My fourth book review! YAY.
Disclaimer: I have never thought of myself as much of an art critic – I sort of always thought it wasn’t my place to disagree with the storyteller. As in, if I didn’t enjoy a book or movie, then it probably says more about me not being the intended audience for it, right? But I don’t think that need stop me from sharing my thoughts on such-and-such a book.
So here I go…
Edgar Rice Burroughs is the writer of a lot of classic pulp fiction (especially Tarzan), but of a kind sorta only popular in the past. Which was how I heard of it, reading how authors like Ray Bradbury and maybe Kurt Vonnegut too grew up on these serialized tales of adventure. Because yeah, this was published over a century ago now, before world wars and televisions for crying out loud. But of course that doesn’t mean a story can’t be real and entertaining.
And well I wanted to read one, to see what I might and here’s what I got for ya.
Okay, so this story is rich with cliches of today, which were more original back when published, in a way. Like first of all, the story is told as a recounting of a man’s spontaneous teleportation to the planet Mars, where he encounters two alien races – literal Martians – in an age-old war.
Parts I enjoyed, for all of its pulp, were the man experiencing lighter gravity and with it relative muscle boosts in power, as well as weird child-rearing rituals of the native aliens.
It does well to make events of the past, told in the past tense (e.g., “As I would learn later”), still seem urgent and suspenseful. This is helped by the short chapters, coming every five pages, making the book easier to pick up. It all added to the far-out nature of the story.
Parts I enjoyed less was random magic, like him also becoming telepathic as if he wasn’t already overpowered, and the dialogue here is pretty weak to say the least.
While there was some neat stuff with worldbuilding what the natives called Barsoom, the alien designs seemed more shock value monster costume types.
More seriously, the protagonist is essentially a US Confederate who glorifies colonization. Which if it wasn’t obvious enough, the prelude to Mars describes how in the ‘Wild West’, the protagonist is murdering and stealing from Indigenous peoples (or “injuns” as he calls them) on horseback. Okay wow.
This is reflected in the entire journey to Barsoom, where the super-man war-hero comes to rescue one group of aliens from another group. And big surprise, he wins the war, all by being the strongest warrior, the best on Mars. If it sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of Avatar or Ferngully or Pocahontas or the like.
Overall, I would have enjoyed this more had Burroughs been writing this character as an antihero. I’d like to think that the author Burroughs could have made a point of comparison, the colonization and genocide of natives of America and natives of Mars, but it seemed more like he wanted the Wild West in space, wanted his super-powered alpha male to be in “new worlds” again. The ideas of the story were good, but it didn’t seem like much effort was made to write more developed characters.
I feel most inclined to take Octavia Butler’s reaction to such inadequate and oppressive stories by saying it makes me only more inclined to write better fiction than that. I can respect the efforts made by Edgar to write stories of action and to write LOTS of stories (it was during peak pulp era).
I’m here for storytelling that challenges what we see and are told, that the wrongs of past and present can be changed.
Is that so much to ask?
That’s all folks.
Thanks for reading…