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Looking at John Carter (of Mars) — Part 2

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

22 Responses to “Looking at John Carter (of Mars) — Part 2”

  1. Caliban says:

    I believe various filmmakers have talked to Kim Stanley Robinson about turning his trilogy into films, but so far they haven’t gone anywhere. With the success of Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica, maybe it will be revisited. I could see them as HBO limited series, although there isn’t really enough violence and sex to attract cable.

    I find myself somewhat in agreement with ERB that we have lost something with increased urbanization, but that has nothing to do with manliness. Instead, we have lost contact with nature and the resource of quiet contemplation and unfettered exploration; we now have television, videogames, and rigorous scheduling for children. Even just in the past 40 years this has declined dramatically.

  2. Athena says:

    I’m not surprised that the Robinson trilogy has been considered, though (understandably) I worry about its realization. Agreed about urbanization and the real causes of the perceived loss!

  3. zarpaulus says:

    I’ve heard of the hypothesis linking lack of outdoor activity with ADD. And as a scrawny 6’3″ male who can barely lift 60 ibs I have to say that “manliness” is overrated (and Tarzan couldn’t possibly have taught himself English from a bunch of old books).

  4. Athena says:

    You won’t get an argument from me about the manliness part. Interestingly, there’s a conflicting theory about ADD: our ancestors needed quick pattern recognition and reflexes. Long-span attention may have been a latecomer to our cultural/cognitive kit.

  5. intrigued_scribe says:

    Excellent second part, and the observations on long-span attention and ADD are definitely something to chew on.

  6. Foxessa says:

    If we as social mammals are hardwired to recognize alpha anything it is the alpha female — see primate clan groups, horse herds, etc.

    That alpha thang? way over-estimated, mostly by alpha wannabes ….

    Without cooperation of all of us — notice emphasis is on cooperation, not on dominance — the species would have died out. As it looks as if we may be doing soon if we don’t get rid of this modern idealization of alpha anything, but particularly alpha males.

  7. Walden2 says:

    Tarzan learned how to speak English in just a few days from a couple of visiting white people. Didn’t you see the Disney cartoon?

    Athena, thank you again for posting the other half of my piece on John Carter. I would like to add that the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos were not portrayed accurately in the film, as they are much smaller and less spherical than depicted and the do not hang around together in the same part of the Martian sky all the time.

    Of course the fact that we have a Mars with humanoid life forms running around and a visitor from Earth who apart from some temporary gravity issues had no problems breathing the air or any other environmental factors to overcome probably makes a fanciful depiction of two little moons seem trivial.

    For those who want to learn more about the debate over the Martian canals I highly recommend the 1996 book The Planet Mars:
    A History of Observation and Discovery By William Sheehan (The University of Arizona Press, Tucson), which is online in its entirety here:

    One interesting point is that during the first century or so when humans began observing Mars telescopically, the planet was not considered to be a very interesting or even likely place for intelligent life. Guys like Fontenelle thought the Red Planet wasn’t even worth bothering with, in no small part because it was hard to see much on Mars with the small, primitive telescopes of his day.

    I also recommend this book if you want to learn more about Percival Lowell: Hoyt, W. G. Lowell and Mars (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976).

    And this online paper is a nice summary of the Mars Lowell era:

    Plus Lowell’s actual books about Mars are online such as this one here:

  8. Athena says:

    Larry, it was a pleasure to host your article.

    Heather, I’m glad you enjoyed the duet between Larry and me!

    Foxessa, I agree: cooperation is even more important for human biology than competition.

  9. Walden2 says:

    I have a book from 1996 titled War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, edited by Kevin J. Anderson. It is an anthology of stories about how the rest of the world dealt with the Martian Invasion as envisioned by H. G. Wells.

    Among the stories is one about Percival Lowell detecting the launches on Mars from Flagstaff and deciding to be the first human to greet the visitors in person. Lowell marches off towards one of the landing pits and the story ends there. :^)

  10. Athena says:

    These anthologies can be enjoyable, though they’re really inside baseball! On the other hand, I can just see Lowell doing that — not only because of his ideas about Martians, but also with the noblesse oblige of the Boston Brahmin that he was.

  11. zarpaulus says:

    Foxessa: I’m not sure that there are “alphas” of any gender or species. Considering how few animals willingly associate with anyone but their kin.

  12. Athena says:

    Wolves and baboons have alpha males (as traditionally defined). The former also have alpha females; only the alpha pair of each pack is allowed to procreate. Humans do not have biological alpha males as traditionally defined — though they have existed in several cultures and eras.

  13. Walden2 says:

    Here are two Web sites dealing with the history of the Martian Canals, complete with those beautiful maps and renderings that were works of art:

  14. Alex Tolley says:

    I am reading the Jablokov book now, because of your recommendation. I’m very much enjoying it and like its very different feel to the KSR Mars trilogy, which is much more conventional in it characters.

  15. Athena says:

    I’m very pleased you’re enjoying River of Dust, Alex! Jablokov wrote a second novel in that universe that is equally riveting, Carve the Sky. I recommend that just as strongly.

  16. Alex Tolley says:

    “Carve the Sky”. Ahead of you. I ordered it at the same time, as the reviews were so good.

  17. Athena says:

    Yes! I don’t know why Alex stopped writing stories in that universe, it was simply wonderful. Among other things, the cross-planetary organization has Russian/Byzantine over/undertones and each planetary culture has its own hues. Given when the stories were written, this was way ahead of its time.

    Please let me know what you think of both when you’re finished.

  18. Walden2 says:

    A review of a book on the various fiascos in the making of John Carter (of Mars):

    After reading the synopsis of how badly Disney handled JC (oM), I am amazed the film turned out as well as it did. At least if there are sequels to the series, they will be done by someone who hopefully gives a flying fig about them.

  19. Walden2 says:

    Stars In His Eyes, Sending Smoke Signals To Mars

    by Glen Weldon

    April 16, 2013 7:00 AM

    NPR review of the novel Equilateral by Ken Kalfus:

    In his slim but beguiling novel Equilateral, Ken Kalfus places us inside the heads of his characters with such deftness that the line between what is true and what they believe to be true fades to obscurity. It’s no coincidence that the heads in question belong to scientists who pride themselves on their evidence-based worldview; Kalfus delights in having readers continually gauge and recalibrate the distance between the world and his characters’ seemingly objective observations of it. It’s this same tension that provides Equilateral with its narrative engine, propelling us further and further into the story in search of definitive answers.

    As the 19th century neared its end, astronomers made a stunning announcement: They had documented the presence of an elaborate system of canals on the surface of the planet Mars. Several scientists went even further, asserting that they had also witnessed shifts in the coloration of Mars’ surface consistent with seasonal vegetation, proving that these canals were, in fact, an elaborate and fantastically advanced system for irrigating the planet’s parched red desert.

    These so-called canals were soon revealed to be natural surface formations. But in the alternate history Equilateral constructs, that infamous instance of conjecture overtaking evidence provides the impetus for the single largest feat of human engineering ever undertaken.

    The brilliant astronomer Sanford Thayer manages to convince the world’s governments — and several private investors — to inscribe into the shifting sands of Egypt’s Western Desert a simple geometric sign of almost unimaginable scale, an equilateral triangle so huge it will prove to Martian astronomers that human beings are here, and ready for first contact:

    “This figure, so easy to draw on a sheet of foolscap, requires more vigorous exertion when carved into the desert, each side 306 miles and 1,633 yards in length, precisely 1/73rd of the Earth’s circumference … each side a trench five miles in width.”

    Full review here:

    The reviewer does not mention this and I am not sure if he is aware, but the novel author was likely inspired by real Nineteenth Century plans to signal Mars by making huge geometric patterns in the Sahara Desert, then filling them with oil and setting them on fire so they would be visible at night to any Martians who might be observing Earth with their powerful telescopes.

    More such real early METI plans here:

    There is also this article about signalling Mars using giant mirrors that reflected sunlight in the September, 1919 issue of Popular Science Monthly:

    None of these ideas came to fruition, which is unfortunate even though we now know there would have been no one on Mars to see them. As for other kinds of ETI, however, who knows?

  20. Athena says:

    If I read the review aright, the novel actually sounds like a sly dig at Victorian imperialism. This might be interesting — thank you for bringing it up, Larry!

  21. Walden2 says:

    Wednesday’s Book Review:

    Geographies of Mars: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet

    by launiusr

    Geographies of Mars: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet. By K. Maria D. Lane. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Illustrations, acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, index. 266 pages. Hardcover with dust jacket. ISBN: 978-0-226-47078-8. $45.00.

    Mars has long held a special fascination for humans who pondered the planets of the solar system-partly because of the possibility that life might either presently exist or at some time in the past might have existed ï¿œthere. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli published a work in 1877 that laid the foundation for the belief in canals on Mars. His map of Mars showed a system of what he called canali, in Italian this meant “channel” and carried no connotation of being an artificial feature. Even so, the word was commonly translated into English as “canal” and began the speculation that Mars held life that were changing the planet’s features for their own purposes.

    American astronomer Percival Lowell became interested in Mars during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and built what became the Lowell Observatory near Flagstaff, Arizona, to study the red planet. His research advanced the argument that Mars had once been a watery planet and that the topographical features known as canals had been built by intelligent beings.

    Over the course of the first forty years of the twentieth century others used Lowell’s observations of Mars as a foundation for their arguments. The idea of intelligent life on Mars stayed in the popular imagination for a long time, and it was only with the scientific data returned from probes to the planet since the beginning of the space age that this began to change.

    Begun as a dissertation written at the University of Chicago, Geographies of Mars: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet offers a fascinating analysis of the phenomenon of canals on Mars and the personality of Lowell and his detractors in arguing about these astronomical observations. K. Maria D. Lane, now on the faculty of the University of New Mexico, provides six succinct chapters that explore the Percival Lowell arguments about an inhabited Mars and his speculations on the nature of its society.

    Lane comments that in part because of the efforts of astronomers like Lowell the people living between about 1880 and 1910 had a “functionally dominant (if not universal) understanding of Martian geography as arid, inhabited, and irrigated” (p. 13). In Lane’s estimation this perception came because of the emphasis on geographical knowledge, especially cartography, in shape public perceptions in the United States.

    Full review here: