Okay, so I’ve had an iPhone for about six months now, and one of the apps that comes with it is iBooks. I don’t have much interest in buying new books to read on it, but out of curiosity I’ve downloaded a few free older books, and I’ve now read this entire novel on my phone, in small moments here and there. It was surprisingly easy to read on the phone: the app text is large enough for easy reading. The main difference is that there’s a lot fewer words per screen than there would be on the page of a book, but that’s not a problem.
I have the entire Burroughs Mars series in Ballantine paperback editions that I bought and read in the 1960s, but I don’t believe I’ve read any of them since. That’s over 40 years ago, and I found I didn’t remember that much of the book. Essentially I remembered the opening, the basic setup, the main characters, and a few action scenes, that was about it. The rest was essentially new.
And it read quite well! Burroughs’ prose is inviting and not at all stuffy or long-winded. He writes of pulp heroics, but in a reasonably believable way that still works for me. The premise of Burroughs’ Mars may have been marginally believable when it was written about 100 years ago, but even then the idea that the planet was warm enough for everyone to go around essentially nude (with metal ornaments) was not a very scientific idea even then, I’d bet. More of a fantasy wish-fulfillment idea. That said, Burroughs does not exploit the visual concept of that idea much. He does not dwell on the nakedness of even his beautiful heroine Deja Thoris, but the idea is always there in the background, and I’m sure titillated readers of the time, and my young self as well. Setting aside the impracticality of fighting naked, it made Burroughs’ Mars a place one might want to see and visit! Visual descriptions of the planet, it’s beasts and men and environment, are generally creative and memorable: Earthlike in some ways, with enough alien elements to make the story fresh.
Other aspects of the story do give at least a nod to scientific ideas about the planet: lesser gravity giving hero John Carter almost early Superman strength and jumping ability, for instance. The problem of little breathable air on Mars is handled by an ingenious invention of Atmosphere factories, ancient machines that create oxygen, one would assume, one of which Carter visits.
The characters in this book are dominated by the huge green Martians, a cruel, heartless race that Burroughs describes with gusto, making Carter’s capture by them a perilous situation even for him. Gradually allies are found, though, and the arrival of another prisoner, the beautiful red Martian princess, sets the rest of the story in motion in thrilling action scenes that culminate in a massive siege of a Martian city that would thrill any Star Wars fan.
The book ends on something of a cliffhanger, though there’s a resolution as well to explain, if not satisfy, that ending. Of course Burroughs was writing for the pulps, and had every reason to make this story a serial if readers liked it, so that makes sense. And readers must have: the series went on for years.
I’m reading the second book now, “Gods of Mars,” also on my phone. Don’t know if any others are available there, I haven’t checked yet. In any case, if you haven’t read this series, I recommend it. Perhaps not quite as well-written as the early “Tarzan” books, but quite good fun for action and adventure story fans. Here’s a link to the Project Gutenberg text used by iBooks: