Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars
Reading “A Princess of Mars”, one thought popped into my mind over and over again; wow is this racist. Either Edgar Rice Burroughs was a racist or he wrote the book portraying John Carter as a racist. I lean heavily towards the former. Of course, this can be written off as more a sign of the times in which it was written than a condemnation of the man who wrote it.
So, the racism…
The whole book is told narrative style by the protagonist, John Carter. It starts out almost immediately with descriptions of Native Americans as bloodthirsty and such. That didn’t bother me so much because it would be a fairly accurate description of how White men thought of Native Americans at the time. Things then move to Mars where John Carter quickly falls into the hands of the Green Martians who are tall and beastly and distinctly non-human and have a warlike culture with a Klingon-like sense of honor. They are described as primitive and savage and there are many instances of their culture being disparaged by John Carter. All of them, that is, except the two he happens to befriend. They are described in a very positive light and as two who are completely out of place with the culture that they belong to. Reading the book, I could almost hear John Carter saying, “I can’t be racist, some of my best friends are Green Martians!”
Then there’s the Red Martians. They are described as humans only with red skin. They are described as cultured and sophisticated and peace loving. All this despite the fact that, like their Green inhabitants, they all seem to be at war with everybody. The few Red Martians that John Carter befriends are, indeed, how he describes Red Martians in general, but the rest of the Red Martians are virtually indistinguishable in savageness from the Green Martians except that the Red Martian’s culture much more closely resembles White Earthling culture and the Green Martian’s culture is the stereotypical conquering White Man’s description of Africans.
I do not say any of this to talk you out of reading the book. It is quite a fascinating read and very rightly was an inspiration of many modern writers and scientists. I found the racism fascinating instead of off-putting. It’s like an anthropological look into the mind of a racist.
The story itself is kind of blah. Man travels to Mars. Man falls in love with a captured princess. Man rescues said princess again and again. We’ve seen this before. Where it stands out, though, is in Burroughs’ insights into Mars and the technologies Burroughs creates for Mars, many of which are astoundingly prescient. For instant, the newly discovered at the time radioactive isotope radium is used to both create abundant power and make bullets much more deadly. Besides the fact that we now use uranium and plutonium for such, this is very reminiscent of nuclear power plants and depleted uranium ammunition. There are also world altering atmospheric generators that keep Martians able to breathe which still hold a place of high regard in science fiction.
That isn’t to say that Burroughs was firmly on the science of the possible. He also had really cool and massive air ships that were able to support their bulk by collecting light and breaking it into components unknown on Earth to create an anti-gravity field. It’s interesting in the way he describes it, but pretty laughable scientifically now. Even his description of light, though, sounds like he’s describing infrared and ultraviolet light which I am not sure was actually discovered when he wrote the book.
Despite the fact that the plot is terribly unoriginal, Edgar Rice Burroughs does a great job of throwing a lot of originality into the story that the plot doesn’t matter that much. The book must certainly be read with one eye on when it was written, but I would definitely recommend it to science fiction fans as an example of what likely inspired some of their favorite authors. “A Princess of Mars” is actually the first in the “Barsoom” series and I will certainly at least read the next one to see if Burroughs continues his amazingly accurate predictions.