A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Image from the interior of A Princess of Mars. Also used for the cover of the original printing.

There are some books out there that just seem to hit all those beats in a way that makes it seem more familiar to you than it should. Readers of science-fiction will find that the case with A Princess of Mars, which makes sense because it was one of the first of the genre and has been an inspiration to writers ever since. It was also one of the first stories written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who is known for his Tarzan series — which is even more prominent in the social consciousness — and would become the foundation of his Barsoom series of books. Originally published in 1912 as a serialization entitled Under the Moons of Mars, it follows the late-19th century Virginian gentleman John Carter in his adventure across the Red planet. The setting of the story is based upon Percival Lowell’s observations of Mars and so perceived features of the time figure into the story (e.g. the canals). This was furthered by the inclusion of artwork by Frank Schoonover, who is apparently well-known in his own right.

As an early science-fiction novel, the story elements seem almost more fantasy than they do science. John Carter’s appearance on Mars is sudden and only briefly described without any actual explanation — it just happens. The people are sufficiently otherworldly while still being familiar. Some of the technologies used by the native Martians rely on odd quirks of the natural world, of which I won’t spoil, to work. But I suppose that’s what really makes this science-fiction: that we see technology at work, which is replicable by anyone with the proper knowledge and dependent on machinery even though we as readers cannot fathom it; whereas magic just simply happens and is limited to certain people. Regardless, this never bothered me as a reader since the presentation is logically consistent and the story is just so damn fun.

A Princess of Mars is not a book with an overall greater message. It is not analogous to some great strife either contemporary with its publishing or now. It does not bring commentary on international politics or religion. It is, however, a story of action and adventure that ranges from Earth to Mars. It has a morality that flirts more with the heroes of Greek myth than it does with any modern conception of heroism. It does not try to hide what it is about. It does what it does, and it does it while being well written and fast-paced.

I suppose I could go on and on, but the story is actually quite short totaling under 200 pages minus the pictures. I would hate to spoil anything by continuing with a more in-depth analysis. I will just close with saying that this story is a must-read for sci-fi aficionados, but could be enjoyed by anyone seeking a pulp fiction thrill.

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