1917 – A Princess of Mars

1917. New allies enter the Great War and existing allies depart. After German submarines violate US neutrality with their unrestricted warfare, and after Germany offers to help Mexico regain Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, the United States decides that it is had enough and joins the war on the side of the allies, soon to be followed by Brazil and Greece. In Russia, the February Revolution forces Tzar Nicholas II to abdicate, thereby ending the Russian Empire and beginning the process through which Russia exits the Great War; their own civil war being a much greater distraction.

The story of the fall of the Russian Empire should have been serialized in a pulp magazine; a cheap and popular source of reading material back then. Most of the elements required for a great story were already in place. The evil Tzar Nicholas II who ruled over his people with an iron fist was sending millions to die in a foreign war. He was married to an enemy woman, the German-born, Tzarina Alexandra. Their chief advisor was the terrifying mystic, Grigori Rasputin. Opposing them was Vladimir Lenin, the heartless intellectual leader of the brave, yet savage, rebel Bolshevik forces. On International Women’s Day, demonstrations for more bread erupt into full a scale rebellion. When Russian Soldiers join the side of the oppressed workers, the Tzar abdicates and is imprisoned with his family. A temporary government is formed and a fragile peace ensues. Eight months later, on October 25, 2017, treacherous Bolshevik forces storm the Winter Palace in Petrograd and topple the temporary government. Russia descends into a savage civil war. While waiting to be rescued, Nicholas, Alexandra and their five children are executed at the command of the Bolsheviks heartless leader, Vladimir Lenin. Legends persist though that Nicholas’ youngest daughter, Anastasia, somehow survived the attempt on her life and one day she will return to lead her people into a bright and glorious future. Or at least that’s what I would have written if I were doing a pulp version of this story (there are rumors in St. Petersburg).

The only thing missing from this story is a hero; someone who could step in to rescue the princess, defeat the Bolsheviks, win the Great War and transform Russia into a shining utopia; someone like John Carter of Mars, the protagonist of A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs who published the story as a hardcover novel also in October 2017 (no connection to the Russian Revolution).

Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) was an American pulp fiction writer, best known for his prolific output in the adventure and science-fiction genres. Burroughs had an amazing imagination, which he revealed in his numerous fleshed out fantastic realms. Long before Tolkien created his Middle Earth, Burroughs had already written of the alien planets Barsoom and Amtor (known on Earth as Mars and Venus), and the fictional land masses Pellucidar and Caspak. His best known characters are the jungle hero Tarzan and the Martian adventurer John Carter.

Before he was a writer, Burroughs was a pencil sharpener wholesaler, a position that offered low wages and large amounts of free time. He was responsible for placing pencil sharpener ads in various pulp-fiction magazines, which were in high-demand at the time. While reading the magazines, Burroughs realized that people were actually paid real money to produce cheap sensationalist stories, and that he, with zero experience, could produce stories that were just as bad if not better. In 1912, he wrote his first story “Under the moons of mars”, which was serialized in the All-story Magazine. The story earned him $400 (a little over $10,000 today), and launched his career as a writer.

His next serial, was Tarzan of the Apes, an instant success. Burroughs decided to capitalize on the character’s popularity in every way possible. Tarzan received his own syndicated comic strip, movies, merchandise, radio show, stage musical, and twenty-three future novels, all written by Burroughs, not counting the crossovers. Tarzan was one of the earliest characters to receive their own fan-fiction; several unauthorized series were published both before and after Burroughs death. These included some knock-off stories and comics in Hebrew, which were published by the Jewish Community in Mandatory Palestine during the 1930s. The success of Tarzan also enabled, Burroughs to continue writing and publishing other series, and in 1917 he published A Princess of Mars, a retitled hardcover version of “Under the Moons of Mars” and the first book in his Barsoom series.

A Princess of Mars tells the story of John Carter, a Confederate veteran and Virginian gentleman who while fleeing a band of Apache Indians stumbles upon a sacred cave. While in the cave he falls unconscious and wakes up in the alien Martian landscape with super powers. Due to differences in atmospheric pressure, Carter now has superhuman levels of agility and strength which enable him to leap great distances and fell monstrous aliens with a single blow. Shortly after this discovery, Carter is captured by giant six-armed Green Martians, Tharks, who he manages to impress with his strength, and from whom he learns much about his new surroundings including the native language, and the native name for the planet – Barsoom. Carter quickly rises to the rank of chieftain with all the attendant benefits, earning new friends and new enemies in the process. While with the Tharks he falls in love with a captive Red Martian, Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, whose love he desperately needs to earn.

This novel is a very fun read and well worthy of its pulp status. The action is fast-paced, the danger is always imminent, and the love between John Carter and Dejah Thoris is very passionate. Barsoom is a thoroughly fleshed out planet with its own native species, language and customs. And these are introduced in such a way that they both add new twists and turns to the adventure and also breathe life and tragic depth into what we learn is a dying planet. Definitely a book that can be read on the train or help pass away the long hours of a summer Shabbat afternoon.

The Omer today is splendor in splendor. In 1917, much splendor was lost with the fall of the Russian empire and the Romanov dynasty. The Winter Palace was thoroughly looted the day the Bolsheviks launched their revolution and its beauty was destroyed. Splendor was also gained with the introduction of A Princess of Mars and its alien untamed Barsoomian landscape, famous canals, savage Tharks, twin cities of Helium; all of which are dwarfed by the radiant beauty of Dejah Thoris and her love for her mighty Virginian gentleman, John Carter. Both splendors survive to this day in our memories and imagination, and this perhaps is the greatest splendor of them all.

A Princess of Mars

Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs

Publisher: A. C. McClurg

Published: 1917 (Hardcover)

Pages: 326

Format reviewed: Digital