Monday, September 01, 2008

Let's go to Mars!

Were he still living, author Edgar Rice Burroughs would be celebrating his birthday today. Which in itself would be remarkable, as he would be 133 years old.

Burroughs is best remembered as the creator of Lord Greystoke, known more familiarly as Tarzan. Oddly enough, although I was a tremendous Burroughs fan in my youth, I was never into Tarzan all that much. In fact, I don't believe I ever read a single one of Burroughs's Tarzan novels. The whole white-nobleman-running-around-the-jungle-in-a-loincloth thing just never did much for me.

My Burroughs obsession focused on his series of epic fantasies set on a highly fictionalized Mars, which Burroughs called Barsoom. Beginning with A Princess of Mars in 1912, Burroughs wrote eleven Barsoomian novels, depicting a bizarre world populated by monstrous, often multi-limbed beasts; green-skinned, four-armed Martian warriors; and a red-hued humanoid race whose beautiful, traditionally nude females reproduce by laying eggs. (I did say bizarre, didn't I?)

Most, but not all, of the Barsoom stories feature an Earthman named John Carter, who arrives on Mars by way of astral projection, and his Martian lady love Dejah Thoris. My favorite book in the series, however, is The Chessmen of Mars, whose lead character is Carter and Dejah's daughter Tara. The plot revolves around a complicated Barsoomian version of chess known as jetan, the byzantine rules for which Burroughs appended to the end of the book.

Many of Burroughs's Barsoomian tales have fallen into public domain, and can thus be reproduced without cost or copyright infringement. If you're interested in sampling a few, you can download several of them as free e-books from Project Gutenberg, that magnificent virtual repository of public domain literature. I'll warn you in advance: Burroughs wrote in the florid prose common to genre literature in the early 20th century, so his style can be a chore to wade through until you get accustomed to it. And, to be blunt, his approach to gender and racial issues seems positively Neanderthal from an enlightened modern perspective. The imaginative stories and colorfully detailed worlds Burroughs created, however, make the Barsoom books well worth reading.

If you're unfamiliar with his work, you'll be amazed at how much of the sci-fi and fantasy fiction you know and love bears the stamp of Burroughs's influence. And, if all you know of his oeuvre is Tarzan, you'll find the adventures of John Carter and his progeny a refreshing — and, in my opinion, far more intriguing — spin on similar themes.

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2 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger Scott Roche offered these pearls of wisdom...

I love the Barsoom books. I read them in college since I let know of the players in my D&D game base a character on the red Martians. I quite enjoyed them in spite of the shortcomings that you were correct in warning folks about.

I'll be taking my own stab at the read planet pulp style next year in a podcast novel.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Scott Roche offered these pearls of wisdom...

that would be Red planet, not read planet.

10:39 AM  

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