So yes this is the first of the John Carter of Mars books, and yes I did read it now because of the movie coming out. But I’ll have you know that it (along with the other 10 books in the series) was amongst my first wave of downloads when I got a Kindle and started looking at Project Gutenberg in earnest.
A Princess of Mars concerns John Carter, a man from 19th century Virginia, Earth, mysteriously travelling to Mars and the adventures he has there. He meets the six-limbed green martians first of all, then later the more human-looking red martians, one of whom is the beautiful princess Dejah Thoris.
It’s worth pointing out that this book is hundred years old. So when I say that it’s an old-fashioned adventure yarn with an old-fashioned hero then I mean really old-fashioned. John Carter is an American Civil War veteran, a fighting man with a sword. He’s never anything less than brave and he always wins the day. He’s also, to a modern reader (or even a child of the 1970s/80s like me) a bit too ready to pull out his sword. I found it strange that Burroughs happily uses “man” and even “human” to describe all the different races – which in more modern fiction I’d see as a signifier of granting them equal status – and yet Carter is happy to start fights that will inevitably lead to the deaths of several of them, often because an alternate plan is simply more inconvenient.
But then maybe it’s not just martian life that’s cheap, maybe he’s just used to a more precarious and dangerous world.
His relationship with the Princess is probably what you’d expect given the time it was written. She’s not a weak character but her strength is in her emotional reserve initially and her willingness to follow him into danger later on. There’s also a strong theme of love thwarted by convention, a contrived barrier that is eventually overcome.
I also found some of the SciFi names (Barsoom, Thark, Tars Tarkas) and the descriptions of weird and wonderful martian “stuff” (the landscape, the animals, the way martian society is organised, the mating habits and life-cycle of the martians) a bit annoying. It felt to my probably jaded eyes like exotica for exotica’s sake – not essential to the plot and just there for colour. Probably unfair since in 1912 this was probably cutting edge stuff and not at all cringe-worthy.
If you’re getting the feeling I didn’t enjoy it then you’re almost right. It had its moments. I actually did become interested in whether and how Carter and the Princess would get it together (UST strikes again). But other than that…
I probably read it too late. It’s a (very) old-fashioned SciFi romp. I should have read it at 12/13 and probably would have thought a) it was great and b) I was very grown-up and sophisticated for seeing past the slightly archaic language and attitudes.
At 45 it still seems like an ok read but a bit creaky.
6/10 – dated but not completely without merit.