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Barsoom or Bust!

While Burroughs’ picture of Mars may be laughably erroneous given what we know today about the red planet, his depictions were based on science current at the time. Percival Lowell’s (1895) speculations about the “canals” on Mars were based on observations by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. These were misinterpreted to be artificial watercourses and thus as evidence of life on Mars. Lowell theorized that the inhabitants of the arid, dying planet had built the canals to transport water from the polar caps. Burroughs integrated these ideas into the world he created.

Burroughs’ story is usually credited with popularizing “sword-and-planet” science-fiction, although he wasn’t the originator of the genre. Edwin Lester Arnold’s Lieutenant Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905), which tells a strikingly similar story of a Southern soldier supernaturally sent to Mars, probably deserves credit for being first, but its poor reception led Arnold to quit writing. Burroughs, however, was an instant success. Other authors soon joined the party, including Otis Adelbert Kline (Robert E. Howard’s literary agent), who started a competing series set on Venus in 1929 with Planet of Peril.

The genre underwent a revival in the 60’s and 70’s, when the term “sword-and-planet” was coined retroactively to describe the genre. Prominent examples from that time include Michael Moorcock’s Michael Kane stories, Lin Carter’s Jonathan Dark series, and Piers Anthony’s post-apocalyptic Battle Circle trilogy. The genre tends to lend itself particularly well to long series: Burroughs himself wrote ten more Martian Tales, while John Norman’s Gor books have reached a count of twenty-eight so far (with the next scheduled for publication later this year). Kenneth Bulmer’s Dray Prescott novels win the current record, numbering fifty-three!

With his vision of Mars, Burroughs also provided later science fiction authors outside the sword and planet genre with fuel for their imagination. Author and scientist Carl Sagan kept a map of Burroughs’ Mars hung outside his office at Cornell, and remembered Barsoom as a “world of ruined cities, planet girdling canals, immense pumping stations — a feudal technological society” (Basalla 2006). Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury also cite Burroughs’ Martian Tales as inspiration, while Robert Heinlein, Philip Jose Farmer, and L. Sprague de Camp pay homage to Barsoom explicitly in their works. Without the Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs, science fiction – and science itself – would be quite different, and diminished.

Of course there’s quite a bit of sexist stereotyping in the Martian Tales, which I didn’t recognize back when I read them for the first time as an adolescent male. Most of the female characters passively exist primarily to be fallen in love with, kidnapped by villains, and rescued from fates worse than death. George Alec Effinger’s feminist spoof of the Martian Tales, “Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson,” highlights this deficiency, but one can perhaps forgive Burroughs for being a product of its time. Tavia in A Fighting Man of Mars is one notable exception, being arguably the most feminist of Burrough’s Barsoomian heroines and playing a fairly major role throughout that novel.

I confess that at first I loved the Martian Tales mainly for their pulpy adventure, eagerly exploring the “strange new worlds… new life, and new civilizations” in Burroughs’ pages. Over two decades before the canonical world-builder Tolkien gave us Middle-Earth, Burroughs gave us an entire planet complete with its own geography, language, flora, fauna, races, religion, diverse cultures, and a rich, millennia-old history.

But Burroughs doesn’t just describe a “strange new world” in the sense of an unexplored planet; he describes a new world in the sense of showing us alternative ways of living, of structuring society, so we see the world we inhabit in a new way. Science fiction thus allows for a wide range of social commentary by letting us see what life – our lives – could be like in other circumstances. It is these “strange new worlds” which are an important aspect of science fiction. It’s also an aspect that few movies capture well.

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4 Christopher Miller { 06.01.10 at 8:24 pm }

A well researched and thoughtfully written essay. Though I don’t think sci-fi novels are treated worse by Hollywood than other genres. In fact it’s my impression over the years that the best novels make the worst movies, and vice versa. E.g. Everything is Illuminated by J. S. Foer is one of the best books I’ve read and thumbs down the worst movie I’ve ever tired to watch. Is this because the better the novel, the more must be left out or changed to fit the movie?

5 Chad { 06.01.10 at 8:49 pm }

Thanks, that was a very engaging and well-written essay.

6 Paul { 06.02.10 at 9:49 am }

Fantastic essay!

7 Ray Busler { 06.02.10 at 6:08 pm }

A wonderfully entertaining essay. Thank you. I was enthralled by the portions dealing with Burroughs and the John Carter books. In regard to making any headway towards resolving the book vs. movie debate, well, bonne chance, mon ami. To a dedicated reader the movie is always inferior, and to a dedicated movie buff it doesn’t matter.

8 Redstone Science Fiction #1, June 2010 | Redstone Science Fiction { 06.06.10 at 7:24 pm }

[…] Barsoom or Bust!: The Lasting Influence of The Martian Tales by Henry Cribbs […]