The Mars/Barsoom Books of Edgar Rice Burroughs
Created | Updated Aug 9, 2019
Barsoom | Pellucidar | Moon | Venus | Caspak | Historical
Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) was an American writer of adventure stories in the early 20th Century. He is most famous for his invention of the character Tarzan, the child who was abandoned in the jungle and was brought up by apes, going on to be the muscle-bound ruler of the jungle.
Burroughs wrote many other series of books, and while none of them is as famous as Tarzan, they were well received in their time. Probably the best and most popular of these are the Mars/Barsoom books. They feature planet Mars occupied by warring nations who have a mixture of high and low technology - they fly around in giant warships kept in the air by antigravity, and have guns so accurate they can hit a target 100 miles1 away, but tend to prefer hand-to-hand combat with swords. A veteran soldier of the American Civil War, John Carter, is mysteriously transported to Mars. He fights his way up to being Warlord of Mars and wins a princess along the way.
The inhabitants' name for Mars is 'Barsoom', so these are often called the Barsoom books to distinguish them from other stories about Mars. They are also sometimes called the 'John Carter books', but in fact John Carter is only the main character in six of the 11 books.
The stories are adventures in which the hero will always get the girl and there's lots of hand-to-hand combat. An unusual feature of Martian life is that the inhabitants never developed the habit of wearing clothes. Everybody is naked except for a leather harness for holding swords, keys and other possessions. Despite this, there's no sex in these books. John Carter kissing the princess is about as racy as it gets.
The books are now out of copyright in some parts of the world (although still in copyright in Europe until 1 January, 2021) so they can easily and cheaply be downloaded from Gutenberg or your favourite e-book store.
Science Fiction or Fiction with Science?
While these are swash-buckling adventures rather than science fiction, Burroughs tried to keep them scientific - he tried to explain Martian inventions in terms of known science. So everlasting lights in tunnels are powered by 'radium'. The floating warships and fliers are held aloft by buoyancy tanks full of 'Martian rays'. The planet's lower gravity gives John Carter a huge advantage. His Earth-born muscles allow him to jump to great heights and he is immensely strong compared with the natives. Mars' moons are frequently referred to, as they are distinctly different from Earth's moon - the larger moon, which we call Phobos, travels across the sky very quickly and this is a recurrent motif in any description of a Martian night scene.
On the other hand, Burroughs was not a scientific expert. He does not seem to have known that the lesser Martian moon, Deimos, is so small that it would appear more like a bright star than a moon from the surface of the planet. His Martians are hatched out of eggs, but the eggs grow in size and weight after being laid, and no explanation is provided for this remarkable fact. The Martian rays are colours of the spectrum of ordinary sunlight which are not seen on Earth because they are filtered out by our atmosphere. One of these rays repels Mars, so it is used as the antigravity agent that keeps the airships afloat. Another ray, when electrified, makes air. And no attempt is made to explain the miraculous process by which Carter suddenly finds himself on Mars.
The Mars of the stories is the one imagined by people at the beginning of the 20th Century - it is a dying world. Long in the past there were oceans, forests and a dense atmosphere. Now the oceans have dried up and the only source of water is the polar ice caps. Melt-water from these is carried in canals around the planet, and the land on either side of them is cultivated. It is these swathes of cultivated land that are seen by Earthly astronomers as lines on the surface and are identified as canals2.
Most of the planet outside of these arable areas is bare and is covered with a type of ochre moss which appears to be indestructible and will grow with a minimum of moisture from the atmosphere. It is this that gives the planet its distinctive red colour. It also dampens the sound of all footsteps, allowing ample opportunity for entire armies to creep up on cities unnoticed.
In times gone by, the Martians had built many cities along the coasts, and these now all lie abandoned due to lack of water. Humankind has moved to new cities which are positioned in the arable land around the canals.
The atmosphere itself is very thin and would have disappeared long ago except for the atmosphere factory built by the inhabitants, which creates air and keeps the atmosphere at a breathable level.
The people of Mars are divided into two species, the Green Men and the others, who are variously Red, White, Black or Yellow. The Green Men are huge and alien while the others are to all intents and purposes just like the humans of Earth. In fact John Carter is able to have children with one of them, so they are obviously extremely similar to us.
Green Men - about 15 feet tall3, they are hairless and have four arms and two legs. Their eyes are high up on the sides of their heads and can look forward or backward, like a chameleon. They have two white tusks which curve upwards from their mouths to where a normal human's eyes would be. The Green Men live a nomadic and semi-barbarous existence, mainly in the dried-up sea beds of the south, occasionally moving into the abandoned cities along the coasts of the dried-up seas. They are coldly logical, lacking in the finer emotions. Green Men are supreme warriors, being both skilled swordsmen and highly accurate marksmen. They respect good fighting ability above everything else.
Red Men - these are the dominant intelligent species on the planet. They have copper-coloured skin and are very like Earth humans. The only notable difference is that the females lay eggs which hatch into young. They are said to be descended from the original three species of humans, the Black Men, the White Men and the Yellow Men. Now they live in modern cities all over the planet. They have huge fleets of flying machines, from small one-man fliers up to immense battle ships carrying thousands.
Black Men - this little-known race calls itself the Firstborn, as they are pure-bred descendants of one of the original races of Barsoom. Now they act as pirates, appearing out of nowhere, plundering and taking captives.
White Men - the most common White Men on Mars are the Therns, who have yellow hair. They are a priest class, running the Martian religion. John Carter's white skin allows him to disguise himself as a Thern very easily. During the stories at least two other lost white-skinned races are uncovered.
Yellow Men - long thought to have died out, Carter manages to discover a kingdom of the original yellow race living in the ice of the North Pole. They have thick black beards. They also have a secret weapon to prevent them from being discovered by the other races.
Many Martians have two names, such as Tars Tarkas, Dejah Thoris or Tardos Mors. The second name is not a surname, however. Martians with two names are always addressed by both names. Dejah Thoris is always called that, and never just Dejah or Thoris. As a result John Carter is always called by his full name, even by his own wife.
As well as the intelligent species, Mars has many different types of animal, almost all with a profusion of limbs. Here's a selection:
- Thoat - a Martian horse, with eight legs and a long neck. There are two distinct types - large ones ridden by Green Men and smaller ones ridden by the human-like species.
- Calot - a dog the size of a Shetland pony, with a huge tooth-filled mouth and ten short legs.
- Great White Ape - a 10-15-foot-high4 ape with four arms and two legs.
- Banth - a Martian lion, with ten legs. It is hairless except for a bristly mane around its neck.
- Zitidar - a huge elephant-like creature used for pulling giant wagons.
- Apt - a fierce creature like a small mammoth that lives in the frozen North. Standing six to eight feet5 high at the shoulder, it is covered in white fur. It has four legs and two arms with hairless hands which it uses to grab its prey. Its head is like that of a hippopotamus, with two downward curving tusks coming from its lower jaw. It has compound eyes like an insect which cover the whole side of its head.
Each book is shown with two dates, the year the stories were first published in magazine form and the year the book was published.
A Princess of Mars (1912, 1917) - John Carter finds himself on Mars in the land of the Green Men. He is quickly accepted by them because of his remarkable fighting abilities. He encounters a woman of the Red people, the beautiful Dejah Thoris. She is a princess of the city of Helium, and is being held captive by the Green Men. Carter rescues her but then manages to lose her. He soon arrives in the land of the Red Men, at a city called Zodanga. The Zodangans are at war with Helium. Disguising himself as a Red Man, he enlists in their army and discovers that they are holding Dejah Thoris hostage. Once again John Carter must rescue the princess, and also win the war against Zodanga. He gets to marry Dejah Thoris, but after a few years of married bliss is unexpectedly returned to Earth.
The Gods of Mars (1913, 1918) - after ten years trapped on Earth, John Carter finally returns to Mars and finds himself at the Lost Sea of Korus at the South Pole, a place that Martians normally only go to when they are tired of life. It is the fabled heaven of the Martian Religion. But all is not well - the white-skinned Thern priests have been misleading the people for thousands of years and the poor, heaven-seeking Martians have been submitting themselves to slavery or death. John Carter must expose the whole scandal, and also fight against the Black Pirates who in turn have been preying on the Therns. The book ends in a cliff-hanger: Dejah Thoris is imprisoned for a year in a temple along with two other women. Will she still be alive when the year has passed?
The Warlord of Mars (1913, 1919) - a Black man and a Thern are working together. They know a secret way into the temple and they steal Dejah Thoris out of it. John Carter follows them the length of Mars, never quite catching them and narrowly escaping death many times, finally to recover his princess in the land of the Yellow Men at the North Pole.
Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1916, 1920) - this is the first book not directly about John Carter himself. It concerns Thuvia of Ptarth, a plucky young woman Carter encountered in The Gods of Mars, and Carthoris, son of Carter and Dejah Thoris. Carthoris loves Thuvia but she is engaged to someone else and won't return his love. When Thuvia is kidnapped, clearly a regular occurrence for Martian princesses, Carthoris sets out to rescue her, and the pair have lots of adventures. They encounter the Lotharians, a previously unknown race of white-skinned people with auburn hair, who can magically create armies of apparently solid warriors using telepathic power alone.
The Chessmen of Mars (1922, 1922) - once again a story of a princess in trouble and a young man doing his best to rescue her and win her love. In this case the princess is Tara, daughter of John Carter and Dejah Thoris. Uncharacteristically, she is not kidnapped but blown off course when her flier gets caught in a storm. The young man is Gahan, Prince of Gathol. Their adventures bring them to a land ruled by the Kaldanes, creatures which are basically just heads with tiny crab legs. They have a symbiotic relationship with another creature, the Rykor, which is a body with no head. The Kaldanes can thus swap their bodies whenever they want. Tara and Gahan escape with the aid of an outcast Kaldane, Ghek, who accompanies them. They soon reach the land of Manator. Here the people play Martian chess6 using live players, and the taking of pieces is decided by hand-to-hand combat.
The Master Mind of Mars (1927, 1928) - another Earthman, Ulysses Paxton, mysteriously travels to Mars. He encounters a mad scientist, Ras Thavas, and becomes his assistant, eventually learning his skills. Ras Thavas has perfected a technique for brain transplantation. Paxton witnesses an operation in which an ancient and decrepit queen, Xaxa, is given the body of a beautiful young slave girl. The girl, whose name is Valla Dia, wakes up with the body of the old woman. Paxton is given the task of reviving her and monitoring her health. He falls in love with her despite her hideous appearance. He vows to somehow restore her to her own body. He also befriends a half-man half-ape who is the result of a failed experiment, and some other slaves who have had their bodies replaced by Ras Thavas. With the ape man and the slaves, he travels to the land of Phundahl where Xaxa is queen, now in her new body. They must capture the queen and bring her back to Ras Thavas's laboratory, where Paxton himself is able to carry out the reverse operation, restoring Valla Dia to her own body.
A Fighting Man of Mars (1930, 1931) - the hero of the story is Tan Hadron, a Red Man of Helium. He is a lowly soldier in love with a noblewoman, Sanoma Tora, but she doesn't return his love. She is kidnapped, surprise, surprise, and he sets out to rescue her. He has a series of adventures, ably assisted by a young woman he meets along the way, the resourceful and self-reliant Tavia.
Swords of Mars (1934, 1935) - theft is almost unknown on Mars, but assassination is a common crime and the big fear of all important men. John Carter attempts to infiltrate the Guild of Assassins, disguising himself and taking the pseudonym of Vandor. In the subsequent adventures, Dejah Thoris is kidnapped and taken to Thuria, the greater moon of Mars7. Carter ends up in control of a spaceship with a mechanical 'brain', something similar to a computer. He travels to the moon to rescue the princess.
Synthetic Men of Mars (1939, 1940) - the mad scientist Ras Thavas has invented a way of growing people in vats in his laboratory. Some of these overpower him and force him to grow a giant army of synthetic people with the intention of taking over the world. The hero of the story is Vor Daj, a warrior of Helium. Of course, Ras Thavas's skill at brain transplantation is once again used to make an elaborate plot.
Llana of Gathol (1941, 1948) - this is the only one of the Mars books not to have 'Mars' in the title. It features John Carter in four loosely connected stories. In search of solitude, Carter flies to the deserted city of Horz. By one of those coincidences which are common in Burroughs's books, he discovers his own granddaughter, Llana of Gathol, who is being held captive. The subsequent attempts to get Llana safely back home bring Carter, Llana and Pan Dan Chee, a young man they pick up along the way, through a series of adventures. They meet an ancient, mad hypnotist who has preserved people for nearly a million years by the power of hypnotism. They find a valley occupied by Black Men who imprison them. They travel to the land of Pankor where soldiers are frozen and kept in reserve until needed for a war. Finally they reach the land of Invak where the inhabitants have mastered the art of invisibility.
John Carter of Mars (1941, 1964) - This last book was published after Burroughs died. It consists of two novellas:
John Carter and the Giant of Mars is so bad it is like a parody of a John Carter story. It was written by Burroughs and his youngest son Jack together, to be published in a simplified picture-book format. It is best avoided.
Skeleton Men of Jupiter is a classic John Carter story, but unfortunately it is unfinished. Carter travels by spaceship from Mars to Jupiter and has an adventure there involving an invisible spaceship and some very thin people. It's a good story but we must be content to imagine the conclusion - John Carter will forever fight his way to victory and rescue his princess.