A Princess of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs
A Princess of Mars Cover

A Princess of Mars -- Early Space Opera

Tar Daddoo

What is the Science Fiction Premise?

A Princess of Mars is certainly the earliest work of Space Opera that I have encountered. First published in 1912 -- over 100 years ago! -- it predates the term Space Opera, but it has the usual elements of an adventure story, placed off the earth, with references to futuristic sciences and technologies, and alien creatures that are surprisingly human. Indeed, there are so many futuristic ideas thrown around that it is difficult to decide which ones are key.

Some of the scientific ideas in A Princess of Mars are a product of its time. For example, the portrayal of Mars as a dying planet derives from the speculations of Percival Lowell, an American astronomer who wrote about Mars and its possible civilization following the discovery of the "canals" by Giovanni Schiaparelliin 1877. Also, the frequent mention of Radium as a power source probably seemed like enlightened speculation following the discovery of radium by Pierre and Marie Curiein 1898. Edgar Rice Burroughs does not justify or explain these ideas, but in 1912 they might not have needed much discussion.

Some other ideas are quite fanciful and make the story more fantasy than Science Fiction. The hero, John Carter, is transported from the Earth to Mars by some form of astral projection leaving a dead version of his body behind on Earth while the living version arrives and continues on Mars. No explanation is offered for this phenomenon. Similarly, the author introduces telepathy as a basic Martian capability without justification or explanation. Also, we learn that the Red Martians have some means of watching humans on Earth and other beings on other planets, but we are not offered an explanation of how this is possible.

Of the many ideas there are three that the author treats like Science Fiction premises, namely:

I will focus on these premises.

Is the science of the premise explored?

John Carter can jump very high and far on Mars. His punch can fell a Green Martian who might be twice his size. These capabilities are explained by being born, raised, even evolved on Earth, which is heavier than Mars. Presumably, the heavier planet leads to firmer bones and stronger muscles than those developed by Martians. What seems normal on Earth becomes super-human on Mars with its low gravity and less muscular inhabitants.

The Green Martians have developed an approach to child care and rearing that does not involve parents. The Green Martian eggs are offered to the elders who eventually decide which ones will be placed in incubators for the five years of gestation. When the youngsters hatch, they are allotted at random to females who will teach them the language and the basics of fighting, so that they may take their place among the adults. John Carter speculates that this lack of a parent-child relationship has led to the Green Martians inability to show compassion for others, even other Green Martians. They find violence inflicted on others humorous and are not inclined to help anyone in need.

The Red Martians have airplanes, but they do not fly by the same principles as our airplanes. Wilbur and Orville Wright's first flight was in 1903 and there was much innovation taking place in the subsequent decade. Undoubtedly, Edgar Rice Burroughs wanted to tap into the excitement surrounding these inventions, but wanted larger aircraft that seemed more futuristic. Accordingly, his Red Martians have discovered more than the usual number of "rays" in the light spectrum and are able to use the newly discovered rays to power their aircraft. I cannot adequately reconstruct the reasoning as it is quite fanciful. I was struck, however, by the author's use of scientific jargon and explanation as a way to make the implausible plausible, a clear sign of Science Fiction.

Is the impact of the premise on an individual explored?

Of the three premises, only the first two seem to impact anyone's life. John Carter's strength on Mars is critical to his ability to play the hero. While his personality, strength, and stamina are already suitable to being a hero on Earth, the challenges on Mars require the extra margin offered by his greater strength. Over and over, we are shown situations where John Carter must either jump or punch his way to success or freedom. There is little doubt that normal Martian strength would not have prevailed.

As for the Green Martian's lack of compassion, John Carter's theories about this are exemplified by the one Green Martian who shows him and others any compassion. This female, called Sola, was raised by her mother. Her life is difficult, since she does not fit in with her tribe, but she becomes a close ally and friend of John Carter.

Finally, while the aircraft are important to moving the story along, they are not essential. No one's life is importantly affected by the presence of the aircraft or the science behind them. The story would not be harmed if the rapid transportation were terrestrial or if the airplanes had used more familiar aerodynamic principles.

Is the impact of the premise on society explored?

A Princess of Mars portrays a complex Martian society consisting of multiple sentient species (mostly Green and Red Martians) broken into their own political factions. The introduction of John Carter and his single-minded love for a Red Martian princess completely upends this whole society. That said, provided that John Carter remains a superior individual, the various factions might just have easily been tribes or nations on Earth with little change to the logic of the conflicts or the reasons for John Carter's success.

This is typical Space Opera, an earth-bound adventure story projected off-planet and/or into the future with the settings and characters re-mapped into the new context. One aspect of A Princess of Mars distinguishes it as a bit more than Space Opera, namely the manner in which the virtues of compassion are slowly insinuated into the Tharks, a Green Martian tribe. A simple story illustrates the point.

The Tharks ride a particularly ornery beast that they manage largely through intimidation. Unfortunately, they are often harmed or trampled in battles or other situations in which the mounts are frightened. John Carter elects to train his mounts with kindness and the "carrot" rather than the "stick". His vastly improved results with managing the beasts are noted and even adopted, once he teaches the Green Martians what to do. They do not yet understand the principle, but they are practical.

The manner in which John Carter gains the respect of the Tharks and helps them see new ways of doing things is not profound, but it is like a scientific theory playing itself out.

How well written is the story?

The story is not too long and relatively easy to read. The language is somewhat formal, which sometimes seems charming, but is more often just difficult.

The book is John Carter's written account of his adventures on Mars, so it is entirely from his perspective. Unfortunately, this results in long passages in which John Carter thinks or speculates rather than encounters action or interacts with others. It is not excessive, but it can slow things down at times.

Can I recommend the book?

I did not expect to like A Princess of Mars. but was pleasantly surprised. I expected Space Opera, but the adventure was fun nevertheless. I expected it to be more Fantasy than Science Fiction, but it is full of scientific thoughts, speculation, and paraphernalia. I expected it to be dated -- which it was -- but I found the glance into 100 year old beliefs intriguing.

If this book had been published recently, I doubt I could recommend it. The writing is too stiff, the science is too wrong, and the adventure lacks nuance. As an example of 1912 Space Opera and speculative fiction, I feel somewhat different. The story is enjoyable and it was fun to see what might have seemed vaguely plausible in 1912. Perhaps it is not for everyone, but if you are a student of Science Fiction, you will want to read A Princess of Mars.

Tar Daddoo