I’ve been launching a major new fantasy RPG over the last month, so please forgive the lack of posts of late. I shall endeavor to get back into the swing of things presently. Having said that, it is perhaps appropriate that this post goes back to the very beginning of one of Paperback Flash’s favorite sub-genres: Sword & Planet.
Like many fantasy sub-genres (see “science fantasy,” “heroic fantasy,” & etc.), “sword & planet” has suffered from numerous naming conventions over the years. Although volumes like Percy Gregg’s dreary and pedantic Across the Zodiac (1880) and Edwin Lester Arnold’s Lieutenant Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905) introduced some of the broad themes that would go on to define the sub-genre, the defining seminal work that crystallized everything into its Platonic form was undoubtedly A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Originally published as a 1912 All-Story serial entitled Under the Moons of Mars, the tale featured the Martain adventures of a Confederate Civil War veteran named John Carter mysteriously transported to a Mars peopled by decadent societies of honor-bound swordsmen, roving tribes of four-armed green-skinned noble savages, armadas of airships and a veritable parade (in later volumes) of incomparable princesses in constant need of rescue from the machinations of nefarious evil-doers. It’s fast-paced, exciting stuff painted vividly with a keen eye for cultural detail and a deft hand at crafting compelling action scenes.
It’s no surprise that A Princess of Mars is one of the most influential science fiction tales in the history of American Literature. With little concrete science to speak of and swordplay and barbarism running as major themes in almost every chapter, A Princess of Mars and its sequels were precursors of the sword & sorcery movement that would emerge from the pulp work of writers like C. L. Moore, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard. Howard himself joined the teeming ranks of Burroughs pastichers with his own Almuric (1939), which views ERB’s archetypal story through a characteristically brutal lens.
By the time Howard got to the trough it had been fairly well picked over by other writers working in the Burroughs “tradition,” folks like Ralph Milne Farley, Ray Cummings, and Otis Adelbert Kline. These authors used many of Burroughs’s conceits to chart adventures of their own (usually on other planets such as Venus and Mercury) featuring swordplay and revolution on distant worlds. But, really, it all comes back to the pattern established in the outset of A Princess of Mars.
Roughly stated, the pattern is this:
1 ) Hero with swordfighting skill is mysteriously transported from Earth to Mars.
2 ) Hero is surprised at his ability to leap great distances and his relative strength thanks to the lower gravity of his new planet.
3 ) Hero encounters a dangerous monster.
4 ) Hero encounters a seemingly evil outsider culture, but then becomes adopted by that culture for his prowess at arms.
5 ) Hero meets incomparably beautiful princess. He falls instantly in love.
6 ) Princess gets kidnapped.
7 ) Hero rescues princess.
8 ) On the eve of Hero and Princess’ wedding, the Hero is mysteriously whisked back to Earth, where he shakes his fist at the sky and swears to get back to Mars.
9 ) The end.
Perhaps it’s the raw simplicity of the plot that struck a nerve that would create an entire genre out of rewriting this one book, but I think Burroughs himself deserves a lot of credit for crafting a very exciting narrative while slowly revealing intriguing cultural details about worlds we can see through our telescopes, and even sometimes with the naked eye. There’s a certain caché when you set a tale on Mars, as opposed to some random planet whose name you pulled out of your ass. Almuric or Kaldar, World of Antares or Scorpio might be good names, but they can’t compete with the mythic power of Mars. A dying planet with a dying culture. A place of dead seabeds and crumbling canals. As we look up in the night sky or view the planet itself from robotic rovers, there’s a romanticism to Mars that pure fantasy can’t touch.
Despite its freshness and inventive power, A Princess of Mars shows signs of both its antiquity and the fact that it was Edgar Rice Burroughs’s very first fiction effort. Told in first-person narrative, John Carter can’t stop telling you about how he is physically incapable of feeling fear, and often jumps into danger without even realizing how brave he is being. He just doesn’t know any better. After a while it starts to get old, and I’m pleased to report that Carter’s onanism trails off as the series continues.
The other main problem: Coincidence. Or, rather, Edgar Rice Burrough’s near-addiction to it. Carter criss-crosses paths with his love, Dejah Thoris time and time again in a way that stretches credulity. In one epic scene, Carter is piloting a flier in an exciting climactic battle. He gets shot up, and the flier goes wildly off course, flying at random away from the battle to crash several miles away…. right at the feet of Carter’s old buddy Tars Tarkas, who has arrived just in time to turn the tide!
If you sit and wonder how all of the random events that led to Carter crashing also conspired to get Tars Tarkas there at the dramatically appropriate moment, you’re going to end up letting the little flaws in A Princess of Mars ruin what’s really an outstanding novel. The appropriate response to the random crash scene is to go with the flow. You’ll most likely skip right past the coincidence to exclaim “Hooray! Tars Tarkas is back!”
Because Tars Tarkas is an awesome character, and the book is a hell of a lot of fun when you let it carry you along.
The good news is that the series gets even better (perhaps even much better) in the sequel, The Gods of Mars, in which John Carter mysteriously returns to Mars (randomly within spitting distance of Tars Tarkas, naturally). The bad news is that the entertaining pattern established here will be repeated again and again and again in the century of science fiction to come, and is still being copied to this day.
No other genre I know of is composed of as slavish regurgitation of the plot points of a single story as the sword & planet genre is composed of the parts of A Princess of Mars. It is one of the most important science fiction stories of the 20th century, and a necessary addition to any science fiction and fantasy library.
Plus, it’s damn fun.