Barsoom

barsoom

Barsoom is a fictional representation of the planet Mars created by American pulp fiction author Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote close to 100 action adventure stories in various genres in the first half of the 20th century, and is now best known as the creator of the character Tarzan. The first Barsoom tale was serialized as ‘Under the Moons of Mars’ in 1912, and published as a novel as ‘A Princess of Mars’ in 1917. Ten sequels followed over the next three decades, further extending his vision of Barsoom and adding other characters.

The world of Barsoom is a romantic vision of a dying Mars, based on now-outdated scientific ideas made popular by Astronomer Percival Lowell in the early 20th century. While depicting many outlandish inventions, and advanced technology, it is a savage world, of honor, noble sacrifice and constant struggle, where martial prowess is paramount, and where many races fight over dwindling resources. It is filled with lost cities, heroic adventures and forgotten ancient secrets.

The stories are science fiction, belonging to the subgenre of planetary romance, which has strong elements of fantasy. Planetary romance stories are similar to sword and sorcery tales, but include scientific aspects. They mostly take place on the surface of an alien world, frequently include sword fighting, monsters, supernatural elements such as telepathic abilities, and civilizations similar to Earth in pre-technological eras, particularly with the inclusion of dynastic or religious social structures. Spacecraft may appear, but are not central to the story. The stories also share a number of elements with westerns in that they feature desert landscapes, women taken captive and a final confrontation with the antagonist.

Like most of Burroughs’ fiction, the novels in the series are mostly travelogues, feature copious action of a violent nature, and often have plots involving civilized heroes being captured by uncivilized cultures and being forced to adapt to the cruel nature of their captors to survive.

The world of Barsoom is morally unambiguous; characters are either good or evil, there is no sense of moral relativity. A sense of honor transcends race or political affiliation and characters fight alongside one another, and against their adversaries because it is the right thing to do. Qualities of compassion, loyalty and bravery are celebrated, and callousness, deception, and cowardice are frowned upon.

While Burroughs’ Barsoom tales never aspired to being anything other than exciting escapism, his vision of Mars was loosely inspired by astronomical speculation of the time, especially that of Percival Lowell, that saw the planet as a formerly Earthlike world now becoming less hospitable to life due to its advanced age. Living on an aging planet, with dwindling resources, the inhabitants of Barsoom have become hardened and warlike, fighting one another to survive. Once a wet world with continents and oceans, Barsoom’s seas gradually dried up, leaving it a dry planet of highlands interspersed with moss covered dead sea bottoms. Abandoned cities line the former coast lands.

Barsoomians distribute scarce water supplies via a worldwide system of canals, controlled by quarreling city-states which have grown up at the junctures of the canals. The idea of Martian ‘canals’ stems from telescopic observations by 19th century astronomers who, beginning with Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877, believed they saw networks of lines on the planet. Schiaparelli called them canali (‘grooves’ in Italian) which was mistranslated in English as ‘canals.’ During the time Burroughs wrote his first Barsoom stories, the theory was put forward by a number of prominent scientists, notably Lowell, that these were huge engineering works constructed by an intelligent race. This caught the imagination of the public, resulting in a fascination with Mars which inspired much science fiction. The thinning Martian atmosphere is artificially replenished from an ‘atmosphere plant’ on whose smooth functioning all life on the planet is dependent.

Race is a constant theme in the Barsoom novels and the world is clearly divided along racial lines. White, Yellow, Black, Red and Green races all appear across the novels, each with particular traits and qualities which seem to define the characters of almost every individual within them. In this respect, Burroughs’ concept of race, as depicted in the novels, is more like a division between species. The Red and Green Martians are almost complete opposites of one another, with the Red Martians being civilized, lawful, capable of love and forming families, and the Green Martians being savage, cruel, tribal and without families or the ability to form romantic relationships.

Barsoom might be seen as a kind of Martian American Wild West. John Carter is himself an adventuring frontiersman. When he arrives on Barsoom he first mistakes the landscape for the Arizona he has left behind. He discovers a savage, frontier world where the civilized Red Martians are kept invigorated as a race by repelling the constant attacks of the Green Martians, a possible equivalent of wild west ideals. Indeed, the Green Martians are a barbaric, nomadic, tribal culture with many parallels to stereotypes of American Indians. The desire to return to the frontier became a common nostalgia in the early twentieth century. As the United States become more urbanized, the world of the 19th century frontier America became romanticized as a lost world of freedom and noble qualities.

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