Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Princess of Mars (e-book) by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I read this book for free via Project Gutenberg. It's also available as an audio book via LibriVox.

I would recommend not downloading the Project Gutenberg version of this book with pictures. The pictures increase the size of the file quite a bit and don't add much to the book.


Burroughs presents this as a manuscript left to him by Captain Carter of Virginia, now deceased. At the start of the book, John Carter is left penniless after the Civil War and is looking for gold. Barely escaping being killed by Indians, he ends up in a strange cave where he leaves his body behind and wakes up on Mars. He is quickly captured by violent green Martians.

Although he is a prisoner, John Carter also attains grudging respect and status among the green Martians, due to the immense strength his human muscles have in this lower-gravity environment. He finds friends and protectors among Woola, an ugly, fierce, and loyal creature that is the closest thing Mars has to dogs, and Sola, a female green Martian who is surprisingly peaceful compared to other green Martians.

When the green Martians capture Dejah Thoris, a red Martian and the beloved Princess of Helium, John Carter finds himself entranced by her beauty. He becomes determined to protect and free her. Although he, Dejah Thoris, Sola, and Woola do manage to escape, John Carter becomes separated from the group. He later learns that Dejah Thoris has agreed to marry Sab Than, Prince of Zodanga, in order to ensure peace between Helium and Zodanga. Once again, he becomes determined to rescue her, but he has to be clever about it. If he kills Sab Than, cultural rules dictate that he can never marry Dejah Thoris.


As a whole, I wasn't wild about this book, but I have a feeling I'll at least try the next book in the series, The Gods of Mars, simply because of the aggravating way this one ended. Burroughs gives John Carter and Dejah Thoris a happy ending and shows them contentedly waiting for the hatching of their first child...and then he puts Mars in grave danger and ends the book without showing if John Carter ever managed to save everyone. Grrr.

Particularly in the beginning, I thought this book was a bit boring. When John Carter (I suppose I should call him John, but I think he's always referred to as John Carter, just as Dejah Thoris is always Dejah Thoris and not Dejah) is captured, there are so many paragraphs explaining Martian culture that it started to feel like I was reading an ethnography of Mars, rather than a story. It was a bit interesting, but what it all came down to was “The green Martians are warlike in every way, and their culture does not encourage things like love and friendship.” It didn't occur to me until nearly the end of the book that Burroughs was probably inspired by the name of the planet, Mars, being the name of the Roman god of war.

As is often the case when humans meet aliens in sci-fi novels, shows, or movies, John Carter manages to teach the Martians a few things. Being human, he knows the value of love and friendship and shows the green Martians that the animals they have domesticated are not naturally violent and uncontrollable, but rather can be quickly made gentle and loyal with good, kind treatment. John Carter is the first one to ever figure this out, even though the book contains at least three green Martians who are kinder and gentler than the rest of their people. Yes, I know, this is an older book, but I rolled my eyes anyway.

I rolled my eyes again when Dejah Thoris was introduced:
“And the sight which met my eyes was that of a slender, girlish figure, similar in every detail to the earthly women of my past life. She did not see me at first, but just as she was disappearing through the portal of the building which was to be her prison she turned, and her eyes met mine. Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.”
I, like John Carter, wondered if Sola, the green Martian female charged with protecting and teaching him, was jealous of his interest in Dejah Thoris. I even found the idea a little exciting. Wouldn't it be wonderful if John Carter got to know both Sola and Dejah Thoris and found himself falling for Sola, despite the fact that she looked less like the epitome of human beauty than Dejah Thoris? Sola was kind and gentle, and she had to be horribly lonely. When she finally told John Carter her story, about being secretly born to two green Martians who fell in love despite a culture that does not encourage such a soft emotion, and about the tragic death of her mother and being unable to tell her father who she was, I wanted things to go well for her.

It seems I forgot what I was reading. In a modern science fiction book, a romance between characters like John Carter and Sola might be possible. In a science fiction book published in 1912, a romance between a human and a large green alien woman with tusks is impossible, especially with an alien woman who looks like a beautiful human woman nearby. Burroughs doesn't even have Sola fall hopelessly in love with John Carter – I think she's supposed to be seen as having nothing more than, at best, motherly or sisterly feelings for him. I'm still hoping that a future book might pair Sola up with a like-minded green Martian, but I somehow doubt that will happen.

I thought the romance between John Carter and Dejah Thoris was boring and flat, but at least the action scenes got more interesting later in the book. However, as the book progressed I became aware of what annoyed me about it more than anything else: its severe lack of dialogue. Although there is some dialogue, usually John Carter merely says that he talked to someone and summarizes what was said in the conversation. I hope the next book is better in this regard.

This book wasn't as good as I hoped it would be. I didn't like Burroughs' writing style, with its lack of dialogue and paragraphs about Martian culture set up like mini infodumps throughout the first half of the book. As far as the story itself goes, I already mentioned how I would have liked the romance to turn out. John Carter and Sola would have made for a strange pair, but they would have been much more interesting than John Carter and Dejah Thoris. I'm also still shaking my head over the idea of John Carter and Dejah Thoris having a child together. How does the biology work out, particularly since Dejah Thoris lays eggs? Burroughs explains Martian culture in detail, but everything else is glossed over. For some reason, I could be okay with the idea that John Carter was able to learn to do so much (ride and train alien beasts, fly an alien aircraft, use telepathic skills, learn an alien language, etc.), and yet the idea of him and Dejah Thoris being able to produce an egg together bothered me.

I'll see what I think about the next book, but this book hasn't made me terribly excited to get started on it. I may not get around to reading it for some time.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Tarnsman of Gor (book) by John Norman - This was originally published in 1966. It's the first book in Norman's Gor series. This book stars Tarl Cabot, who is transported from Earth to planet Gor. Goreans have a rigid, caste-bound society in which women are submissive to and the (happy, willing) slaves of men. This one might be worth reading just for the controversy surrounding the series, although, from what I've read, it also pretty similar to A Princess of Mars in a lot of respects. One comment I read is that Tarnsman of Gor is like A Princess of Mars with sex. I don't know how accurate that description is, though.
  • Warriors of Mars (book) by Michael Moorcock - I know very little about this book, but the general story sounds similar to A Princess of Mars. The main character, who I'm assuming is a human man, ends up on Mars, fighting to save the woman he loves. This is the first book in the Michael Kane series. It was originally published in 1965, so, as with Burroughs' book, there may be some aspects that feel dated.
  • Farscape (live action TV series) - John Crichton, a human astronaut, ends up lost, far from Earth, part of a ship full of alien fugitives. If you'd like something else with lots of action, a bit of romance, strange aliens, and a human main character who has to figure out how to survive in an alien environment, you might like this. It's a modern approach to the "man from Earth who finds himself among aliens" story.
  • The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series) - If you liked the idea of a character from our world suddenly thrown into an unfamiliar and hostile environment, you might like this. In this fantasy series, a girl from modern day Japan is suddenly taken to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms. Separated from the man who brought her to this new world, she tries to survive and figure out where to go next. The TV series is based on a series of novels by Fuyumi Ono. I have written about both the TV series and the second and third book.
  • Rainbow Mars (anthology) by Larry Niven - In these stories, humans from Earth visit Mars and find it populated by characters from the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, C.S. Lewis, H.G. Wells, and Stanley G. Weinbaum.

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