Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tales From The Discount Bin: The Gods of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs continues his slightly-less-famous-than-Tarzan series of Martian stories with Gods of Mars, furthering the outlandish interplanetary adventures of John Carter. For the most part this offered exactly what you would want in a sequel to A Princess of Mars, assuming of course that you enjoyed that book. Gods of Mars begins, as A Princess of Mars did, with a prologue in which Edgar Rice Burroughs meets up with John Carter, who has long been a friend of his family, and receives the manuscript which details John's adventures on the red planet. There's a bit of ret-conning here, where Burroughs makes reference to the fact that John Carter has never, as far as he's seen, aged. This is minor, but it is odd that this fact hasn't been mentioned before. There's a moment in the first book where Burroughs remarks that John Carter has not aged in the ten years since he had last seen him, but it's mentioned with shock, while in this book it's mentioned that Burroughs has never seen Carter age. From childhood on, apparently, John Carter has been in the periphery of Edgar Rice Burroughs' life, and has been stuck at the same age. Indeed he may be incalculably old, having little to no memory of his own youth. Perhaps this complaint only strikes me because the first book was so obviously written with sequels in mind. Even if he didn't have specific ideas about the following books, he left many obvious threads hanging and obviously wanted to revisit them. So it's a bit odd that some aspects would be so well set up, and others would seem sudden and forced.

There were plenty of questions left unanswered at the end of the first book; did John Carter save the dying planet by fixing their air pumps that feed the planet? Who actually sabotaged those air pumps? What was the deal with that weird tableau that greeted John on his return to Earth in that mysterious cave? How exactly is John being transported between worlds? We get the answer to only one of those questions(of course he saved Mars, silly!), but indications that the others may be answered in future books. John Carter mentions that he's discovered how to harness whatever power whisks him between worlds, and can actually travel to other planets if he so desired. And perhaps the fact that he doesn't age has something to do with the fact that all inhabitants of Mars live several thousand years, often only ending their life voluntarily by taking the(literal) voyage down the river Iss to the Valley Dor, which is basically Heaven. Imagine Tolkien's Gray Havens where all the elves and ring-bearers have gone.
As I remarked in my review of the first book, I'm a bit surprised at how much thought has gone into developing Edgar Rice Burroughs' version of Mars. This isn't exactly JRR Tolkien filling appendix after appendix of information detailing the lineage of every character and kingdom mentioned in his books, but it does feel a bit more fleshed out than most pulp sci-fi. That aspect of the series is furthered in Gods of Mars considerably, as Burroughs explores the religions and hierarchy of the various races on Barsoom(Mars). Upon returning to Mars, John Carter finds himself in the one place on Mars that no person is allowed to leave; the Valley Dor. The one person who returned from this place was killed as a heretic and blasphemer. Unfortunately the Valley Dor is not the paradise that the inhabitants of Mars think it is, and instead is a place of savagery and slavery. There's a religious hierarchy I won't get completely into, but pilgrims to the valley are either killed outright by horrific plant-men who drink their blood, or, if they somehow escape these monsters, put into slavery by the holy Therns.

The Therns are, they believe, the custodians of the true afterlife, and they view all the races of outer Mars as lower beasts, and it is their holy right to use them as they see fit. The Therns have their own personal heaven, the Temple of Issus, which is as closely guarded as the Valley Dor is to the rest of Mars, meaning that no living Thern has ever returned to tell the tale of what lies inside. It's a sign of the anti-religious streak in this book that this 'heaven' turns out to be false as well, as Issus is actually a member of the First Born, who do unto the Therns pretty much the same way the Therns do unto everyone else. Throughout the novel it seems that Burroughs has a particular axe to grind with religion, making allusions to Christianity and remarking at the drop of a hat what damage a blind superstition can do to an otherwise logical people. It's not altogether subtle, but it wasn't at all what I was expecting from popular genre fiction in the early 1900s.

I should make a quick mention here of the categorization of races on Mars. Burroughs, perhaps unfortunately, in hindsight, labels all of the races with colors. The Tharks are Green Martians, the Therns are White, the First Born are Black, and then there are the Red Martians. It would be easy to cry 'racism' at this practice, especially considering the First Born('Blacks', as they are called several times) are bloodthirsty villains, by far the worst the series has yet introduced, using all others as either brute labor or food. And yet that would be a surface complaint, and underneath I think Burroughs was hinting at something a bit more Utopian. When John Carter escapes the Valley Dor and battles his way to freedom, it is with a rainbow coalition of First Born, Thern, Thark and Red Martian, and he makes note of this specifically, remarking how the disparate races work together towards a common goal. And then you have the Red Martians, who are held up as the highest and most civilized society on Mars, both in the text and by the characters in these books. The Red Martians, it is revealed, are actually the result of breeding between all of the varied humanoid races on Mars. Quite literally Burroughs is stating that the advancement of society depends on the cooperation and co-mingling of different nationalities and cultures.

And no, I don't think I'm reading too much into these stories when I come to that conclusion. If anything it's all but bluntly stated. Burroughs is criticising religion and promoting a multicultural lifestyle, which is all very progressive for 1912 popular fiction.

I'm taking a bit of a break from Burroughs' Mars to visit another version of the planet in HG Wells' War of the Worlds. I'll be done with that in time for a post early next week. So stay tuned!

No comments: