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Archive for April, 2012

Looking at John Carter (of Mars) — Part 2

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado (plus a coda by Athena)

Part 1

Burroughs’ Influences

ERB had several strong influences while creating the fictional world of Barsoom. One came from his experiences in the late 1890s as an enlisted soldier with the 7th U.S. Cavalry at Fort Grant in Arizona (still a US territory at the time). The vast desert landscape of the Southwest served as a geophysical model for his drying and dying Mars. The surrounding Native American population became the Tharks. The native women – whom he found to be haughty, beautiful, and very proud – may also have served as ERB’s involuntary muses for Dejah Thoris.

ERB’s other prominent influence for the formation of Barsoom came from a fellow who was also a resident of Arizona around the same time: Percival Lowell. A member of a very prominent Boston Brahmin family, Lowell became fascinated with Mars after the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported observing a series of long, straight dark lines on the Red Planet starting in 1877. His intense and focused interest in Mars (along with his wealth) led Lowell to build a professional observatory in remote Flagstaff, Arizona, where he felt he could properly study our neighboring world to better discern its compelling features.

Lowell and others soon came to the conclusion that such formations had to be artificial in nature. Lowell believed that a race of beings much older, wiser, and more advanced than humanity dwelt on Mars. These Martians built a vast network of giant canals to bring water from their arctic regions of ice to their cities on and near the equator. Their plan was to stave off extinction as their ancient world began to dry up, taking the native flora and fauna with it in the process. Lowell and his followers thought they were witnesses to the last great act of an alien civilization.

Lowell’s hypothesis for Mars were not completely pulled out of thin air, for his ideas were based on a combination of contemporary thoughts and observations: From what astronomers could see through their telescopes about the Red Planet from their vantage point on Earth many millions of miles away, the fourth world from the Sun appeared to be more like our globe than any other place in the Sol system. Mars possessed two white polar caps, an axial tilt and rotation rate very similar to Earth’s, and light and dark regions which changed in color, shape, and size through the long Martian seasons. Many conjectured that these mobile surface markings were the life cycles of native plants or even the migration of animals.

Another idea popular at the time was the Nebular Theory of solar system formation. This plan declared that the outer worlds cooled and condensed first ages ago from the cosmic cloud of dust and debris that would become our Solar System. These places would thus develop  the conditions to support life sooner than the worlds closer to the warming Sun. As a result, the outer planets would also one day find themselves becoming less able to sustain their ecosystem sooner than the inner planets. This is why Lowell concluded there were canal-building intelligences on Mars without being able to actually see any such beings to learn whether he was correct or not.

Whether Percival Lowell was eventually right or wrong about the true state of the Red Planet ultimately mattered little to authors such as ERB and H. G. Wells. They found in Lowell’s ideas a fertile field for their imaginary worlds, though of course in Wells’ case, the Lowellian conditions on Mars served as a literal springboard for his octopus-like inhabitants to seek a better place to live, by force no less, thus creating the alien invasion scenario that remains popular to this very day. The only major difference between Wells’ creatures and their fictional descendants is that they now spring (mostly) from worlds circling other suns.

In contrast, ERB’s Martians remained on Barsoom despite the similarly debilitating environmental situation. There was and is a lot of high technology across Barsoomian society in both the novel and the film, including aerial flying machines, but they did not seem to focus on space travel, if you exclude the Therns’ guarded method of celestial transportation. Nevertheless, at least Helium appears to have had some rather powerful ground-based telescopes, as in the film version Dejah Thoris eventually realized that John Carter was a native of Jarsoom, while in the novel the princess was well aware of human civilization on Earth long before Carter arrived on her world.

Obviously the main reason I am emphasizing the John Carter connection with Lowell’s Mars is due to its important influence in bringing about the world of Barsoom. My other motive for bringing up the era defined by what Lowell created, pursued, and essentially preached about the Red Planet – namely from the latter half of the nineteenth century to July of 1965, when the American robotic probe Mariner 4 revealed with its t relatively crude images of the planet’s surface and other measurements a shockingly Moon-like Mars – is to highlight a period of astronomical history that is both fascinating in its own right and a relevant lesson in our current pursuit of extraterrestrial life.

John Carter did give some tantalizing hints about the Lowell era of Mars at the beginning and end of the film, very briefly displaying some real early hand-drawn maps of the planet. Included among these charts was one of the famous Lowell maps of the Martian canals, where it turns out that ERB rather closely modeled the various city-states and other features of Barsoom upon in numerous cases. See here for the details:

I also took special pleasure in noting that John Carter’s tomb looked rather similar to the one Percival Lowell was buried in on Mars Hill at his Flagstaff observatory in 1915.  It is these touches and obvious indication that someone did their historical research which I appreciate very much.

While it is clear to us (and a number of astronomers from that era) that Lowell went much too far in speculating on what the Martian canals were all about (sadly, even the canals turned out not to be real but rather optical illusions caused by real surface features being just beyond the resolution of most telescopes), his influence and imagination were the important catalyst in spurring both classic works of fiction and the people who would go on to study and explore the real Red Planet. A film about that era could be quite successful in my opinion. Certainly there would be enough real excitement, romance, and drama to work from.

Final Thoughts – The White Messiah

When Athena initially asked if I was interested in writing a review of John Carter, we briefly touched upon the “White Messiah” complex that exists in most films such as Avatar, Dances With Wolves, and certainly the John Carter series.  Of course one could not create a John Carter story absent of its white male American hero without radically changing the focus and point of what ERB was trying to do (in addition to making a living at writing): to get American boys to become manlier like their forbears were presumed to be.

While researching John Carter, I read that ERB was concerned about the growing population move from the farms and fields to more urban areas.  ERB felt that boys who were not able to spend their youths hunting, fishing, and partaking in other outdoor activities were in danger of losing their manhood and possibly becoming – gasp – intellectual sissies!  So ERB conceived of a character that would inspire young males to become bold, daring, and adventurous (along with pursuing beautiful women) under the guise of an entertaining plot.

I have my doubts that this idea was actively considered or even known of by the makers of the John Carter film.  If anything, the snachismo concept Athena has written about here in her blog was quite in play:  John Carter was still indeed a manly man, but he was also shown to have a sensitive and caring side, including a back story that did not exist in the novel so far as I know.  And for a “Gentleman from Virginia” of the Nineteenth Century, Carter recognized and respected Dejah Thoris’ numerous abilities, despite her being – gasp – a woman.

The White Messiah idea does have some literal merit for John Carter (note the initials).  This article in Slate magazine goes into some interesting and revealing depth on the subject.  One has to wonder why our society seems to always be waiting and hoping for one particular individual (or even an advanced ETI) to come along and save the rest of us from ourselves?  Is it just because we are social mammals hardwired to defer authority to an Alpha Male?

While works like John Carter were not really aimed at exploring this topic, they can stir us to move beyond these basic plots and concepts to create our own ideas and stories of worlds and beings who think and operate in ways different from our current culture.  After all, that is one of the key features of science fiction, to imagine alternate scenarios and societies and see how they might play out.

It was nice to see on the big screen a fairly well done rendition of and tribute to a series that inspired so much of our popular science fiction stories today.  Now that a century has passed, I think it is time for cinematic science fiction to start graduating to more complex and daring concepts, which we did see a few times in the pre-Star Wars era.  If done and sold right, I think audiences are becoming sophisticated enough to handle stories outside the mainstream “comfort zone”.  At the very least, perhaps next time we will have a story about a Dejah Thoris type who simultaneously inspires young women and saves the world.

Athena’s coda: I already expressed my views of how well-made/progressive I deemed the JCM film in part 1.  ERB is one of the forefathers of the grittygrotty contingent in SF/F.  Its members are invariably linked with regressive tropes, evopsycho paradigms that extol reactionary mores as universal (the Alpha Male canard among them – there are no such creatures in the human species, biologically speaking) and hack writing.  I won’t list names, lest I spread the disease; nevertheless, it’s indicative that this contingent went ballistic because the JCM film updated the novel to lighten its deeply reactionary nature vis-à-vis women and non-whites.

Percival Lowell’s social prominence and wealth allowed him to indulge in his passionate hobby, and concrete good came of it: namely, the discovery of Pluto (he could have spent his money on golf clubs or financing conservative politicians).  However, it was already widely accepted during Lowell’s heyday that the Martian canals (a mistranslation of Schiaparelli’s original term, which meant channels) were natural formations.  It’s entirely likely that his “maps” of Mars and Venus were in fact depictions of his retinal blood vessels.

Mars, by dint of all its intrinsics as they gradually unfolded before us, has been a perennial object of fascination.  The issue of whether it once did or still does harbor life has not been resolved and I, for one, am all for a crewed expedition that will not only attempt to definitively answer this question but will also be useful in showing up the pitfalls and limitations of longer space travel.

On the art side, it’s true that there hasn’t yet been a film depiction of Mars that does it justice.  The obvious candidate (for a series rather than a standalone film, given its length) is Stan Robinson’s trilogy.  But for my taste, the hands-down choice would be Alexander Jablokov’s River of Dust: it shows a Mars that harbors a precarious but culturally vibrant underground human colony after a terraforming attempt failed, and it overflows with mythic echoes, dramatic situations that matter, exciting ideas, unique settings and vivid characters.

Images: Lowell’s “map” of the Mars south pole (1904); Lowell’s mausoleum; Valles Marineris, one of the largest canyons in the solar system (NASA/JPL); Alex Jablokov’s marvelous River of Dust

Looking at John Carter (of Mars) — Part 1

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado (plus a dissenting coda by Athena)

There is an interesting parallel between John Carter as the main character of the Mars series of adventure novels begun by Edgar Rice Burroughs (from here on called ERB) one century ago this year, and the recently released Disney film of the same name.

Both arrived on their respective worlds – the fictional man Carter on planet Mars, a.k.a. Barsoom, and the motion picture John Carter in cinemas all over planet Earth (a.k.a. Jarsoom) – with relatively little fanfare. Both Carters initially encountered natives who had no real idea who they were and were ready to kill them off. Yet somehow both survived their hostile environments and slowly earned the understanding and respect of their newfound worlds, eventually going on to change things for the better and having a wild time in the process.

Now of course the film version still has a long road ahead to achieve its equivalent of what the novel hero achieved in his fictional and serialized lifetime. To be honest, I do not know if it will ever become as popular and influential as the novels were in their day, if for no other reason than too many other fictional series influenced by the ERB works have left their much stronger mark on the cultural mindset in the intervening century. In addition, while John Carter is better than I feared, the very ironic fact that it looks rather derivative of the very genre it spawned may permanently hobble its journey across the cinematic and cultural landscape.

So why should I make a big deal out of a film and series that its parent company will probably write off as a financial loss, one that most of today’s audience is almost totally unfamiliar with, and in truth its core plot was not terribly original or new when ERB produced its first installment back in 1912?

For the following reasons: The film did not become the bloated mess that I thought Hollywood was going to turn it into (and which many film critics who I do not think would know or understand science fiction and its history if they proverbially bit them continue to insist it is while mentioning its big budget in the same breath). The John Carter series deserves to be honored, understood, and appreciated for all it has done both for science fiction/fantasy and for influencing later real scientists like Carl Sagan, who talked about his love for the series as a youth in an episode of Cosmos. Finally, the real story and history behind the influences – hinted at in the film – that spawned John Carter and affected our views of life on Mars and elsewhere are more than worthy of being reintroduced to new generations as well.

The plot of John Carter is essentially that of ERB’s first novel in the series, A Princess of Mars: Confederate war veteran and Gentleman of Virginia John Carter goes into a cave in the Southwestern United States and wakes up millions of miles away on the planet Mars. There he meets several of the remaining native populations on that world, all of whom are battling with each other and the elements as Mars is slowly drying up. Carter’s Earth-developed muscles allow him to jump quite high and punch very hard in the lower Martian gravity, abilities which quickly earn him the awe and respect of key natives. In the end, our hero defeats the bad guys, wins the hand of the beautiful Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris, and then involuntarily ends up back on Earth.  Carter spends most of his Jarsoomian exile trying to get back to Mars and his wife, which he eventually does.

I must confess: I did not read any of the John Carter novel series until rather recently, despite knowing about them for most of my life. I am not a big fan of fantasy fiction and that is what I considered these works to be. I also assumed that the prose would not have aged well in the intervening decades.

I have since read the first novel and, like the film, found it to be not as bad as I feared. Both were rather entertaining and I found myself actually caring about the characters, always a key point for me with any story. As just one example, I recall being both surprised and moved when it was revealed in the novel that Sola was the daughter of Tars Tarkas.

Based on past experience with Hollywood’s efforts at science fiction (and John Carter really is basically SF and not fantasy), along with Disney’s historical habit of making major changes in their productions to suit their intended audiences and their less-than-stellar promotional efforts for this film, I expected John Carter to be an expensive and flashy mess, one that was as much about the original A Princess of Mars as the “re-imaged/re-invented” Star Trek film from 2009 was about the original Star Trek television series: A shell resembling the franchise but full of hot air and junk underneath. Instead I witnessed a film that actually got the main characters and plot points, along with the essence and feel of the novel – no small feat there. I just wish that more people were aware of this and could appreciate it. Ironically, science fiction is starting to become more “acceptable” to the mainstream audience due to the reimaged Battlestar Galactica and especially The Hunger Games series, whose first film came out right after John Carter and financially steamrolled our Martian hero and every other current movie in its path.

I found the film to capture the feel and look of the novel as I and others imagined it quite well. From the flying battle cruisers to the appearance and behavior of the warrior Tharks, this cinematic world of Barsoom is one I think ERB would have said well matched his visions of his creation.

There were a few notable changes from the novel, most of which only make sense in light of the medium and era. One was the addition of clothing on John Carter and the residents of Barsoom. In the novel, most natives went either naked or nearly so and did not even think twice about being in such a state (Dejah Thoris only wore strategically-placed ornate jewelry, for example). John Carter even arrived on Mars sans clothing. For obvious reasons the film could not replicate this situation from the novel; besides, it probably would have been too distracting even if such a thing were allowed by the modern film industry.

The women of Barsoom fared rather well from their “modernization” in the film, though it should be noted that even in the first novel I did not find them to be just the damsels-in-distress one might be led to believe from the decades of artwork depicting that alien world.

The two main Martian city-states depicted in the film, Helium and Zodanga, employed female soldiers as readily as male ones. I had to wonder if this situation was due to the fact that the Martian environment was dying and people and resources were in ever-dwindling supply, but no one ever seemed to question or even react to the idea of women in their military. The audience was not given enough cinematic time to learn very much about these societies in any event.

The Thark Sola was an intelligent and compassionate individual in addition to being a strong warrior. She endured a fair deal of suffering from her harsh culture to remain true to herself and her beliefs. Sola also became open to new ideas as the story progressed, such as flying, despite her father and chief Tars Tarkas earlier intoning that “Tharks do not fly!”

The most notable woman of the series is of course Dejah Thoris. While she remained a beautiful princess and the focus of John Carter’s admiration and desire, for the film Dejah also became a highly capable scientist as well as a warrior who more than held her own in battle. When the Helium leadership was ready to cave in and acquiesce to the demands of the Zodanga leader to marry Dejah in the hope of saving their society from defeat and destruction, Dejah was the only one who not only balked at this forced union but saw how Helium’s being united with the more barbaric city-state of Zodanga would actually undermine her culture and eventually all the people of Barsoom.

Dejah’s demonstrated scientific knowledge and technical skills were strong enough that the main “bad guys” of the film, the highly advanced species known as the Thern, considered Dejah to be a serious impediment to their plans for Barsoom while simultaneously admiring her abilities. As for the actor who played the Princess of Helium, Lynn Collins was an excellent choice for the character. She not only played Dejah with both intelligence and an air of royal nobility, Collins’ years of martial arts training also showed convincingly in her numerous scenes of hand-to-hand combat – including the several occasions when Carter got behind Dejah for protection!

The Thern are another cinematic modification from the novel. In A Princess of Mars, Martian natives make a trip down the River Iss when they feel ready to pass on from this life. They believe at the end of that river is where they will meet the goddess Issus and go on to a paradisiacal afterlife. Instead the mythology and the journey are a trap set by the Thern, descendants of the White Martians, who use monstrous creatures such as the white apes to kill and eat the unwary pilgrims and enslave or consume in turn those who survive the ordeal.

In the film, the Thern are an advanced alien race (they appear as humanoids but can also shapeshift) who travel from one inhabited world to another and “feed” off the energies expended by the native populations as they struggle with each other and use up or neglect their planet’s natural resources. One Thern named Shang implies to Carter that Earth and humanity are next on their menu once they are done with the dying Barsoom.

The Thern have a very interesting and quite alien technology which looks like a tangled mass of blue fibers, whether it is one of their structures or a weapon (Dejah Thoris recognizes its artificial nature). They also travel between worlds by sending “copies” of themselves similar to a fax using a medallion that operates on specific verbal commands. Whereas in the novel, Carter mysteriously arrives on Mars after simply falling asleep in a cave, our hero is accidentally transported to Barsoom by Thern technology. While of course there is no actual explanation given as to how the mechanism works, the audience is at least handed some kind of plausible reason for Carter’s celestial journey that is no worse than using a faster-than-light drive for a fictional starship. Besides, the JC series is all about the destination, not the journey.

The film version of the Thern left me wondering if perhaps there are advanced societies in the galaxy who view other alien species as lesser creatures to either be ignored or utilized for their own purposes. While they held some genuine admiration for Dejah Thoris, I got the impression that their whole attitude about using Barsoom until it was dry and dead and all the other worlds they have come across could be summed up as “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.”

I have often wondered if an advanced ETI, using the Kardashev Type 2 or 3 labels for simplification, would mow over whole worlds and species as they developed their interstellar existence in the same way a construction crew would run over an ant colony on their building site. I would like to think that such sophisticated and experienced beings would be a bit more sensitive than that, but we are still so very clueless about anyone else in the Milky Way galaxy and beyond.

Athena’s afterword: Unsurprisingly, my view of John Carter (henceforth JCM) is far more jaundiced than Larry’s.  JCM is dull, curiously inert, with zero frisson or sensawunda despite the non-stop eye candy.  Although the novel it’s based on predated and influenced Star Wars, Avatar, etc, it was a given that the film’s late arrival would doom it to looking stale unless its makers were truly bold.  Pressing Pixar’s Stanton into service made success a possibility but Disney standard hackery prevailed: the deletion of crucial words from the film’s title (Mars, because other films with Mars in their titles bombed; Princess, because… it might give the film girl cooties) signals this fatal lack of conviction.

True, JCM is not a total failure; however, given its semi-infinite budget and the longueurs recognized even by its champions, this is a pathetically low bar.  It’s a near-failure even as film space opera — which by tradition has low standards for coherence, opting instead for assaultive FX pyrotechnics.  Of course, JCM’s science is non-existent even within its own silly framework (example: the intermittence and variability of Carter’s locust-like jumping abilities).  At least, unlike Cameron’s Na’vi, Stanton forbore from putting breasts on female Tharks.  In fact, JCM’s core failure lies in its clumsy, generic narrative and its paper-thin worldbuilding and characters, for whom it’s impossible to care.  Additionally, by being mostly faithful to the novel, JCM’s makers reproduced its highly problematic underpinnings.

The cultures in JCM are based (snore) on ancient Rome and the Celtic and German nations that opposed it  – as filtered through the lens of someone who learned history from comics or fifties Hollywood films.  JCM’s obvious muscular-christian underdrone further underlines its poverty of imagination.  There is no internal logic to the conflicts: they must simply exist, so that 1) we can see the neat-o flying machines and 2) the savior can become indispensable and lead his disciples to victory.  Its pace is as lumbering as its six-legged war beasts; neither its tone nor its visuals ever coalesce.  The relentless battles and fights are choppy and muddy.  The dialogue is clunkier than that of Lucas (a feat I considered impossible), the characters look and speak like Pharaonic wooden statues and the two leads have as much chemistry as pet rocks.  The aptly named Taylor Kitch, blander than lo-fat cottage cheese, doesn’t deserve Lynn Collins’ hot chili and the best that can be said about Thoris and Sola is that neither is a bimbo… or a blonde.

The clichés that literally sink JCM have dogged Hollywood space operas even in their self-labeled progressive incarnations like Star Trek: the White Messiah who out-natives the natives and has their princesses begging for his babbies; the lone feisty-but-feminine metal-bikini-clad woman among a sea (desert?) of men, bereft of any female interactions; the total absence of mothers, when even the non-dyadic Thark family structure gets twisted into providing Sola with a father; natives as noble savages who prevail, Ewok-like, over much superior technology once they choose the right (non-native) leader; hierarchical dog-eat-dog warrior societies; imperial rule by charismatic autocrats as the sole viable method of governance; the dog-like mascot whose sugary cuteness could elicit a full-blown diabetic coma.

People will undoubtedly try to argue that ERB was “a man of his time”.  This is an excuse used ad nauseam for other SF/F “founders” such as Tolkien – who in fact was deemed a regressive throwback even by his own circle before he got canonized into infallibility by his acolytes.  Ditto for ERB.  As one example, John Carter is a “gentleman of Virginia” who served with distinction in the Confederate Army.  Romantic lost causes aside, it means that ERB deliberately made his hero someone who chose to uphold the institution of slavery.  And, of course, the names… oh, how they thud!  Zodanga.  Woola. Tardos Mors.  Barsoom (rhymes with bazoom and va-va-voom, underscored by the Frazetta opulent pornokitch depictions so adored by Tarzanist evopsychos).

Such material can be salvaged in only two ways: either by radical re-imagining (which briefly was the route of the Battlestar Galactica reboot before it collapsed under its maker’s pretensions) or by being played as stylish high camp (which was why the Flash Gordon 1980 remake was such a breath of fresh air).  Like a good bone structure underneath flesh gone to flab, there were glimpses of what might have been had Stanton and his paymasters been braver.  But that would be a parallel universe where Barsoom truly came alive.  Stanton tries to elicit extra sympathy (and remind us of Wall-E) by dedicating JCM to Steve Jobs – but his latest opus resembles a clunky, bloated Microsoft PC.  It makes me once again think how immensely grateful I am that The Lord of the Rings was not directed by an American.

Images: John Carter (Taylor Kitch) realizing that not even super-jumping abilities will get him out of this mess; Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) all undressed up with nowhere to go; Dejah Thoris and John Carter trying to find escape clauses in their contracts; Sola (voiced by Samantha Morton) in WTF? posture.

Part 2

The Moment of Change

Friday, April 6th, 2012

Last fall I mentioned that my two Bull Spec poems (Spacetime Geodesics and Night Patrol) and one of my dear friend and blog contributor Calvin Johnson (Towards a Feminist Algebra, in Stone Telling) will appear in The Moment of Change, a reprint anthology of speculative feminist poetry, edited by Rose Lemberg and published by Aqueduct Press. The collection will be released in May at Wiscon, with a cover by Terri Windling (shown).

I find it strange that I got four poems published in rapid succession: I consider myself essentially a prose writer.