The importance of Edgar Rice Burroughs to Western popular culture cannot be overstated, however much of a mediocre hack you may think he is. To be the creator of Tarzan alone (one of a tiny handful of characters, alongside Mickey Mouse, Superman, and Sherlock Holmes, considered universally known) is enough to cement his stature. That he lacked anything like great range as a storyteller is of secondary consideration in the light of history. The influence he's had on subsequent generations of writers a full century after his own career began is something any writer would be privileged to claim.
Burroughs' first creation, however, was not Tarzan, but the almost-as-legendary John Carter, Warlord of Mars. To whatever degree readers may think a book like A Princess of Mars holds up, Burroughs' work undeniably managed to convey a guileless sense of wonder about a particular brand of escapist action-adventure, echoes of which can be felt in such contemporary creations as Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider. His writing is swathed in the verbose and sometimes stilted literary affectations of its day, bearing the marks of Kipling and other influences. But at its best moments, something of its throwback appeal always seems to break through the reader's hipness defenses and you find yourself basking without shame in the sheer unfettered romanticism of it all.
Who still doesn't know the basic plot? Oh, all right, there's one guy in the back who somehow managed to miss making these books part of his junior high school leisure time. So John Carter is a Confederate veteran out prospecting for gold in Arizona with an old war buddy, when they run afoul of some Apaches. Pardner's killed, and Carter is chased to a remote cave which the injuns are too skeered to enter. And with good reason. Some mysterious force, that remains entirely unexplained, paralyzes Carter and transports him to Mars, a world its natives call Barsoom. He first encounters the warlike and tribal Tharks, four-armed, green-skinned, fifteen feet tall and with tusks. If Carter had a terrier present, he'd be able to tell it something about not being in Arizona anymore.
The premise of a hero from our world swept away to another was already well established in mythic traditions and popular imaginative fiction (like Baum's Oz, of course) in Burroughs' day. It is one that practically defines the mission of escapist entertainment in full: tired of the humdrum of everyday life? There's a whole other realm where you can swing a sword, save the day and get the girl! Burroughs' particular variant of this would go on to influence — or just plain be ripped off by — numerous later writers, informing such series as Philip José Farmer's World of Tiers and John Norman's abominable Gor. Kenneth Bulmer, writing under one of his vast array of pseudonyms as Alan Burt Akers, even jacked Burrough's framing story, in which the author himself appears as a character (Burroughs makes Carter his uncle) and explains that he is transcribing accounts left to him by the story's long-vanished protagonist. More contemporary writers like Chris Roberson (Paragaea) have revisited the old-school charm of the "planetary romance" as envisioned by these books.
Forging a place for himself among the Tharks — proving his mettle in one-on-one combat, making a friend of conflicted warlord Tars Tarkas and earning the enmity of the scheming Sarkoja — Carter falls for the captive princess Dejah Thoris, who has one of the most beautiful names of any character in all of SF or fantasy. Dejah belongs to the race of "red men," far more human in appearance than the Tharks, though they also lay eggs, making me wonder exactly how a Barsoomian ob/gyn goes about his work. She is meant to be handed over to the "degenerate" Tharkian leader Tal Hajus. But with the aid of the uncharacteristically kind-hearted servant Sola, Carter and Dejah effect an escape, which only propels them further into peril, separations, recapture, and reconciliation before he can return her safely to her kingdom, Helium, and help in the culmination of their war with rival kingdom Zodanga.
I was probably in the seventh grade when I first read these books, and so it was very much like coming at them for the first time after the intervening thirty-mumble years. Some interesting themes stood out. As in so much escapist fiction, everyone enjoys great longevity. But on Barsoom, greatly extended lifespans have a tradeoff. The planet is in decline, its natural resources waning. And life is only possible through the functioning of an "atmosphere factory," without which everyone and everything would die in days. This implies pretty clearly that none of Barsoom's life is indigenous.
Are the Tharks a racist caricature? By modern standards, that Barsoomian civilization is sharply divided along racial (or species) lines is impossible to ignore, with the constant references to skin color. And the way that the naturally brutal and uncompassionate nature of the Tharks is only able to be tempered by exposure to Carter's southern gentility does recapitulate noble savage archetypes that no writer in the 21st century would remotely entertain. Then again, the "red men" (whom I suppose you could consider analogous to "white men") don't seem to be much better in the altruism and humanitarianism categories. And when the Tharkian servant Sola tells of the forbidden love between her parents in a culture that stigmatizes such feelings as weakness, it comes across as the one passage in the book that's truly moving, regardless of how familiar the narrative will sound to readers today. The upshot is that I saw nothing as appallingly racist as you'll find in, say, some of Lovecraft's less-admired tales, or in C.S. Lewis's portrayal of the Calormenes in The Last Battle. I can accept that other critics may see things differently.
I'll be honest. I was expecting to dislike this, given its vintage and that my memories of it are tinted with the rosiness of my youth. I found I was more than happy to let myself take it on its own terms and give myself over to the simple demands of its storytelling goals. Whatever we read for pleasure, in the end, we all just want an enjoyable yarn. And if a century-old tale whose tropes I've seen a thousand times can still bring me as much, if not more, entertainment than many of today's heavily hyped, self-proclaimed epics, I guess it only means that some things never change after all, and within us all still lies that kid who dreamed of a world where he could be the conquering hero, or where she could be the beautiful princess, for whose love the hero would lay down his kingdom and his life.
Followed by The Gods of Mars.