Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Book Review - A Princess of Mars

I've honestly been meaning to pick up Burrough's Barsoom Series ever since I first read Tarzan of the Apes a few years ago and was told that he'd written this sci-fi adventure series set on Mars. While I don't read a ton of contemporary science fiction novels, I find myself drawn to early sci-fi (though I still haven't read a ton of the pioneering novels like this one). Once I heard the movie was coming out, I decided it was high time to jump into these books.

I was surprised to learn that A Princess of Mars is the first book in an ELEVEN book series. I admit that it was written in the time when the public seemed to just eat up adventure novels like this, but I was still intrigued by the longevity of the series.

The writing definitely has that early 20th century feel to it. The language is elegant and thoughtful as opposed to just being thrown on the page to feel a pop-culture need for yet another blast 'em up space adventure. The main part of the story begins in the Arizona desert and involves John Carter doing a little prospecting with a friend and then being chased by warlike Indians. The plot and adventure felt very reminiscent of other adventure novels I'd read from the late-19th and early-20th century. The narration style, the descriptions, etc. All very familiarly well crafted and vibrant.

After a bit of excitement on Earth we are taken, almost literally, in the blink of an eye to Mars. Burroughs doesn't get into the science of how John Carter is transported to the planet nor does he initially say anything about how he's able to breathe and survive in the differing atmosphere.

Rather than focusing on the hard science, we are taken into an exploration of the softer science. John Carter discovers an incubator…his first glimpse into the Martian culture. He then meets and interacts with a variety of alien races. There is definitely some focus on the science of John's physiological differences (and the way gravity works differently on his body on Mars than on Earth) but the core exploration seems to be one of cultures, of relationships, of 'humanity.'

There are most definitely adventure scenes in this novel and they are quite fun. Some of the action and adventure comes from misunderstandings and the warlike nature of some of the Martian races, but a large part of the motivation is based on the romantic affectations of John Carter towards the Princess of Mars, a "red Martian" named Dejah Thoris.

For John, it was love at first sight with Dejah, but I loved the way he had to work hard to understand her and get her to reciprocate his feelings. I loved the way Burroughs focused on the difficulties of the "courtship" not only because John and Dejah were of different races…but also just because of the nature of interactions and misunderstandings between men and women generally. While certainly not an in-depth psychological reading, it was fun to see the male and female psyches come into play.

I found myself really engaged in the story. The book jumped very rapidly from one action sequence to another and from one part of Mars to another. Over the course of a very few pages we are bounced over the expanse of Mars and get to know two major "human-like" races along with the various tribes and sub-groups of each of these. We are given a glimpse into a very imaginative and fun new culture with strange new creatures and technologies. With the fast paced nature of the narrative, I sometimes wished for a little more character/plot development but by the same token, I felt like the fast pace actually helped develop some of these elements in a way far more effective and interesting.

I really enjoyed this book and look forward to checking out others in the Barsoom series. I haven't yet seen the movie though I have seen it getting fairly unfavorable reviews. I still want to see the film to see if perhaps a knowledge of the book will make it a better experience than the reviews suggest. Regardless of the quality of the movie, I can definitely recommend this book to most readers.

4 out of 5 stars

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It's been a few years since I read it, but I really enjoyed this book. I have the rest of the series on my iPad and after seeing the movie John Carter, I'm excited about diving back into the books. I enjoy science fiction that is more adventure rather than science and tech. (Obviously, because that's what I write!)

Phoenix said...

You'll have to tell me if you liked the movie that was based on this book! My friend Matt has read all the books and really enjoyed the movie as a result. I'd be curious to know if you felt the same.

Great review!