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Reading Barsoom: How Edgar Rice Burroughs became the father of modern science fiction

A Princess of Mars, Barsoom

iO9 has a nice article about how  Edgar Rice Burroughs became the father of modern science fiction which I think is worth sharing.   The piece is written by John Marr and give a nice overview of Burroughs, how he got started writing, and what the impact of it was in the pulp magazines of the day, and later in book form.  Thanks for this!

Reading Barsoom: How Edgar Rice Burroughs became the father of modern science fiction

In 1911, a 36-year old loser, his latest business venture crumbling into insolvency, started to while away his idle hours at the office by writing a novel for the then-new “pulp” magazines. It was about a man going to Mars.

The story he wrote, a swashbuckling tale of action, adventure, and romance set on the dying Red Planet, was so outré he used the pen name “Norman Bean” lest the readers think the author a bit cracked.

That novel, serialized in All-Story magazine and later published in book form as A Princess of Mars, was enough of a hit to inspire Edgar Rice Burroughs to try yet another career. His next effort, a turgid historical romance, was a dud. But his third novel, Tarzan of the Apes, put him firmly on the path to becoming one of the best-selling authors of the 20th century. But while the Tarzan books overshadow everything else he ever

wrote, the eleven volume Mars series is arguably Burroughs’ best and most influential work. With Andrew Stanton’s film John Carter of Mars due out in 2012, it’s the perfect time to look back at this pioneering science fiction series.

Thanks to Tarzan, Burroughs is seldom thought of today as a science fiction writer. But in his day he was one of the leading writers of the “scientific romances” that evolved into the genre we all know and love. Rare was the Golden Age science fiction writer who didn’t grow up on Burroughs serials in Bluebook and Argosy and later, Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures. And it’s not to hard to see the special appeal of the Mars series. Not only do they still make for good reading, they’re arguably the first multi-volume series with a fully-conceived alien (as opposed to fantasy) setting.

Barsoom, as the inhabitants of Burroughs’ Mars call it, is a dying world. Its oceans have long ago dried up, leaving the shorelines dotted with abandoned cities. The famous canals are but shadows of their former selves. The thinning atmosphere is kept breathable only by a massive “atmosphere plant.” But Martian civilization is far from dead. While the bulk of the planet is under the control of hordes of nomadic, semi-barbarian, 15-foot tall, 4-armed green Martians, a humanoid race of red Martians keep civilization alive in an extensive network of perpetually warring walled city-states.

Burroughs bestowed Mars with an odd mix of technology designed to maximize the action, not stimulate the imagination. The principal form of transport for red Barsoomians are “flyers,” aircraft rendered immune from gravity via reservoirs of the “8th Barsoomian Ray.” Ranging in size from single-person flivvers to heavily-armed naval dreadnaughts, they can reach speeds of 200 mph. Ground transport, on the other hand, is by “thoat,” the eight-legged Barsoomian horse. For weapons, there are hand-held “radium guns” that shoot explosive projectiles for 100 miles with perfect accuracy. Yet Barsoomians have a universal preference for lances and swords. Even bow and arrows are rare.

Read the rest at iO9

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