CLASSIC SCIENCE FICTION BOOK REVIEW: “Gods of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1918)

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I’d been holding off of the “John Carter of Mars” series for pretty much my entire life since it always seemed kind of dumb and beneath me. It sounded like “Conan the Barbarian” set in space, and that’s just not my bag (Though to be fair, the “Gor” series is more like Conan the Barbarian in space). Just the same when I finally got around to reading the first book I have to say the purple prose and breathless excitement of it won me over. It’s kind of like going on a date with a Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Yeah, there’s a lot of low cards in that hand, but they all add up to more than the sum of their parts - or at least seem to over dinner - and it’s just hard not to like someone so completely engaging on every level. You have a great, great, night that lasts all weekend, and you’re pretty sure you’re in love.

Then normal life reasserts itself, and you realize it takes you all week to recover from dancing and drinking until 5AM all weekend long, and her friends are super-annoying, and they smoke a lot of pot - a HELL of a lot of pot - and dammit she won’t shut up about her campaign to Save The Homosexual Whales Of Japan, and she leaves increasingly paranoid messages on your answering machine every half hour, and you think “Oh, God, what have I gotten myself in to?” and you want to break up with her, but you know she’s got a gun…

So it’s understandable that I had some hesitance about reading the next book in the series. I mean, once or twice is good for your soul, but a steady commitment is a quick trip to the madhouse. But I bit the bullet and went on my second date with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of Speculative Fiction that we call “Barsoom.”

And you know, it wasn’t that bad.

It really wasn’t. I hesitate to say it was more ‘laid back’ than the first book, because it’s pretty much an unending series of naked, gory battles for two hundred pages, but in some ways, yeah, it’s more relaxed. It isn’t trying as hard as it did on the first date. In some ways this is refreshing, in others it’s kind of a disappointment.

Last time, as you recall, John Carter died in the old west and woke up on Mars (for no adequately explained reason) where he had adventures and fell in love with the princess Dejah Thoris. They spent ten years together, and then he died saving the entire planet, whereupon he wakes up back in the old west (For no adequately explained reason). He then spends ten years on earth, makes his nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs the executor to his will, and drops dead again (for no adequately explained reason). The conclusion of the frame story in that novel has Burroughs musing on the fact that Carter has once more been dead for ten years…

This time out, we begin with Burroughs getting a message to meet someone in a bar. He goes and meets his “Uncle Jack,” who hasn’t aged a day because he’s immortal (Which was pointed out in the first book, but, again, never adequately explained). Even so, you’d think that dying six times by this point would tend to make you a bit stoop-shouldered and grey in the temples, at least. But no! Carter gives Burroughs a huge sheaf of papers, which he says are his memories of this two long stays on Mars, then excuses himself to go die a seventh time. He says he doesn’t think he’ll be coming back again, but that his nephew can publish his papers.

With that out of the way, we jump right to the action, set ten years before that introduction: Carter wakes up in a beautiful, lush, well-watered, pleasant, and entirely un-Mars-like valley. Until he recognizes the low gravity (via several comedic face-plants), he doubts that he’s on the red planet. But where is he? After meeting up with the truly-creepy “Plant men of Mars” - man-sized kangaroos with no mouth, but with two long arm/trunk things with a mouth in the palm of each hand - he realizes he must be in the Valley of Dor, which passes for Heaven amongst the Barsoomians.

Y’see, these Martians all live a ridiculously long life - 1000 years - and those that don’t die in the almost-constant warfare eventually that age when they’re sick of it all, so they go to the Dor Valley and live with the gods and goddesses in peace and bliss and prosperity for all eternity. Unfortunately this is all a scam: the “White Martians” who live in the valley, and who’s existence is unsuspected outside of it, essentially keep this scam going so they can prey on the hopeful pilgrims who come their way. They kill them and eat them, excepting the particularly strong and/or pretty ones, whom they enslave until they’re no longer amusing. Then they kill and/or eat them.

In a sequence involving a coincidence that more or less made me yell “Oh, come on!” at the book, John bumps in to his old friend Tars Tarkas, the green Martian from the previous book. The two of them kill people for a bit, rescue a super-hot naked red Martian chick named “Thuvia” (And I have to restate that *all* the women in these books are super-hot and super-naked pretty much 24/7. Despite this, the novels remain sort of charmingly chaste. “I’ve never been good with women” John Carter admits at one point), then get captured by the evil Whitey Devils.

You know, a lot of people have complained over the years about how these books are Racist, but to be honest I don’t see much evidence of that. I mean, the bad guys are Caucasian, and both morally and physically degenerate besides. That doesn’t sound too terribly racist to me, but I have a history of missing the point on these things.

Anyway, it turns out that the Whitey Devils believe themselves to be gods, and when they tire of life, they themselves head down the river Iss through the valley Dor, just like all those poor saps they feast upon. The river empties in to a huge sea, which has an island in the middle of it, and this, sayeth the Whitey Devils, is the *Real* heaven, where they’ll go when they get old, to live in peace and prosperity and blah blah blah for all eternity. Carter is pretty quick to call ‘shenanigans’ on this idea, but before we can get in to an argument about this obvious scam-within-a-scam, the Whitey Devils are attacked by the Black Pirates of Barsoom.

Carter had heard of these in his previous life on Mars, but thought they were a legend. They mostly prey on the Whitey Devils, and seldom on others outside of the valley. The White Martians don’t put up much of a fight, because once they did and the Black Martians all-but-exterminated them. Thuvia and Tars Tarkas get away while John tries to fight off the pirates, and in the process rescues yet another screamingly-hot naked chick - Phaidor - and briefly captures one of their pirate airships from it’s captain, Xodar. Eventually subdued, Xodar and the pirate fleet fly to the heavenly island in the sea we’ve been told the River Iss empties in to, then down a volcanic shaft, culminating in a massive underground cavern half-full of water and hundreds of miles in diameter.

Carter and Phaidor are taken to see Issus, the “Stunningly beautiful” goddess of the Black Martians and (She claims) all Mars. In fact, she’s a withered old hag, in a none-too-subtle visual metaphor. Phaidor is enslaved, and Carter is sent to prison. For allowing Carter to best him, Xodar is sentenced to be Carter’s slave. While in jail they meet a young red martian boy named “Carthoris” but every time he’s about to explain his backstory, he gets interrupted by a guard or what have you. It’s cloying and annoying. Xodar explains that all slaves and prisoners have a year to live, and then they’re sacrificed to Phaidor, and possibly eaten, depending on how busy a day she’s having. He then gets in to a religious argument with Carter about the nature of the goddess, which is quite a bit like the ones Christian missionaries used to convert the Norse, IE: “I have just chopped down one of Odin’s sacred trees, which means he will punish me by immediate death. I’m waiting….still waiting…what, do you think Odin’s in the can right now? I can come back…” This throws Xodar in to a metaphysical funk, and he gets really depressed, but agrees to help Carter.

Carter and Carthoris are sent to fight gladiatorial games, and get all ‘Spartacus’ on the white Martian’s asses, getting within arms’ reach of Issus in the coliseum. She escapes down a super happy funtime tunnel slide, however, so John and the boy dive in after her, but by the time they get to the bottom she’s sealed it up and leaves them in there to die. Fortunately, Carthoris did slave labor in this particular wing of the Super Happy Funtime Tunnel Slide dungeon, and knows the way out. They make their way back to the prison and rescue Xodar, then steal a ship and after a “Millennium Falcon escaping the Death Star” kind of battle, they escape from the underground land and crash in the desert just past the southern polar ice cap.

Carthoris turns out to be John Carter’s son, surprising no one (Excepting the two of them), and then we have another of those “Oh come on!” moments when they just bump in to the super-hot Thuvia who’s been wandering around in the desert since we last saw her. Tarkas has gotten himself in to a peck of trouble, and while John goes to resolve that, Thuvia disappears and they get captured/rescued by the Helium Navy (Composed entirely of airships).

The quandary is this: Everyone on Mars believes in Issus and the sacred pilgrimage on the River Iss through the Valley Dor. The Whitey Devils who live there maintain planet-wide control over the temples through subterfuge, indoctrination of Red Martian priests, secret messages, and a killer system of tunnels that makes Hogan’s Heroes seem like something you cobbled together with a toy plastic shovel on the beach. One unquestioned law of this religion is: No one comes back from the river. If they do, they’re evil, spouting lies, and must be killed. Immediately. To Death. No questions asked.

This raises a fascinating problem for our heroes.

Back in the first book, there was some palace intrigue between the city-state of Helium and the city-state of Zodanga, with Zat Arras of Zodanga wanting to marry Dejah Thoris. Of course he failed, but he still had a torch for her, and who could blame him? She looks way better than Raquel Welch in her prime! Anyway, after John Carter died 10 years earlier, the rulers of Helium went off to look for his body and never returned. This presented a crisis in leadership, and Zat Arras, as the most closely related noble, presumes the throne and is leader until the old rulers turn up. He seems pretty sure they won’t. He insisted Dejah marry him, but after loosing carter, and then her son, it’s just too much. She snuck out of the city and headed to the River Iss. Carter, it turns out, has missed her by just a week or so.

It’s at this point the story kind of goes off the rails.

I realize you need complications to keep these things going, but the one Burroughs chose is more annoying than interesting. Carter is then tried for blasphemy by Zat Arras, and the sentencing nearly causes a civil war to break out, so Arras gives John a ’one year reprieve’, meanwhile the people of Helium - whom Carter has evidently save a dozen times over by this point - throw off their religion and pledge to live and die by his word, in this life and the next (!). Thus the religious conflict that’s been brewing the whole book is basically side-stepped, and it’s a terrible cheat. There is some early, good stuff here, like Xodar’s difficult time coming to grips with the truth of his religion, or a friend of Carter who says “I’m already risking my life by helping you, don’t make me risk my afterlife as well by asking me to listen to you.” It’s actually surprisingly emotional in that brief scene, but for whatever reason the brewing religious conflict is basically deflated and mostly offscreen, as it were. I don’t know if it was beyond Burrough’s range to tell the story, or if he felt that would stretch out the book by another third, or what, but rather than deal with the intellectual meat of the book, he simply has Carter get kidnapped and thrown in a dungeon for a year by Arras. Whatever happens during this time is never really mentioned. The only plot tension in this point is the deadline to rescue Dejah, since she’s only got a year before Issus kills her. This is resolved in another one of those annoying “Oh, come on!” scenes.

Carthoris rescues his dad in a pretty hilarious scene, and they escape to lead the attack on the Valley Dor and rescue their loved ones. We then get some impressively huge four-sided battles, with Whitey Devils against Black Pirates, against the Red Martian Navy of Helium versus Zat Arras’ own forces. Carter’s superior leadership doesn’t exactly win the day, but manages gain the tactical advantage, but for all their scope the battle sequence is oddly flat and not terribly engaging.

Down in the underground sea, Carter leads his forces and eventually captures Issus amidst a throng of her followers. He challenges her to kill him with magic, and she babbles in schizophrenic frenzy for a bit, clearly insane. Rather than kill her himself - which would be unchivalrous - he tosses her to her own aghast followers who rip her to shreds.

Alas, as her final act, Issus has put the unbelievably hot naked trio of Dejah, Thuvia, and Phaidor in this cell that can only be opened once every Martian year. They can’t stop the door, and there’s no food or water. Anyone in there starves. Issus had hoped to torture Carter with the knowledge that his beloved would have to resort to cannibalism to survive. They cant’ get them out, but Xodar has the presence of mind to chuck in as many cans of food as he can find before the door seals up all the way. Suddenly Phaidor pulls a knife and says she’ll take her revenge on Carter for spurning her in all her hot extravagantly naked Caucasian pulchritude. She moves to stab Dejah, Thuvia lunges forward, there’s a scream, the door closes…

TO BE CONTINUED…

Despite some obvious literary cheats, and the annoying cliffhanger ending (Which I admit is pretty good, even if annoying by definition), this is actually on most levels a better book than its predecessor. That’s kind of its problem, really. If it were simply screaming purple prose like Princess of Mars was, the unreasonably coincidences and sidestepping the religious issue wouldn’t be a big deal, but here they’re oddly distracting. Burroughs is a better writer here, and he’s fleshing out his world somewhat. Barsoom feels more real here than it did in the first book, and his storytelling is in some ways more economical, though the story itself really needs more of a wild-eyed ‘and then what? And then what? And then? Yeah, yeah, and then?’ style. The first half of the book is a lot of stupid fun and flows nicely, the second half is a bit more work to get through, with less payoff.

I would argue that it’s not a racist book. The White Martians are pretty unrepentantly evil throughout the book, and we never meet one with any redeeming qualities. When faced with almost-certain death, Phaidor decides to murder someone and ruin Carter’s life just out of spite, for instance. In fact, since the White Martians are living off the slaughter of Red Martians, you could even say there’s a touch of social commentary in that, though I think that might be a case of simply choosing to see something more subtle than the author actually included in the story.

Conversely, the Black Martians are presented as somewhat sympathetically. Firstly, they do unto the bad guys as the bad guys do unto others, which isn’t exactly right, but it is at least just deserts. Secondly, Xodar is portrayed as a very positive character who’s quick to accept the truth despite the fact that it pains him to do so, and costs him quite a bit on a personal level. Later on, when Issus’ scam is exposed, her own followers - black martians all - turn on her in righteous anger and tear her apart. I think the point here is that they’re basically good, or at least redeemable people who’ve been savagely misled and abused by an evil person.

Finally, Carter gives the order to genocidally wipe out the White Martians in the book, but he doesn’t do that to the Black ones. It’s unclear if any whitey devils survive the ending of the novel. Not only is this not a racist book, but it’s surprisingly progressive for its time.

Another issue raised a lot is whether or not the Issus religion is supposed to be a commentary on Christianity.

I don’t think it is. Yeah, “I” and “J” were interchangeable in the latin alphabet, making “Jesus” and “Issus” phonetically rather close, but I’m not sure Burroughs knew that. There’s nothing particularly Christian about the Issus religion at all, and there’s no ethical teachings to it or anything presented to flesh it out. I think, if anything, it was simply supposed to represent how a bad priest can do a world of hurt to good people. If we take it as an indictment of unsupervised clergy, or possibly simple illiterate paganism, I think that’s about all we can get out of it. I don’t think there’s any ‘higher meaning’ or subtext here.

So, to return to my tedious date metaphor from earlier: It was a pretty good second date, not a disaster, but not terribly fulfilling either, since the book deliberately avoids a major intellectual conflict that it set up through its first half. I’m a bit disappointed, since for a bit there it looked like I was getting something more than I had dared hope for, but I can’t be *too* upset as I still ended up with slightly more than I expected.

I’ll give it another try, but the next novel is the make-it-or-break-it one for me, and if that doesn’t work out, well….I think maybe we should agree to see other books…

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