I started reading A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs on my recent business trip. Since then (a week ago tomorrow), I've devoured the first four Barsoom books and can say without a doubt that they are the finest examples of the pulp serial format that I have ever experienced. I didn't even like the "sword and sandals" or "sword and planet" genre of science fiction before reading A Princess of Mars and now I'm seriously contemplating looking outside Bourrough's work in that genre. The first three in the series in particular, which are written in first person and directly concern John Carter, are very strong, extremely readable stories. Granted, they're a lot like reading a cartoon: so much of John Carter's life is filled with remarkable contrivance and coincidence, and he's pretty much better at everything than almost everybody else. There's seriously a whole bit in the second book where he meets a character who is obviously his son, and every time the kid says, "My father is..." he's interrupted before he can finish. This happens, almost word-for-word, several times. But I forgive the contrivance for one overwhelming reason -- Barsoom is so much fun. These books are some of the most fun that I've read in a long time. Sure, it's a pulp serial, so there's just this escalating stair-step of threat and danger, always cranking up the tension, but never really calling into doubt that the main character will succeed in the end. It's larger than life, with a veritable superman for a main character: faster, stronger, and more honorable than any foe. But it never stops being a hugely enjoyable amusement park ride of a book. And on top of it all, Burroughs knew exactly what he was writing, and not only did he execute perfectly, he knew when he could wink at the reader, he knew that we were all in on the same ridiculous ride. At one point in time, after a heady analysis of some of the science fiction underlying Martian technology, Carter flat out then states "But what do I know, I'm a fighting-man, not a scientist." The juxtaposition can mean nothing other than self-awareness and it's beautiful.
As much as I love it, there are a few elements of the formula that always make me laugh out loud.
- All the ladies want John Carter, and all the dudes want his girl. Seriously, everytime he rescues a woman, she falls immediately in love with Carter, and every single time his wife, Princess Dejah Thoris, falls into some dude's clutches, that guy falls in love with her.
- John Carter is bad at disguises. He constantly forgets that he needs to maintain his disguise, or forgets that he's in disguise. Disguises, at best, get him into whatever city he's getting into, and then he just reveals that he's John Carter and beats two dozen guys in a sword fight.
- There are never boss fights. Anytime Carter (or one of his friends) runs into a big-bad of some variety, either Burroughs easies out of the fight with a line talking about how incredible of a fight it was and fails to describe it in any way (this is usually what happens when Carter himself isn't in the fight) or (much more likely) the bad guy just up and dies. Sometimes they commit suicide. Sometimes Carter just instantly stabs them. But after pages and pages of intricate fights where Carter spends paragraphs defeating a few nameless minions, you'll run into the prince or chieftan who's currently abducted Dejah Thoris, and Carter will just quickly stab them and be done with it.
I appreciate how Burroughs tends to solve problems using Martian culture. They have crazy-powerful guns, so why use swords? Culturally they both value swords, and consider it the height of dishonor to attack a man with a more powerful weapon than he attacks you with; the entire way of war is cultural and encourages swashbuckling. Since everything is solved by violence and John Carter is the best at violence, why can't he (or whoever) just kill any suitor of the woman he loves (being a princess, Dejah Thoris et al. sometimes got betrothed for political reasons, particularly when she thought her true love was dead)? Culturally, she can't marry the man who kills anyone she's bethrothed to -- to do otherwise would be the height of dishonor. It's a clever way to get around such questions, and is actually applied surprisingly carefully, so it doesn't feel like a cop-out.
The fourth book is in third-person and follows Carthoris, Carter's son, and while it's still fun, it's not as solid a novel. For one thing, it sort of just stops. It ends at kind of an appropriate point (Carthoris gets the girl), but it notably doesn't end the onrushing war (though the end of the story would result in the war ending), and it never addresses comeuppance for the villain. It's profoundly weird for a Barsoom novel to have not just one but two separate cities be left in the hands of tyrants by the end -- Carter usually defeats whichever tyrant is in charge and one of his friends of the appropriate ethnic group takes over. That said, the people of Lothar, with their psychic projections, are a very interesting addition to the mythology of Barsoom, and the story ended well, if somewhat abruptly.
I was never expecting to fall so utterly in love with the books. I'd picked up a Kindle collection of the first five Barsoom stories for a buck, partly out of a sense of obligation, as I'd never read them but I knew they were genre-defining, much like why I read Stranger in a Strange Land; and partly because pulpy science fiction is what I'm aiming at for TD and I thought that this might help inspire me. It has, though I'm pretty limited in what I can lean on here: Barsoom is a lot pulpier than the feeling I'm going for in TD. TD shares more with modern science fiction and less with the adventure stories that claim kinship with John Carter, but that doesn't mean it's wasted. I want to tell stories that focus around a main character, who lives larger-than-life and impacts the world around them. That's exactly what I have here, and how easily I happily laugh at the contrivance of Carter bumping into his friends every time he ends up wandering around the Martian countryside and just carry on reading gives me hope that players will except my plans for a similar engine of contrivance to keep characters they interact with at the forefront.
Of course, now that I've had a taste, I've got to work my way through the whole series. I've never had any real interest in the Tarzan series, but, quite frankly, I'm going to run out of John Carter stories all too soon, and now my interest in Burroughs' writing has been piqued.