Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Tales From the Discount Bin: A Princess of Mars

I am now up to the 'S' section of my music library, which means I'll soon be done, and will be able to once again devote my time to blogging and writing in general.

Reading up on Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the most recent book in my 'bargain bin' project, I couldn't help but feel a sort of kinship for the man. Born in 1875, Burroughs tried to enroll in West Point but wasn't accepted, enlisted in the army but received a medical discharge before too long. After that he took a few odd jobs, ending up at his father's firm in 1899, marrying in 1900, and quitting his job in 1904. He took a few odd, low-paying jobs, wandered the country, did some ranch work, and in 1911, as a pencil sharpener salesman(a job which I find it hard to imagine ANYONE doing) found himself with a lot of free time. It was during this free time that he began reading pulp magazines and novels, of which he later said:

"...if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines that I could write stories just as rotten. As a matter of fact, although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines."

And so, at the ripe old age of 36, with no prior experience whatsoever, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the serialized story that would eventually become A Princess of Mars, the first book in his still-popular and influential series of books dealing with Mars. From there it was only a short time until Tarzan came out, becoming one of the most recognizable(and profitable) characters of the last century.

I don't mean to imply I'm a wildly talented and influential author, or even that I one day aspire to be, but I still find this man's life story inspiring and especially relatable to my life. It's been said, and I always assumed, that aimlessness and slacking off were traits specific to the later section of the 20th century, an affliction unseen in such abundance before Generation X. And here is proof positive that that is incorrect. Here is a man who spent his entire twenties wandering aimlessly from one short, low paying job to another, turning his back on his father's business even though he had a wife and children to provide for. A man in a job with a lot of free time, and a sudden, almost idle desire to begin writing. And he became as successful at it as anyone in his day. Moreso, in most cases. It gives me hope, as I near my thirties, with an ever-growing list of job titles behind me and no clear idea of what I want to do with my life. With a longtime girlfriend and a four year old daughter and still no driving ambition, only a desire to make a modest living doing things I enjoy and making my family life as happy as possible. It isn't too late for me to discover my purpose(for lack of a better word), and there's still plenty of time to make my way out of my 'wilderness years.'

Not having read too many(or, more truthfully, any) pulp fiction magazines from the early 1900s, I can't honestly say whether or not Burroughs succeeded in writing stories superior to the ones he had read, although I think history has proven him the victor. Certainly A Princess of Mars was enjoyable as all get-out, and to realize that this was Edgar Rice Burroughs' maiden voyage as a writer, his first attempt, is all the more impressive.

Featuring absolutely none of the techno-babble that stalls so many other sci-fi books, Burroughs instead focuses his book on one action set-piece after another. John Carter, a ridiculously virile man, a southern gentleman fresh out of the Civil War, hides in an empty cave from a tribe of hostile Indians, and is inexplicably transported to Mars, where he is 'captured' by the Tharks. Tharks are a race of green men larger than humans, with four arms and huge tusks. The Tharks are warriors by nature, almost a proto-Klingon; fierce and barbaric but with an honest and strict code of conduct. On Mars, John Carter finds he has almost super-strength(owing mainly to the low gravitational force), and when he strikes a Thark for rudeness, accidentally killing him, he finds himself made a lesser chieftain in this alien society. During his time with these Tharks, he witnesses a battle against a race more like his own in both appearance and temperament. The Tharks take one captive, a princess of this human-like race, and of course John Carter falls in love with her and they plan their escape back to her kingdom. The book is, I have to admit, a nifty piece of fantasy wish-fulfillment, both for the author(John Carter is clearly the type of man Burroughs would like himself to be) and the reader, with every obstacle overcome triumphantly, and every action as noble and self-sacrificing as could be.

Although Burroughs never gets bogged down in politics or technical minutiae(both of which murdered A Brand New World, my last purely sci-fi read), his vision of Mars is remarkably well thought out, even if we don't see everything. The society of the Tharks is believably constructed, and although it conveniently allows our hero some loopholes which allow the story to progress, it is always logical. They even have what is reputed to be the first example of a detailed alien language in sci-fi, although rudimentary and not very detailed. The weaponry and other assorted gadgetry is explained only as much as it needs to be in order for the story to make sense. There are a few questions raised that are never answered, most notably in my mind is exactly why and how John Carter was sent to Mars, although it's somewhat understandable why he came back. And what was up with that morbid tableau that greeted John when he returned to Earth in the very same cave? I'm assuming that these questions will be answered in future books, and the prospect of unfolding this mystery is especially tantalizing.

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed the hell out of this book. It was consistently fun and fast moving, although in that 'I'm getting paid by the word, lets use as many run-on sentences as possibly' way. And although the story progression isn't exactly complex, it has a sense of depths unseen that most of the books I've been reading in this project just don't have. I can't wait to read more, not just of this series but of this author.

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