"Men of few words are the best men." - William Shakespeare, King Henry V, Act III, Scene II

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Quality Syme with Whitby Syme: A Princess of Mars

QMBC XIV saw the nomination of Edgar Rice Burroughs A Princess of Mars, by yours handsomely. The novel, about an ex-confederate soldier journeying to Mars where he engages in punching monsters to death and love-making, has come to some notoriety recently on account of Disney adapting it into the film John Carter (and their persistent attempts to copyright material which is in the public domain). My sterling pitch, of which ERB's foreword formed the basis, fell on deaf ears with the QMBC preferring to select Guy de Maupassant's Bel Ami (a book which, tellingly, features no monsters being punched to death).

Perhaps the pitch, now with the hindsight of having read the book, should have simply been "Quincey Morris goes to Mars." For indeed, Dracula's gun-toting gentleman adventurer has much in common with John Carter, as the following extract reveals:
"Throw down your sword; you cannot hope to overcome four of us," he added with a grim smile.
My reply was a quick thrust which left me but three antagonists.
So begins a protracted battle with three expert swordsmen, which is ended with a cerebral onslaught worthy of a chess grand master:
I changed my tactics and rushed them down after the fashion of my fighting that had won me many a victory.
Though brave and noble, in many ways John Carter is simply a man possessed of other-wordly powers (thanks to Mars' low gravity) who can throw his (relatively) super-human body around to great destructive affect, and who wants to do a Martian chick.

He is an interplanetary Ferris Bueller, loved by all (except those he punches to death) who can seemingly do know wrong. In a matter of days he learns the Barsoomian language (finally gaining enough understanding to discover that he has already become a chieftain by virtue of his various unintentional murders) masters the telepathic control of animals, and woos a Martian equivalent of Helen of Troy... though he, understandably, has initial concerns about physiological compatibilities:
So this was love! I had escaped it for all the years I had roamed the five continents and their encircling seas; in spite of beautiful women and urging opportunity; in spite of a half-desire for love and a constant search for my ideal, it had remained for me to fall furiously and hopelessly in love with a creature from another world, of a species similar possibly, yet not identical with mine. A woman who was hatched from an egg, and whose span of life might cover a thousand years; whose people had strange customs and ideas; a woman whose hopes, whose pleasures, whose standards of virtue and of right and wrong might vary as greatly from mine as did those of the green Martians.
Fear not. He goes on to discover that she is similar enough, and her pleasures and standards of virtue are quite acceptable to a man with his oft-mentioned Virginian fighting blood.

As much as JC's punching and love-making forms the main draw of an Adventure Stories for Boys-type experience, ERB puts considerable effort into building a convincing Mars (or Barsoom) populated by two warring species, the red men of Mars (whose women are physically compatible with a man with Virginian fighting blood) and the green men of Mars (whose women John Carter does not admit to a thorough physiologically investigation of in his memoir).

ERB's pseudo-science is very tidy indeed, detailed and quirky, and more than sufficient to flesh out the various contraptions Carter must use to kill Martians:
This ray, like the ninth ray, is unknown on Earth, but the Martians have discovered that it is an inherent property of all light no matter from what source it emanates. They have learned that it is the solar eighth ray which propels the light of the sun to the various planets, and that it is the individual eighth ray of each planet which "reflects," or propels the light thus obtained out into space once more. The solar eighth ray would be absorbed by the surface of Barsoom, but the Barsoomian eighth ray, which tends to propel light from Mars into space, is constantly streaming out from the planet constituting a force of repulsion of gravity which when confined is able to lift enormous weights from the surface of the ground.
In terms of resources, it is a dying world, where every man and woman must do their duty to keep things ticking along:
These brothers, with their wives and children, occupied three similar houses on this farm. They did no work themselves, being government officers in charge. The labor was performed by convicts, prisoners of war, delinquent debtors and confirmed bachelors who were too poor to pay the high celibate tax which all red-Martian governments impose.
Though bizarrely, the seemingly barren world provides few real hardships to an unprepared survivalist. The entire world is covered with a soft yellow moss which can be milked for a nourishing liquid that can keep a man alive for weeks. Burrough's Mars is a world covered with vegetable nipples, always there to be suckled upon.

Burroughs makes no attempt at high literature. He said himself that "no fiction is worth reading except for entertainment." It is an adventure tale, plain and simple, about a man, who is used to punching people in the face on Earth and having them not die, being transported to a world where his face-punching causes immediate death and steady increases in his social status. Also he has a cool monster-dog called Woola.


  1. Dearest Syme,

    Firstly, I would offer a hearty congratulations on your excellent analysis of "A Princess of Mars" by Edgar Rice Burroughs, it contains nearly everything that a gentleman might need to consider before reading this work. Bravo.

    The founders of the QMBC in their infinite wisdom saw fit to create QMBC-Online to provide an outlet for just such gentlemanly musings. Your entry is an excellent addition to those archives and it makes an even more convincing argument for the reading of "A Princess of Mars".

    Were it not for the mental and physical scars that I earned while reading one of your other nominations "The Hero With A Thousand Faces" (QMBC VI), I would surely seek this title out with immediate effect. Unfortunately, me aul' penis-womb continues to give cause for complaint so I may have to cry off until that is healed. Thanks anyway.

    Re: Quincey Morris goes to Mars?! I think not, Sir. You will no doubt have heard the old adage that: "Men are from Mars, Women from Venus".

    If there were even the slightest grain of truth in that old Chesnut, then you would have to acknowledge that the Quinchester would head directly to Venus. Whereupon, after some light stretching and possibly some jumping-jacks, he would set about every scrap of Venutian-Vadge in double quick time; possibly having seconds on a number of occasions. Then, and only then, with his boundless lust (temporarily!) satiated, he would board the last Space Clipper to Mars to meet the rest of the lads at his club just in time for pudding and a few glasses of port.

    Yours etc.

    Mycroft Webb
    Chief Pudding Officer (QMBC)

    1. Dear Mycroft,

      Quite right! I may have been far too hasty in my considerations of the Quinchester's extra-terrestrial priorities. Not only would he find the siren call of Venuvian wenching hard to resist, but also the nomadic lifestyle of the green men of Mars may have aroused his natural aversion to his one known weakness: gypsies.

      It is only right that your world travels are far less irregular in nature, acquiring as you do modest properties in each destination so as to live in fitting levels of comfort, even in regions where (let alone finding a decent pipe maker) the local folk do not know their Half Bent Dublin from their Tapered Liverpool.

      Fondest regards,

      Whitby Syme (QMBC)