A princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912-1917).
Score: Historical must-read.
For those of us reading from this side of the publication of Neuromancer, pulp fiction is a bit like the embarrassing bigoted grandparent of science fiction. We wouldn’t be here without it.
As the descendants of dime novels, pulps were cheaply produced and sometimes poorly written. They relied on stereotypes and cliffhangers to make readers come back week after week, and were written so you could start the serial midway through and still figure out what was going on. It was fiction written for the lowest common denominator of book consumers: the uneducated majority of the population of the first half of the twentieth century.
But you know who wrote for pulps, too? You will recognise these names: Asimov, Bester, Bradbury, K. Dick, Heinlein, Herbert, Lovecraft. Without pulps, we wouldn’t have had the Big Three, who set out to take science fiction out of the ghetto. We’re still at it, by the way.
One of these people was Edgar Rice Burroughs. A princess of Mars is the first of a saga that spawned a total of eleven novels, all of them serialised in magazines in the first place. It tells the story of John Carter, a gentleman from Virginia and a Confederate war veteran who is teleported to Mars from a cave in Arizona. There he meets the Green Men of Mars, a cruel and warlike race, and lives multiple adventures. He punches his way up the martial social ladder, befriends a huge fiend that becomes his guard dog and falls in love at first sight with Dejah Thoris, a beautiful, damsel in distress, princess of the Red Martians.
There’s racism. There’s sexism. There’s clichéd storytelling. Characters are not very developed and the plot is quite disperse, divided in short chapters that can be read separately of the rest and still get an idea of what’s going on if you miss one of them. Now that I’m thinking of it, it’s what our grandparents had instead or Saturday morning cartoons.
And maybe for that reason Burroughs’ work is so insanely influential. Ray Bradbury called him the most influential writer in the entire history of the world, probably to piss intellectuals off. John Carter’s super jumps on the reduced gravity of Mars inspired Jerry Siegel to create Superman. John Carter’s mingling with a different culture and marrying a native princess predates Avatar, The last samurai, Pocahontas andDances with wolves by decades. There would be no space opera without planetary romance.
All in all, loving science fiction and being unfamiliar with John Carter of Mars means missing out on a lot.