It's 20th-century-pulp-science-fiction therapy time. What did I learn about myself from reading Edgar Rice Burrough's "John Carter of Mars"?
1) I'm not overly bothered by the abuse of scientific fact in pulp sci-fi. A perfect example: red and green Martian women have breasts and other mammalian things going on, but their children hatch out of eggs? Even John Carter, King Mammal in this story, has a child-by-egg with a red Martian princess. Strange, but fun in a pulpy sort of way.
2) I watched entirely too much Batman on tv as a child. Read this cliffhanger ending and try not to hear horns blaring and see comic bubbles appearing: "Did the Martian reach the pump room? Did the vitalizing air reach the people of that distant planet in time to save them? Was my Dejah Thoris alive, or did her beautiful body lie cold in death beside the tiny golden incubator in the sunken garden of the inner courtyard of the palace of Tardos Mors, the jeddak of Helium?" Add a "Tune in next time!" to the end and voila! ERB meets pulp tv.
3) I'm a sucker for depictions of male friendships based on honor and mutual struggle. I damn near teared up when red Martian Tardos Mor first meets his former green Martian adversary Tars Tarkas: "That Tardos Mors ... may meet the greatest living warrior of Barsoom is a priceless honor, but that he may lay his hand on the shoulder of a friend and ally is a far greater boon." Sure it's cheesy, but it got me just a little.
4) I have no tolerance for racism. Here's a pre-Mars John Carter: "I was positive now that the trailers were Apaches and that they wished to capture Powell alive for the fiendish pleasure of the torture, so I urged my horse onward at a most dangerous pace, hoping against hope that I would catch up with the red rascals before they attacked him." And here's Carter as he contemplates escape from his green Martian captors: "I did not even know that there were any better conditions to escape to, but I was more than willing to take my chances among [red] people fashioned after my own mold rather than to remain longer among the hideous and bloodthirsty green men of Mars." Does ERB use this moment to contrast John's thoughts on "red people" on Earth and Mars? No. Instead, he hints that the red and green people of Mars owe their grand architecture and cultural advancement to a "fairer" race no longer found on Mars. Nice ERB.
5) I prefer Machiavellian over Pollyannish fantasy worlds. ERB creates a brutal Martian world plagued with wars, assassination, scarcity of resources (long evaporated seas), quotas on offspring, and Hunger-Games-like gladiator sports. Give me darkness either visible or just underneath the surface anytime.
6) Random, unexpected attempts at humor make me giggle. Here's an out-of-place gem: "In one respect at least the Martians are a happy people; they have no lawyers." Ha, my side! A bit lame to my 21st century ear, but I admire that ERB made the effort.
In all, "A Princess of Mars" is a fun read. The prose is solid with plenty of the drama expected from pulp sci-fi and plenetary romances. The main concept - a Confederate war veteran turned Martian hero - drew me in. And though I cringe at the overtly racist elements of the story, I hold out hope that ERB explores the race issue from a different, relationship-building perspective in the two remaining "John Carter of Mars" novels.