Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > The Gods of Mars

The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
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Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1913 The Gods of Mars, second of the 11-novel Barsoom series, is another quaint yet decently entertaining sword-and-planet adventure. It may not be the book one would give a reader who wanted to experience science fiction or fantasy for the first time, or a reader unaccustomed to the style and pacing of pulp fiction more than 100 years ago, but it is a classic worth the read when approached with the right mindset.

At the conclusion of A Princess of Mars, virtuous Virginia fighting-man John Carter has just opened the portal to the stopped atmosphere factory that alone can keep Mars supplied with breathable oxygen, whereupon he swoons from the thinness of the air...then wakes again in the Arizona cave from whence he had been drawn to the Red Planet ten years earlier. But did his compatriot manage to restart the mammoth atmosphere plant? Does Mars live, or die? What of his beloved Dejah Thoris? And what is this vision in his mind's eye of his princess and a little boy, staring up at the night sky to the green-blue twinkle of the far-away Earth...?

Well, it's no plot-spoiler to say that after an agonizing Terran hiatus of ten years, the helplessly longing John Carter is drawn to Mars once more, and of course within a few pages he ends up in the thick of it again: weird carnivorous plant men and horrible giant white apes, creepy self-satisfied cultists and slavering monsters and labyrinthine temples, skulkings and captures and escapes, and swordfights and aerial combat galore. There are coincidences of characters' handily crossed paths, and a case of mistaken identity, or perhaps I should say missed identity, which is painfully obvious to readers but is milked with intensifying clues across three and a half chapters before being revealed to the somehow-astonished Earthling, and the repeated triumphs of John Carter's world-renowned swordsmanship.

Yes, some of it may seem a tad silly to modern readers, and some may generate ironies not necessarily intended by the author. When the black pirates of Barsoom swoop down from aerial craft to attack those who would recapture Carter and his companions, for example, the Terran notes that "[o]nly in the colour of their skin did they differ materially from us," and he finds that this "polished ebony," as "odd as it may seem for a Southerner to say it, adds to rather than detracts from their marvelous beauty" (1981 Del Rey paperback, page 57). This seems nice from the time of writing of 1913--though perhaps it is simply a form of Othering--but in the scene where Carter and, ahem, a youth looking strangely like him begin an uprising in the arena against the ancient leader of the pirates, who poses as a goddess, when the cry of "'Rise, slaves!' 'Rise, slaves!'" rings out and enslaved women flourish daggers and bludgeons and "their strong fingers and their gleaming teeth" to "partially recompense them for the unspeakable cruelties and indignities which their black masters had heaped upon them" (pages 102-103)...well, I cannot help but wonder whether John Carter would have "cheer[ed]" (page 103) as mightily if, circa 1850, the colors were turned and the slaves of Virginia had risen similarly against the unspeakable cruelties and indignities their white masters had heaped upon them. Somehow I think not.

But despite such quibbles, and despite Carter's recurring braggadocio of his skill at arms and his resultant fame on Mars, there is much here of honesty and courage and loyalty. In the midst of one sudden escape, for example, Carter tells the, um, other strangely skilled young swordsman that he himself must go back for another prisoner, since the two previously had been planning to "escape together, and [he] cannot desert him." And far from argue, the youth, ready to hazard his life for one he has never met, agrees axiomatically: "No...one cannot desert a friend. It were better to be recaptured ourselves than than" (page 105). There is something touching and stirring in this, I think, and more so than the idealized, rather courtly notion of love for Dejah Thoris that purportedly motivates much of John Carter's action.

Burroughs' second installment in the Barsoom series thus is a colorful maze of cliffhanging action, which, a tad repetitive though it sometimes might be, is underlaid with notions of honor and friendship and right that should not be sneered at too easily. The Gods of Mars is a decently entertaining read of the 4-star region for those wanting to explore perhaps the archetypal Percival Lowell-inspired landscape of the Red Planet prior to the more familiar work of Ray Bradbury, and to those of countless pulp authors who came between.

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Reading Progress

May 27, 2021 – Started Reading
May 30, 2021 – Finished Reading
May 31, 2021 – Shelved

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