Barsoom/John Carter of Mars

Discussion in 'Lounge' started by lklawson, Mar 16, 2015.

  1. lklawson

    lklawson Staff Member

    I was asked my opinion of the John Carter of Mars series in another thread. My reply was too short. When I write, I want to WRITE. Unfortunately, I was replying on my phone with a QWERTY touchscreen keypad. Blech. Here, below, is something more in depth. It's not as deep as it deserves but it's as deep as I'm going to go.

    Right up front, the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs is the early 20th Century equivalent of an Action Movie and I enjoyed them for what they are. Burroughs is sort of the great-grandfather of a whole genera of action adventure, sometimes called "Sword and Planet" which is still popular and experiences occasional entrants even today. To over-simplify it greatly while giving a point of reference that most are familiar with, the Barsoom series is essentially a way of placing a Conan the Barbarian-like character in a science-fiction(ish) setting. Yes, Barsoom predates Conan by several decades but most of us know the Conan archetype.

    I'll try to give a semi-overview of the pros and cons of the books without giving spoilers, but some broad spoilers are, perforce, unavoidable.

    The protagonist of most of the Barsoom series (the first 3 books and 2 or 3 of the later) is Captain John Carter. The first book, A Princess of Mars was written in 1911 but it is set in the late 19th Century. Captain John Carter is a veteran of the U.S. Civil War and veteran Indian Fighter and is prospecting for gold with another veteran in the Arizona. His consciousness is eventually "transported" in some sort of duplicate body, through a means never explained, to the planet Mars. This is explicitly stated in the early books. When John Carter learns the language of Mars, he finds that the locals call it "Barsoom," and that is the name by which the series is known to fans (alternately, the "John Carter of Mars" series, though that is the title of the final book).

    First let me write for a moment about Burroughs' writing style. My friends here, if you thought me well written, and ornamented, then Burroughs will simply blow you away. Were he alive today he would positively laugh at my juvenile writing style. While I don't believe that Burroughs is overly verbose, his descriptions are complete. His prose is almost flowery. Though, in modern terms, the series seems to most appeal to teens, a teen would do well to bring a dictionary. Burroughs must have been a walking thesaurus. However, after a time, like most of his work in the Barsoom series, his descriptions become formulaic. He seems to have what's sometimes known as Homeric Stock Epithets; descriptors that he reuses over and over because he found them effective. People and the "races" of Barsoom are often described as "clean limbed," "well proportioned," "handsome," and the like. But he also applies this conceptually as well. He likes terms such as "Barbaric Splendor" and when he wants to paint a picture of what "Barbaric Splendor" is, he invariably does so with descriptions of showy great wealth. For instance, clothing will be "encrusted" with rare metals and jewels.

    This brings me to a particular issue with the Barsoom series. The rules of economics do not apply. Rare metals, rare jewels, and "Barbaric Splendor" abound on Barsoom. They're highly valuable, highly valued by "royalty" and social elite,... and every one seems to have a truckload of the stuff. Burroughs was not an economist and he didn't care. He wasn't trying to paint a hard-science realistic world (the concept of "hard-science Science Fiction" didn't even exist yet). He's just trying to paint a picture of riches and "Barbaric Splendor" that draws the reader into an entertaining fantasy.

    Burroughs also wasn't a scientist. I doubt he even bothered much with what at the time was sometimes referred to as Physical Sciences or Natural Philosophy. Nearly every scientific fact we take for granted is malleable in the extreme in the pursuit of his fantasy. Geology, for instance, is whatever he needs it to be to paint his picture. At one point he needs a cliff with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and veins of gold just popping out of it like fruit from a grafted chimera tree so he writes one up. A trained geologist of 1911 would likely have suffered an immediate aneurism.

    The technology of the Barsoom series can, perhaps be given a bit more gentle treatment. At the time when he began writing the Barsoom series, it was generally felt that anything might be possible. Further, the various forms of "radiation" were slowly filtering into society as a vague concept. So Burroughs centers the technology of Barsoom around two kinds of "radiation." The first is around "rays" which may be split out from natural sunlight. Besides "our seven" colors, there are two more "rays" which the Martians have learned to harness. These provide much of the energy and important technology in the series. The most important and obvious of the two is "the 8th ray, or ray of propulsion." Essentially, it's anti-gravity or the "ray" radiation equivalent of lighter than air gasses and he uses it thus to imagine "air ships." Everything from massive battleships down to tiny "one man fliers" have "tanks" filled with "rays" which provide buoyancy. The other radioactive technology he proffers is "radium." This one is fun too because, writing as the hero he claims to not know exactly what the substance is but assumes it must be some "formulation" or "compound" of radium. He uses this to imagine everything from infinite battery flashlights to H.E. exploding rifle bullets. But, again, don't let this distract you too much. He is essentially using technology for "magic" and creating a world of wonder.
     
  2. lklawson

    lklawson Staff Member

    So onward to his story writing. As I mentioned earlier, frankly, it's shallow. Don't read his stories looking for deep philosophical musings, though, I must admit, every once in a while, quite unintended I'm sure, he writes something which may cause the modern reader to wander in a flight of philosophy. No, Burroughs is writing an adventure story with some swordfighting and some action and some hot chicks need'n to be saved 'n stuff. Get your testosterone on! His Villains are villainous. They are usually base (and explicitly described thus, often using the very word "base"). They are flat out evil with few if any redeeming features. They're selfish, self centered, willing to sacrifice "noble" vassals in pursuit of their "wicked" desires. They're a straight-up classic Movie Villain. As villainous as the Villains are, the Heros (and heroines) are equally heroic. Carter, by virtue of his Earthly origin is endowed with many times the strength of his Martian friends and opponents. But he is also endowed with honor, virtue, and morals far in excess of what ordinary humans are capable of. By dint of his honor and virtue, he often makes friends of potential enemies and regularly converts antagonists to his cause. He refuses to "finish" downed opponents. He insist on joining fights on the side of an out-numbered fighter (which invariably makes an ally who is key to his success in the story). He defends the honor of women even if he believes it will somehow cost him in the end.

    This of course segues into gender roles in the Barsoom series. To be honest, the whole concept of expected gender roles is very 1911 but he does occasionally tilt that on its ear. Let me state clearly that the heroine of the first 3 books, John Carter's paramour Dejah Thoris, is a shrinking violet. She is always in need of being saved, incapable of saving herself, and requiring Carter to be the knight-in-shiney armor. While this doesn't sound very flattering to women, it is sort of required to tell the somewhat simplistic story of the Virtuous Hero John Carter which Burroughs is presenting. Nevertheless, Burroughs' women have an unexpected depth to them. Yes, Dejah Thoris is still the "prize" to be saved by a man. However, we find out in the very first book that Dejah Thoris is smart. It's implied that she is a Scientist. At the very least she, a high ranking and "beloved by all of" her nation, Princess is accompanying an important scientific expedition into a known dangerous area. While I believe that Burroughss intention in doing this was just to create a MacGuffin, he unintentionally tells generations of readers that women can be scientists. On the other hand, maybe it wasn't entirely unintentional. Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in 1903 and 1905 for her work with radium (remember, radium features strongly in Burroughs martian technology). Dejah Thoris is seen on occasion as taking an active role in combat, sometimes using chains to strike attackers. Burroughs specifically writes that women were not usually "trained in the arts of war" but that they would, if necessity demanded, fight (you know, after the menfolk were all dead or captured). However, he repeatedly breaks this "rule" and presents women who, to one degree or another, are "fighters." We are introduced to one woman in the 3rd book who's a crack shot with a revolver and manages to shoot several opponents dead, including drilling one in the skull. We meet another woman late in the series who is accomplished with the sword. Further, Burroughs specifically writes that no free person on mars is ever without weapons, including women, who usually sport long daggers and seem quite willing to use them should circumstances demand; either for defensive purposes or murderous ones.

    Since I'm writing about social norms, I want to spend a moment on "racism" in Burroughs' Barsoom. First, John Carter is a white man. OK, that's not unexpected, particularly in light of the fact that his audience is primarily Caucasian males. However, from the first, we find that Carter is the only "white man" on the planet. Let that sink in for a moment. Resist the urge to interpret that as "White John Carter, the hero, is automatically superior to an entire planet because he's white." Pause for a second and remember Dejah Thoris, the heroine. ... There it is. Yes, the object of sexual interest for "White Man" John Carter is not white! In fact, she is "red," variously described as redish bronze or copper. The first martians which John Carter are introduced to are the semi-humanoid (often described as "inhuman") "Green Men" of mars. They have six limbs, and tusks but discernable torsos and heads. In most respects they are presented as humanoid but also, intentionally, alien and disturbing. The second "race" of mars which Carter is introduced to is only through "ancient murals" and artwork, an EXTINCT "race" of white skinned humans, who are presented as being too "weak" and incapable of adapting to the dying mars. The "Red Man" martians which Burroughs imagines are often compared to the North American "native red man" and both are written of in a generally favorable light. Native American "Indians" are usually presented as intelligent and cunning warriors, in line with the classic "Nobel Savage" motif. The martian "Red Man" is presented in the first book as the height of civilization with great statesmen, scientists, craftsmen, and warriors all of which to be envied. The men in the series are almost universally handsome, often even the villains (though he frequently presents villains as using ugly facial expressions such as "a sneer marred his handsome face"). The women of the series are also almost always beautiful.

    Continuing in the "racial" them, in the 2nd book Carter is introduced to both a "white race" (Therns) and a "black race" (First Born/Black Pirates). Both are described as beautiful, handsome, clean limbed, noble in appearance. The protagonist, Carter, specifically says that it "may sound strange" coming from "a Virginian" (and a Civil War veteran) but he found the "Black Men" (both men and women) to be particularly attractive, well defined, well muscled. However, both of the cultures of the white Therns and black First Born were degenerate, selfish, and evil. However, this is specifically attributed to the culture in which the individuals were raised and not to the skin color. By the end of the 2nd book and the beginning of the 3rd, Burroughs has rehabilitated both the Thern culture and the First Born culture by placing virtuous and heroic leaders from among their own in ruling positions. Once the corrupt villain leading the black First Born was replaced by a virtuous First Born, the entire culture is rehabilitated and presented as people the hero, John Carter both likes and admires (and therefor also you the reader). In the 3rd book, we meet a race of martian "Yellow Men," described as having skin the color of a lemon. The trope is more or less repeated. Carter saves one of the virtuous "Yellow Men" from an unfair fight and is befriended, eventually replacing the villainous and degenerate leader of the culture with the virtuous one and introducing another ally society which is attractive and admirable.

    It is hard to judge the point of the different "races" in Burroughs' Barsoom series. While it does seem possible that he is engaging in a bit of social commentary and attempting to use his fiction to influence public opinion away from racism, it seems mostly that the different skin colors are introduced merely as a way of introducing the exotic, which is far more important to the success of his stories. Nevertheless, the meta-message, intentional or not, resounds that "skin color is irrelevant."

    And about the success of the story; it depends heavily on well, action. Anything that drives action forward is good fare as far as Burroughs seems concerned. The hero regularly only survives or makes it past an important plot point by sheer luck. Dozens of times throughout the series the various heroes only succeed by accidentally being in the right place at the right time, such as taking a leisurely stroll in the wild, to be presented with information without which the entire book fails; the hero dies, the heroine is kidnapped, or some other irreversible evil would befall the plotline... but for a chance of luck. Countless times the hero "just happens" to save the one person he needs, because of the hero's honor and virtuous nature, in order to make it to the next step; 10 seconds early or late and the book would be done right there, ending with, "and he never saw his beloved again, dying lonely and full of remorse." Realize that "believability" was done away with as soon as you read, "I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood." Yeah, his stories aren't about a place that could be real, they're about a place that you, the reader, WANT to be real so that you can join in the adventure and be a swashbuckling hero on a slowly dying planet.

    There's more, of course, but I've exhausted my desire for monolog commentary. :)

    Peace favor your sword,
    Kirk
     

  3. Bull

    Bull Just a Man Supporting Member

    Many thanks Kirk!.... Answered more questions than I had, and I appreciate it.... Have you by chance, read any of RA Salvatore's books?.... They're fantasy, not scifi, but I think his characters are the kind you'd enjoy
     
  4. lklawson

    lklawson Staff Member

    A few of them from WAY back when I played D&D. I don't recall much about them, however.

    Peace favor your sword,
    Kirk
     
  5. Back2School

    Back2School Member

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    While I love Salvatore's works, I HATE what they did to Rangers and the fact they created the dark elf stereotype because all the fanois want to be Drizzt.

    To me Strider/Aragorn will be the stereotypical ranger - 2 hand sword and a bow. Nature based outdoorsman with main attribs of STR and WIS. Not the new style rangers based on AGI dual wielding rarely using a bow or what I would consider an archer type - using a bow only except for daggers (again maybe dual wielding).

    Long live the spider queen!

    Wait, did I just geek out too much? :blush:
     
  6. Bull

    Bull Just a Man Supporting Member


    Nah....... While he did sorta water down the ranger archetype, I loved the dwarves.....
     
  7. Back2School

    Back2School Member

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    Gotta second that. Dwarves have always been my favorites. My kids today cant understand it, they all want to be Legolas and cant understand why I am a Gimli fan :)

    Much of my online stuff has been named Brewenor...
     
  8. Bull

    Bull Just a Man Supporting Member

    How can you not love Pwent the battlerager?
     
  9. lklawson

    lklawson Staff Member

    I haven't touched the stuff in decades, literally, but the most fun AD&D character I ever played was a Kinder.

    Peace favor your sword,
    Kirk
     
  10. Back2School

    Back2School Member

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    LOL, @ Tasslehoff. With your love of all things MA, I bet you actually tried making your own kender walking stick...

    ok, whats you guys take on gnomes? do you prefer them pre or post Drangonlance? the more dwarf-like ones or the tinker ones?
     
  11. Bull

    Bull Just a Man Supporting Member


    Gnomes never did much for me, but I prefer tinker-type.
     
  12. Bull

    Bull Just a Man Supporting Member


    My favorite was a dark elf swashbuckler.... In the spirit of Jarlaxle
     
  13. lklawson

    lklawson Staff Member

    The "Hoopak?" It's just a Staffsling. Been in use for centuries.

    [​IMG]

    By using a lengthening "arm" to gain mechanical advantage during the cast, it's the sling equivalent of a Atlatl.

    [​IMG]

    Peace favor your sword,
    Kirk
     
  14. Think1st

    Think1st Supporting Member

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    2,274
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    It's been a couple of decades since I played, but I used to play dwarves all the time.
     
  15. Bull

    Bull Just a Man Supporting Member


    Been couple decades myself....
     
  16. mr_flintstone

    mr_flintstone Supporting Member

    I guess I'm old fashioned. I thoroughly loved most of the Barsoom series. I can forgive most of the scientific inaccuracies because it was written (or at least the first book was) over a hundred years ago. John Carter, and later Carthoris, Bill Paxton, etc... was what we consider to "a man's man). The kind who does what needs to be done without regard for personal safety. The kind who holds a door for a lady (even if she doesn't deserve it). The kind who protects his family and loved ones with his life if need be. The kind of early century hero that served as an inspiration for how a young man should behave.

    But enough about him. That Deja Thoris is described as looking something like a goddess; and she was smokin hot in that movie.
     
  17. MaryB

    MaryB Supporting Member

    Great books to read for enjoyment when you are not in the mood for something deep.
     
  18. I always loved playing Lizardmen.

    And Anti-Paladins.

    Dragon magazine was awesome.
     
  19. lklawson

    lklawson Staff Member

    Me too.

    Yes, it's forgivable. In 1911, there was still a very real possibility, scientifically speaking, that Mars was, indeed, potentially habitable. His concept of "rays," while clearly science fiction, wasn't too far out of line for other science fiction of the time. But, for him, science was malleable. Its sole purpose was for the advancement of his story.

    Yes, I quite agree. It's the best part of the series.

    Yes, that's true. Most of the women in Burroughs' Barsoom are described as beautiful. Even some of the villainous ones. I can only think of two off the top of my head which weren't; Issus and Xaxa.

    Peace favor your sword,
    Kirk