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Mars comes to town

A century after John Carter first appeared in the series, Under the Moon of Mars, in All-Story Magazine in February 1912 — a full eight months before Tarzan made his debut in the same magazine — Walt Disney Pictures is taking the Lawrence of Arabia-meets-Flash Gordon swashbuckler out of the cryogenic freezer and bringing him with full-FX boosters firing onto the cinema screen.

books Updated: Feb 10, 2012 18:09 IST

Edgar Rice Burroughs, famous as the creator of Tarzan, Rousseau’s Noble Savage transplanted to early 20th century Africa, never set foot in Africa. Burroughs, also the creator of John Carter, an American Civil War veteran who is mysteriously transported to Mars, never set foot in Mars either. But that kind of minor details never stopped the hugely prolific Burroughs from writing hugely popular stories with square-jawed heroes set in hostile terrains.

A century after John Carter first appeared in the series, ‘Under the Moon of Mars’, in All-Story Magazine in February 1912 — a full eight months before Tarzan made his debut in the same magazine — Walt Disney Pictures is taking the Lawrence of Arabia-meets-Flash Gordon swashbuckler out of the cryogenic freezer and bringing him with full-FX boosters firing onto the cinema screen. The movie, scheduled for release next month, will be based on the first John Carter novel, A Princess of Mars — the name given to ‘Under the Moon of Mars’ when it was published in book form in 1917 after Burroughs had tasted super-success with Tarzan — and we’re looking at an epic science fiction-fantasy flick that welds Conan the Barbarian hi-pomp with Star Wars aesthetics.

Burroughs’ ‘Barsoom’ books — Barsoom is the local name for Mars — are pulp SF classics. What Burroughs provides in this ‘lower than Earth gravity-larger than Earth life’ universe is the straight-up guilty pleasures that every science fiction fan misses when they’ve moved on to the sophisticated writings of Philip K Dick, Ray Bradbury or Stanislaw Lem. In other words, the joys of being under the spell of the deadly kitsch ray.

You don’t read Barsoom paperbacks for the usual reasons you read SF. John Carter’s red world is inhabited by the voluptuous Princess Dejah Thorris (who becomes Mrs Carter), giant four-armed barbarians, the green-skinned villain with a voracious libido Tal Hajus, and eight-legged thoats (Martian horses)... You enter Burroughs’ world of hyper-virile, tantalisingly-sexual, sorcerous and saucy world of Mars because it is no-holds-barred space opera. If you’ve encountered it before as a gangly teenager, you will be transported — very mysteriously — into Planet Nostalgia. And if you are a Barsoom virgin, it will take you to the same destination anyway because of the buttons Burroughs presses.

The clue to the immense appeal of John Carter and his world lies in what Gore Vidal wrote about Tarzan: “Tarzan is a classic dream-self, able to give the dreamer a spacious sense of mastery over a world that, more and more, diminishes the individual.” John Carter too lives, even if we’ve stopped remembering how to live on Planet Boredom.

Mondy Thapar is a Delhi-based writer

John Carter releases in cinemas on Friday, March 9