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Looking at John Carter (of Mars) — Part 1

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

22 Responses to “Looking at John Carter (of Mars) — Part 1”

  1. eleni says:

    I was very sure from the moment I saw the trailer that I didn’t want to see JCM, and you’re pretty much illustrating all my initial suspicions.

    After the terrible, terrible ending to the Mass Effect trilogy I experienced in mid March, and the equally infuriating conclusion of Battlestar Galactica a couple years back, I’m not at all hopeful concerning the direction science fiction is taking! 🙁

  2. Caliban says:

    I’m somewhere in between Larry and Athena. I found the opening overstuffed and confusing (in fact, the movie has three opening sequences), and Taylor Kitsch’s wounded I’m-tired-of-fighting warrior a stale cliche. I did start to warm to the movie about halfway through, although the fight scenes continued to be chaotic and hard to follow. There was a nice twist at the end that finally paid off the turgid opening.

    I really did like Lynn Collins’ Dejah Thoris–a scientist and a kick-ass woman. A much better movie would have been to not only call it A Princess of Mars but to really make it her story, as she was far more compelling than sullen Mr. Jumpy.

    For better or for worse, many of the sins Athena noted are deeply imbedded in the original novel and weren’t imposed by Hollywood, even if Hollywood embraced them. Sola was indeed Tars Tarkassess’sess daughter in the book; part of ERB’s theme was to set up the Tharks as a socialist society and then criticize it. It makes as much sense as criticizing honeybees for being socialist (or are they royalists? never could tell) but there you have it. The main thing changed for political correctness is that John Carter in the book was fighting Apaches, and in the movie, as in Dances with Wolves and in Avatar, it’s the ever-convenient modern villain, the military. This change didn’t bother me, and in fact this became part of the backstory of Carter, but it is kind of strange the things they chose to modify.

    As I write this and think about similar movies that share similar cliches, I think the real downfall of the movie was its total commitment to action over characterization. Two other wounded-warrior / white-man-saves-the-natives movies, Dances with Wolves and Avatar, at least have a significant period of build up where the audience learns more about the protagonist’s character, his loneliness, his isolation. Both of those movies are far from perfect, but JCM doesn’t even give us a chance to empathize with JC. Again, that arises out of the book, where JC is a warrior always happy to fight, and immediately starts kicking green and red asses upon arriving on Mars.

    It’s particularly odd when you consider Andrew Stanton’s prior successes, such as Wall-E and Finding Nemo worked precisely because they also had long periods of quiet painting of character, and allowing us to see the character’s deep loneliness and sadness. He could have done it with this movie. But he didn’t.

  3. Athena says:

    Eleni — Yes. I’m fed up with people telling me that I’m missing the hidden “subtleties” or the potential to interest upcoming youth in science or literature through the film rendition of works by such people as Burroughs or Cameron. They’re nostalgia pieces and wet power fantasies for white Anglo men who dislike having their default primacy questioned. They’re lousy as science and even lousier as fiction.

    Calvin, I didn’t mind the double framing — as you say, it paid off. I agree that Dejah Thoris should have been the fulcrum and focus of the film. But if fanbois shrieked loudly about sacrilege to the gospel when Arwen was given one active thing to do in LotR (before fading into the couch like the Victorian lady she was set up to be), you can imagine how they’d shriek if this happened in JCM.

    As you point out, one solution to the deeply reactionary ERB source material is to make us care for the characters; the alternative is to play it for laughs. But they didn’t do either. And Dejah Thoris wilted into helpless damsel as soon as she got quivery over Mr. Pouty. Warrior, scientist — all irrelevant. She simply became his reward.

  4. Caliban says:

    Actually, I know of one particularly reactionary fanboi (I won’t give him bandwidth by posting a link or even his name) who just hated the movie for (a) having the US Calvary, and not bloodthirsty Apache, who were at fault and (b) that Dejah Thoris was just as handy at fighting as JC. And that the movie didn’t dwell lovingly on just how wrong and misguided bees and ants, excuse me I mean Tharks, are for having quasi-socialist societies.

  5. Athena says:

    Why am I not surprised? I got private comments along those lines myself from ERB disciples. Makes you frankly despair for this species — whereas bees and ants are doing fine, despite their (OMG!) socialist organization.

  6. Walden2 says:

    Even worse about ant and bee societies: The vast majority of them are of the female gender, while the few males serve essentially one purpose and are then pushed aside.

    I will have more to say about John Carter after Part 2 is posted. And my thanks to Athena for suggesting a review in the first place and then putting my work here.

  7. Athena says:

    On the contrary, thank you, Larry! When I first suggested you review JCM, I hadn’t seen it nor planned to do so. But during the limbo time before a long trip, I went (curiosity will kill me yet). As Calvin mentions, you can’t exactly dislike the film — it has some decent attributes. But its problems are so glaring (especially for someone with Stanton’s pedigree) that I sort of suffered through it with gritted teeth, waiting for the occasional moments of grace, like nuggets of gold in bucketfuls of dross.

  8. Foxessa says:

    I had to see it because I’m teaching a course in the Hollywood western, the American hero and historical revisionism.

    So I also had to see the boring Cowboys and Aliens ( high concept! isn’t that fun! what’s wrong with YOU?).

    Also, Rango — which wasn’t at all what I expected it to be. Not a word in the reviews of corporate greed and water and our environmental crisis, all told through a faithful deployment of the classic Western tropes, with a dollop of meta fun, which is quite fun as the creators kept those intrusions to absolute minimum screen time, as to what constitutes a story, a hero, a film.

    Of these three Rango gets a B-; the others Fail.

    Love, C.

  9. Athena says:

    Hello, C.! I guess I had to see it to counteract whines of the sort “But you must see/read the whole thing to judge it!” — against both my hunch and my better judgment. The trailer should have been enough, as well as the fact that the whines came from superannuated adolescents who still fervently believe that Ayn Rand is the cutting edge of philosophy and Burroughs is echt literature.

  10. Walden2 says:

    Foxessa – I expected Cowboys and Aliens to at least be a lot of silly summer flick fun, but no, Hollywood could not even get THAT right! The aliens were on Earth for our gold?! Why not the old standby of water such as with Battle: Los Angeles? About the only thing I did like in C&A was the depiction of the alien spaceship explosion near the end. No, I have absolutely no problem posting spoilers for this film.

    A somewhat similar film was Priest, which had an interesting premise along with a few jabs at the dystopian control religion has on society, but then went all bland and predictable. It was obvious at the end that the film makers had set things up for a sequel, but that is not going to happen.

    This is why true science fiction afficianados get all possessive and excited over good SF films, because they are such rare gems among the junk pile of the genre.

    As for Rango, I thought it was very well done, from the animation to the voice acting – which was also acting acting as the cast did not just stand there reading off a script, but actually dressed up as their characters and performed their roles while speaking.

    I must admit a bit of subversive amusement while watching Rango in the local theater as the parents who brought their children to this film who were expecting a rather simple and kid-oriented plot (it’s computer animation, after all – you know, like Cars 2) slowly became quieter as it dawned on them that Rango was actually a tribute to all those Old West films, complete with a Clint Eastwood type doing his Man With No Name schtick. Rango did deserve its Oscar.

    Isn’t it funny how the general public always clamors for something different from Hollywood and when they sometimes do get it, such as with Rango, they suddenly head back to their old familiar territory.

  11. zarpaulus says:

    I read the first three books of the serial recently, no explanation whatsoever for the Zodanga-Helium conflict and JCM’s whole reason for entering the war was royal nookie.

    Though, I’m not too sure about the accusations of the stories being racist, sure, John Carter is the “mighty whitey” with quite a few Gary Stuish qualities, his super strength may be justified but not his quick mastery of Barsoomian culture and immunity to telepathy. But at the very least the white martians seem to be the most evil race on Mars and the “good guy” martians are stated to be hybrids in a book written when miscegenation was still a crime in most states.

  12. Athena says:

    Well, sure! Battles are needed so that boys don’t become girly men, real reasons are superfluous. As for racism, Burroughs was born in Chicago and did all his schooling in the East — so he didn’t see Jim Crow in action (Arizona, where he did his very brief soldiering, had essentially zero black population; however, he posited Carter as an Apache fighter, a fact altered in the film for obvious reasons). Also, don’t forget that the paradigm of white men taking “native” wives/concubines was an integral part of the colonial ethos and it plays out full bore in the Barsoom series.

  13. Christopher Phoenix says:

    I recently read A Princess of Mars (henceforth APoM), and found it to be an amusing but quite dated nostalgia piece.

    While I enjoyed reading APoM, there really isn’t a lot to be said about it. I never open an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel expecting to see a truly enlightened viewpoint. I was somewhat perturbed at how the solution to everything in APoM was to have John Carter run someone through with a sword or lead a bunch of Green Martians to sack a Martian city. I did, however, find what inspired a lot of Ray Bradbury’s Martian imagery.

    I found Ray Bradbury at a fairly impressionable age, and now whenever someone brings up relativistic rockets I remember the “light-year” rockets, rockets that traveled light-years in Bradbury’s fiction. The crew would either A. Go insane and jump out the airlock while the ship is under acceleration, so they can’t be retrieved. B. Be eviscerated and rebuilt into killer cyborgs by a living city that seeks to exact revenge on humanity for some wrong we committed ages ago. C. Or have something equally nasty happen to them.

    As for Larry Klaes’s speculation on advanced alien species- that old SF story raises the far more plausible scenario that aliens would decide they want to examine a human spacefarer a little to closely for the spacefarer’s comfort. At what point do we decide an alien is to smart for us to abduct and study? Do advanced aliens even worry about how the creatures they want to study feel about being dissected? It seems a little more likely that we would have to worry about ending up in an alien laboratory than having aliens invade our planet for resources that are easily available elsewhere.

  14. intrigued_scribe says:

    I can say I’m glad that Dejah’s fighting skills and other abilities were given some prominence; it’s a welcome change from the overdone damsel-in-distress cliche. Other than that, the negatives I suspected would be in JCM are neatly described.

  15. Walden2 says:

    zarpaulus says on April 11, 2012 at 4:20 pm:

    “I read the first three books of the serial recently, no explanation whatsoever for the Zodanga-Helium conflict and JCM’s whole reason for entering the war was royal nookie.”

    I would say it was a combination of some ancient rivalry combined with the desperation of staying alive on a dying planet, which is the main motivation of most of the cultures on Barsoom.

    By the way, I find that just about every Martian culture John Carter encountered to be pretty nasty, even the advanced ones. Part of this take on the smart ones apparently had to do with ERB’s less than positive view of intellectual types, whom he saw as contributing to the global unmanliness crisis. Then again, most of the alien cultures on Star Trek aren’t too nice, either. Gotta have that conflict to keep the masses entertained and the ratings up, ya know.

    Barsoom is an interesting contrast to Lowell’s vision of the Martians, whom he assumed were dedicated to peace and enlightenment even as they faced extinction. Of course the highly sophisticated but cold and definitely nonhumanoid Martians of Wells’ imagination were not at all interested in lying down and dying with dignity.

    Tidbit – How many know that at the end of his novel, the Martians were seen launching their cylinders at Venus, which was assumed to be covered in primitive life (ferns and dinosaurs) but no annoying intelligent beings to get in their way.

  16. Adam Crowl says:

    Not having seen JCoM yet I can’t comment, and my memories of the book aren’t overly positive, though I did eventually read through a few in the series. Never read “Carson of Venus” either. Michael Moorcock’s reimagining was more interesting, placing the Martian fantasy world way back in the age of the Dinosaurs, thus the Terran hero has to time-travel as well as teleport.

    Which gets me to Walden2’s challenge – yes, I did know that. I recently re-read WotW and was surprised by how much I misremembered about the story. The “invulnerable invaders” trope of most cinematic clones of WotW is rather less like the Martians – they found the British Army’s resistance quite strong, thus they resorted to gas warfare. Two decades later and the experience of the trenches of Europe does make Well’s heavy Martian poison clouds seem more prescient of terrestrial warfare than interplanetary.

  17. Christopher Phoenix says:

    I’ll have to find an unabridged copy of WotW- I love that book, but many of the versions I read before were abridged.

    Space soldiers could destroy the population of a planet with heavy space bombardment, but if they want to occupy the planet while leaving the biosphere and valuable infrastructure intact (or without breaking any treaties that forbid planetary genocide), they need boots (or flippers, or tentacles, or wings) on the ground to actually conquer the planet. That’s where the so-called “space marines” come in. They will need to have personal weapons.

    Sometimes, subtle attacks can be far more dangerous than brute force techniques. Modern society is already reliant on an amazingly fragile infrastructure. Future space cities won’t be much better, although the designers may have put more thought into redundancy and reliability. A computer virus can shut down vital equipment or even cause physical destruction by causing machines to self-destruct- i.e destroying a generator by causing to run so fast it breaks. A poison snuck into life-support algae tanks could threaten the population of a space city.

    While conflict is probably inevitable as long as humans are around, I hope that we don’t succeed in avoiding destroying ourselves only to become involved in an interstellar war. Space is so vast, resources relatively common, and belligerent life-forms hopefully so rare that interstellar societies meet peacefully. We may find that existence in the Milky Way involves the pursuit of things other than survival, power, and control. Intelligent life could transform the universe into a truly dreadful place to live if “smart” beings choose to react to encounters with other beings with suspicion, fear, and violence. That is one of my problems with APoM- problems are rarely so easily solved by violence, which basically makes John Carter’s exploits escapist fantasy.

  18. Athena says:

    Adam, don’t bother! I think there are much better SF/F authors to read (watch) than ERB.

    Chris, I agree — APoM is escapist fantasy (it’s SF only only insofar as Mars is involved).

  19. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Yes- APom, and a lot of SF it inspired, is escapist fantasy. Escapist fantasy is not so easily defined by genera- anything can be escapist fantasy, if it postulates a world with easy solutions to what are in real life difficult, complex situations.

    The “science” of APoM is rather shaky, for the most part. No explanation for John’s interplanetary jump is given, there are no undiscovered components of sunlight that create antigravity or oxygen, radium is not an explosive substance (ERB did leave himself an escape hatch, though, stating “radium” was a translation of a Martian hieroglyphic), and civilizations with firearms don’t use swords to settle disputes. You just can’t get close enough. John and Dejah should not be capable of interbreeding. ERB does get a point in his favor for depicting Mars as a planet that would lose its atmosphere without constant technological intervention.

    Oddly enough, I believe most escapist fantasy is actually sold to adults or young adults. When you are a child, the sort of stories that you have (or at least I had)- especially those from mythology or fairy tales- depict a tangled, difficult, often gruesome world where monsters (both literal and metaphorical) may lurk in any guise. Perhaps this is because many old children’s stories and fairy tales come from a time when death and tragedy where much more prevalent in everyday life. I always found it a little strange that so many books that so many children love to read are so gruesome actually- witness White Fang, Call of the Wild, or even Treasure Island.

    Speaking of other SF authors, I enjoyed the Cities in Flight series by James Blish when I read them several years ago. I find it highly entertaining how James speaks of antigravity fields and bridges on Jupiter in such a scientific, mathematical matter-of-fact way he could almost convince you that launching New York City on a trans-galactic flight is a feasible engineering challenge. The second and third books in particular are high adventure. I didn’t enjoy the last one nearly as much- it got somewhat weird in places.

  20. Walden2 says:

    Adam, the only reason humans could not easily defeat the Martian war machines in the 1953 and 2005 film versions were due to the force fields the aliens put around their machines. Once they were down they were vulnerable to our “primitive” weapons and I am not even talking about the germs – or “joims!” as they called them in a funny SNL spoof of WotW.

    While I enjoyed both film versions in their own way, for me as a kid, the 1953 George Pal version was the closest thing I experienced to what would now be equivalent to when Star Wars first appeared on the big screen. That and Fantastic Voyage. And both were viewed on a black-and-white television set, no less! No, I don’t know how we survived back then, either.

    My one wish is that some day someone will make a version of WofW that takes place in 1890s England, as with the original novel.

    Trivia time: Although they did not have the special effects technology in the Pal version to make the Martian war machines tripods, those manta ray vessels were actually “walking” on three beams of energy/antigravity/levitation juice. You could see them on occasion as a tank shell hit the force fields.

    And remember, to a Martian, waving a white flag means “Go ahead and zap us!”

  21. Adam Crowl says:

    Hi Athena
    I last read an ERB book about ~29 years ago. Has been a while. Not a big part of my personal reading canon. A bit like Heinlein’s books past c.1963 – read once, try to forget…

  22. Athena says:

    Yes, it’s stuff for teenagers of all ages. Some grow up… others become libertarians, objectivists, transhumanists…