on the Kindle doesn't hurt either.


So, is it worth reading?  I say yes. It's a fun and fast read as well as a piece of sci-fi history. You will find references to Barsoom in many later works throughout the 20th century. It also inspired a generation of authors and scientists from Clarke to Sagan.

Wikipedia entry

Amazon Kindle page

John Carter movie website


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Posted November 20th, 2011

Tagged: bookreview