Edgar Rice Burroughs‘s Barsoom series, beginning with A Princess of Mars, is a seminal work of early 20th century pulp science fiction. Like many works which spawned their own genres, it has been eclipsed by the works which followed it and were influenced by it, in particular those of the Golden Age of Science Fiction.
It isn’t widely read these days, and for good reason: it isn’t very good. Even its fans tend to admit that the first three books are the best, and the rest rapidly drop off in quality. But I decided to read them all anyway, in succession, to get a feel for the series as a whole.
So, what’s it like? Well, it’s very silly. It isn’t science fiction in the sense that would be recognised today: it’s more a series of swashbuckling adventures that happen to be set on Mars. But if you approach it with the right expectations, it’s quite fun.
The plots are formulaic. Pretty much every book can be summed up as follows: First, there’s a hero. It’s usually John Carter, a Confederate officer transported mysteriously from Earth, but sometimes it’s not. However, the lack of characterisation makes all the heroes fairly indistinguishable from each other. Then there’s a love interest. If Carter’s the hero then it’s Dejah Thoris, the titular Martian Princess of the noble “red race”. This damsel is kidnapped early on, and her rescue drives the plot. The antagonists will always be another Martian civilisation, apparently unknown to the red Martians despite having lived together on the same small planet for countless millennia. The antagonist race will all be evil, and led by a particularly cruel and tyrannical ruler. Yet there will usually be one good, noble example of the evil race, who helps the hero in his quest and who also, by the end, becomes the new ruler of his race, thus neutralising them as a threat.
I can see why people prefer the first three books, but I disagree that they’re necessarily the best. 1-3 form a (sort of) single sustained narrative involving Carter and Thoris. Books 4-7 are unconnected and feature other protagonists, while replicating the same formulaic plot (Carter starts appearing as the hero again from 8 onwards). So it’s natural that some readers would regard the series as taking a dive from 4 onwards, since it’s both derivative and lacking the iconic protagonist.
However, there’s another way of looking at it. If you accept the fact that the plot will always follow the basic formula outlined above, then we can ask how good each book is at crafting a variation on that theme. (And since the heroes are essentially interchangeable, I don’t really see the presence or otherwise of Carter himself as an important factor.)
So, here’s a quick summary of each book and where I think it ranks in quality:
1. A Princess of Mars
Plot: John Carter is transported to Mars and fights green and red Martians to rescue the kidnapped red princess Dejah Thoris.
Assessment: A simple but fun story. The writing is a bit stilted but doesn’t detract too much from the enjoyment.
Rating: 3 swords out of 5
2. Gods of Mars
Plot: John Carter is transported back to Mars and fights white and black Martians to rescue Dejah Thoris from another kidnapping.
Assessment: Another simple but fun story in much the same vein as the previous.
Rating: 3 swords
3. Warlord of Mars
Plot: John Carter takes the fight to the yellow Martians in his ongoing quest to rescue Dejah Thoris.
Assessment: A continuation of the previous story. It feels a bit like Burroughs is just rehashing it with yet another different coloured race.
Rating: 3 swords
4. Thuvia, Maid of Mars
Plot: Carter’s son Carthoris fights to rescue Thuvia from another race, the Lotharians, who can create telepathic illusions.
Assessment: A weak plot with particularly silly antagonists.
Rating: 2 swords
5. The Chessmen of Mars
Plot: The hero Gahan of Gathol fights to rescue Carter’s daughter, Tara of Helium, from Manator (an evil red Martian state) and the Kaldanes (a race of symbiotic head-creatures who mount and control headless body-creatures).
Assessment: On the one hand, Burroughs’ ideas and plotting are more ambitious in this book than in the previous ones. We follow multiple characters acting independently and affecting each other, rather than just one hero hacking his way forward through the plot. The Kaldanes and the “Martian chess” game jetan are the most interesting concepts in the series so far. And the scene where Ghek, the good Kaldane, confounds his captors with his antics in the dungeon is genuinely funny: probably the most entertaining passage of the entire series. On the other hand, Burroughs prose style is becoming off-putting. He writes the prelude/framing story perfectly naturally, but spoils the main body in a misguided attempt to give it an archaic/epic feel, for example by constantly inverting sentence structure (“up the stairs he leapt” instead of “he leapt up the stairs”).
Rating: 3 swords
6. Master Mind of Mars
Plot: Another earthman, Ulysses Paxton, is transported to Mars and fights red Martians and the evil scientist Ras Thavas, to rescue the damsel Valla Dia.
Assessment: The main plot device, brain-body transplants, is rather trite, and the plot proceeds with implausible smoothness, the characters entering and exiting enemy territory and doing exactly what they need to with little interference, multiple times. The prose style has improved, with the faux-epic grammar of the previous book gone.
Rating: 2 swords
7. A Fighting Man of Mars
Plot: The hero Hadron of Hastor fights to rescue damsel Sanoma Tora from the Jaharians, an obscure red Martian nation with advanced technology.
Assessment: The advanced technologies which drive the plot (invisibility paint and disintegration rays) are pure cliché and don’t bear any logical scrutiny. But Burroughs makes good use of them, and the action sequences involving Hadron’s invisible ship and cloak are thrilling. Hadron and Sanoma Tora are as poorly characterised as previous heroes/heroines, and Burroughs’s attempt at a twist (Hadron falling for another woman without realising it) is so heavy-handed as to be tedious. However, the prose style is much better.
Rating: 3 1/2 swords
8. Swords of Mars
Plot: John Carter takes on the Guild of Assassins in Zodanga, who – surprise, surprise – kidnap Dejah Thoris, necessitating another rescue.
Assessment: The plot is one of the stronger ones of the series, as it includes a bit of subterfuge and espionage. However, nonsense physics is taken to a new level with the premise that people and objects automatically shrink on approach to a smaller planet. As far as writing style is concerned, Burroughs is perfectly proficient by now.
Rating: 4 swords
9. Synthetic Men of Mars
Plot: Vor Daj, his brain transplanted into a hideous, vat-grown body, fights to rescure Janai from the mutant hordes of Morbus. There’s also a framing plot in which John Carter is trying to find the master surgeon Ras Thavas (from Master Mind) to save Dejah Thoris.
Assessment: The plot is typically silly. The ominous threat of the out-of-control growth vat, swamping more and more of the city, is a highlight. On the other hand, Vor Daj’s pointless secrecy with Janai about his own identity is tedious. Burroughs just isn’t good at writing complex personal motivations.
Rating: 3 swords
10. Llana of Gathol
Plot: John Carter proceeds through four episodic adventures to rescue his granddaughter, Llana of Gathol.
Assessment: Due to its origins as a fix-up (a novel cobbled together from previously-published short stories), each adventure is short and shallow even by Barsoom standards. You’ve hardly been introduced to each antagonist before he’s dead and Carter has escaped again. However, the final duel with Motus is notable for being the first properly written sword fight in the whole series (which is astonishing, given that sword-fighting is meant to be one of its defining features).
Rating: 2 swords
11. John Carter of Mars
Plot: A collection of two short stories: John Carter and the Giant of Mars by Burroughs’s son, John Coleman Burroughs, and Skeleton Men of Jupiter, an unfinished story by Burroughs Senior. The plot details barely matter.
Assessment: Giant of Mars is a jarring contrast. No-one claims Burroughs was a great writer, but this is a weak imitation which makes the previous books look sophisticated in comparison. Also, Burroughs Junior seems unfamiliar with the Barsoomian setting. To take just one example, he writes about characters using “planes”. That word was never used by Burroughs: they are always “fliers”. The second story is written as a Barsoomian story should be, and it’s a relief to return to the real thing, but the narrative is unfinished. If you’ve read the first ten, you might as well read this one too, but it’s for academic interest only.
Rating: 1 sword