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Traversing Barsoom: On 'A Princess of Mars'

BooksKristina PinoComment

One of the weirdest, yet most charming aspects about reading books about Barsoom, which were written way before our parents, and maybe grandparents were born (1912), is wading through the words long-lost from general usage while trying to forget what we know about Mars today and letting Edgar Rice Burroughs illustrate what life there might be like. It's got all the stuff that we see in out-of-this-world stories... space princesses, super advanced technology, the lone Earthman who we can relate to, and plenty of action packed in with the romance.

Under all of that though, the stories of Barsoom feel like an epic so far. You know, like Lord of the Rings. It takes us through the story nice and easy, explaining everything going on with the main character along the way, and romanticizing anything and everything. While this is something that kind of brought me to a snooze with J.R.R. Tolkien (sorry, it might have just been the time of my life I tried reading those books), I could barely put down A Princess of Mars. Thankfully for me, I received that book along with the rest of the story in one big bundle as a Kindle gift, so I don't have to wait long before I can pick up the next chapter, The Gods of Mars.

One of the reasons why I became interested in reading the Barsoom novels is because I enjoyed Disney's adaptation and then heard they were books that'd been written just after the turn of the century. I thought that was the coolest, and then I found out even more -- Edgar Rice Burroughs was also responsible for the story of Tarzan (also adapted by Disney), which was also gifted to me for the Kindle in the same fashion as the Barsoom series.

Because I'd seen the movie, I already had an idea of what would be happening in the books. Knowing what would eventually happen didn't make the reading any less exciting, though. Burroughs doesn't take your breath away with his diction (he likes using the word "extreme," I noticed), but I found myself wanting to know more and more about Barsoom and what was going to happen to John Carter next.

Where Disney adapted the obviously comical spin to his situation, Burroughs wrote Carter as a bit of an Anthropologist - someone who is learning about a whole new culture (in this case, an entire planet) by immersing himself into it. The tragic situations were much more tragic in the context of his character being the one Earthman who was inexplicably teleported to faraway Mars, and more so at the end of the novel when he found himself right back where he started (on Earth), with no way back into the arms of his one love. The funny situations were made hilarious because the story is narrated by John Carter himself, and as fellow humans, we can share his feelings on the bizarre instances.

Despite Carter describing the denizens of Mars as a barbaric people, especially the "Green Men" he spent months with in the beginning, he still manages to humanize them. We, the readers, are kept in check by the consistent reminders in Carter's diction about the ferocity and savageness of those beings, coupled with the steady flow of Barsoomian concepts and words that he learns along the way. For me, as an Anthropologist, it's exciting to read novels that do world-building while giving us a human perspective on a completely strange people.

I chose to write more of a "reaction" than a "review" of A Princess of Mars, because this novel was written so long ago, many of the concepts the author had about Mars (reflected in the novel) are false, and because story-telling was different then than it is now. I couldn't possibly sit here and write a review straight-faced for works that, for all intents and purposes, have withstood the "test of time."

If you're the kind of person who enjoys taking it easy (the story-telling isn't fast paced at all), reading about one man's struggle to survive on a dying planet, fighting his way into the arms of his true love and then read what happens after the "happily ever after," the Barsoom novels might be for you. You can't really judge the events of the book by the film if you've seen it, though -- I get the feeling that Disney's John Carter merged the first two books into that one film, because there are some concepts and events that happened therein which didn't occur in A Princess of Mars. More on this, of course, after I've read the next novel.

[image of the book cover via Iceberg INK, where you can find another great review of this novel]