What is required for an idea to flourish and change the destiny of a person, a society, or a species? For a case study, we need look no further than a neighboring planet in our solar system, and the man whose brilliant imagination brought that world to life like never before.
The following is an excerpt from the full article at http://www.erbzine.com/mag58/5875.html:
“Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world. By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special. … I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon.” (Ray Bradbury, Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, 2010)
The Mars of Normal Bean
When pitching Tarzan of the Apes to All-Story magazine editor Thomas Metcalf in 1912, ERB referred to the project as “another story of the ‘unlikely’ variety.” This was an allusion to the “unlikely” subject matter of his first novel, A Princess of Mars (APOM). He had written his Mars novel under the pen-name of “Normal Bean” to assure readers that, though the tale was bizarre, he was still in his right mind. As a fan of Percival Lowell (Mars, 1895; Mars and Its Canals, 1906; and Mars as the Abode of Life, 1908), ERB was intrigued by speculations about Martian canals and cities and the intelligent life which must have constructed them. The fact that ERB thought of APOM as “unlikely” confirms that he thought of Lowell’s speculations as just that — speculations.
The genius of ERB was that he didn’t let the likelihood of a barren Mars hold him back. ERB treated his vivacious rendering of Mars, named Barsoom by its inhabitants, with historical certainty. The first-person voice of John Carter in APOM relates his discoveries in the same style as the travelogues which were common in National Geographic in the era when APOM was written. This trip just happened to be to the ambitious and “unlikely” setting of Mars!
Whether or not it was a conscious effort, ERB’s approach to his Mars tales ended up tapping into the universal fascination with the concept of the frontier. ERB’s various occupations, before turning to writing at the age of 35, had familiarized him with exploration and the idea of pushing past the horizons of what was then known and understood. He had worked as a miner, rancher, and cavalryman in the Old West of Idaho and Arizona around the turn of the century. He had personally watched as the wild frontier of North America had dissolved into familiarity, from the perspective of the European immigrants of the previous several centuries. One reason he set Tarzan in “deepest, darkest Africa” was because there was still a sense of untamed frontier there. The January 1911 issue of National Geographic featured an article entitled “Wild Man and Wild Beast in Africa,” by Theodore Roosevelt.
ERB, never one to put forth a boring frontier, gave his Mars all the exotic life, elaborate cultures, mind-boggling technology, epic martial conflicts, and emotionally rich history that his uniquely talented imagination could produce. The appeal of Barsoom was never contingent upon its reality. Its existence was always unlikely. It was enthusiastically embraced upon its original publication in 1912 (prompting Metcalf to request a sequel), and continues to be embraced today, because it captured the thrill of an unexplored horizon – a thrill which was on the verge of being extinguished worldwide by discovery, at the time ERB wrote the story. ERB and his original readers were already mourning the death of the seemingly limitless possibilities that passed away with the taming of the American West. Mars as a fantasy world came to fill a void in the collective imagination which Earth could no longer satiate. Whether there truly were giant green men, airships, or many-legged beasts was secondary – humanity’s instinct to explore required the fuel for speculation which ERB provided.