Wednesday 5 September 2018

John Carter of Mars

Edgar Rice Burroughs' reputation often precedes the actual reading of his work. Many are familiar with Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, through its various cinematic incarnations, from Johnny Weissmuller's live-action films during Hollywood's Golden Age to Disney's animated version in the late 1990's. Fewer are as familiar with John Carter than with his impact on the genre of Science Fiction. Franchises like Star Wars and Avatar owe direct debts to Burroughs' Planetary Romance, which came back to bite Disney when they released their own failed film adaptation of the first John Carter novel in 2012. Undaunted, Disney simply bought Star Wars and Avatar. 

When one does sit down to finally read Burroughs' work, be it Tarzan of the Apes (1912) or The Land That Time Forgot (1918) or At the Earth's Core (1914) or A Princess of Mars (1912), what they find is a very breezy, readable style of pulpy adventure. Time has rendered its judgement on how enjoyable Burroughs' writing and characters are, though it is not without its flaws. 
The exploits of John Carter, much like those of Tarzan, begin with an initial trilogy that set-up a lengthy series of novels. A Princess of Mars was the first, delivering our hero to Mars, continued in The Gods of Mars and concluding with The Warlord of Mars, both published in 1913. Burroughs' Barsoom series (so-named for the invented name that Martians give their planet) continue for another ten books, picking up from the heroic John Carter and following the exploits of his son. Read in rapid succession, the Carter trilogy puts the exclamation on Edgar Rice Burroughs' attributes as a manufacturer of pure escapism devolving frequently into outright wish fulfillment.

It is de rigeur to criticize Stephanie Meyer for rendering up a platter of her "Mary Sue" fantasies for public consumption, the idealized and perfect character who is inexplicably and undeservedly good at absolutely everything, because they are truly meant to be a reflection of the reader's (and author's) own fantasy self. One does have to be impressed with the Machiavellian profitability of the Twilight saga. A series of novels about a fairly mundane teenage girl who suddenly gets obsessive attention paid to her by tall, dark and handsome vampires and totally ripped wolfboys and later becomes, like, totally the best vampire ever is a licence to print money. Of the two I would certainly rather read Edgar Rice Burroughs, but he shows just the same aplomb with his Planetary Romances.

Tarzan has aspects of this, but they at least begin in a more subdued manner. Lord Greystoke (a lord!) is at the height of human strength and agility, is brilliant enough to teach himself English, gets to run around a jungle with abandon just being awesome, and is irresistible to women. He even gets to become a superspy. John Carter comes fresh out of the gate. First, you take what would be a fairly average soldier for the Confederacy and transport him to Mars, where decreased gravity and air pressure make him a veritable superman. He is just shy of being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He is utterly unbeatable, which eventually earns him the regard of all the warriors of Barsoom. Second, you let him and everybody else run around in the nude, with only what harnesses or headdresses are necessary for utility and ceremony. Third, you make every hot, naked Martian woman fall at his feet. Of course Carter opts to claim the most stunningly beautiful woman of any world, Dejah Thoris the Princess of Mars, but he still enjoys the attention of a half-dozen gorgeous, unclothed paramours.

Being escapism par excellence, Burroughs doesn't tend to clutter up his work with a self-critical or socially critical narrative. In A Princess of Mars this is seen most succinctly in his dealing with the question of race. In order to appreciate literature of the Victorian and Edwardian Eras, one must already have a pretty thick skin. Shockingly, the fiction of the past, written by people of the past, have attitudes of the past. However, it is not fair to say that all the literature was uniformly racist. There are degrees which make it easier to compartmentalize. For example, in 1912's The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the worst thing that the haughty Professor George Edward Challenger has to say about the Natives of the dinosaur-riddled plateau is that they're no smarter than the average Londoner.

A Princess of Mars is not one of those books. Burroughs is utterly unconscious about his racial assumptions, to the tune of nearly quoting verbatim from the prevailing attitudes of his day. When Carter arrives on Mars, he first gets adopted by the totally inhuman, four-armed, tusked, green martians. Also sharing Mars are the red-skinned race of perfectly humanoid martians (except that they lay eggs) to which Dejah Thoris belongs, and the races of humanoid black, white and yellow-skinned martians we meet in later books. Some episodes from A Princess of Mars illustrate the problems this arrangement make for issues of race.

The green martians have successfully conquered and driven off an expedition of red martian airships, having captured the incomparable image of feminine loveliness that John Carter fell instantly in love with. Sight unseen, Carter has already expressed feelings of sympathy for their evidently advanced culture: "The scene I had witnessed seemed to mark the defeat and annihilation of the forces of a kindred people, rather than the routing by our green warriors of a horde of similar, though unfriendly, creatures." Then he saw the red martian woman, and his heart was stirred by racial similarities. When the green martians bring her to trial, the following exchange occurs:
"What is your name?" asked Lorquas Ptomel, addressing the prisoner.

"Dejah Thoris, daughter of Mors Kajak of Helium."

"And the nature of your expedition?" he continued.

"It was a purely scientific research party sent out by my father's father, the Jeddak of Helium, to rechart the air currents, and to take atmospheric density tests," replied the fair prisoner, in a low, well-modulated voice.

"We were unprepared for battle," she continued, "as we were on a peaceful mission, as our banners and the colors of our craft denoted. The work we were doing was as much in your interests as in ours, for you know full well that were it not for our labors and the fruits of our scientific operations there would not be enough air or water on Mars to support a single human life. For ages we have maintained the air and water supply at practically the same point without an appreciable loss, and we have done this in the face of the brutal and ignorant interference of your green men.

"Why, oh, why will you not learn to live in amity with your fellows, must you ever go on down the ages to your final extinction but little above the plane of the dumb brutes that serve you! A people without written language, without art, without homes, without love; the victim of eons of the horrible community idea. Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common. You hate each other as you hate all else except yourselves. Come back to the ways of our common ancestors, come back to the light of kindliness and fellowship. The way is open to you, you will find the hands of the red men stretched out to aid you. Together we may do still more to regenerate our dying planet. The granddaughter of the greatest and mightiest of the red jeddaks has asked you. Will you come?"

Sola, one of the few green martians who expresses what Carter considers human-like emotions, condemns her own society by comparing it with that of the red martians:
They live at peace with all their fellows, except when duty calls upon them to make war, while we are at peace with none; forever warring among our own kind as well as upon the red men, and even in our own communities the individuals fight amongst themselves. Oh, it is one continual, awful period of bloodshed from the time we break the shell until we gladly embrace the bosom of the river of mystery, the dark and ancient Iss which carries us to an unknown, but at least no more frightful and terrible existence! Fortunate indeed is he who meets his end in an early death.

In any other sense, this sort of characterization might be considered simple world-building, the establishment of a character for the denizens of Barsoom. Unfortunately, it bears discomforting similarities to historic European and American attitudes towards Native Americans.

An example of these prevailing attitudes can be found in Karl Pearson's National Life from the Standpoint of Science, a 1901 publication of his 1900 lecture to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle. Pearson, as evidenced by the illustrious organization which he address, was no fringe thinker. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1896 for his work in mathematics, which in turn proved influential for Albert Einstein. He was also a devotee of Sir Francis Galton and a fervent eugenicist, being the first to hold the Chair of Eugenics at the University of London, a seat founded by Galton's bequest. It was only his Marxist beliefs that led him to refuse offers for both an Order of the British Empire and a knighthood.

What Pearson had to say was eerily echoed by Dejah Thoris:
I venture to assert, then, that the struggle for existence between white and red man, painful and even terrible as it was in its details, has given us a good far outbalancing its immediate evil. In place of the red man, contributing practically nothing to the work and thought of the world, we have a great nation, mistress of many arts, and able, with its youthful imagination and fresh, untrammelled impulses, to contribute much to the common stock of civilized man.

He adds "Against that you have only to put the romantic sympathy for the Red Indian generated by the novels of Cooper and the poems of Longfellow, and then - see how little it weighs in the balance!" Horace Greeley, writing in 1860, condemns the authors as well. After declaring that Native "arts, wars, treaties, alliances, habitations, crafts, properties, commerce, comforts, all belong to the very lowest and rudest ages of human existence" he says:
It needs but little familiarity with the actual, palpable aborigines to convince anyone that the poetic Indian—the Indian of Cooper and Longfellow—is only visible to the poet's eye. To the prosaic observer, the average Indian of the woods and prairies is a being who does little credit to human nature—a slave of appetite and sloth, never emancipated from the tyranny of one animal passion save by the more ravenous demands of another.

An 1869 New Mexico Supreme Court ruling judged that,
The idea that a handful of wild, half-naked, thieving, plundering, murdering savages should be dignified with the sovereign attributes of nations, enter into solemn treaties, and claim a country 500 miles wide by 1,000 miles long as theirs in fee simple, because they hunted buffalo or antelope over it, might do for a beautiful reading of Hiawatha, but is unsuited to the intelligence and justice of this age, or the natural rights of mankind.

Dejah also invoked President Theodore Roosevelt, who spoke of the Native Americans "whose life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid, and ferocious than that of the wild beasts with whom they held joint ownership."

President Andrew Jackson's 1830 message to Congress prefigures Pearson, and echos Burrough's characterization of the Tharks as inhabitants of the abandoned cities of a greater civilization:
In the monuments and fortresses of an unknown people, spread over the extensive regions of the West, we behold the memorials of a once powerful race, which was exterminated or has disappeared to make room for the existing savage tribes. Nor is there anything in this which, upon a comprehensive view of the general interests of the human race, is to be regretted... What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?

Even those with a more liberal mind still preferred the extinction of Native culture to the extinction of Natives themselves. President Ulysses S. Grant's 1871 State of the Union Address expressed the hope that
the policy pursued toward the Indians has resulted favorably...many tribes of Indians have been induced to settle upon reservations, to cultivate the soil, to perform productive labor of various kinds, and to partially accept civilization. They are being cared for in such a way, it is hoped, as to induce those still pursuing their old habits of life to embrace the only opportunity which is left them to avoid extermination.

And of "that horrible community idea" - which, incidentally, is an entirely sensible practicality of survival in a harsh, resource-poor environment like the plains of North America or the dead sea beds of Mars - Indian Affairs Commissioner John Oberly decreed that Native Americans "must be imbued with the exalting egotism of American civilization so that he will say ‘I’ instead of ‘We’, and ‘This is mine’ instead of ‘This is ours’."

Some attempt to laud Burroughs for creating a world of racial harmony, as the end has the red martians of the city-state of Helium join together with the green martians of Thark. They are, naturally, joined together under the auspices of John Carter. Being "good", the problem did not belong so much to the red martians. It was those pesky green martians and their violent, joyless society. The key figure is Tars Tarkas, a green martian with almost human-like emotional depth who befriends Carter and thus becomes the green martian leader. He becomes a "Good Indian."

The remaining two volumes of the original John Carter trilogy move beyond uncritical recapitulations of Gilded Age racial assumptions to deal with subjects of religion and society at large. They are subjects treated with the same nuanced perspective with which Burroughs treats the subjects in this classic study of escapism.

After 10 years on Earth, following a triumphal climax to Princess of Mars that thrust him back to his own planet, Carter has returned to Mars. Rather than restoring him to the bosom of his princess, however, he finds himself in Barsoom's equivalent of the Elysian Fields. Technology is so advanced on Mars that the average lifespan is functionally infinite, save for the religious custom of making the one-way pilgrimage down the river Iss to the forested, edenic paradise of the goddess Issus. Martians are obligated to take this pilgrimage upon their 1000th birthday or when the mood strikes them, whichever comes first. None return, except for one in the distant past who spoke blasphemies and was duly executed.

Nevertheless, the heretic was correct. The land of expected unending glories was, in reality, the habitat of carnivorous plant-men and white apes whose mangled victims became the cuisine for the race of white Martians. Even this was not the end of the horrors. These white Martians undertake their own pilgrimage to the city of Issus, whereupon they receive a nasty surprise of their own. Carter is dropped into this situation, forced to fight his way through unflinching evil with the unwholesome prospect of death by Inquisition waiting for him if he makes it out alive.

Thankfully the first person he meets in his valley of death is Tars Tarkas, his Good Indian. He chose to take the pilgrimage in the first of the total coincidences that drive the story along. Burroughs has pulled out all the stops and done away with any vestige of shame. Every plot convenience is employed to thrust the reader into the next scene. Every person that Carter needs to see him along, from Tars Tarkas to Sola the green Martian to his red Martian bride Dejah Thoris to their son Carthoris, is just where they need to be by fruitful accident.

By employing such tactics, Burroughs ends up undermining his first attempt at a novel with philosophical depth. Literal cannibalism is used as a metaphor for how religious elites exploit their disciples... Yet it is too easy to be consumed by the fact that it's taking the characters several chapters to figure out that Carter has incidentally encountered his own son when the reader has figured it out from the first paragraph. Given how uncritically Burroughs' treated racial assumptions in A Princess of Mars, devising the metaphor of literal cannibalism is a step up, but he only takes the one step. The ideas don't go much further than that. 

Worse yet, it is not only the philosophy of the novel but the narrative itself that suffers for Burroughs' all-too convenient coincidences. When A Princess of Mars was published, Burroughs feared using his own name because it was so far out there. Compared to Gods of Mars, even that work of escapism is a study in restraint. Freed up by his fame with that and Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs has cranked the pulpiness to dangerous levels. Though intended to speed the action along without convolutions of sense or logic, these plot devices are distractions that bring attention to themselves.

In Warlord of Mars, third book of Edgar Rice Burroughs' original Barsoom trilogy, attention shifts from race in Princess of Mars and religion in Gods of Mars to outright violence.

Whereas before, the reader might be distracted by Burroughs' reliance on coincidence as a plot driver, here they may be distracted by John Carter's barbarism. It is not only displayed and excused but actively, unreflectively promoted through the vehicle of escapism. He is a slave-holder and a member of the royal household, with all the entitlements that come with it. Burroughs attempts to paint Carter as a Southern Gentleman, for Carter tells us so himself, yet he cannot go for more than a few paragraphs without proudly narrating his insatiable bloodlust or the sheer joy he derives out of slaughtering enemies. Nor without telling us how great he is.

Burroughs perhaps realized he was overdoing it, but refused to apologise. One particular groaner tries to absolve Carter of boastfulness:
If I sometimes seem to take too great pride in my fighting ability, it must be remembered that fighting is my vocation. If your vocation be shoeing horses, or painting pictures, and you can do one or the other better than your fellows, then you are a fool if you are not proud of your ability. And so I am very proud that upon two planets no greater fighter has ever lived than John Carter, Prince of Helium.

If this undistinguished American Civil War veteran whose only advantage on Mars is the planet's reduced gravity is not telling us how great he is, then other characters are. More than a few conflicts are avoided simply by soldiers knowing that he is a mighty warrior and acting against their own duties in fealty to the Alpha Male. The entire resolution to Gods of Mars depends on it.

Warlord of Mars ends pretty much the only way the series can, rounding out the first trilogy of Burroughs' Barsoom novels. Several would follow starring various new and secondary characters, since Carter managed to play himself out in these three. Where do you go after establishing yourself as the greatest warrior that ever lived for all time in the whole universe ever? Well, Jupiter in The Skeleton Men of Jupiter, but he's pretty awesome there too.

As silly as that all might seem, the swashbuckling escapism in the most exotic of all possible locales fed a public appetite that made John Carter a hit. By 1936, Bob Clampett of Beany and Cecil fame animated a test reel for a series of theatrical shorts about the hero, but the project left to sink into development oblivion. There, it became one of the great "what ifs" of animation and cinema history. What was made shows a series that might well be overestimated by nostalgic eyes, but at the very least would compare quite favourably to the great Max Fleischer Superman cartoons a few years later.

Disney first acquainted itself with Barsoom in a 1957 episode of the Walt Disney's Disneyland television series. In Mars and Beyond, animator and director Ward Kimball opened the Barsoomian Dictionary to introduce audiences to the denizens of Burroughs' war-world, as an exploration of Mars' role in fiction (and, in turn, fiction's impact on our perceptions of the Red Planet).

Barsoomians, or the Red and Green Martians, short a few arms.

A Banth, or Martian lion.

A Calot, of a sort. One of the least accurate representations.

Thoat, or Martian horse.

A Martian plant-man.

Finally, in 2012, Disney released a full-length, live-action adaptation of A Princess of Mars titled, simply, John Carter. That surprisingly dull and uninformative title was not the least of the marketing problems that plagued the production. Advertising neglected to mention that the original story was by the creator of Tarzan. Nor that its screenplay was co-written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. Nor that its other co-writer and director was Academy Award winner Andrew Stanton, who had previously written and directed Wall-E and Finding Nemo. These were typically the sorts of things movie advertisement can't help but mention.  

Then professional critics got their hands on it, largely excoriating the picture. Bizarrely, some critics complained about the exact things that made the film enjoyable to people to understand and appreciate what the stories actually were. Stephen Whitty of the Newark Star-Ledger, lambasted John Carter for being like "watching a dusty old sword-and-sandal epic." Before the opening weekend finished, Disney studio executives publicly washed their hands of the film, suggesting they had no real idea why they made it or who they made it for. 

Any filmmaker who approaches Edgar Rice Burroughs' work is faced with a challenge of how to work with nearly unfilmable material. There is a reason why there has never been a truly book-accurate adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes. Its disjointed sequence of things that happen to Tarzan one after another would make a terrible movie. Yet there have been some fantastic Tarzan movies, from the Johnny Weissmuller classics of the Thirties to Disney's. Chabon and Stanton had a less formidable task with A Princess of Mars. Unlike later Barsoom novels, the first is a solid piece of work with good, exciting scenes that only needed some massaging: a massaging in of why any of this is happening to John Carter and a massaging out of the unfortunate artifacts of the time and culture in which it was written. Stanton accomplishes both.

In A Princess of Mars, Carter ends up on Mars through some kind of spontaneous mental transference, becomes inadvertently involved in the politics of Mars, and is mentally transferred back to Earth at the moment of an otherwise heroic death saving the planet. In Disney's John Carter, our hero stumbles across one of the interplanetary transfer points being used by the Thern, or white martians, and is accidentally transported to Mars by one of their indistinguishable-from-magic medallions. The political intrigues of Barsoom, into which Carter is thrust, are spurred along by the Thern to their own Machiavellian ends. The climax is not as random as the book's, and actually has to do with defeating the intrigues of these shapeshifting schemers. Stanton has taken all the best elements of the book and structured them in a coherent plot that sets up a trilogy quite well... If Disney hadn't underadvertized it and then thrown it under the bus. A sequel would likely have had Carter return to a Barsoom oppressed by the Thern, take his Hero's Journey down the Iss to confront them and the power behind them, only to return and raise Barsoom up against their oppressors in the third film. Though being compared frequently to Star Wars and Avatar, the film most brings to mind Lawrence of Arabia.

Unfortunately, those comparisons to other franchises now owned by Disney did no favours to a film that wasn't advertised as being the original inspiration for them. For generations of aficionados of literary Science Fiction, A Princess of Mars and following John Carter stories are bona fide classics. That is a relatively small portion of society at large, who need to be getting behind a $250 million film for it to recoup its costs. Though capturing the imaginations of those inclined, Burroughs' uncritical assumptions about race, violence, and religion can be off putting (not to mention the nudity).

In order to appreciate Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances, one must approach them with a critical and informed mind that can recognize antiquated biases. Thus equipped, one has the capacity both for deeper engagement with the text and for compartmentalization that allows one to enjoy it at all. Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars have plenty of narrative faults that are bad enough for their limited scope as sequels. Of the three, A Princess of Mars is an acknowledged classic written in Burroughs' accessible, breezy style. It is a genuinely good, action-packed, adventuresome story in need of an engaged, critical awareness of its assumptions.

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