Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Book Report:
A Princess Of Mars & Gods Of Mars

There's a new TARZAN movie about to open, so why not rerun this from 5 years ago?

One of the reasons I ended up buying the Kindle was to re-read a bunch of the books I read as a kid – most of which are public domain and *free* on Kindle (but cost $ as paper books, and some are no longer in print). Some of the first books I downloaded were the Burroughs Martian novels, which I read when I was about 13 years old. Probably 12. Though I was already a reader – a pudgy uncoordinated kid who wasn't good at sports, when I was in the sixth grade I had a teacher who opened the door to fiction for myself and probably every student in his class.

Bob Olson had a bunch of things in his classroom that made him the cool teacher – from animals and reptiles we had to take care of as part of class, to shelves and shelves of paperback books. Mr. Olson had this theory that if you gave kids who wanted to be adults, books that were aimed at adults (though safe for kids); they would read them to feel older and more sophisticated. “I'm not reading kid's books, I'm reading grown up books.” His “adult books” were also genre books – science fiction and private eyes and spies and fun stuff. I don't know what he had for the girls – I didn't read any of those books – but I imagine he had romance and adventure and gothic thrillers like “The Spiral Staircase” (which was actually called something else). Fun stuff. Bob Olson introduced me to Doc Savage and Perry Mason and Donald Lamm & Bertha Cool and Isaac Asimov and Edgar Rice Burroughs and many others. And because these books were adventures – and not educational in any way – I read shelves of them. Mr. Olson required that you read a certain number of books during the year, but you could get extra credit for reading more. I had a ton of extra credit.

Edgar Rice Burroughs appealed to my imagination – Tarzan was okay, but the novels that took place in weird worlds like Pellucidar and Barsoom and Venus and that World That Time Forgot transported me from my crappy blue collar life to some amazing world. Bob Olson's bookshelves changed my life. Made my life bearable. And probably made me a short story writer and novel writer and screenwriter.

The Burroughs Mars novels are probably responsible for most of the sci-fi fantasy today. There would be no STAR WARS without them – and Jaba The Hutt's flying boat is right from Burroughs. Also, CONAN THE BARBARIAN and every sword and sorcery novel comes from Burroughs. Burroughs stuck a bunch of stuff together that had never been in the same story before and created a genre. Now that they are finally bringing one of his Mars novels to the screen, I thought it would be cool to re-read them and see if they still held up. This is tricky because the stuff that a 12 or 13 year old boy likes may not be what a dude with some gray in his hair likes. The language and storytelling that a kid likes may be just awful when you are an adult. So I expected to read the novels and just kind of think they're good kid's books.

Except that's not what happened. Though I have only read the first three books in the series so far, and I'm only going to talk about the first book, PRINCESS OF MARS, because that's the one the movie is based on – all three have been fun and exciting reads. The old version of me likes them just as much as the young version did. Burroughs could *write*. Though some of the things are a little dated, I looked past those elements and just got caught up in the wild-ass adventure.

The books are this weird combination of western and swashbuckler and gladiator story and alien world travelogue. John Carter is a Civil War veteran out West to make his fortune who is attacked by Indians, hides in a cave – wounded – and goes into a coma... waking up on Mars! Teleportation. On Mars there are two main races (others pop up in later novels) – the Red Martians who are humanoid and have kingdoms, and the Green Martians who have an extra set of arms and are much taller than humans and are savage warriors who do not know love or compassion – kind of the Apaches from western pulp novels, only weird. Carter is captured by the Greens, but in trying to escape discovers that the difference in gravity allows him to jump like a danged frog!

The Greens would normally kill him, but because of his jumping skill they figure they'd better take him back to their chief. The Greens ride horse-like animals called Thoats – that also have an extra set of legs. Everything has extra legs or arms on Mars. This Green tribe inhabits a city deserted by the lost Martian race centuries ago. They have a guard dog-like thing make sure he doesn't escape, and have a female feed him. Carter learns Martian from the female – who is not like most of the other Greens, she was raised by her mother instead of hatching in an egg incubator and being raised by the tribe. She is *kind* to him. The other Green who Carter befriends is Tars Tarkas – a warrior who grows to respect Carter and thinks maybe they should not kill him.

When a few flying ships of Red Martians fly past, the Greens blast them out of the sky... and discover that one of the passengers is Red Martian Princess Dejah Thoris – who is ultra hot, and naked. The Martians do not believe in clothing. Let me tell you, to a 12 year old boy, this was great stuff! Hot naked women! The Frazetta book covers helped fuel the fantasies. Anyway, the rest of the novel has Carter rescue the Princess, lose her, get captured and fight in the gladiator ring against the prisoner who has become his best friend in the prison, discover the source of the Martian atmosphere – which is dying out... so all of the people on Mars will soon die, becomes best friends with Tars Tarkas, and has a lot of great amazing adventures. There are sword fights and climbing castle walls and great suspense scenes where Carter disguises himself as a Martian to infiltrate a fortress to try and save Dejah Thoris again. It's funny and heroic and exciting and romantic and non-stop fun.

One of the things I liked about it was how Burroughs creates vivid characters Рthough Tars Tarkas is one of the savage Green Martians, he's a a fully dimensional character rather than some 2-D clich̩. He is revealed to be very different than his exterior would lead you to believe Рthere is a great backstory that exposes a secret past. Dejah Thoris is no damsel in distress, either Рshe can kick ass and in one big twist completely rejects Carter, killing any chance of romance... and the romance is the through-line!

The theme of the story is that being kind to your enemies gets you farther than killing them – and Carter starts by being kind to his Thoat (Green Martians beat them into submission), he makes friends with the vicious dog-thing they have guarding him, befriends Tars and the female Green Martian who feeds him, and spends a lot of time trying to get along with the Green Martians who want to kill him. Carter has to make friends with his enemies and fight his friends to the death! Lots of great drama.

The book is fast paced, the travelogue elements give you an amazing look at this alien world, and there is sword fighting and beautiful Princesses to rescue and some big emotional moments. I finished the first book and couldn't wait to read the second... which is good because it seems as if some of the characters from GODS OF MARS made it into the film...


The first book is about the Red Martians and Green Martians, book #2 introduces some other colors to the mix. It’s years later, and John Carter is in New York City... wishing that he was back on Mars. His wish comes true - and he ends up at the Lost Sea Of Korus at the end of the Iss River on Mars, where religious Martians travel to meet their God. It’s a big spiritual quest - old people and sick people and those who just feel they would be better off serving the holy Goddess Issus take the trek up the river and find...

Well, John Carter sees what they will find, and is shocked that it is nothing holy. Instead, Plant Men *eat* some of the pilgrims and enslave the others for the evil Therns - White Martians - who are supposed to be the Monk-like religious leaders, but are actually bad guys. They manipulate the other Martian races for their own profit. The lead Thern is an evil dude who wants Carter dead because he knows too much - and it seems that Mark Strong will play that role in the movie. They are setting up the sequel - which reports say is already being written.

Carter ends up in a prison along with Tar Tarkas (who was leading a search party) and they meet Thuvia - another Martian hottie who gets her own book, later - and so begins our series of adventures for this volume. The books all have a couple of strange worlds, a gladiator bout, some twists where someone trusted ends up a bad guy, a race against time, and LOTS of swordplay and romance.

In the Therns’ prison, John Carter plans a revolt, escapes with Thuvia and Tars with much sword fighting and suspense as they sneak through tunnels. Thuvia wants to show her appreciation for the rescue, John Carter says he’s taken. Dude is in love with Princess Dejah Thoris and no naked hottie is going to steal his heart. We find out that Tars was searching for Carter’s *son*! Carter has a kid? But Tars tells him his son may be dead - he was kidnapped and never seen again...

Then they all get captured by Martian Pirates (Black Martians) - who have cool flying pirate ships - and taken to their subterranean city - where the *actual Goddess Issus* resides. There is a temple, and the Goddess is an evil old bitch who uses female slaves for all sorts of unspeakable things - then kills them a year later... and throws the males into the gladiator ring. Though these gladiator fights are different than the ones in PRINCESS, it's still a chance for Carter to do a lot of sword fighting. Oh, and there’s this rotating device that traps people for a full Martian year inside a container with no food (except anyone else who may have been trapped inside with them). Burroughs always has these twisted-but-cool torture devices and things in the books that 12 year old boys love.

The thing that doesn’t work in the book, or maybe does depending on what Burroughs wanted, is that when John Carter meets a teenaged Martian kid in the underground prison, he never figures out that this kid might be his son. We figure it out right away. Maybe Burroughs was using dramatic irony and wanted us to figure it out before Carter does - but it makes Carter look stupid. There are prison scenes between Carter and the kid where the kid seems to have some of Carter’s strength... and Carter still doesn't figure it out!

But Carter and the kid escape from the prison, rescue Thuvia... only to lose her in the one-year-prison-thing (but they shove food through the door and hope she survives), make friends with one of the Pirates (Carter is great at making friends and bringing warring tribes together) and then they escape to Carter’s Martian home in the kingdom of Helium...

Where his princess Dejah Thoris has recently left. After the “death” of John Carter a decade ago, and the kidnapping of their son by the Pirates, she decided to trace the River Iss to the Lost Sea Of Korus to meet her maker. Plus - Carter’s nemesis has taken over the Martian government. Now, if this were a STAR WARS prequel that subplot would involve a lot of government meetings and stuff like that - here we get fights to the death.

Now Carter and his son and Tars must go back to rescue Dejah Thoris from that evil Thern dude... and much sword fighting occurs! Except first Carter must deal with his nemesis who forbids the rescue and does not believe that the Holy Therns are bad guys - that would be blasphemy! So Carter has to do some sword fighting at home before he can rescue the woman he loves.

I have no idea what was happening in the USA with religion 100 years ago, but the theme here seems to be about blindly following a religion when it's been taken over by those who prey on those who pray. Both the Therns and the Goddess Issus are using religion as power in order to abuse the faithful. Both have become wealthy while their faithful suffer - and they created much of the suffering in order to keep those faithful faithful. The Therns are all about creating problems so that people become more religious... which gives them more power. I have no idea if 100 years ago they had some version of our boob-tube-reverands and their send-me-money ministries, but this book seems aimed at those guys... behind the sword fights and daring rescues and wild chases through dark places.

It makes sense to use the Therns in the first film, because they play such a big part in the second book... and if they make a sequel they have already introduced the villain. The best thing about Burroughs' Mars series is there are no teddy bear aliens... so no chance of an Ewok spin off.

I'm excited by the JOHN CARTER (OF MARS) movie because it looks cool – though Dejah Thoris is wearing clothes. Willem Defoe voices Tars Tarkas and the animation is based on his body movement - that is *great* casting. Defoe is such a strange guy. I hope they don't screw it up, and I hope it's a hit so that they can do all of the books. When I was a kid, my favorite was CHESSMEN OF MARS... and soon I will find out if that one holds up, too.

Here's a review of the movie:
JOHN CARTER screening review.

Each of the Frazetta covers clicks to a free Kindle version of a Mars book on Amazon.

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Put A Donkey In It! -


zornhau said...

It does. I reread them all a few years back while bored at work - they're on the Gutenberg Project.

Gutenberg also has a whole lot of really obscure ERB stories, including some of his modern romances - The Efficiency Expert is one htat springs to mind. They're all slightly... can't think of the right word - gonzo? - but written without irony.

Tom Chandler said...

I missed all the ERB stuff when I was a kid and reading pretty much everything in sight, preferring Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov -- the harder science types.

The trailer looks interesting, and the choice of Taylor Kitsch is compelling; does anyone have a more confused, barely submerged anger vibe than him?

In any case, I just downloaded the epub version (from Gutenberg) to Caliber, and it'll find its way to my Nook, and I'll give it a read.

Thanks for the blog and the post

MWire said...

I grew up on these books too. Great stuff when you're twelve. Tried to go back to them a couple of years ago but wasn't quite as impressed. But I'm looking forward to the movie. Hope they do it right.

Anonymous said...

I have lost track of how many times I have read these books. They were my jump from children's books to the world of adult fiction. I may have to go read them again.

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