Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter, and the Mad Romance of the One Man Flier

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Reading the Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs as a teenager, high on the list of the “magic of Burroughs” for me was the concept of the tiny “one-man scout flier” — basically, as described by Burroughs, a surfboard sized flying device that John Carter and other Barsoomian warriors.

In Andrew Stanton’s John Carter, we get a little exposure to the one-man flier — a steampunk arrangement that has its own charms. But it is the rendition in the books that sparks the romance for me.

Here is a scene that captures it. In the scene (which contains many other delicious morsels) from Swords of Mars, John Carter takes his leave of Dejah Thoris and uses a one man scout flyer to gain entrance as a spy to the hostile city of Zodanga.

An interesting note — and a telling one — I only wanted to paste in three of four paragraphs but as I was looking for a “stopping place” in the narrative, I couldn’t find one for many pages.
That, too, is the magic of Edgar Rice Burroughs:

(Scroll to the end for a gallery of flier images.)

By Edgar Rice Burroughs

That evening I spent alone with Dejah Thoris; and about twenty-five
xats past the eighth zode, or at midnight earth time, I changed to a
plain leather harness without insignia, and prepared to leave upon my

“I wish you were not going, my prince; I have a premonition that–well
–that we are both going to regret it.”

“The assassins must be taught a lesson,” I replied, “or no one’s life
will be safe upon Barsoom. By their acts, they have issued a definite
challenge; and that I cannot permit to go unnoticed.”

“I suppose not,” she replied. “You won your high position here with
your sword; and by your sword I suppose you must maintain it, but I
wish it were otherwise.”

I took her in my arms and kissed her and told her not to worry–that I
would not be gone long. Then I went to the hangar on the roof.

The hangar guard may have thought that it was an unusual time of night
for me to be going abroad, but he could have had no suspicion as to my
destination. I took off toward the west and presently was cutting the
thin air of Mars beneath the myriad stars and the two gorgeous
satellites of the red planet.

The moons of Mars have always intrigued me; and tonight, as I gazed
upon them, I felt the lure of the mystery that surrounds them. Thuria,
the nearer moon, known to earth men as Phobos, is the larger; and as it
circles Barsoom at a distance of only 5800 miles, it presents a most
gorgeous sight. Cluros, the farther moon, though only a little smaller
in diameter than Thuria, appears to be much smaller because of the
greater distance of its orbit from the planet, lying as it does, 14,500
miles away.

For ages, there was a Martian legend, which remained for me to explode,
that the black race, the so-called First-born of Barsoom, lived upon
Thuria, the nearer moon; but at the time I exposed the false gods of
Mars, I demonstrated conclusively that the black race lived in the
Valley Dor, near the south pole of the planet.

Thuria, seemingly hanging low above me, presented a gorgeous spectacle,
which was rendered still more remarkable by the fact that she
apparently moved through the heavens from west to east, due to the fact
that her orbit is so near the planet she performs a revolution in less
than one-third of that of the diurnal rotation of Mars. But as I
watched her this night in dreamy fascination, little could I guess the
part that she was so soon to play in the thrilling adventures and the
great tragedy that lay just beyond my horizon.

When I was well beyond the Twin Cities of Helium, I cut off my running
lights and circled to the south, gradually heading toward the east
until I held a true course for Zodanga. Setting my destination compass,
I was free to turn my attention to other matters, knowing that this
clever invention would carry the ship safely to its destination.

My first task was to repaint the hull of the flier. I buckled straps
onto my harness and onto rings in the gunwale of the craft; and then,
lowering myself over the side, I proceeded to my work. It was slow
work, for after painting as far as I could reach in all directions, I
had to come on deck and change the position of the straps, so that I
could cover another portion of the hull. But toward morning it was
finally accomplished, though I cannot say that I looked with pride upon
the result as anything of an artistic achievement. However, I had
succeeded in covering the old paint and thus disguising the craft
insofar as color was concerned. This accomplished, I threw my brush and
the balance of the paint overboard, following them with the leather
harness that I had worn from home.

As I had gotten almost as much paint upon myself as upon the hull of
the boat, it took me some little time to erase the last vestige of this
evidence that would acquaint a discerning observer with the fact that I
had recently repainted my craft.

This done, I applied the red pigment evenly to every square inch of my
naked body; so that after I had finished, I could have passed anywhere
on Mars as a member of the dominant red race of Martians; and when I
had donned the Zodangan harness, metal, and weapons, I felt that my
disguise was complete.

It was now mid-forenoon; and, after eating, I lay down to snatch a few
hours of sleep.

Entering a Martian city after dark is likely to be fraught with
embarrassment for one whose mission may not be readily explained. It
was, of course, possible that I might sneak in without lights; but the
chances of detection by one of the numerous patrol boats was too great;
and as I could not safely have explained my mission or revealed my
identity, I should most certainly be sent to the pits and, doubtless,
receive the punishment that is meted to spies–long imprisonment in
the pits, followed by death in the arena.

Were I to enter with lights, I should most certainly be apprehended;
and as I should not be able to answer questions satisfactorily, and as
there would be no one to sponsor me, my predicament would be almost
equally difficult; so as I approached the city before dawn of the
second day, I cut out my motor and drifted idly well out of range of
the searchlights of the patrol boats.

Even after daylight had come, I did not approach the city until the
middle of the forenoon at a time when other ships were moving freely
back and forth across the walls.

By day, and unless a city is actively at war, there are few
restrictions placed upon the coming and going of small craft.
Occasionally the patrol boats stop and question one of these; and as
fines are heavy for operating without licenses, a semblance of
regulation is maintained by the government.

In my case, it was not a question of a license to fly a ship but of my
right to be in Zodanga at all; so my approach to the city was not
without its spice of adventure.

At last the city wall lay almost directly beneath me; and I was
congratulating myself upon my good fortune, as there was no patrol boat
in sight; but I had congratulated myself too soon, for almost
immediately there appeared from behind a lofty tower one of those swift
little cruisers that are commonly used in all Martian cities for patrol
service, and it was headed directly toward me.

I was moving slowly, so as not to attract unfavorable attention; but I
can assure you that my mind was working rapidly. The one-man scout
flier that I was using is very fast, and I might easily have turned and
outdistanced the patrol boat; however, there were two very important
objections to such a plan. One was that, unquestionably, the patrol
boat would immediately open fire on me with the chances excellent that
they would bring me down. The other was, that should I escape, it would
be practically impossible for me to enter the city again in this way,
as my boat would be marked; and the entire patrol system would be on
the lookout for it.

The cruiser was steadily approaching me, and I was preparing to bluff
my way through with a cock-and-bull story of having been long absent
from Zodanga and having lost my papers while I was away. The best that
I could hope from this was that I should merely be fined for not having
my papers, and as I was well supplied with money, such a solution of my
difficulties would be a most welcome one.

This, however, was a very slim hope, as it was almost a foregone
conclusion that they would insist upon knowing who my sponsor was at
the time my lost papers were issued; and without a sponsor I would be
in a bad way.

Just as they got within hailing distance, and I was sure that they were
about to order me to stop, I heard a loud crash above me; and glancing
up, I saw two small ships in collision. I could see the officer in
command of the patrol boat plainly now; and as I glanced at him, I saw
him looking up. He barked a short command; the nose of the patrol boat
was elevated; and it circled rapidly upward, its attention diverted
from me by a matter of vastly greater importance.

While it was thus engaged, I slipped quietly on into the city of

At the time, many years ago, that Zodanga was looted by the green
hordes of Thark, it had been almost completely razed. It was the old
city with which I had been most familiar, and I had visited the rebuilt
Zodanga upon but one or two occasions since.

Cruising idly about, I finally found that for which I sought–an
unpretentious public hangar in a shabby quarter of the city. There are
quarters in every city with which I am familiar where one may go
without being subjected to curious questioning, so long as one does not
run afoul of the officers of the law. This hangar and this quarter of
Zodanga looked such a place to me.

The hangar was located on the roof of a very old building that had
evidently escaped the ravages of the Tharks. The landing space was
small, and the hangars themselves dingy and unkempt.

As my craft settled to the roof, a fat man, well smeared with black
grease, appeared from behind a flier upon the engine of which he was
evidently working.

He looked at me questioningly, and I thought with none too friendly an
expression. “What do you want?” he demanded.

“Is this a public hangar?”


“I want space for my craft.”

“Have you got any money?” he demanded.

“I have a little. I will pay a month’s rental in advance,” I replied.

The frown melted from his face. “That hangar there is vacant,” he said,
pointing. “Run her in there.”

Having housed my flier and locked the controls, I returned to the man
and paid him.

“Is there a good public house near by?” I asked, “one that is cheap and
not too dirty.”

“There is one right in this building,” he replied, “as good as any that
you will find around here.”

This suited me perfectly, as when one is on an adventure of this
nature, one never knows how quickly a flier may be required or how soon
it may be all that stands between one and death.

Leaving the surly hangar proprietor, I descended the ramp that opened
onto the roof.

The elevators, ran only to the floor below the roof, and here I found
one standing with its door open. The operator was a dissipated looking
young fellow in shabby harness.

“Ground floor?” he asked.

“I am looking for lodgings,” I replied. “I want to go to the office of
the public house in this building.”

He nodded, and the elevator started down. The building appeared even
older and more dilapidated from the inside than the out, and the upper
floors seemed practically untenanted.

“Here you are,” he said presently, stopping the elevator and opening
the door.

In Martian cities, public houses such as this are merely places to
sleep. There are seldom but few, if any, private rooms. Along the side
walls of long rooms are low platforms upon which each guest places his
sleeping silks and furs in a numbered space allotted to him.

Owing to the prevalence of assassination, these rooms are patrolled
night and day by armed guards furnished by the proprietor; and it is
largely because of this fact that private rooms are not in demand. In
houses that cater to women, these guests are segregated; and there are
more private rooms and no guards in their quarters, as the men of
Barsoom seldom, if ever, kill a woman, or I may qualify that by saying
that they do not employ assassins to kill them, ordinarily.

The public house to which chance had led me catered only to men. There
were no women in it.

The proprietor, a burly man who I later learned was formerly a famous
panthan, or soldier of fortune, assigned me a sleeping place and
collected his fee for a day’s lodging; and after directing me to an
eating-place in response to my inquiries, left me.

Scarcely any of the other guests were in the house at this hour of the

Their personal belongings, their sleeping silks and furs, were in the
spaces allotted to them; and even though there had been no guards
patrolling the room, they would have been safe, as thievery is
practically unknown upon Mars.

I had brought with me some old and very ordinary sleeping silks and
furs and these I deposited upon the platform. Sprawled in the adjoining
space was a shifty-eyed individual with an evil face. I had noticed
that he had been eyeing me surreptitiously ever since I had entered. At
last he spoke to me.

“Kaor!” he said, using the familiar form of Martian greeting.

I nodded and replied in kind.

“We are to be neighbors,” he ventured.

“So it would seem,” I replied.

“You are evidently a stranger, at least in this part of the city,” he

“I overheard you asking the proprietor where you could find an
eating-place. The one he directed you to is not as good as the one that
I go to. I am going there now; if you’d like to come along, I’ll be
glad to take you.”

There was a furtiveness about the man that, in connection with his evil
face, assured me that he was of the criminal class; and as it was among
this class that I expected to work, his suggestion dovetailed nicely
with my plans; so I quickly accepted.

“My name is Rapas,” he said, “they call me Rapas the Ulsio,” he added,
not without a touch of pride.

Now I was sure that I had judged him correctly, for Ulsio means rat.

“My name is Vandor,” I told him, giving him the alias I had selected
for this adventure.

“By your metal, I see that you are a Zodangan,” he said, as we walked
from the room to the elevators.

“Yes,” I replied, “but I have been absent from the city for years. In
fact, I have not been here since it was burned by the Tharks. There
have been so many changes that it is like coming to a strange city.”

“From your looks, I’d take you to be a fighting man by profession,” he

I nodded. “I am a panthan. I have served for many years in another
country, but recently I killed a man and had to leave.” I knew that if
he were a criminal, as I had guessed, this admission of a murder upon
my part would make him freer with me.

His shifty eyes glanced quickly at me and then away; and I saw that he
was impressed, one way or another, by my admission. On the way to the
eating-place, which lay in another avenue a short distance from our
public house, we carried on a desultory conversation.

When we had seated ourselves at a table, Rapas ordered drinks; and
immediately after he had downed the first one his tongue loosened.

“Are you going to remain in Zodanga?” he asked.

“That depends upon whether or not I can find a living here,” I replied.
“My money won’t last long; and, of course, leaving my last employer
under the circumstances that I did, I have no papers; so I may have
trouble in finding a place at all.”

While we were eating our meal, Rapas continued to drink; and the more
he drank the more talkative he became.

“I have taken a liking to you, Vandor,” he announced presently; “and if
you are the right kind, as I think you are, I can find you employment.”
Finally he leaned close to me and whispered in my ear. “I am a
gorthan,” he said.

Here was an incredible piece of good fortune. I had hoped to contact
the assassins, and the first man whose acquaintance I had made admitted
that he was one.

I shrugged, deprecatively.

“Not much money in that,” I said.

“There is plenty, if you are well connected,” he assured me.

“But I am not connected well, or otherwise, here in Zodanga,” I argued,
“I don’t belong to the Zodangan guild; and, as I told you, I had to
come away without any papers.”

He looked around him furtively to see if any were near who might
overhear him.

“The guild is not necessary,” he whispered; “we do not all belong to
the guild.”

“A good way to commit suicide,” I suggested.


  • In my opinion, look for similarities with other movies (like Star Wars) does not justify the disappointing reception of the film in USA. George Lucas has copied much of the books of Master Edgar cycle RW He has also copied a lot of Doc Smith’s books (the men of the lens) the proof is in the concept of “force.” But again, this does not justify not like the film in USA, I think there’s more. I think this film captures many good ways to tell a science fiction story. I’ve seen it five times and always find interesting things. Some interpretations could have been improved. But it is true that in other films, other actors such as Harrison Ford does not glare at the Return of the Jedi, the weakest film of the first trilogy. Anyway, hope to see you on Barsoom

  • What I really fell in love with is Carthoris’ compass. You program it, fall asleep in the flier, while the flier on autopilot brings you to destination, and even lands if you’re still snoring! What’s not to love?

  • Yeah this movie is about as close to the source material as the Weissmuller Tarzans are to ERB’s novels.

    Beyond that, possibly Lucas got the idea for the speeder bikes from Burroughs’ one man flier. He’s admitted he was influenced by Burroughs like so many. But as the artwork Dotar has posted has shown, no other artists’ version resembled the speeder bikes from Jedi-except Stanton’s. They’re just too close in design for comfort.

  • Lest we forget, JC may be the most recent film, but it remains THE original and true to the books…SO…who copied who? Hmmmm…BARSOOM…

  • MCR

    I love the one man flier idea from Burroughs and how unique it was. Unfortunately-and I guess this can be seen as more “beating up Stanton” grousing-the one man flier in the movie reminded me of one thing only-the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. Seriously couldn’t they have come up with a design that didn’t resemble it so much?

    Hey, there’s another thing we agree on. I get it that it was sort of a steampunk snowmobile design ……that just didn’t work for me all that much either. Didn’t hate it ……but it seems to me this is one of the places where the design choices (which followed the books pretty closely for the most part) deviated as much as some of the plot did.

  • I agree with MCR re: the similarity with the Star Wars speeders. I grew up with the Bob Abbett covers and always thought his flyers were the real deal, especially the close-up of the interior for Thuvia, Maid of Mars. What is not apparent on the book cover but can plainly be seen in an enlarged picture (Heritage Auctions has a few of Abbett’s originals on view … you need to register in order to see the hi-res jpg) is the pattern on the pilot’s seat. It’s a bunch of flowers! LOL! I have the utmost respect for Abbett’s work, but I have to wonder what was going through his head when it came to “how shall I paint the seat cover?”

  • I love the one man flier idea from Burroughs and how unique it was. Unfortunately-and I guess this can be seen as more “beating up Stanton” grousing-the one man flier in the movie reminded me of one thing only-the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. Seriously couldn’t they have come up with a design that didn’t resemble it so much?

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