The Reading Room

Passion and Virtue in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martians

Of the most famous and influential of the early pulp writers, Edgar Rice Burroughs is now, sadly, probably the least known, despite his vast influence on major science-fiction pop culture figures such as George Lucas and Ray Bradbury. It is his ancient dusty Mars, covered in the ruins of dying alien civilizations whose remnants compete for limited resources, which directly inspired Bradbury’s own phenomenal Martian Chronicles, and it is his sword-clad wanderers, kidnapped princesses, and telepathic aliens which brought us the Star Wars franchise. 
Indeed, several of the names and titles for various races and characters in these Barsoom stories were directly lifted by Lucas, such as “Jed” and “Sith.”While the essential plot structure is repetitive and unchanging throughout the Barsoom series (warrior pursues kidnapped princess), it is within the familiarity of this structure that Burroughs moved the science fiction world. What he lacked in plot he made up for in imagination and creative worldbuilding at a time when such things were largely unknown. His Mars (or Barsoom, as the natives call it) is fraught with alien races and monsters, scientific gizmos and political machinations, flying machines and mad scientists. And, of course, scantily clad princesses. This is a pulp series, after all. And bounding through it all in great leaps we have the titular hero, John Carter, a veteran cavalry officer of the Confederacy, bringing with him his Southern charm, honor, and gentlemanliness to a hostile barbarian world. It is a concept which promises many thrills, and which largely delivers on them. The series was wildly popular throughout the nearly three decades it was written and published for a reason.

Yet in the midst of this fun romp across an alien landscape through deserted cities and armadas of flying battleships, Burroughs proves that sheer imagination is not his only strength. Like many other writers of fantasy and science fiction, Burroughs thought much about his own homeworld, and wrestled with contemporary issues through his fictional worldbuilding.

The first of his Barsoom books, A Princess of Mars, serialized in 1912, prominently features an alien race which is the result of the “community idea” as he calls it, played out over several thousand years.
“All property among the green Martians is owned in common by the community…Their mating is a matter of community interest solely, and is directed without reference to natural selection. The council of chieftains of each community control the matter as surely as the owner of a Kentucky racing stud directs the scientific breeding of his stock for the improvement of the whole.“In theory it may sound well, as is often the case with theories, but the results of ages of this unnatural practice, coupled with the community interest in the offspring being held paramount to that of the mother, is shown in the cold, cruel creatures, and their gloomy, loveless, mirthless existence” (A Princess of Mars, Chapter 12).
Despite this cold cruelty, however, Burroughs also makes clear these green Martians are “absolutely virtuous” (Ibid.); it is this cold warrior race that adopts the stranded John Carter, admires his strength and his honor and eventually accepts him as one of their chieftains. They are a troubled people—“a people without written language, without art, without homes, without love; the victims of eons of the horrible community idea. Owning everything in common, even to [their] women and children, has resulted in [their] owning nothing in common. [They] hate each other as [they] hate all else except [themselves]” (A Princess of Mars, Chapter 10)—but they are not one without hope or a chance for redemption, an essential plot point for the rest of the series.While science fiction of the Cold War era is far more condemning of its thinly veiled communist ‘bad guys’, Burroughs, witnessing the growth of this political ideal in its earlier stages, offers a more nuanced portrayal of socialism and its likely results, the bad, as well as the good. While the green men are cruel and ruthless, they became so for the sake of an ideal, and that ideal still guides their entire warrior society’s system of honor and nobility Their virtue is a cold, loveless virtue, but it is still a virtue. Counterbalancing the green men of Mars are the planet’s red men, who live in a technologically advanced, chivalric society, but whose many villainous princes are ruled by their lusts (hence all the kidnapped princesses) as well as their cruelty and political machinations. Later books introduce new Martian races with their own powers and histories, but it is always the red and the green men who take the center stage. Their clash, the battle between the passions and the virtues, is what destroys the planet, but their eventual union what conquers it.