By: Norman Bean (Edgar Rice Burroughs)
Appeared in: The All-Story (February – July, 1912)
Character/Series: John Carter/Barsoom
More commonly known as A Princess of Mars or John Carter of Mars these days, this swashbuckling sci-fi adventure penned by the author of Tarzan almost single-handedly created the Planetary Romance genre (where action and exotic settings take precedence over science), as well as influencing generations of science fiction writers from Robert A. Heinlein to Arthur C. Clarke.
While prospecting in Arizona, Civil War veteran John Carter hides in a cave from pursuing Apaches. Through some sort of astral projection, he wakes up on Mars (known locally as ‘Barsoom’). Being written in 1912, this version of Mars has breathable atmosphere, water and is inhabited by many colorful multi-legged creatures at war with one another. Due to the planet’s weaker gravity, John Carter has superhuman strength and is able to make great leaps into the air a la Superman.
Captured by a tribe of Tharks (tall, green-skinned creatures with tusks and six limbs), Carter gains their respect by slaying two great white apes and saving the life of Sola; his female guardian. When the Tharks shoot down an airship belonging to the red-skinned people of Barsoom, they capture Dejah Thoris; the beautiful princess of the city of Helium. Kept under guard by Woola – a ten-legged guard dog-like creature – and tutored by Sola, Carter learns more about Thark culture. He develops a strong bond with a warrior called Tars Tarkas and gradually falls in love with Dejah Thoris who is scheduled to be executed.
Carter, Sola and Dejah escape the Tharks and fall in with Kantos Kan; a red-skinned warrior who is leading a massive search party for the missing Princess of Helium. Helium is under threat by another red-skinned people called the Zodangans and, after many further adventures, Carter saves Helium by leading an army of Tharks (now under the chieftainship of Tars Tarkas) to victory over the people of Zodanga, thus forging an alliance between red and green Martians and becoming Prince of Barsoom.
Norman Bean (a typo – it should have been ‘Normal Bean’) was a pseudonym for Edgar Rice Burroughs who wanted to distance himself from some of his more outlandish work as well as joke that he was, in fact, a normal guy and not a lunatic for writing this stuff. Under the Moons of Mars was republished in hardback as A Princess of Mars in 1917 and Burroughs penned ten sequels although John Carter largely bows out of the series after book 3 with his children by Dejah Thoris as well as other characters taking over as the protagonists.
Under the Moons of Mars is very much a product of its time. Burroughs utilized contemporary science, most notably the theories of Percival Lowell, who postulated that Mars had waterways that were steadily drying out, thus dooming its ancient civilization. Presenting a dying world and the possibility of using technology to change the ecology of a planet, Burroughs left a huge mark on science fiction. We can see his influence in Frank Herbert’s Dune and in the terraforming company in Aliens (1986). By blending the exotic with elements of the Western and creating a feudal alien world where medieval values of honor and chivalry are fused with advanced technology, the Planetary Romance genre was born eventually leading to Flash Gordon and Star Wars (1977).
There was a movie in 2012 with the rather dull title John Carter. Although it took some liberties with the plot and blended in elements from the sequels, the film is generally well-liked by fans. Unfortunately it failed to do much business at the box office shutting down plans for a series. Many blame Disney’s marketing of the film for not playing up the pulpy side and failing to make it clear that this was written a century ago by the creator of Tarzan.