Everything she can do, he can do better

I’ve started reading John Carter of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, in anticipation of what looks like a very fun movie, but I have to say that even though the story is interesting the writing is absolutely appalling. It’s classic Mary Sue, with a character who is just better than everyone else at everything and obviously already knows his way through the plot, as if he were in fact the writer of the story himself. It also uses the classic “tell, don’t show” error of teenage fanfiction. Reading it is a tedious exercise in admiration of a two-dimensional hero.

The basic story is simple: John Carter, ex-slave owner and “Southern Gentleman,” finds himself accidentally on Mars, where he is thrown into the middle of the ongoing conflict between two races who have been reduced to hard scrabble in a failing environment. Mars (or “Barsoom,” as the locals call it), used to be the home of a great race of human-like peoples, who slowly fell into decay as the environment of Mars failed. Another race appears to have decided to live communally on the land and, as commies are wont to do, degenerated into barbarism and cruelty. The descendants of the great race – red skinned humanoids – have great technology and are trying to save the planet, while the savages – weird buggish freaks – run around being cruel and nasty. John Carter lands amongst the savages, but immediately impresses them with his prowess at everything, and though a captive of these savages manages to get himself appointed a chieftain (through combat, of course) and is given wardenship of one of their prisoners, who of course is an extremely important member of the red-skinned people. He is also given a couple of women to look after him, and one of these just happens to be the only kind and thoughtful savage on Barsoom.

So, having accidentally disappeared from his own world, with its rich 19th century culture of slave-holding and subjugated women, where he is a much-admired and respected man, Carter finds himself on a completely alien world with different culture and language, but within a couple of seconds finds himself much-admired and respected, and lording it over a small collection of women – purely by dint of his talents, of course.

This could be a fun read, I suppose, like a kind of sexless version of Gor, but for the fact that John Carter is a tedious, insufferable braggart who is good at everything and never makes an error. And oh, how we are constantly reminded of his talents. For example:

To be held paralzyed … seems to me the last word in fearsome predicaments for a man who had ever been used to fighting for his life with all the energy of a powerful physique


I do not believe that I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes, because, in all of the hundreds of instances that my voluntary acts have placed me face to face with death, I cannot recall a single one where any alternative step to that I took occurred to me until many hours later … I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me

and following this up:

Fear is a relative term … but I can say without shame that if the sensations I endured during the next few minutes were fear, then may God help the coward, for cowardice is of a surety its own punishment

In case you hadn’t noticed, John Carter is a robust fighter who never feels fear and acts automatically out of a sense of duty. These quotes are from the first few chapters but Burroughs isn’t tardy about letting us all know that John Carter is the best, y’all: his manifold perfections are outlined in a foreword. But just in case you thought Carter might just be the 19th century equivalent of a great sportsman, we are also reminded that he is a consummate warrior, and a genius to boot. In training with the savages weapons, we find:

I was not yet proficient with all the weapons, but my great familiarity with similar earthly weapons made me an unusually apt pupil, and I progressed in a very satisfactory manner

Oh! The modesty! Also, within a few days of joining the savages, John Carter has befriended his watchdog in a way that no martian has ever done before, and has taught the martians better ways of managing their own mounts, and mounted combat, so that they are both better able to manage their mounts and better able to fight en masse. This despite the fact that he is unfamiliar with martian gravity and doesn’t speak their language. Not that the latter bothers him much:

in a week I could make all my wants known and understand nearly everything that was said to me. Likewise, under Sola’s tutelage, I developed my telepathic powers so that I shortly could sense practically everything that went on around me.

This, incidentally, is the entirety of the coverage that the existence of telepathy gets in this work for the first 8 or so chapters. We’ve had more sentences devoted to the production of the milk Carter drinks than to the telepathy he learns. It’s not, however, the last time that Carter gets a chance to remind us that he is a genius:

I nearly drove Sola distracted by my importunities to hasten on my education and within a few more days I had mastered the Martian tongue sufficiently well to enable me to carry on a passable conversation and to fully understand practically all that I heard

Here is an example of a conversation he could understand “within a few more days”:

In our day we have progressed to a point where such sentiments mark weakness and atavism. It will not be well for you to permit Tars Tarkas that you hold such degenerate sentiments, as I doubt that he would care to entrust such as you with the grave responsibilities of maternity

So, one week to learn how to say “I need to take a leak,” another few more days to get to the point of understanding an overheard conversation about “atavism.” Also, telepathy in one sentence. And nowhere in this time period is there a hint, even a single hint, of homesickness, or any kind of emotional trauma at having teleported out of a cave in Arizona to a field on Mars. Do you feel small yet? Or are you, more likely, bored stiff with this character who can do everything and anything?

In addition to being a robust Southern Gentleman who can learn martian in a day, Carter also seems to have remarkable luck to take exactly the right path in any situation. He hears someone behind him, so instead of attacking, he jumps, which impressed his attackers rather than getting him killed; he gives his horse its head in the darkness, which is just as well because it leads him up just the right path to escape the Indians; he makes a guess about the best way to impress the natives and – lo! – it was the right guess. Within about a chapter of the start of the adventure it has been well-impressed upon the reader that, no matter what, Carter is not at risk of significant injury, failure or death. As the reader, you have nothing invested in the story at all – it’s not like Carter is going to ever have to overcome a failing or character flaw (he has none), there’s no sense in which his plight is the same as yours would be if you ended up on Mars, and there’s never a feeling that he will make a bad choice, even by accident.

This apathy is further entrenched by the narrative flow, in which Burroughs tells us everything we need to know about the society, environment and structure of Mars long before Carter himself finds out the details. Rather than discovering the mysteries of Mars in the flow of the adventure, we’re told everything about a setting, person, circumstance or technology as soon as we encounter it. The phrase “As I later learned,” or “as I was to discover,” appears constantly in the text – maybe a couple of times every chapter, and always expounds on things we could quite happily find out ourselves with a bit of time. Thus, we only know we are somewhere mysterious because we are told we are on Mars: from the very moment of his arrival there, Carter’s narrative breaks the mystery of the planet with constant references to things that neither he nor the reader know. We even get a lesson in Martian demographics in the second chapter of his encounter with the savages, something that really could have waited to be revealed to us later in a conversation with someone.

This kind of adventure writing is so tedious as to be almost unbearable. The plot itself is interesting – I want to find out about Mars and the society Burroughs has created, and I want to see where the story goes. It’s a really good idea that, in the hands of a decent writer, would make a really cool story. I’m guessing, then, that the movie is going to be good. But the book – thoroughly forgettable so far. It reminds me of John Wyndham’s pompous academic Mary Sues, who always take a young woman under their wing and teach her the harsh realities of the world, while she constantly thanks them in breathless wonder at their wisdom; or the later books of Dune, after whats-his-face becomes a god and surmounts every challenge by simply being himself. No challenge, no threat, no sympathy with a human character, no need for character development and no sense that the character will ever grow as a person through adversity. Of course, this may change later, but at the moment it’s looking like the writing is going to be drier than the surface of Mars.

So, unless you’re feeling really patient, I can’t recommend John Carter of Mars. Is the rest of Burroughs’s work this badly written?