Edgar Rice Burroughs is remarkable, not just for the breadth of his imagination or the impact he had on the world of science fiction and fantasy, but because along with being a fantastic author, he was also a businessman. In some quarters a mixture of business and art is frowned upon. In fact there’s a name for it: exploitation. And it’s usually derided as something to be automatically regarded less seriously than pure art, which, in the imaginations of critics at least, has no obligation to commerce. But whatever.
At thirty-seven Burroughs had been through several unsuccessful businesses. After reading some stories in a pulp magazine, he figured he could do better. Thus he began his most successful business venture: being a writer. He had success right out of the gate with A Princess of Mars, the first of many stories he would publish featuring the character John Carter and his adventures on Mars aka Barsoom. The story was accepted to be published as a serial in All-Story magazine, but later went on to be published as an expanded stand-alone edition.
As the first book in a multi-volume series, A Princess of Mars does a great job of introducing us to John Carter and telling us exactly how he came to be on the red planet of Barsoom.
The first thing you read when you open the book is a note by Burroughs himself, talking about Carter as though he were a real person, a distant relative in fact. He presents the story itself as a diary he found among Carter’s possessions after his death. This lends the whole book an air of authenticity I don’t think it would have otherwise had.
The majority of the book is a first-person narrative belonging to John Carter. Without mincing words, Carter is a bit of a show-off. He talks a lot about what a badass he is. About how brave he is. About how he can kill martians with a single punch and doesn’t hesitate even for a moment to do it. In fact, Carter is painted as such an uber-hero that you never really feel like he’s in much danger.
It’s a real tribute to Burroughs’ skill as storyteller then, that despite Carter’s penchant for bragging and violence, you still end up getting sucked into his story. Even if the story is a bit all over the place. A Princess of Mars is a standard rescue the princess tale, but it’s laid-out less like saturday afternoon matinee fare, and more like a travelogue. And Carter seems to meet new characters and arrive at new destinations without rhyme or reason or consideration of pacing.
Along his journey he meets a wild cast of characters and races including Tars-Tarkas, a brutal warrior among the green martians known as the Tharks. The scenes between Carter and Tarkas are too short, but in many ways prove to be the most affecting in the book as they show the ways in which shared philosophies can bridge cultural chasms, no matter how wide.
In the end, A Princess of Mars is a weird and brutal entry into the early pulp cannon and an essential read for anyone who ants a grasp of science fiction in the early twentieth century.