“I am a very old man; how old I do not know.”
I have mixed feelings about classic sci-fi. It’s good to know the roots of your favourite genre, but it doesn’t always age so well. The Barsoom books, however, can be taken more as adventure stories that happen to be set on a fantasy version of Mars that might as well be Narnia. There’s an indulgence to stories from what seems like a simpler time, maybe a slightly patronising tone to the reading that lets you nod and play along and just enjoy the lack of complication.
John Carter is a Virginian gentleman and veteran of the American Civil War, who stumbles into a mysterious cave and wakes up on another planet. He’s promptly captured by the warmongering Tharks, the so-called ‘green men of Mars’. To say there’s a large amount of the Mary Sue to Carter would be an understatement. The lower planetary gravity gives him super strength and he easily beats many of the larger warriors, earning himself a stay of execution. He then picks up the language in about twenty minutes flat, before falling in love with a captured princess from the other of Mars’ main species, the ‘reds’.
The pace of this story is lightning. There’s little dwelling on anything, and big events happen in a sentence. That’s part of the appeal, really: it’s simple but it keeps moving so fast that if you can let go it provides a light distraction. Alas, it can also seem a little unsatisfying for the same reasons, plus the fact that you just know (the other) JC can never really lose…
Except, there’s a framing tale. Carter is telling his story – perhaps it’d be nice to think of them as an old man’s tall tales? – and not quite everything goes to plan. That’s why there are ten sequels, I suppose 😉
I’m glad I read this. It doesn’t feel like high literature, but it is one of the classics from its time, and despite its many flaws for a modern audience there’s a lot to like here. Definitely not sci-fi, but as a boys’ own kind of adventure, it’s quite fun.
As a final note, if – like me – your main knowledge of this comes from the somewhat disappointing movie, John Carter (2012), it’s clear to see both how much they had to leave out, and how much better the story is with just that bit more meat and context.
eBook: 202 pages / 28 chapters
First published: 1912
Series: Barsoom book 1
Read from 12th April -10th May 2020
My rating: 7/10