I’ve done a few reviews for books, films and movies that were fresh on my mind. I’ve been a bit hesitant to delve further back, since I know that nostalgia and memory are fickle things to work with. At the same time, I tend to judge works on their lasting impact upon me. Something that sticks in my mind for many months or years afterwards is probably something worth talking about.
A good place to start would likely be near to the beginning – both for me and for much of the science fiction genre, with A Princess of Mars. Author Edgar Rice Burroughs is much better known for his work on Tarzan, which has left an indelible imprint on the public consciousness. To this day, kids Tarzan yell and pound their chests, if not really understanding why. Burrough’s old neighbourhood in Los Angeles is known as Tarzana to this day. Hollywood is likely a good reason for Tarzan’s continued impact, with close to 40 “official” Tarzan films, and countless more homages, spin-offs and spoofs.
The Barsoom series (Barsoom being the name the inhabitants of Mars give to their planet) conversely has, to my knowledge, a low budget Asylum film and the John Carter film released by Disney. I admit to having not seen the latter film, despite it having been an adaptation of a series of books I quite well enjoyed. Given the content of the books, I didn’t particularly trust that a live action Disney movie trying to capitalize on the Pirates of the Caribbean action adventure trend would really interest me. (For similar reasons I passed on The Lone Ranger). Supposedly the film wasn’t particularly good, but I’ll not go making judgement on something I didn’t see – but I don’t really think modern Hollywood has the sort of specific talent lineup to really bring something from the pulp heyday to life. Maybe if Ralph Bakshi was still allowed to direct big budget animated films, and we could get A Princess of Mars a la Fire and Ice….
In any case, my point is that A Princess of Mars was more of a footnote. In many ways, this makes sense. A Princess of Mars features a highly exotic and alien setting, plenty of violence and constant nudity. Modern studios might feel that brute force of CGI and good directing could help them overcome those first two obstacles, but none of them would want to engage with that third issue – least of all Disney! Tarzan, on the other hand, was easy enough to portray through jungle sets, tamed animals, and leopard print loincloths.
I think that the Barsoom cycle ends up being somewhat unfairly forgotten, reduced to a bit of a punchline by the financial failure of John Carter. (Also, why on Mars would you name a film John Carter over A Princess of Mars?! The former sounds like a biographical film and evokes nothing at all of the sort of story involved. Maybe Disney was trying to distance itself from an overreliance on Princesses?) Also, the Barsoom cycle spawned a bevy of imitations, perhaps most infamously the Gor series, noted for its smugly Nietzschean author and, as it progressed, growing obsession with the sexual subjugation of women. In the public mind, the exotic nudity of Barsoom (none of the Martians wear clothes – modesty is an Earthly construct) may have been conflated with the sexual obsessions of Gor. The issue with Gor was less that it was sexy (I think we get a little too upset over escapism these days), but because the other was very adamant about linking the sexual content to the inferiority of women. Gor did end up with its own cultural impact, an odd little side note in science fiction history – fans of the series mimic the subjugating relationships found in the book in real life or online to this very day. That sounds like it involves more of an interest in BDSM given a thin coat of science-fiction paint, but since I’m not an expert, I’ll assume that the “Gor” elements are somehow vital to the experience. The series also got a couple of notoriously bad movies, so I suppose it managed to leave a mark.
The Barsoom cycle, I would argue, had a deeper and more vital impact overall, beyond simply copycat series. The “planetary romance” or “sword and planet” genre that Barsoom popularized may have mostly burned itself out by today, but it had a strong presence in the minds of many. While weird fiction had always blended fantasy, horror and science-fiction together, Barsoom can be seen as the crystallization of the “science fantasy” genre that we still see today. Many science fiction authors were influenced and inspired by it, such as Vance, Clarke, Heinlein and especially Bradbury with his Martian Chronicles. Carl Sagan mentioned what an impact the series had on his interest in space. George Lucas was also influenced by it, and you can see the shadows of Barsoom across the deserts of Tatooine, the flying airship and ornately dressed slavegirls of Jabba the Hutt and the focus on sword fighting in a world with fantastical guns. And I don’t need to explain the influence Star Wars would go on to have.
I think because Barsoom focuses heavily on traditional “Fantasy” elements (princesses, sword fights, journeys into the unknown), its revolutionary science fiction elements are often forgotten, especially since they seem so prototypical. Burroughs based his ideas on a civilization on Mars on early mistranslations regarding the “canals” of Mars by astronomers – the same germ behind War of the Worlds, and he creates and evocatively “dying world” from this idea. The inhabitants of Mars, which often reminiscent of Earthly peoples and animals, have many unique cultures, customs and appearances, with enough interesting twists to keep them fresh to this day. The setting is one that sticks with me to this day due to its forlorn romance and mysteries. Barsoom is not perhaps remembered as a part of Weird fiction because the narrator, John Carter, is portrayed as a fairly hardheaded military man. The series deals with his transportation to the strange world of Barsoom, and the interpretation of the world through his eyes. He’s a much less poetical author than the leads who explore strange territories in the works of say, Hodgson or Lovecraft. This does make the books fairly easy reads even so many years later, but I don’t believe Carter’s blunt nature diminishes the fantastical world he travels in by too much. The books are, of course, pulp and designed to entertain, but even the violence is presented in a “heightened” manner, with Carter flipping and leaping through the lower gravity of strange Martian landscapes like a precursor to the superheroes who would bound through later comics. Carter is not a complex character, but that is part of the charm of the books. He is not on Mars to subjugate weaker peoples or sexes, but to rescue his beloved Princess, no matter what terrifying part of the planet she ends up in.
Compared to the often-dated racial interactions in Tarzan, the Barsoom cycle often displays a remarkable encouragement of tolerance. Many have been turned off by the conceit that John Carter is an ex-Confederate soldiers – within the book, however, that set up seems to be more an explanation why Carter is both good at war and without much attachments back on Earth. Carter of course carves a path through most of the various sentient races he finds on Mars, but also finds friends among nearly all of them as well, even the truly monstrous “Green Martians.” Indeed, the “White” Martians are consistently portrayed in the most villainous light. The focus on race will certainly seem awkward today, but not to the distracting degree found in the works of other pulp authors or later comic books.
They might be straightforward adventure tales, but the Barsoom cycle mixed a quick pace with pure wild imagination that is, in essence, pure Weird, while still remaining an important step towards the formation of later science fiction. As a fast fun read, I can certainly recommend them. I highly enjoyed them when I was younger as they were able to mix an easy to follow adventure with consistently interesting ideas and a desolate, intriguing world. Even if you don’t give it a read, be sure to look up some of the really fantastic artwork that the series has inspired over the years, and which stand as proof of how many people have been caught up in the exotic romance of Barsoom.