Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > John Carter of Mars

John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
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Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1941-43 John Carter of Mars, last in the eleven-book Barsoom series, is a rather uneven package. Rather than being a single tale, it is comprised of a pair of novellas originally published in Amazing Stories: "John Carter and the Giant of Mars" from January 1941 and "Skeleton Men of Jupiter" from February 1943. Unlike the four novellas of Llana of Gathol, which actually make up a single book-length plot, these two unrelated pieces are just plunked in together. The first is quite a bit inferior to the Barsoom tales we are used to, but the second definitely helps make up for that.

"John Carter and the Giant of Mars" has a very rushed feel, and unlike every previous work of Barsoomian fiction except the fourth novel, Thuvia, Maid of Mars, it is told with a third-person rather than first-person narrative. What's really weird, though, are the then-trendy pieces of science-fictional technology that have never been seen in the previous ten books but which here suddenly appear out of nowhere, and are not even presented as new inventions but are simply taken for granted. There's something called an "atom gun" (1979 Del Rey paperback, page 4) or "atomgun" (page 55), for example, but I guess it's not a fancy disintegrator or such, because upon firing "a large shell" is "ejected" (page 5), so...what the "silent atom gun" (page 5) does, I have no idea. No matter, I guess, and, why, they even have "ray-gun[s]" (page 7) or "ray-pistols"--for some reason with "hammers" to be "clicked back"--(page 54), too! And whereas the radium pistols seen in the previous books almost certainly are revolvers, here full-auto "sub-machine gun[s]" (page 44) also appear.

In Helium they use a "visiscreen" for inter-office communication (page 6, page 65), and the bad guy employs the "television screen" of his "television machine" to spy on their "private throne room" with "an extension" that is "concealed cleverly behind a mirror" (page 27). Moreover, whereas I believe it was way back in the 1912 A Princess of Mars that Burroughs specifically tells us that Martians don't use radio anymore because all the nations long ago learned how to intercept any communication and crack any code, here the Heliumites use radio all the time, for this caper determining that "[t]he wave length will be constant and secret, 2000 kilocycles" (page 8). Even the teeniest one-man flyer seems to be equipped with radio. And rather than being called "fliers," by the way, as was done in all previous books, here they are called "planes" (page 9, page 73), and just as Helium's aerial military is referred to as an "air force" (page 8) rather than "navy," the hangars suddenly are termed "Airdrome[s]" (page 9).

It's almost as if someone sat down to write a Barsoom story and thought, "Well, it's sci-fi, so we better have ray-guns and televisors and stuff, right? And let's bring 'er up to date with words like plane and air force so that people know what we're talking about!" In fact, a little digging online shows us that Burroughs himself didn't actually write this one--his son did--and it sure shows... Look, there's the kidnapping of Dejah Thoris by a baddie wanting to take over the world, and there's the scary giant promised by the title, and of course there are battles and outwittings. It all has a very weird feel, however, and the plot just blasts along--none of the usual months in captivity here and there for John Carter in this'un! Although the unhurried, nay, oft e'en wordy narrative voice of John Carter can drag sometimes, in this tale we long for such pacing, such introspection, such smoothness of presentation, literarily dated though it may be. Still, eventually an end appears, and it is satisfactory.

With "Skeleton Men of Jupiter," though, which actually was written by the elder Burroughs, we are back to the standard first-person John Carter fare, and while of course the story can't have the complexity of the jillion twists and turns of a book-length plot, it is so much better than its peculiar book-mate. John Carter is no stranger to getting captured, but the honor be being first abductee in a tale generally belongs to a woman, specifically one upright and pure and yet deliciously desirable. Here, however, it is the Virginian himself captured first, by "human skeletons" (page 86) with "parchmentlike skin cover[ing] the bones of their limbs so tightly that it [is] difficult to convince one's self that it [is] not true bone that [is] exposed"; and whereas "every rib and vertebra [stands] out in plain and disgusting relief," "[w]hen they [stand] in front of a bright light, [he can] see their internal organs" (page 88). These creepy gut-showing weirdos bustle John Carter into a "long, lean, sinister" ship "look[ing] like an enormous projectile, with rounded nose and a tapering tail," and they blast "at appalling speed" (page 87) to...well, you know, Jupiter.

The Earthman, who on the first page of the novella has commented that "[t]heories come and theories go" (page 83)--including, he adds wryly, whether or not "Mars [is] habitable and inhabited" (page 84)--tells us now that the scientific jury is still out regarding Jupiter, with one theory holding it "to have a surface temperature of two hundred and sixty degrees below zero" and another being "equally positive" that it "was still in a half molten condition" (page 101). "How could human life exist in an atmosphere made up largely of ammonia and methane gases?" he wonders. "And what of the effect of the planet's terrific gravitational pull?" (pages 101-102). Well, but you know Burroughs--just as with the time he sent characters in Swords of Mars, eighth in the series, to Phobos, which John Carter knew should possess no atmosphere and have only microgravity, he'll have a glib answer to make the plot work.

In any event, the Jovian skeleton-folk, or Morgors, are "a warlike race" who, after "conquer[ing] all other peoples" of their planet, now look to "a new world to conquer" (page 94). They have discovered that great Helium is "the most powerful" empire on Mars, so they intend to attack it first, after which "the rest of Barsoom would, they [assume], be easy to conquer" (page 94). The Prince of Helium, they believe, can be forced to give them "full information as to the war techniques of the Heliumites" (pages 94-95). This latter seems unlikely, of course, but a fellow Martian explains how he himself was forced into wrongdoing by the capture of his beloved, who was threatened, after a traitorous Martian was to have "had his way with her," to "be tortured and mutilated" but "even then not allowed to die" (page 95), so...hmm.

But as John Carter tells us later, once he has recruited staunch new friends during his requisite prison confinement, "[t]hey ha[ve]n't a chance against the three best swordsmen of three worlds" (page 154). Yes, for the Warlord of Barsoom is strong, and he is skilled, and he is steadfastly honorable. He will not abandon a companion, nor will he hesitate at any daring to safeguard his adopted world and to deliver his incomparable Dejah Thoris to safety. There is clever planning, there are fights with fist and with blade, and there are droll witticisms directed at those who imagine themselves his betters.

Now, "Skeleton Men of Jupiter" does end with a helluva lot of inconclusion. That is, an immediate problem is about to be solved--about to be--but we're still on Jupiter, and there isn't yet any explanation of how we'll get back to Mars, let alone stop the invasion of the arrogant, weird-looking Morgors. I confess I was puzzled, but again, a li'l poking around the internet suggested that this was intended to be the first novella of a multi-part book akin to Llana of Gathol, except the follow-ups never got written, so...I suppose we should cut some slack on the peculiar-seeming end.

"Skeleton Men of Jupiter" really helped redeem the book from its awkward, disappointing start, and the tale makes an enjoyable sorta-conclusion to Burroughs' famed Barsoom series. Overall, the bifurcated John Carter of Mars is perhaps a 3.5-star read, but I'll round 'er up to 4 on general principle.

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Reading Progress

July 5, 2021 – Started Reading
July 6, 2021 – Finished Reading
July 7, 2021 – Shelved

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