Mars, Red to Blue
For simplicity's sake, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) and his works are thrown into a big bucket called "science fiction." We like to categorize and we want our categorizing to be easy. But Burroughs began writing before there was a well-formed thing called science fiction--"Under the Moons of Mars" was in The All-Story on this day 109 years ago--and by our standards and our current categories, stories of John Carter on Barsoom are more properly called science fantasy*, planetary romance, or swords and planets. I would say that, like Star Wars, Burroughs' Mars books are not science fiction.
And now I take it all back. (But maybe not really.)
By our current categories, Burroughs' Mars books may not be science fiction, but before the Great War and even early in the interwar period, there may not have been any more popular, influential, or pertinent example of the genre, at least on this side of the pond. (On that topic, there are still things to come.) They were the state of science fiction at the time, and they were so powerful in the imagination that they endured for decades, in their pure, original, science-fantasy form, perhaps more deeply and intensely in science fiction, space opera, and space fantasy. (There are swords and sabers--airships, too--on both Barsoom and Tatooine. See the images below.) Even into the Space Age, some people imagined Mars to be the way Burroughs had imagined it. Even some scientists still thought of Mars as a dry but habitable planet (and Venus as wet but also habitable). Canals still webbed the Red Planet's surface. Ruined or dying cities might still be found at their nodes. Decadent or moribund peoples might still haunt those cities and their engulfing, pitiless deserts. Maybe there were or once had been other people in our solar system. Maybe someday we would come upon their artifacts and ruins, like a forlorn and windswept City on the Edge of Forever.
That popular image of Mars persisted even after the mid-sixties Mariner 4 mission showed the planet to be not just mostly dead but all dead--persisted, that is, in the popular imagination if nowhere else. Even in the 1970s, there were artists' images of Mars showing a patchwork of green and red, the green parts tied to each other by ligamentous canals, the two colors waxing and waning, warring with each other within the wider cycle of the Martian year. We so wanted there to be life on Mars. We wanted the green to exist and for it to be plant-life, even if it was just simple moss or lichens. You might look at the Viking missions of a decade after Mariner as acts of quiet desperation, as a kind of grasping at the straws of the idea that the Red Planet was once alive and vibrant and that life might still be found there. The views from a space-borne Mariner weren't enough. We needed a close-up view of things. We needed to touch the surface: the arm of the Viking lander would extend like the forefinger of God, but instead of bestowing life upon Mars, it would detect it. Carl Sagan (1934-1996), an ardent childhood reader of Burroughs, was instrumental in the Viking missions. Although a scientist, Dr. Sagan seems to me to have been more than anything a hopeless romantic. I think he went to his grave believing in life on other planets.
But there would be no Barsoom.
There wasn't even a bacterium.
In January 1980, a little over three years after the Viking landers set down, NBC-TV broadcast The Martian Chronicles, based on stories by Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) and with a screenplay by his friend, Richard Matheson (1926-2013). Both men had been young contributors to Weird Tales. Bradbury loved Burroughs' Mars books so much that as a child he wrote a sequel to The Warlord of Mars (1919). Even in 1980, we were holding on to romantic notions of Mars. But instead of being red, Mars in our imagination had turned blue, not only for the terrible sadness and melancholy of The Martian Chronicles, but also for the cyanotic lack of oxygen in its rarefied air. Red planet, blue mood.
By 1990, when Total Recall was released, Mars had become a kind of cyber-corporate-dystopia. In seven decades, the -topia of Red Planet had seemingly gone from Burroughs' U- to a Philip K. Dick-inspired Dys-. But in the climactic scenes of the movie, the hero Quaid reactivates the ancient Martian atmosphere factory, the vivifying plant in the original Mars books, and the blue of sadness and cyanosis gives way to a cyan sky: Mars is suddenly terraformed and Burroughs' vision is redeemed: Dystopia is banished and Utopia returned to Mars.
To be continued . . .
*I still want to hold on to there being a close connection between science fantasy and Lost Worlds: I think of Burroughs' Mars novels as science fantasy/Lost Worlds set not on a closed Earth but in an open--and limitless--universe. With that being the case, it's a short step from science fantasy to science fiction, and the doors of the universe are thrown open to every kind of story.
|The Gods of Mars & The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the Nelson Doubleday edition of 1971. Frank Frazetta's cover illustration is a tour de force of action and painterly technique. I suspect he finished it in a day or less. The Thark's red cloak is reminiscent of the one worn by the ape-creature on the cover of Frazetta's cover for the Lancer edition of Conan.|
A rear view of this wraparound cover will show a rear view of Dejah Thoris, too. Frazetta had his proclivities. But his choice in depicting the female figure in such a way wasn't just about showing a good shot of her fanny. Or at least I don't think it was. By turning her away from us and posing her the way that he did, I think he heightened the mystery and peril of the situation in which the lovers find themselves. She is firm in the grip of the ape-creatures and is rapidly being carried away by them. John Carter had better do something, and fast, before she disappears from this tableau. (Winslow Homer did the same kind of turning away in his picture-making. I think his purpose was to depersonalize, and thus universalize, his figures.) By the way, if you look quickly enough, you will see the same kind of rear view and split, gray-toned, feminine anatomy in the climactic scenes of Total Recall.
Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley