Carl Sagan on the magical Mars of John Carter and Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars, Barsoom, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan, The Tarzan Files

Here’s a wonderful 3 minutes from Carl Sagan on how as a young boy he was mesmerized by the Mars of John Carter, Tars Tarkas, and Dejah Thoris. The reverence with which he speaks of the imaginative transport that the stories achieved for him, and how they inspired him to consider the possibility of the cosmos, is very much the experience I had a boy with the ERB stories; he just managed to do a helluva lot more with that inspiration than I have.

In particular, I love how Sagan describes being a boy who would go out and, like John Carter, look at Mars in the night sky and will himself to be transported there as John Carter did. I did exactly that as a 12 year old — I can still feel the intensity of the effort to reach out to Mars and let it transport me.

Although I remembered John Carter’s experience of transport, it was Ulysses Paxton, the protagonist of The Mastermind of Mars, who is transported to Barsoom as he is dying n the trenches in World War I, who was the prototype.

Ah – the joys of the internet. A quick Google of “Project Gutenberg Mastermind of Mars” and a quick scan of the text and here it is, Ulysses Paxton’s description of his transport to Mars – the one that stuck in my mind so powerfully. These are the words of Ulysses Paxton, newly promoted to Captain, battling in the trenches of World War I:

A shell must have burst among us. What became
of my men I never knew. It was cold and very dark when I awoke and at
first, for an instant, I was quite comfortable–before I was fully
conscious, I imagine–and then I commenced to feel pain. It grew until
it seemed unbearable. It was in my legs. I reached down to feel them,
but my hand recoiled from what it found, and when I tried to move my
legs I discovered that I was dead from the waist down. Then the moon
came out from behind a cloud and I saw that I lay within a shell hole
and that I was not alone–the dead were all about me.

It was a long time before I found the moral courage and the physical
strength to draw myself up upon one elbow that I might view the havoc
that had been done me.

One look was enough, I sank back in an agony of mental and physical
anguish–my legs had been blown away from midway between the hips and
knees. For some reason I was not bleeding excessively, yet I know that
I had lost a great deal of blood and that I was gradually losing enough
to put me out of my misery in a short time if I were not soon found;
and as I lay there on my back, tortured with pain, I prayed that they
would not come in time, for I shrank more from the thought of going
maimed through life than I shrank from the thought of death.

Then my eyes suddenly focussed upon the bright red eye of Mars and
there surged through me a sudden wave of hope. I stretched out my arms
towards Mars, I did not seem to question or to doubt for an instant as
I prayed to the god of my vocation to reach forth and succour me. I
knew that he would do it, my faith was complete, and yet so great was
the mental effort that I made to throw off the hideous bonds of my
mutilated flesh that I felt a momentary qualm of nausea and then a
sharp click as of the snapping of a steel wire, and suddenly I stood
naked upon two good legs looking down upon the bloody, distorted thing
that had been I. Just for an instant did I stand thus before I turned
my eyes aloft again to my star of destiny and with outstretched arms
stand there in the cold of that French night–waiting.

Suddenly I felt myself drawn with the speed of thought through the
trackless wastes of interplanetary space. There was an instant of
extreme cold and utter darkness, then–But the rest is in the
manuscript that, with the aid of one greater than either of us, I have
found the means to transmit to you with this letter. You and a few
others of the chosen will believe in it–for the rest it matters not
as yet…….

Here is the link to the whole novel: A Mastermind of Mars

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