The definition of science-fiction, and pretty much any genre, is purely subjective. Boundaries blur and as said by Kazuo Ishiguro, are all but marketing artifice in any case. So why I am exploring what is and isn’t science fiction throughout the history of the genre? Well, because it means something to me. It awakens my consciousness to certain aspects of reality and it sparks my imagination in different ways than say horror or fantasy. Science fiction is about what it means to be a human being living in a particular instance in time. It is something tangible.
Norman Bean published a serial story from February 1912 through to July that same year. Called Under the Moons of Mars it was printed in The All-Story. It was later revealed to be A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs when it was finally published in book form in 1917. My copy is the 2003 Modern Library Edition. It includes 4 – which I think is a very disappointingly small number – of terrific illustrations of John Carter by Frank E Schoonover. All introductory passages and notes, as is routine, were ignored.
Who is John Carter? He describes himself as a Gentleman from Virginia. He is no gentleman by my understanding of the word, but then, this was written in 1911 when the world was ever in conflict. It is set just after the American Civil War – Carter is a Confederate veteran. When prospecting in Arizona he strikes gold but immediately runs into trouble in the form of Apaches. Hiding in a ‘sacred cave’ he witnesses his prone body (some form of out of body experience) before being mysteriously transported to Mars.
Once on Mars a series of adventures ensues as Carter meets the various races of Martian, learns the language and culture, beats on everyone he meets to get his way, and falls in love. Even when the inevitable barrier to true happiness is raised by Burroughs, it is only by death and violence can Carter win the maiden’s hand. Indeed, the thing that stuck me above all else when reading this is the violence! Carter finds that he has great strength and superhuman agility on Mars, or Barsoom as the natives call it. He meets the green Tharks – a nomadic warrior tribe. He essentially fights his way to respect and friendship of the chief (Tars Tarkas). The Princess of another land, Helium, is captured by the tribe but Carter falls for her. She is a red Martian. As he rescues her he becomes involved in the politics between the two races, but things are never easy, which is good for a story. The solutions to Carter’s issues, punching and killing, however are very one-dimensional. You never relate because you know whatever happens: he will fight his way to victory.
There are a few interesting characters with motivating asides to the main tale. Sola and Kantos Kan prove that Burroughs can write, has imagination and knows how to tell an interesting story about people. Shame he finds violence so fascinating. For me, at least. Sola, who has a little of her own agency (unlike the titular princess) is the reader’s way into the history of Mars, which is a nice touch, as she has depth. The world building is a little perfunctory, but nothing like the utopian visions of More, Swift, Wells and others. Any exposition felt like it was part of the plot, if a little heavy handed. No political rants here.
Is the book about Native Americans? Some signs are there. Nomads and city dwellers of different colour, while the brutal, mindless apes are white. Is there some satire buried beneath the adventurous romp? Interesting, it is the red Martians that are more civilised, and Carter needs to red-up to survive a particular encounter.
Everything that occurs to Carter on Mars can be transported to a fantasy realm. Simply remove all mention of Mars and Martians and keep Barsoom. Change the few references to the Martian moons, and Lowell’s so-called canals, and A Princess of Mars is a fantasy novel, swords and sandals no less, riding on the back of previous science fiction books concerned with Mars (War of the Worlds for example). There is no science in Carter’s travel to Mars. In fact, the framing device of the magical cave removes any hope that this is science fiction. Is the adventure not but a dream in any case? The science on Mars is dubious at best. How did these indigenous creatures evolve in such as stark environment? How did the white apes find enough food? How can they all live in an atmosphere created by a single factory that can fail and kill all on the planet in a few short days? Carter learns telepathy within a short time of arrival. Shocking. The Martians also know about earthlings (including their tradition for wearing clothes) but it is not explained how.
The imagination is present and correct, and as opposed to previous efforts of science fiction, this is a proper story with character development (some) and narrative progression (albeit pulp). I wish this had been science fiction as it would have worked so much more. However, I felt a disconnect with it – probably because of all the violence. When released, A Princess of Mars was known as a planetary romance, which is as good a description as any. Only in more recent times has it been classed as science fiction. Sorry Burroughs, but this a mildly entertaining pulp fantasy story.