Mimsy Review: A Princess of Mars
“I think you wrong her, John Carter,” said Sola. “I do not understand either her ways or yours, but I am sure the granddaughter of ten thousand jeddaks would never grieve like this over any who held but the highest claim upon her affections. They are a proud race, but they are just, as are all Barsoomians, and you must have hurt or wronged her grievously that she will not admit your existence living, though she mourns you dead.”
When mysterious adventurer John Carter finds himself transported to the strange and alien tribes of Mars, he changes the history of that wild and decadent land forever.
While I’ve been a fan of Tarzan since I was a teenager, I’ve avoided reading the John Carter books until now. I’ve been writing a space fantasy milieu for Gods & Monsters and decided I’d better read the most influential space fantasy book from which so much of our notion of fantasy in space springs.
I hadn’t planned on reviewing this book, just reading it and mining it for ideas. But after finishing it today, I find A Princess of Mars to be as fascinating as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s later Tarzan books. A Princess of Mars reminds me a lot of Tarzan of the Apes. Most especially, after reading the book, it is difficult to believe that he meant it as a long-running series.
Like Tarzan of the Apes, A Princess of Mars has as its protagonist a mysterious superman, though in Princess we don’t even know where he came from. Even John Carter doesn’t know who he really is.
While Mars’s lower gravity makes John Carter a minor superman there, he is also a superman on Earth. He is a well above average soldier, “a splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of the trained fighting man.... His horsemanship, especially after hounds, was a marvel and delight even in that country of magnificent horsemen.”
John Carter was a hero on Earth before he became a hero on Mars. Were Carter and Tarzan to meet, they would recognize a kindred spirit in the other. Of course, in true pulp tradition, they’d have to fight first, to truly understand each other’s mettle.
A Princess of Mars is filled with the asides and racial caricatures that make Tarzan both difficult to get past and a fascinating insight into a liminal age. Tarzan partially overcomes this by treating everyone poorly. Burroughs describes Tarzan’s birth culture as unappealing and evil as the “lesser” civilizations that Tarzan sees growing up.
In A Princess of Mars there is less opportunity for such equal opportunity despair. There remain uncomfortable scenes, however, such as when John Carter leads the brutes of Mars in a pillage against the first human city he encounters. He does this in order to save a woman from her own diplomacy.
Despite this, and like Tarzan, there is a wonder in this book. This is a time when we first began to truly believe that we might find other life, unlike our own, in the universe. It was a time when we realized just how much advancement science was beginning to bestow: radio waves, radium, flight, and evolution. Mankind was being reduced to gears in a world as mysterious as the divine world of the past, but one where mankind had no role but that of machine.
Would men of future generations embrace this role, as it seemed the communists would? Would the family give way to state-controlled genetic engineering? Could even our own thoughts be waves like radio waves, governed solely by mechanistic physical laws? John Carter, like Tarzan, faces the future in battle to retain human individuality; unlike Tarzan, he does so in a world where all these things have become true. He fights the future on its own ground: a world older than ours that has surpassed our technology, and now requires that technology to survive.
Whether he wins or not--and, like the first Tarzan book, it isn’t clear that he has--he has made a fight worthy of an individual. That is its own victory, no matter what he loses in the end.