Saturday, April 14, 2012

Junot Díaz and Michael Chabon on Edgar Rice Burroughs and A Princess of Mars

"With My Back Against a Golden Throne
I Fought Once Again for Dejah Thoris."
A Princess of Mars frontispiece by Frank E.
Schoonover, courtesy of Dr. Robert Zeuschner.
It would be quite a shameful irony if the mixed reviews and disappointing initial box office performance of the movie John Carter tarnished the reputation of its seemingly ageless source material, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. As the character John Carter notes in the book’s opening pages, “So far as I can recollect, I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago.” Actually John Carter turns a hundred this year—and he still looks fabulous.

The character John Carter first appeared in the pages of All-Story Magazine in February 1912 in a serialization of “Under the Moons of Mars,” a six-issue event that launched the writing career of the thirty-five-year-old itinerant pencil sharpener salesman. Retitled A Princess of Mars when it was published as a book five years later, the story of a Confederate War veteran battling monsters and winning an alien princess has captivated readers for the century since.

Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Junot Díaz makes a persuasive case for the book’s enduring allure in his introduction to the just-published Library of America hardcover edition of A Princess of Mars. He starts with the hero:
A consummate fighting man, the ex-Confederate army veteran is modestly described by Burroughs as a splendid specimen of manhood, standing two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with Wisterian steel-grey eyes “reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative.” He has a good heart too, enjoys a laugh, likes children, and “has the manners of a Southern gentleman of the highest type.”
Carter is holed up in a cave, his partner dead, about to prepare a last stand against some hostile Apache Indians when he is suddenly transported, naked, to Mars where, in Díaz’s words, “a whole array of prismatically colored races . . . have a universal allergy to clothes and . . . are locked in a perpetual cycle of conflict.” Carter finds himself the only white man in a world of color.
"The Old Man Sat and Talked
with Me for Hours."
Frank E. Schoonover,
courtesy Dr. Robert Zeuschner
(Click to enlarge.)
Fortunately for our hero his Earth-bred muscles grant him immense advantage on the weaker gravity of Mars. On Mars Carter can leap immense distances and kill a twelve-foot tall Green Martian with a single blow of his fist. . . He becomes a superman. 
And so, with his Teutonic radiance thus restored “this queer mixture of child and man, of brute and noble” sets out to conquer himself some Mars. 
Like its hero, A Princess of Mars is a headlong rush, crackling with the kind of thrills and invention that made Burroughs one of the most popular authors of the early twentieth century. There are escapes and captures and more escapes and captures and of course swordfights aplenty. . . . Despite the fact that Dejah Thoris is a Red Martian egg-layer Carter even manages to knock her up, species difference presenting no barrier to John Carter’s superior Earth sperm. 
[The story] never settles into any one pattern: some of the time it’s pulp scifi; some of the time it’s Walter Scott chivalric; and some of the time it’s Brintonesque ethnography. It’s a kaleidoscopic mash-up to end all kaleidoscopic mash-ups and yet despite all this whirl of disparate influences the damn thing holds together.
The influence of A Princess of Mars on other artists over the years has become legendary, as Díaz notes:
The novel became a seminal text in the early science fiction canon, inspiring a slew of imitators, and even a pair of related genres, the planetary romance and the sword-and-planetary, practiced by the likes of Leigh Brackett and Michael Moorcock, and which you still finds examples of being written today (Paragaea anyone?) . . . Even the original source of Superman’s powers—Earth’s weaker gravity—was a direct swipe from Burroughs. Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and George Lucas all have acknowledged the influence Burroughs’s Mars had on their creativities.
In an interview with io9 about writing the screenplay for John Carter, Michael Chabon (another Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist) described what impressed him about Burroughs:
Obviously, Burroughs was a narrative machine. He really knew how to keep a story going, and he knew how to use cliffhangers, and really propel you through the story. He had that great “pulp novelist” narrative drive. He also had a really fertile imagination, in a way that reminds me of Jack Kirby in comics, where he would just toss off one concept after another, in many cases never to return to them again . . . . Just continually dreaming up new amazing vistas or societies or creatures whatever they may be. [There's] kind of a heedless quality to that imagination.
Díaz agrees with Thomas D. Clareson’s assessment in Some Kind of Paradise: The Emergence of American Science Fiction that “after Burroughs wrote, American science fiction was never the same.”
At a fundamental level Burroughs is vital to our understanding of what is called the American Century. Situated at a key juncture in the U.S.’s development—the precise instant the America we now know was a-birthing—his work both prototypically embodies and prototypically unravels primal American fantasies about race, masculinity, history, human-ness, coloniality, and civilization. 
All of these things—the jones for alterity, the critique of modernity, and the unforgettable image of John Carter bounding across the dead sea floor of Mars—go a long way in explaining why of all of Burroughs’s frontier romances A Princess of Mars continues to call to us, long after all the rest, including his great success story, Tarzan, have faded.
Also of interest:
  • Read an excerpt from the Junot Díaz introduction to A Princess of Mars on The Wall Street Journal blog
  • Scott Meslow in The Atlantic on “Why Did It Take 100 Years for John Carter to Make It to the Big Screen?”
  • View a video review of art and illustration, 100 Years of John Carter, as well as John Carter apps at thejohncarterfiles.com
  • Watch a clip from Cosmos in which Carl Sagan recalls how as an eight-year-old he was entranced by Burroughs’s Mars novels


Related LOA works: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (includes original illustrations by Frank E. Schoonover); Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs; American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to Now (2-volume boxed set)

1 comment:

  1. I did watch and enjoy the film adaptation immensely, and now, after listening to The Book Report show yesterday, I think I kind of missed out by not reading the book first. I do think I will get the audio though, and give that a try. You could still catch the review by visiting the website (bookreportradio.com)

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