Adventures in Fiction: Barsoom
February 2020 is the 108th anniversary of the first publication of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Mars story. His “Mars” or “Barsoom” series is arguably one of the most influential stories in the history of fantasy and science fiction. Certainly, for fans of D&D history, it should be required reading, as its protagonist not only serves as the model for the iconic Fighter character, but it also is an important influence on the evolution of D&D—and great source material for fun adventures.
This post was the original entry into the Adventures In Fiction series, where we discuss fictional works that can inspire your own great adventures, for D&D, DCC RPG, or any other game. For this first installment, James “Grognardia” Maliszewski has agreed to cover the topic, Why You Should Read the Barsoom Novels.
Why You Should Read the Barsoom Novels
By James Maliszewski
One hundred and five years ago, in the February 1912 issue of the Frank Munsey pulp magazine, The All-Story, there appeared the first installment of a serialized novel by previously unknown author Norman Bean. Entitled “Under the Moons of Mars,” the novel recounted the adventures of Captain John Carter, a Confederate veteran of the US Civil War, among the strange peoples of the planet Mars, or Barsoom as its inhabitants call it.
The serial ran for six issues and was a great success with readers, who demanded further tales of John Carter’s exploits. The author, Norman Bean was, as everyone now knows, a pseudonym, adopted by Edgar Rice Burroughs because he initially worried that he would suffer ridicule for writing a story about Martians. However, the popularity of “Under the Moons of Mars,” not to mention the $400 he received – nearly $10,000 in today’s money – encouraged him to take up fiction writing full-time.
On October 10, 1917, A.C. McClurg & Company collected all six parts of “Under the Moons of Mars,” along with material excised from the original drafts, and released it as a complete novel, A Princess of Mars. Over the next quarter-century, Burroughs would pen eleven books chronicling the red planet of Barsoom. The first three books in this series – the aforementioned A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, and The Warlord of Mars – are often treated as a trilogy, as John Carter is the protagonist in all three, while later books (mostly) focus on other characters, including Carter’s own descendants.
Through the Barsoom novels, Burroughs almost single-handedly created the genre known initially as “planetary romance” or, later, “sword-and-planet,” inspiring many other authors, such as Otis Adelbert Kline, Jack Vance, Frank Herbert, and Leigh Brackett, to follow in his footsteps. Ray Bradbury, another writer inspired by Burroughs, sang his praises at every opportunity, once calling him, in a 2010 interview, “probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world” because “By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special.”
Regardless of whether one considers Bradbury’s assessment hyperbole, there can be no question of the long shadow cast by Barsoom over all subsequent fantasy and science fiction. Alfred North Whitehead famously quipped that “the European philosophical tradition… consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” Something similar could plausibly be said about science fiction and the Barsoom novels. Despite this, the Barsoom novels are not as well known today as they once were, even among aficionados of fantasy and science fiction. I think that’s a shame because they have a lot to offer fans of these genres, not to mention players of roleplaying games. Therefore, the remainder of this essay is dedicated to three reasons why one should read the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
First, they are fun, fast-paced reads. Most printed editions of the novels are less than 200 pages long, making them quite short by the standards of contemporary fiction. Many are also now in the public domain, at least in the United States, making them easy (not to mention inexpensive) to obtain. Consequently, deciding to dive into Barsoom takes little money or time nowadays; there is literally no excuse for a fan of fantasy and science fiction not to read at least A Princess of Mars in order to get a taste of both Burroughs as a writer and Barsoom as a setting.
While I cannot guarantee that every reader will fall immediately in love with A Princess of Mars, I do believe the novel (and its sequels) include plenty of memorable characters, from the intrepid John Carter to the loyal Tars Tarkas to the incomparable Dejah Thoris to hold one’s attention. Equally diverting are the locations of Barsoom, such as the city of Helium’s atmosphere factory, the Golden Temple of Issus, the black obelisk known as the Guardian of the North, and many others. Besides recounting the daring exploits of their protagonists, the novels also function as travelogs of the alien vistas of the red planet. Even if one does not enjoy the plots of the stories themselves, the novels show off the depth and diversity of Barsoom as a setting.
This brings us to the second reason why one should read the Barsoom novels: the world-building. Burroughs worked very hard to make the Mars of his stories seem like real places with real history, inhabited by real people. He did this in numerous ways, starting with thinking about the environment of Barsoom itself and how it would affect the people who dwelt there. Though Barsoom is nothing like Mars as science understands it today, Burroughs nevertheless did try to take into account the science of his own today and to use that science to tell good stories.
Beyond that, Burroughs created not only a history for Barsoom but also a language and a system of measurements unique to the planet. These, combined with other cultural details, enabled him to give the impression that Barsoom was truly an alien world with its own peoples unconnected to those of Earth. This, in turn, provided him with many hooks on which to hang compelling scenes and even entire plots. Burroughs demonstrates again and again the value in taking the time to construct a consistent and, therefore, believable world for his characters to inhabit.
Finally, as I mentioned earlier in this essay, the Barsoom novels exerted an enormous influence over subsequent fantasy and science fiction and not just of a literary sort. Reading the novels enables one to recognize this influence and to appreciate better the works that were influenced by it. For example, George Lucas has acknowledged the debt Barsoom had on his early conceptions of Star Wars, a debt one can more readily see if one already knows the Barsoomian words banth, padwar, and sith, to cite just three. In a similar vein, how much more sense does Superman’s ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound” make when one knows that Jerry Siegel was a lover of the Barsoom novels?
And, of course, the early history of roleplaying games is littered with examples of the influence Barsoom had on it. Gary Gygax explicitly cites “Burroughs’ Martian adventures” in the November 1, 1973 foreword to Dungeons & Dragons, but also includes numerous references Martians of several colors, thoats, calots, and white apes, among other Barsoomian fauna. AD&D‘s famed Appendix N includes the Barsoom novels among its entries, while an early issue of The Strategic Review featured rules for generating deserted Barsoomian cities by James M. Ward. Farther afield, Professor M.A.R. Barker mentions Burroughs as an inspiration for his own alien planet of Tékumel. The list of RPGs inspired by Barsoom could easily go on.
I have only scratched the surface of why the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs are well worth reading, even more than a century after the first installment of “Under the Moons of Mars” appeared in the pages of a pulp magazine. Nevertheless, it is my hope that the foregoing might offer sufficient reasons for doing so and those fantasy and science fiction fans who have not yet acquainted themselves with these seminal works might pick one up and begin to do so. You’re in for a treat!