Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912) – Before there was science fiction (the term wasn’t coined until the twenties), there were the amazing worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He’s known for the swashbuckling John Carter of Mars and the incredible Tarzan books. I thought I’d return to my childhood and read more about John Carter and his adventures on the red planet.
John is a very southern gentleman who survives the Civil War and sets off across Arizona to search for gold. Instead, he finds some hostile Indians and hides out in a cave they are too frightened to enter because of its mystical properties. Inside, he falls into a deep sleep and awakens on Mars where he’s super-strong because of the reduced gravity and already in trouble with the locals when he stumbles upon one of their incubators with newly hatched eggs.
The green Martians are fierce warriors, twice the size of humans with four arms and tusks. They adopt John as sort of a mascot/prisoner after he kills one of their chiefs in unarmed combat. The green Martians are sliding backwards into barbarism from the once great people they were and living in deserted ruins on the edges of dried up seas.
John’s only friends are Woola, a six-legged watchdog with rows of teeth, Sola, an unusually caring green Martian female, and Tars Tarkas, a chieftain who watches out for John on their journey to their bestial ruler. On their trek, they destroy a flying ship from the red Martian city of Helium and kidnap the beautiful (and human) Dejah Thoris, granddaughter of the king.
She and John get off to a rocky start when he’s learning the language and the customs of the nomadic green Martians, but he eventually agrees to save her and return her to her people because he has fallen in love with her. The romance is reciprocated, and soon they arrive at the city of the disgusting ruler who has the hots for Dejah. I never understood this part in classic science fiction. Why would something so physically different lust after a human female? All those pulp covers with bug-eyed monsters dragging half naked young women into their spaceships made no sense at all. Wouldn’t they find human females disgusting? Maybe it’s the fact that John and Dejah are naked throughout the book and seemingly unselfconscious about it.
Anyway, John punches out the gross leader (who has killed his way to the top) and escapes with Dejah, Sola, and Woola into the desert. They become lost and are attacked by an even more barbaric group of green Martians. The women escape and John is taken captive and becomes friends with fellow captive, Kantos Kan, a red Martian from Helium searching for the lost princess.
John escapes again after a fight to the death in the arena and returns to the desert. There, he meets an old man, one of the caretakers of the giant oxygen plants keeping the dying planet alive. Fleeing when he discovers the old man intends to kill him in his sleep, John escapes to a giant city of humans. Unfortunately, they have not only found the princess but are at war (and winning) against Helium. Only if she agrees to marry the king’s son will they stop the war. She does, too late for John to stop her with his own marriage proposal.
Being the most honorable man on Mars, John cannot kill his beloved’s intended, so he flees with news of the princess’s survival to Helium. On the way there in his one-man aircraft, he saves the life of Tars in a huge battle between two green Martian groups, tells him that Sola is his long-lost daughter, and works with Tars to kill the disgusting overload. Tars, grateful to John for giving him the opportunity to take his revenge on his chieftain, agrees to send his thousands of green Martians to the city where the princess is being held. They arrive just as the wedding is taking place, and Tars kills the prince. Grabbing a few dozen airships, John and Dejah race to Helium to save it from being conquered.
Happy almost ever after, John and Dejah have their own little egg (?) incubating when the oxygen generator goes out and John has to fly to the rescue. As he collapses at the open door, he finds himself back in the mystical cave in Arizona.
Since this if the first of seven books in this series, I’m eager to see how John Carter gets back to Mars. Even at a hundred years old, it’s very well written, exciting, and fast paced.