Friday, May 25, 2012

Review of A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I enjoyed reading the planetary romance A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, first published one hundred years ago in 1912.  I had the additional pleasure of reading the novel from the 2009 Fall River Press edition with an interesting and insightful introduction by Mike Ashley and the original, beautiful illustrations by Thomas Yeates. 

Mr. Ashley proclaims that Mr. Burroughs “revolutionized science fiction” with A Princess of Mars, and that Mr. Burroughs was the father of the planetary romance form.  He goes further, opining that Burroughs’ type of fantasy world building “would not be repeated until J.R.R. Tolkien created Middle-earth.”  I will go even further and say that the achievement of Mr. Burroughs is, at least in terms of originality, greater than that of Mr. Tolkien.  Mr. Tolkien wrote of:  the small but otherwise man-like hobbits, man-like elves, and manned-up faerie tale dwarves, as well as trolls, goblins, and wraiths--all original twists on things familiar.  Mr. Burroughs gives us:  the six-limbed green Martians, the egg-laying humanoid red Martians, and the eight-limbed beasts of Mars.  Even further, Mr. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is different from the actual planet earth, but he could take for granted the flora, fauna, atmosphere, and physics of his world; Mr. Burroughs had to invent everything about Mars from scratch. 

Of course, as when today’s reader enjoys the works of Jules Verne, it is interesting to note, with our knowledge of the actual outcome of what to the author was the future, the things the author predicted correctly and, perhaps more so, the things that the author did not.  As Mr. Ashley points out, in 1912, it was widely believed that Mars could sustain life.  Sadly, our robot probes have proven this assumption to be incorrect--there are not, nor were there likely ever, any intelligent beings or indeed any animal or plant life on Mars--no Tharks, no ruined cities, no red men of Helium, no canals flowing with water and tall trees reaching into the crimson sky.  I must say that I cringed when Mr. Burroughs’ John Carter remarked casually that the mountains of Mars are not tall and that the winds of Mars rarely blow and are gentle when they do.  However, I found it easy to overlook these blunders, as the other aspects of this fictional Mars were so compelling.  If you want “real,” read Kim Stanley Robinson. 
About the only cause for disappointment in A Princess of Mars is its length.  At about 150 pages, it is a short novel by today’s standards; perhaps this is why this particular bound edition also contains the sequels The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars, both of which I anticipate reading with further pleasure. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Review of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I finished Lewis Carroll’s novella, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in one day, most of it in one sitting.  I had the pleasure of reading it from the elegantly bound, beautifully illustrated, gilded edged, Barnes and Noble 2010 edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Other Stories, with an insightful introduction by Leonard S. Marcus.   I read the last third of the story aloud to my wife over tea--a delightful experience, as reading the book aloud is clearly how Mr. Carroll intended his tale to be enjoyed, and pausing for sips of hot tea created a magical atmosphere--at times, I almost expected to look up from reading to see the March Hare and Mad Hatter having cups along with my wife and me.
 Fiction writers usually ask their readers to suspend belief and just enjoy their stories.  Mr. Carroll does not really ask--he insists.  I was, of course, familiar with the story before I read it, so I was at least prepared, but readers of Alice’s Adventures really must be willing to let go or be let down.  I personally found it easy accept the ever changing realities of Wonderland, but believe that not every reader would be able to do the same. 

Those unable or unwilling to suspend belief could still enjoy Alice’s Adventures as a book of nonsense, full of puns and poetry that easily roll off the tongue--an inspiration for books such as The Phantom Tollbooth.  As Mr. Marcus points out in his introduction, some see Alice’s Adventures as a satire mocking the value of traditional childhood education, as when the Dodo attempts to dry his friends and Alice, who were soaked in a flood of Alice’s tears, by reciting a “dry” lesson in history.  Still others see the tale as an elaborate metaphor for the awkwardness of the growth spurts and other changes to the body that occur during adolescence.  I understand all that, but, for me, Wonderland will always be exactly what the word implies--a land of wonder.