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Saturday, July 14, 2012

John Carter of Mars, Volume One. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Disney Editions (2012)

A classic of romantic science fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars novels are feast to read. This collection includes the first three books in the series, A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars which are effectively one extended story. John Carter, a ex-Confederate soldier from Virginia finds himself transported to Mars after a weird encounter in an Arizona cave. Mars, Barsoom as its natives call it, is a dying planet filled with different races all constantly fighting each other for the scarce resources of the planet. John Carter finds that the lighter gravity of Mars gives him exceptional agility and strength, which would be useless if not backed up by his sheer joy in combat. Carter finds himself caught up at first in the unceasing wars of the Martians, then falling in love with Dejah Thoris, a princess of the  human like Red Martians starts to take a more active role. He find himself shunted back to Earth and then returned to Mars which has become his true home.
The engine of the story is the efforts by John Carter to rescue Dejah Thoris from danger as she is kidnapped by his enemies. The heart of the story is the progression he makes across the red planet, fighting a wonderfully vivid series of opponents to get Dejah Thoris back and enjoy the rush of battle.
The construction of the books is simple and extremely effective, John Carter find himself moving from one dangerous situation to another with little rest or respite. This could easily become repetitive and contrived , that it is neither is a glowing tribute to the energy and inventiveness of Edgar Rice Burroughs writing. One of the striking aspects to the stories is the solid context that Edgar Rice Burroughs creates with Barsoom. He uses the fact that the planet is dying to create the basic conflict that underlies the series, everyone on Mars is in direct competition with everyone else all the time for resources of life. This is translated into the constant conflict between all the races of Barsoom and within them as well. In this conflict John Carter shines like a star, with his extra agility and love of fighting he fits in very naturally into the context.
Using this as a springboard  Edgar Rice Burroughs introduces continually inventive new situations which add new twists to the conflicts. In particular the second book, The Gods of Mars, has a very clever structure of predators that John Carter must battle to regain his bride. 
One of the great pleasures of the series is that there are no easy victories, every step is a struggle, John Carter has to use his brains and his sword arm to win through and victory is as likely to be snatched away at the last moment as not. The compelling vigour and breakneck pacing of the action pushes the reader along nicely past the occasional  clunky piece of exposition or dangling plot thread. Reading the three stories back to back makes the short cuts used a bit more obvious, they are very minor flaws in a great flood of superbly realised action.
This is muscular, romantic science fiction at its most pulpy glorious and it is an enduring treasure and a joy.

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