Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Princess of Mars

A Princess of Mars
by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Serialized in 1912
Published in novel form in 1917

In his Coursera class Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, Professor Eric Rabkin has assigned us one of the all-time famous examples of pulp science fiction.

Rather than give a traditional plot summary of Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1917 kickoff to the John Carter of Mars series, A Princess of Mars, I thought I would just link to the trailer for the 2012 movie John Carter:

The movie may have gone down in history as one of the great money-losers of all time, but it was based on classic old-timey-science-fiction material:

That's what the book is like. Just like that. It doesn't matter that I hear the movie mixes in elements of later books in the series. The book is just like that trailer.

Except in Edgar Rice Burroughs' original world, the humans (apart from John Carter) have red skin. Also, everyone's totally naked apart from armor and decorations. Burroughs makes that quite clear in the book.

The original A Princess of Mars occupies an interesting place in pop culture history. It was a boy's adventure story written when the modern genres of science fiction and fantasy hadn't really come into being in their modern forms yet. Oh, they both existed embryonically -- H. G. Wells wrote examples of the former, L. Frank Baum's Oz books are an example of the latter -- but the genres weren't fully established.

A Princess of Mars manages to straddle early forms of both genres, not that it would have meant much in 1912. John Carter transports himself to Mars via pure fantasy. He manages to teleport his spirit there, leaving his physical body behind on Earth, but once he's on Mars he's somehow there in both body and spirit. But Burroughs is thinking about things like a modern science fiction writer, too. John Carter is only faster and stronger than any of the locals because he's used to a much higher gravity, and the early scenes of Carter bumbling about in a low-gravity environment are pretty indistinguishable from how a science fiction writer would write them today. And Mars has a breathable atmosphere only because of sophisticated geoengineering by the Martians.

About those Martians. You see from the trailer I linked to that there are both human-looking Martians and the big green guys with tusks and four arms? They're both natives of Mars, or as they call it, Barsoom. They both hatch from eggs. The humans -- Red Men -- live in cities and have advanced technology, although they're still Swashbuckling Fantasy World Humans rather than proper Europeans of the year 1912. The aliens -- Green Men, who look in that trailer pretty much like they're described in the book -- are noble savages. They have a violent, barbaric culture and aren't used to the idea of living in cities. But they're not a single undifferentiated mass. There are good Green Men and evil Green Men.

And then there's John Carter, who despite being an alien manages to rise improbably high in Barsoomian society, because he can jump really high and punch really hard and he has the grit that comes of being a strapping young Anglo-Saxon.

This is a really old trope. TV Tropes calls it Mighty Whitey. It's also been referred to as 'What These People Need Is a Honky'. Even nowadays, remnants of this trope keep popping up in science fiction and fantasy. Avatar is the most infamous example, but also see Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Jean-Luc Picard keeps injecting himself into Klingon politics at the highest levels. (Imagine the reverse situation, if there was a Klingon captain who regularly smoothed out domestic policy disputes for the President of the Federation. That would be strange.) Or Babylon 5, where the greatest leader in the history of the Minbari people was Valen, an Earthman who came to them a thousand years ago and radically reorganized their society.

That said, John Carter is still only the second most blatant Mighty Whitey that Edgar Rice Burroughs created.

No comments: