In an effort to understand where speculative fiction originated, I’m going to be reading some older stories to figure out the origins of today’s books.
How do I even begin this first one? A Princess of Mars is the forefather of science fiction, first being published in 1912. It’s influence can still be felt in science fiction and fantasy to this day.
It’s hotly debated how much this book falls into the science fiction genre, since John Carter is taken to Mars without so much of an explanation of how he got there. I would argue, though, that speculating about another planet is a worthy definition of science fiction.
Beyond the historical impact of this book, I guess we should discuss the contents itself.
John Carter is in the Confederate military during the United States Civil War. While there, he gets into a fight with Native Americans and flees into a cave. Suddenly, he awakens on Mars. On this new planet, he finds himself a prisoner of the green martian inhabitants. Here, Mars is called Barsoom, and it’s a place of warfare and hatred, where friendship and love is all but unknown.
The story progresses from there, with him meeting the various martians and learning their ways. I have to be honest here, the first 40 pages or so were a trudge to get through. Those pages were basically without dialogue. It reminded me of reading H. G. Wells or Jules Verne, which makes sense.
The characters are interesting, from Sola the green martian who seems to feel love, to Dejah Thoris, a red martian princess (the titular princess of Mars). Dejah is fascinating in that she seems to have a scientific mind, and shares much of her knowledge with John. But she’s also said to be basically nude the entire book, as most martians forego clothing for ornamentation.
Tars Tarkas was my favorite character. He was a warrior who served the sitting chieftain of the green martians, but unlike other martians seemed to value friendship with John. He had progression throughout the story, and was a likeable character.
One of the interesting elements was that the green martians raise their young as a community. The reasons for this were implied to be that they put all their eggs together to incubate for long periods of time, so it’s possible that upon hatching you wouldn’t know which eggs are yours anyways.
This idea was taken directly from Plato’s Republic, and has the same weaknesses as that system. Aristotle said that system would lead to one where children were shown no love and grow to lack it as adults, which is clearly the case for the green martians. Karl Popper also said such a system was a dystopia, and in the martian society, it certainly seems to be the case. The green martians are pseudo-nomadic, moving around at times for war and incubation. While the red martians seem to have ornate walled cities (and physiologies similar to humans).
After about half-way through this book it turned into one of the best books I’d ever read, if not a little dated. If you can get past the first 40 pages, which basically lack dialogue the entire time, then I think you’d enjoy it.
Now, let me get into come spoiler-laden criticisms!
The transition from the green martians to the red was jarring. I kind of wanted to spend all my time with them. However, knowing that Dejah was a red martian I knew we’d meet them eventually.
I really liked John as a character, but I disliked how it seemed that he was easily able to influence the martians with love and kindness. Some of it makes sense, like Sola being raised by a loving mother who wanted to know her children. But the fact that the tribe just went along with it was kind of odd. It’s really not a big complaint, to be honest.
It’s left up in the air as to whether the entire book was real or not, but subsequent sequels apparently revisit the world of Barsoom. John also seems to grow old apart from his wife and child, which I really dislike. It left the whole ending with a bitter taste.
I’m really looking forward to reading the other four books I have of this series!
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