To read A Princess of Mars in the modern world is to be subject to a barrage of associations: Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Dr Grorbort and the rest. Tracking those explicitly or implicitly influenced by the Barsoon series encompasses a sizeable swathe of those operating anywhere near the genres of Pulp or Steampunk. That makes picking a starting point easy – it’s a supposed to be a whirlwind thrill-ride, an action-spectacular, it’s the blockbuster roller-coaster of its time. The starting point is the whirl.
The narrative builds its momentum with one key strategy – it never gives John Carter any prolonged period of inactivity, and it never presents any substantial obstacle to his forward movement. He bounds from one episode to the next, and where his incredible natural talents fall short, a handy ally is always present to provide whatever he needs. It is an extravagent display of wish-fulfilment fantasy. John Carter is built up to the extent that the story should crumble under the weight of incredulity, but by the time any given wish is fulfilled, the story has moved on to the next episode. Each individual challenge starts to feel small, because of the sheer number of them, and because only a few talents are called on more than a couple of times we are not fatigued by them.
His accomplishments are often depicted in two steps – the first establishing the broad outline of a skill, the second its perfection. For example, when he arrives he sees that the Tharks treat their animals poorly. He instead is kind to his mounts, and notes that they performed better as a result. A few adventures later he re-uses this broad skill in its perfect form to break the conditioning of the animal set to watch him, and he describes how it was fanatically loyal to him afterwards. After the first episode, the second now seems logical, when in fact both are preposterous in the way described.
This kind of super-abundance of what we could think of as realistic essential qualities is a key strategy of most pulp authors. Where Edgar Rice Burroughs gains points on other pulp writers is in the sheer scale of invention, and his ability to slightly deflect the successes of his protagonist. John Carter usually succeeds… with a catch. The scale of all his successes is provisional, allowing a sense of risk without jeopardy.
If we slow down our reading to notice the construction of the work, it’s hard not to find it offensive to any kind of modern sensitivity viz. race and gender. All of the most extreme tropes of the White Man’s superiority are present so that it’s hardly pracstical to list them in a short piece.
To an extent, the novel shields itself from these implications in a couple of clever ways. Firstly, it is presented as the account by a Civil War veteran, who consciously draws attention to the limits of his perceptions a few times. He muses from time to time that other men of his own time might understand the situation differently, or react differently. By consciously siting himself in a particular, and by the novel’s publication outmoded, cultural context, he avoids the worst of the Jingoism that is an explicit part of, say, Rider Haggard. Secondly, although not entirely separately, while John Carter the narrator does make judgments about the natives, by-and-large he is not so much critical as bewildered. He cannot entirely escape taking a moral perspective on the aliens, but does try and praise them where possible. So, for example, he discusses how the Green-skinned inhabitants of Mars are very war-like, but then comments that they have perfected the art of their reproduction as a society to exactly replace the sustained losses, leading to a stable rather than decimating state of war. Lastly, while John Carter may hold a moral view on the aliens, he is nevertheless completely capable himself of cold-blooded murder, and of instituting the slaughter of people who oppose him. I don’t think you can read the novel without recognising how compromised and contingent John Carters morals are, which makes his occasional moral judgments lack weight.
I think that this novel is a lot smarter than most of the other pulps I’ve read from the c.1920s. It seems like Edgar Rice Burroughs wants to write a kind of brutally straightforward over-the-top epic, but is aware of the problems inherent in that kind of genre writing. I think he makes at least credible attempts to side-step quite a few problems that are common in the genre, rather than simply blithely pressing ahead as many of his contemporaries did. Not a book that will appeal to all, but better than most in its class.