I love books. My favorite genres are science fiction and romance, and I have hundreds of keepers of both varieties on the shelves of my personal library. But if I were to be stranded on a desert island and could have just one book, I know the one I’d choose. It’s quite old (published in 1912, long before the science fiction or romance genres as we know them today were established), and it’s not terribly long, but I wouldn’t mind reading it over and over again. In fact, I have read it over and over again, scores of times, since I was twelve. The book? A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first novel.
In the story, John Carter, an inexplicably long-lived human who can’t remember his own distant childhood, finds himself transported to Mars (called Barsoom by its inhabitants) via a mysterious method that’s never explained. The Mars that Burroughs described might have been scientifically believable by the standards of 1912 – it has canals, as Mars was believed to have at the time – and it is a dying world, almost devoid of water and required to produce oxygen in a great factory. It seems almost a pity that science no longer permits us to believe Barsoomians might exist, so vividly are their various cultures depicted.
John Carter is captured by green Martians, fearsomely ugly, twelve-foot monsters with four arms and curving ivory tusks. The Martians are civilized, after a fashion, but are also bloodthirsty, cruel, and savage, and Carter believes them to be the dominant life form on the planet. He is utterly alone among them, except for the creature assigned to watch him in order to ensure he cannot escape. This creature, Woola, is called a calot, which is a sort of dog – a ten-legged dog the size of a Shetland pony with a head like a fanged frog. The lonely Carter plays with the beast, who, having never known kindness before, grows to adores him.
Before long Carter discovers that the planet’s lighter gravity makes him almost a Superman who possesses incredible strength and the ability to make enormous leaps. Despite this, he cannot hope to escape the green Martians and their radium pistols – although they prefer to use swords. So, he bides his time and waits, always contemplating the best way to escape.
One day the green Martians bring another captive back to their city and Carter is stunned to see that she appears human in every detail, although her skin is a “light reddish copper color.” She is also, as Burroughs puts it, “destitute of clothes: Save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.” Indeed, the red race of Martians seem to go mostly without clothing. (One has to wonder what 1912 readers must have thought of this.)
The beautiful woman is Dejah Thoris, the granddaughter of the Jeddak (Emperor) of Helium, one of the most important cities on Mars. She is a wonderful heroine, though she isn’t really a kickass one – hardly surprising considering the age of the book – and John Carter rescues her more than once. For example, when a green Martian strikes her, John Carter defends her, slaying the Martian who struck her. (Modern audiences may feel that there is an inordinate amount of slaying in this book.) Yet everything Dejah Thoris does is dignified, despite her conspicuous lack of clothing. She is haughty, as becomes her exalted rank, but she is not a TSTL type. Indeed, even as a captive of the green men, she is mindful of her duty, making an impassioned speech to their leader in which she implores him to cease his savage warring on her people and live in peace.
Eventually Dejah Thoris and Carter win their way free and embark upon a happy life together, though there is a twist at the end that’s truly heartrending. This book would have been complete by itself, but it grew into a series (Edgar Rice Burroughs apparently never met an idea he couldn’t turn into a series), the first five of which are excellent. If you love futuristic romance, you owe it to yourself to try A Princess of Mars. It’s the great-granddaddy of all modern futuristic romances, and a lovely story in its own right.
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