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I probably should have read A Princess of Mars when I was twelve. Everything I liked back then was obviously, now that I look back, shaped by it — from Harlan Ellison and Robert A. Heinlein and Superman and Star Trek and Roy Thomas and Steve Gerber, to Land of the Lost and Star Wars and beyond.

I don’t think I would have seen or made the connections back then, though. I also wouldn’t have realized how well-written it is, as a piece of prose. Except for the silly science, and the imperalistic underthinking, this could have been written by a professional science fiction writer today. And our own contemporary silly science in our own contemporary science fiction novels will surely appear just as silly in a hundred years, so blah. More on the imperalistic underthinking in a moment.

When I talk about “the writing” I am specifically talking about the clarity and sharpness of the prose. Most early 20th century pulp writing (including the work of the still-popular Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft) strikes me as overblown and kitschy — because it is overblown and kitschy — but Burroughs nearly holds his own with the best prose stylists of his day.

Case in point: I recently finished reading Edith Wharton’s travelogue In Morocco, and the prose here reminded me very specifically of hers — a high compliment coming from me. I hate Wharton, but I love her prose. It’s complicated. Now, I very emphatically do not mean to imply that the characters and their relationships are as deeply-rendered or as finely crafted as those in Wharton’s masterpieces like The Age of Innocence or Ethan Frome. They are not. These characters, and these relationships, are short-handed and sketchy, in the time-worn “boy’s adventure” style, comparable to the relationships and characters in a contemporary blockbuster movie. But they are also comparable to the almost non-existent relationships and characters in Wharton’s travelogue. The prose, though, in both cases, flows.

The travelogue comparison is particularly interesting, I think. By coincidence, I’ve read a couple of turn-of-the-century travelogues just recently (Wharton’s, and Twain’s The Innocents Abroad), and the similarities are just too striking to be an accident. In addition to everything else that it happens to be, A Princess of Mars is a travelogue, albeit a fictional one, describing a fictional place. That means the author is allowed more leeway, and can get his characters into more adventure and romance, than if he is obliged to conform to anything like reality.

Of course, Wharton’s travelogue doesn’t resemble our contemporary understanding of reality, either, in some ways.

Compare this, from Wharton:

It was swarming with hill-people the day we were there, and strange was the contrast between the crowd inside the circle of picketed horses and the white-robed cockneys from Rabat who fill the market-place of Salé. Here at last we were in touch with un-Arab Morocco, with Berbers of the bled and the hills, whose women know no veils and no seclusion, and who, under a thin surface of Mahometanism, preserve their old stone and animal worship, and all the gross fetichistic beliefs from which Mahomet dreamed of freeing Africa. […] The men were lean and weather-bitten, some with negroid lips, others with beaked noses and gaunt cheek-bones, all muscular and fierce-looking. Some were wrapped in the black cloaks worn by the Blue Men of the Sahara, with a great orange sun embroidered on the back, some tunicked like the Egyptian fellah, under a rough striped outer garment trimmed with bright tufts and tassels of wool. The men of the Rif had a braided lock on the shoulder, those of the Atlas a ringlet over each ear, and brown woollen scarfs wound round their temples, leaving the shaven crown bare.

To this, from Burroughs:

There was no hair on their bodies, which were of a very light yellowish-green color. In the adults, as I was to learn quite soon, this color deepens to an olive green and is darker in the male than in the female. Further, the heads of the adults are not so out of proportion to their bodies as in the case of the young. […] The iris of the eyes is blood red, as in Albinos, while the pupil is dark. The eyeball itself is very white, as are the teeth. These latter add a most ferocious appearance to an otherwise fearsome and terrible countenance, as the lower tusks curve upward to sharp points which end about where the eyes of earthly human beings are located. The whiteness of the teeth is not that of ivory, but of the snowiest and most gleaming of china. Against the dark background of their olive skins their tusks stand out in a most striking manner, making these weapons present a singularly formidable appearance.

In both cases, we’re looking at the inhabitants of an exotic landscape from behind a dehumanizing, imperialistic, paternalistic gaze (Wharton’s “Blue Men of the Sahara” nicely echoing Burroughs’ “Green Men of Mars”). In Burroughs, that imperalistic point of view will, of course, result in the white man being better at everything than the natives, eventually making him their ruler (see also: Burroughs’ Tarzan, Cameron’s Avatar and etc.) In Wharton’s case, the rulership of the white man has already occurred, is a matter of historical record (in her day, Morocco had recently been taken by the French, from the Spanish who had it before, and so on and so on). Wharton’s admiration for the French, who, in her view, were saving the Moroccans from themselves, is the John Carter myth writ real.

That Burroughs’ characters aren’t technically human makes his description of the Tharks slightly more palatable to us than Wharton’s casual racism, but both writers — the pulp “hack” and the sophisticated literary genius — are speaking from the exact same place, and telling exactly the same story, in the above paragraphs: “look at these weird and inferior tribal freaks. Let’s rule them, shall we?”

The palatability of encoded racism and imperalism in science fictional narratives makes those narratives (and those encoded beliefs) endure long after we know they are useless and vile. Very few of us would get behind the notion that France, Belgium, England and Portugal, etc., should be ruling large swaths of Africa anymore. But it’s easy to root for John Carter as he shepherds the hopelessly savage Green Men of Mars toward civilization. And I did root for him. And I did enjoy it. And I knew better, too.

I said that the imperalistic underthinking was a sign that the book wasn’t written recently, but, come to think of it, never mind that. Much contemporary science fiction (including the aforementioned Avatar by James Cameron) carries these notions hidden within it, probably not because the authors believe such things, but because such a fundamental genre trope, once ingrained, is almost impossible to extract. Genre, at its most basic, reproduces itself with only slight variations from generation to generation. Contemporary science fiction writers who create imperalistic narratives aren’t doing so because they are secretly imperalists. They’re doing so because they are secretly imitative hacks.

There are, like, eleven or twelve or thirty more of these Barsoom books (“Barsoom” is what the natives call their home planet of Mars). I don’t think I’ll read the rest of them. This one was fun to read, though, especially in light of the recent fairly watchable movie based on it. And the fact that, like every other ebook on Gutenberg.org, it was and is legally and openly free.