Some time ago I downloaded Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars through Project Gutenberg. Recently I downloaded it again into my eReader and this time I actually read it. Not long after I began to read I was sucked into the improbability vortex.
The first coincidence was external: I realized that the main character was named John Carter and there’s a special-effecta-palooza stomping its way into cinemas with that title. I was reading the material from which the movie was adapted. I knew the cinematic beast was based on stories of this ilk, but here I was holding the exact one.
The coincidences didn’t stop, but from then on they were within the story. John Carter is the luckiest SOB I’ve read about in a long time.
“But Jer,” you say, “it’s an adventure story. It’s pulp. Some slack is due.”
Yep indeed, the words I put into your mouth are dead on. Some slack is due. Carter is a lucky SOB all right, but it is his skill and derring-do that make the most of that good fortune. On Earth Carter is a pretty impressive specimen; in the lower gravity of Mars he kicks some pretty phenomenal ass.
It is not just physical prowess that sets him apart, however. While living in a society of heartless warriors, his horses (um… thoats) are far more faithful, because he uses the carrot as well as the stick. When the pragmatic Green Martians see that sometimes a gentle hand gets results, subtle societal changes begin.
As promised in the title, there’s a Princess, the undisputed Most Beautiful Woman on the Planet, and of course she’s captured by (what a coincidence!) Carter’s Green Martian sort-of-captors. You might not be surprised to hear that Carter and the Princess hit it off pretty well, despite some problems caused by culture clash.
Let’s reflect for a moment on some of the things Burroughs did well. There are two intelligent races on Mars, competing for dwindling resources. Death by old age is exceedingly rare, especially among the Green Martians. They spend a lot of time killing each other. I had no trouble at all getting the feel of this race, of the strengths and weaknesses of the society, and how their long history had shaped them. (By a remarkable coincidence, the two Green Martians closet to Carter were throwbacks to a gentler age. By an even larger coincidence the two were related.)
For all the Princess was Unimaginably Beautiful and in need of frequent rescue, she held her own. She did have an affliction I will call diminishing adjectivitis – almost every adjective applied to her minimized her, emphasizing her slightness, her delicacy. Yet she made the decision to sacrifice herself to save her people. That the Manly Men of the story managed to free her and save her people (and unite traditional foes, realigning politics on Mars from “Red vs. Green” to “Cool vs. Asshole”) does not take away from her sacrifice. Were the story written these days, more might have been made of her self-sacrifice, but let’s face it. This story was written for the same demographic that would be sneaking looks at their fathers’ Playboys a few decades hence.
Then there was The Coincidence That Went Too Far. I felt the strain when Carter ran into an old pal in enemy territory. Credulity snapped when Carter’s airship crashed right next to his old Green Chum in the heat of a savage battle, just in time to save the guy and get leverage to assemble an army to go save the princess.
A nation is slaughtered, but their king was a jerk, so that’s OK. Don’t go starting wars if you’re not ready to pay the price. This came out during The Great War.
So, in the shambles of the One Coincidence to Rule Them All, the story winds to a close on a wistful note. It’s a tight read, easy-breezy (though the language is filled with pomp), and it keeps on moving. I wonder, if the math of publishing had been different and Burroughs felt comfortable pushing to 300 pages, if he would have needed those coincidences to get the players into position. I also wonder if the story would have been any better without the Hand of Fate smacking things around so blatantly. After all, this way we get to the next action scene that much faster.
It’s kind of funny – In the end, four-armed men who own guns accurate for miles fighting with swords on the moss-covered beds of the ancient oceans of Mars didn’t bother me at all (well… not much). It was a chance meeting in a city square that pushed me to the breaking point.
I haven’t even alluded to the Greatest Coincidence Of Them All. The Great Mambo Coincidence that makes mere luck rock back on its heels and suck its thumb. A coincidence so stupendous that it can only save all life on an entire planet. It’s actually not that bothersome here since it’s not central to the action. It does put Carter back on Earth, though.
You know what, though? I’m pretty sure John Carter goes back to Mars. Maybe his kid has hatched (best not to think too hard about biology here). I’m equally confident that I’ll read more of these stories. I expect to roll my eyes at some mind-abusing good fortune on the part of our protagonist. But I’ll still have fun, and in the end, that’s what it’s all about.
Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback. I chose to link to this version for the awesome cover, but you should know that if you have an electronic reading device, you can download the novel for free.