Science Fiction Studies

#98 = Volume 33, Part 1 = March 2006

Nicholas Birns

Barsoom Bonanza

Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Martian Tales Trilogy: A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, The Warlord of Mars. Ed. Aaron Parrett. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004. xix + 617 pp. $9.95 pbk.

Clark A. Brady. The Burroughs Cyclopaedia: Characters, Places, Fauna, Flora, Technologies, Languages, Ideas and Terminologies Found in the Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996. Rpt. 2005. v + 402 pp. $39.95 pbk.

The Edgar Rice Burroughs reprint and scholarship boom continues with a new edition of Burroughs’s first three Barsoom novels and a comprehensive reference book on his entire oeuvre. The edition is part of a series of reprints of classics, with introductions primarily by younger scholars, put out by Barnes and Noble primarily for sale in their own bookstores. Most of the books are mainstream literary classics, so the appearance of Burroughs therein represents another stage in his twenty-first-century canonization, already marked by the recent reprinting of several of his novels by Bison Books (University of Nebraska Press). Readers will delight in the opportunity to revisit Burroughs’s imaginative vision of Mars, called Barsoom by its inhabitants, and its denizens, including Kantos Kan, a reliable padwar of the navy of Helium on Barsoom; Xodar, the dator of the Black Pirates; and, above all, the beauteous Dejah Thoris, beloved of John Carter, the displaced Southern gentleman who, in the course of the first three books of the series, ascends to become Jeddak of Jeddaks of Barsoom.

The three-in-one book containing A Princess of Mars (1912), The Gods of Mars (1913), and The Warlord of Mars (1914) is not packaged for kids, missing a great opportunity, since so many people read Burroughs in early adolescence, and his works often stay to animate, in the best sense of the term, the early adolescent that remains. When I was twelve years old and at the height of my Burroughs enthusiasm, I chanced into a conversation with a great-uncle of mine, a violinist for a symphony orchestra. He was a distinguished man, of Continental bearing, but someone to whom I never felt I had much to say; but he had loved the Burroughs books as a boy, and spoke of Dejah Thoris as if he had taken her to his high school prom. For a moment, the twelve-year-old boy and the eminent musician were on the same level. Similarly, former President Jimmy Carter once said that he “identified” with his fellow Southerner John Carter. This sort of enthusiasm, which can bring together people of all ages and backgrounds, is absent from Parrett’s academically respectable but bloodless introduction, and from the entire packaging and design of the book. One misses the sense that Richard Lupoff gave in Barsoom: Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Martian Vision (1976) of readerly wonder, of textual astonishment—the ways in which Burroughs is, in an utterly non-pejorative sense, a writer for teenagers.

Parrett speaks of Burroughs’s influence on “writers such as Robert Heinlein and Michael Moorcock” (xix), which, given that Heinlein and Moorcock are pretty far apart as far as sf is concerned, is like saying that the Presidency of George Washington inspired men like Barry Goldwater and George McGovern to try for the White House. A far better link would have been to C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938). Without Burroughs’s multiple sentient species, Lewis could not have conceived his equivalent, if very differently intended, idea of the three kinds of hnau on Malacandra or the idea of a Martian language. Parrett has done a good job with the task given him (his remarks on Burroughs’s influence on Ray Bradbury are particularly good), but Barnes and Noble should take a step back and fundamentally assess what an introduction to a reprinted book is supposed to do, what its aims should be.

The presentation of the first three Barsoom books together in the Parrett-edited volume shifts the spotlight from the confrontation with an alien planet in the first book to the exposure and destruction of its fraudulent religion in the latter two. The exposure of the presumed goddess, Issus, as a fraud is not simply an exposure of a false idol. Here the seriality of the original books, the fact that they were not originally published as a trilogy, operates. The reader of Under the Moons of Mars/A Princess of Mars has come to accept belief in Issus as the normative belief of the Martian peoples, both good and bad. The Issus religion is part of the world John Carter has come to love. Its exposure and destruction thus have the air of a Gotterdämmerung, and, by implication, can be read as being about the “exposure” of Christianity, in a Nietzschean, idol-debunking sense (The Gods of Mars is set in the Nietzschean year of 1886), as much as being about the exposure of a concocted belief system. The exposure of Issus, indeed (doubled by that of the Great Tur in the sixth Barsoom book), reminds today’s reader of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-1999), where a Republic of Heaven replaces a divine hierarchy exposed as power-mongering. Similarly, what John Carter accomplishes in these novels by killing Issus and, in the next book, her chief priest, is to set up in spiritual terms a Republic of Barsoom. There is an Enlightenment aspect to the early Martian books. John Carter may be an agent of progress, as the Western colonizers of Africa claimed to be; but rather than bring a new religion to replace the old, he, in effect, rids Mars of religion altogether. Carter becomes Jeddak of Jeddaks—supreme ruler—of Barsoom at the end of the trilogy. Far from being a kind of imperial epiphany, however, Carter’s Jeddakship is a secular office involving no more than a vague oversight of the planet, resembling more the Secretary-Generalship of the United Nations than any other earthly office.

It is fun to read and write about Burroughs’s work. Part of that fun comes from the way that, despite the vast range of his imagination, Burroughs does not take himself as seriously as, say, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, or even E.E. “Doc” Smith. Burroughs knows his writing is often formulaic and sometimes preposterous, and he gets as much enjoyment out of that circumstance—for himself and his reader—as he can. Clark Brady’s Burroughs Cyclopedia, published as an expensive hardcover in 1996 and now made available in paperback, is full of this sense of absurd joy. The range of Burroughs’s fictional universe is astonishing. In I Am A Barbarian (1967, written 1941), he covered material that Robert Graves used with great success in his Claudius novels (1934, 1935). In The Outlaw of Torn (1911), he wrote a novel of the thirteenth century in England not far from the world of later popular historical novelists Jean Plaidy or Ellis Peters. In The Mad King (1912), he touched on “Ruritanian” territory. Then, even aside from the Barsoom and Tarzan books, there are the five Venus books (1935-41), the seven Pellucidar books (Earth’s Core, 1913-42), the two Beyond the Furthest Star books (1940-1964), the three Land That Time Forgot books (1917-18), and many more. Since most of these, even in the wake of the current Burroughs publishing boom, are out of print, Brady’s encyclopedia operates as an advertising blurb as well as a reference work.

Even in the well-known books, Brady’s encyclopedia, by its sheer array of names and facts, generates new perspectives on Burroughs and how we read him. One knows that the extra “r” in the name of Zat Arrras, Jed of Barsoom’s “second city” of Zodanga and temporary usurper of power in the second Mars book, means that he is a bad guy. This is analogous to what Alexei and Cory Panshin point out in The World Beyond The Hill (1989), about the villain Wienis in Isaac Asimov‘s short story “Bridle and Saddle” (1942): “Who can be expected to take with total seriousness a threat from anybody or anything named ‘Wienis’?” In the case of “Zat Arrras,” the reader laughs at the absurdity of an extra “r” making the Zodangan character a villain, as if an extra letter was like an extra tentacle protruding from his stomach. But we also get the sense that Burroughs is laughing at himself. Thinking about “Zat Arrras” as a name while writing this review, I found myself imagining Zat Arrras as a caller to a Barsoomian sports-radio talk show: “Zat from Zodanga” instead of, say, “Bruce from Bayside.” I recall joking around with Burroughs in this way when I was twelve, and reading him many years later, I slipped into the same practice. There must be something in Burroughs, for all his formulaic, repetitious quality, that encourages this sort of performative readerly response and creative play.

Burroughs’s names have neither the imaginativeness nor the systemic quality of Tolkien’s or even Lewis’s, but they have a magic of their own. Again, as in the case of Zat Arrras, some of the magic occurs just when the reader sees through what Burroughs is trying to do. Bandolian, the Emperor of Jupiter in the last (uncompleted) Barsoom novel, begins the long tradition of any name vaguely Armenian being a plausible sf name, as in Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The mixture of exoticism and familiarity, the imperative for the sf writer to make it new but not in terms incomprehensible to those whose categories of interpretation emanate from the old, is a constitutive dilemma in sf. The more the exotic is used, and the more that is known about science and other history, the less usable the traditional ingredients of the exotic become. Consider the name “Helium,” the chief city of Barsoom. This did not sound as absurd in the 1910s as it does today. But if Burroughs had used a more exotic name, it would have been too obscure to strike Burroughs’s readers as exotic. Indeed, this entire problem plagues all twentieth-century writing, so much of which faced the modernist imperative to break with past precedents yet which could not entirely sever the link. Burroughs’s names, in being both familiar and strange, display this modernist dilemma.
Parrett speaks of John Carter as exemplifying “the less admirable impulse” of “European and American colonialism” (xvi), and indeed racial issues are inevitably raised by Barsoom. Though John Carter can intermarry and reproduce with Dejah Thoris, she is not of the white race of Barsoom but of its red race. There are also black, white (really white, as in snow-white), and green men on Mars, the latter of which are classic, unassailably different aliens. In the first book, John Carter thinks that green men are all there are on the planet. Later, he meets men more of his sort. The racial plurality on Barsoom is at once its most interesting facet—Burroughs must concede racial plurality, and this very fact undermines white supremacism—and its least appetizing one. On the unappetizing side, the Black Pirates’ claim to be the primal race of Mars, and its supercession by the mandate of the red men of Helium, is reminiscent of European claims to areas that Africans had administrated constructively for centuries, on some sort of trumped-up grounds that the Africans were insufficiently dynamic. Born in 1875, Burroughs grew up amid high Victorian, Darwinian racialism, and his texts have some of it as well. But they also, perhaps in spite of themselves, imagine a racially plural universe. Burroughs’s Darwinism has what today we would see as “liberal” aspects, such as its debunking of Issus—meant to allude to Christianity, not to some African religion vandalized by European imperialism.

Every character in every book receives an entry in Brady’s book, as do most places, real or imagined. Brady’s wit is considerable, and the book is enjoyable to browse through even if you are not a Burroughs expert. Because of the (avant la lettre) “slipstream” nature of some of Burroughs’s books, some of the entries here are for real places in real history, and Brady is generally as good with these as with people and locales conjured by Burroughs. The nature of an encyclopedia means that Brady foregrounds certain books, as books with a lot of characters or references are displayed with exaggerated prominence, much as the Mercator projection makes Greenland look approximately the size of Jupiter. The three Moon Maid books (1923-25) seem, in this way, particularly salient to the reader of Burroughs’s encyclopedia.

The Moon Maid books have the same sort of feel as Orson Scott Card’s Ender series (1985-2004). The tie between the Moon Maid series and the Barsoom books is a fascinating one. After establishing contact with Barsoom, Earth’s government is taken over by what Brady terms “a powerful fundamentalist religious group” (34) and contact with other planets is cut off. (Was Burroughs the first to sketch this future history, used so spectacularly by Robert A. Heinlein less than two decades later in his Future History series [1939-1973]?) Because the John Carter-ruled Mars and Earth are not in contact, Earth is invaded by the Kalkars, a communist-minded, destructive people from the dark side of the moon. The happy ending that John Carter seems to have achieved in Barsoom is thus darkened by the alien occupation of his home planet. Beginning in 2050, the Kalkars make humanity into a compliant species, until liberated by a series of members of the Julian family (all of whom have number suffixes: Julian 1st, Julian 5th, Julian 9th), whose saga is told in the Moon Maid books. The Moon Maid series has been reprinted in a 2002 omnibus volume by Basic Books with an introduction by Terry Bisson. They might well bear looking at again. This is the kind of musing that Brady’s knowledgeable and spirited book occasions.

Despite now being in the same Barnes & Noble series as Dickens, Cather, and Tolstoy, Burroughs is not a writer of their class. But he was a great storyteller and remains a wonderful read, and, as Parrett’s and Brady’s efforts show, can still be read in a century Burroughs never saw. Let’s hope, though, that Burroughs was wrong and that the Kalkars are not coming in 2050.

Lupoff, Richard. Barsoom: Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Martian Vision. Westminster, MD: Mirage, 1976.
Panshin, Alexi, and Cory Panshin. The World Beyond the Hill. Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher, 1989.

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