Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Signal Watch Reads: Warlord of Mars

Well, I have now completed the first three Barsoom novels, just finishing Warlord of Mars.

I will say, of the three, Warlord is, perhaps, the silliest of three fairly ridiculous novels.  Now, when I say the books are ridiculous, these novels are hyperbolic, escapist adventure fantasy.  Its the predecessor to Flash Gordon and Conan by several years, each, and helped launch both genres.  While interesting themes and ideas present themselves in the three books, you'd be hard pressed to say that Edgar Rice Burroughs was pushing an agenda beneath the layers of the Barsoom novels, or that he was seeking to impart a subversive message or pat himself on the back for writing a very important book.  But that doesn't mean they aren't pretty wild fun, and don't work surprisingly well in the context of the modern action enthusiast.

But it can get silly.  Warlord features at least two instance where our hero goes undercover in iffy disguises, knocks himself out more than once, and routinely has to explain that maybe he isn't much of a thinker as he apologizes to the reader for not having a particularly good reason why he has once again pitched himself into a fight that maybe didn't need to happen (while suggesting he thinks to think too hard about these things is sort of for jerks, anyway).  In some ways, John Carter is the Jack Burton of his time and place.  He's a reasonable man caught up in unreasonable circumstances.

Hail to the king, baby

The book does manage to tie up threads started as early as the first novel, and expands dramatically upon the history, geography and peoples of Barsoom.  Its all a bit like how the two subsequent Star Wars films after A New Hope took the opportunity to run with the world/ galaxy laid out in Episode IV and expand in all directions.

The action is practically non-stop in this book, taking us from set-piece to set-piece, dramatic battle to dramatic battle.  The plot is full of amazing coincidences, chance meetings, and lots and lots of threats to Dejah Thoris, mostly by dudes who don't really care if she isn't interested in them: they will MARRY/ sex her.

Yeah, unfortunately by the end of this book, Dejah Thoris is more or less a MacGuffin couched in deeply sexist terms of both 1913-ish and Barsoom, I guess.  You can really see why the recent movie adaptation went to such lengths to ensure that their Dejah Thoris was a creature of free will and not just a girl hostage for John Carter to hop about pursuing and failing to rescue.  While the book makes it pretty clear why Carter is in hot pursuit (Dejah Thoris is the only woman he's ever found more interesting than killing dudes), I'm not sure you could just dump that on a movie audience.  But, I mean, by the time we hit Gods of Mars, this is his wife, and apparently she's just terribly attractive and she doesn't just put up with his relentless swordplay, she encourages it.  Again, not a great fit for modern audiences unless you're a 12 year old boy with hero fantasies about Mary Ann sitting in the next seat over who still hasn't noticed you.

What Burroughs understood, perhaps natively, was how to build scope and epic flourishes into his books.  The personal becomes universal, and our pursuit of Dejah Thoris turns into an epic chase from pole-to-pole on Mars.  In that course, new creatures and races of men are found, alliances formed, and even John Carter himself seems unaware of the impact he's had on Barsoom until the final pages of the third novel, but that's what the books are about - John Carter changing the lives of everyone on a planet that was on a death watch for itself.

Anyhow, a quick read.  And I am going to take a break, read some other stuff, and then see about reading the next few Barsoom novels, which don't feature John Carter as the lead.


J.S. said...

Uh, I think that in some ways all guys will always be "a 12 year old boy with hero fantasies about Mary Ann sitting in the next seat over who still hasn't noticed [us]". Or most os us, anyway.

The League said...

I think that's actually the appeal. While I think that would have resonated with me like crazy when I was a younger reader, it still works. Its just all the baggage you bring with you as an adult that gets in the way of the fantasy.