Thursday, March 29, 2012

Signal Watch Reads: Gods of Mars

I've now re-read Princess of Mars and finished Gods of Mars.  I am now heading into Warlord of Mars.  Because, you know:  Mars.

I am also going to spoil the end of the book because its not a spoiler.  Its so that you know something I wish I'd known - the book ends on an amazing cliffhanger.  DO NOT EXPECT NARRATIVE CLOSURE.  The last forty pages of the book, I just kept thinking "wow, this is really not seeming like its wrapping up here.  The first book had that whole epilogue sort of ending.  Not this one."  Nope.  It ends with a very Two Towers sort of insistence that you will read/buy book 3, and you will like it.

And I will.  Well, I have a collection with the first three books in it, so...

its pretty much this for over 200 pages

Nobody is going to accuse Edgar Rice Burroughs of writing deep literature with the Barsoom novels.  His character, John Carter, is not here to give lit majors reasons to write papers.  Sure, you could spend a lot of time exploring ideas of religion, class, race, masculinity and femininity in his work, and it might not be wrong to do so as you grapple with 20th Century genre-fiction's long and shaky history with all of these issues.  But these are books for crazy, escapist high adventure and if you find something else in there, well, there you are.

Burroughs' writing is unprincipled and obvious, but his timing and sense of how to build a scene are absolutely top notch.  I am sure there's some aspect of all this that's tied to the serial nature of how these books originally appeared in short installments where he needed to move the story along, but if one were to compare them to, say, Lord of the Rings...  Burroughs would never have wallowed nearly so much as Tolkein even if he were conveying the exact same misery that Frodo and Sam deal with in the final installment.  Burroughs would have said something more along the lines of "the short men were having an awful time of it, and it went on for some days.  It was completely miserable in the swampy wasteland.  Many orcs gave them a terrible time of some concern, but they met the sharp end of Frodo's blade and their nuisance ended immediately."

I keep coming back to the Tolkein/ Burroughs comparison partially because (a) I can count on most of you nerds to have read LOTR, but also (b) because I can think of so few fictional works I've read that involve struggles both personal and epic in scale, constantly moving back and forth between the two, and which feature such massive casts maneuvering armies and navies into battle.  While Tolkein, who had served in The Great War understood the tragedy of young men pressed into battle for reasons dreamed up from men far away and to resolve differences brewed before they were born, its unbelievable to ponder that Burroughs was writing his novels more than 50 years before a single guitar solo had been performed by Queen.  I don't air guitar often when reading a book, but you sort of have to wail on your imaginary axe during some of Burroughs' more vivid scenes.

I am not sure if this is from Burroughs' work or Jane Austen

I can only assume from reading this book that Burroughs was one skeptical dude.  His satirical take on religion is consistently and brutally cynical as his hero, John Carter, a man with no belief in the rabid faiths of Barsoom, peels back the onion layers of conspiracy and abuse by those who have manipulated an entire planet to their benefit.

The underlying theme of the two Carter novels I've read has been that a dying civilization is one which does not look inward or question their own beliefs and how things work.  The arrival of John Carter, as Tars Tarkas notes immediately, shows that the world is not set in stone, that there is the possibility for change and imagining new things.  The hardest of these things, Burroughs seems to suggest, are the intangible truths which we tell ourselves must be true even in the face of evidence and learning who benefits.

Also, giant four armed white apes that eat human flesh.

These books are a hoot, and I'm just really enjoying them.

Again, its interesting to see how many contrivances, devices and ideas seem to have been lifted from these novels, particularly in comics (Superman, Warlord, Adam Strange...), so I think its no wonder this appeals to me.  Yes, its dated and the gender politics are a nightmare, but: context.

I have my "recommendations" tab, and I'd like to recommend these books to you guys, but I'm not sure the pulp fantasy aspect is really up the alley of the modern reader.  Its not like I am saying "oh, you wouldn't get it, man..." its that I hate to steer you astray if this sort of thing doesn't grab you in movies like Conan, Flash Gordon or other vintage bits of genre.  None of this seems geared to be taken terribly seriously, which may be a modern concern.

The ideas around heroism, the unrepentant embracing of war as a way of life, the hero who doesn't have time to brood...  none of it feels like the sort of thing that feels like it meets the modern audience checklist of "what makes a good movie hero", and maybe there's something there when you look at the box office receipts and how John Carter has faded from the public's mind.

I very much look forward to wrapping up book 3 in the next few days.

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