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Barsoom or Bust!

Similar parodies of excessive intellectualism are found in Thuvia, where the ancient Lotharians live in a world created almost entirely by their own minds, and in the recurring character of Ras Thavas (who first appears in Master Mind), a brilliant scientist and inventor unburdened by sentimentality or ethics, who never worries about the possible consequences of his intellectual breakthroughs, and who sells his services to the highest bidder to gain funding to further his research. (Sound like a recent headline?) In Synthetic Men of Mars this same Frankenstein archetype creates literature’s first example of a “gray goo” scenario, one invoked even today to warn against careless development of nanotechnology.

These are all examples of one of the main things which I believe makes good science fiction good: it is able to show us a world subtly like our own, yet different in ways we can at present only imagine. By presenting those imaginary worlds in a believable and compelling way, science fiction is able to reveal truths about our own world. This is of course the hallmark of all good fiction, with or without the “science” prefix.

And this is something which Hollywood has a difficult time bringing from the science fiction story to silver screen. When Hollywood does it well, it’s usually because it’s been written directly for the screen instead of adapted from a novel, so that the deeper social commentary becomes embedded in the overall plot. (Think Gattaca or Avatar.) Most adaptations don’t even bother. Consider Carter’s long weeks of living and learning among the green Martians which allow him to discourse at length on the advantages and disadvantages of Martian society. In movies, such highly interesting discussions, if included at all, wind up transformed into a combat training montage. Moviegoers typically don’t buy tickets to hear philosophical dialogue.

But, I contend, many science-fiction readers do buy books for that very reason. Even in this high-tech, audiovisual, instant-search, Intarwebbed world, some things are still best explored through the written word, though I admit I’d still like for all that heady stuff to be embedded in a rollicking good story – like the Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
While I am sure that Disney/Pixar will produce an entertaining film, filled with fascinating computer-generated graphics of the dying red planet and its inhabitants, and chock-full of ringing swords and exploding radium bullets, I feel fairly certain that they won’t capture the ideas that provoke thought as well as entertain.

I hope they prove me wrong.

In the meantime, while I’m waiting, I’m picking up a good book. Or my Kindle.

About the Author: Henry Cribbs somehow managed to sneak his science-fiction poem about Schrödinger’s cat into the literary art journal Lake Effect, and has also published book reviews for Philosophical Psychology, Chicago Literary Review, and Black Warrior Review. He taught philosophy and creative writing at the University of South Carolina for several years, and now forces his high school English students to read Ray Bradbury. He currently serves on the editorial board for Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry.

(Notes & References on Page 5)

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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 […]