George R.R. Martin on our Long Obsession With Mars

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George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones, has written a lengthy and evocative article in The Guardian on the fascination that he, and we, have felt for Mars for a hundred years or more. He says he spent his childhood reading stories about Mars and hoping to write one himself. As new discoveries on the red planet capture the world’s attention, he surveys a rich Martian literature.

Within the story, he has this to say about Edgar Rice Burroughs and Barsoom:

Especially in the minds of the storytellers. Wells had given the world Martians, but he himself never took us to Mars. That task he left to a (much lesser) writer named Garrett P Serviss, who published a sort of sequel to War of the Worlds called Edison’s Conquest of Mars in 1898. Though largely (and deservedly) forgotten today, the Serviss novel was widely read and influential in its day, and was the first to carry the reader across the gulf of space to the red planet. But it was a later writer who truly brought that landscape to life.

“Normal Bean”, he named himself when he sent his story off to the editors at The All-Story magazine in 1911. Someone thought that was a typo (it wasn’t), and “Under the Moons of Mars” was bylined “Norman Bean” when it began its serial run in February 1912. The writer behind the pseudonym was Edgar Rice Burroughs. The serial would be retitled “A Princess of Mars” when its instalments were collected together and republished in book form in 1917. Under that title, it would remain in print for the better part of a century, and give birth to numerous sequels, spin-offs and imitations.

Barsoom was the name that ERB’s Martians gave their dying desert planet. Burroughs took Lowell’s notions and ran with them, filling up the red planet with Tharks and thoats and flying boats, with radium rifles and white apes and atmosphere plants, with daring swordsmen and egg-laying princesses clad only in jewels. Though never a great writer, ERB was a master storyteller, and in John Carter and Dejah Thoris he created two characters that generations of readers would come to love and cherish, their popularity eclipsed only by that of his other creation, the jungle lord called Tarzan. Ten more Barsoom novels would follow over the next half century, some featuring John Carter, some other characters, but the world that Burroughs had created would remain the true star of the series, from the first to the last.

Barsoom was his, and his alone. But Lowell’s books and theories were out there for all to read, and Otis Adelbert Kline, Stanley G Weinbaum, CS Lewis, Jack Williamson, Edmond Hamilton and myriad other writers soon joined in with their own takes on Mars and its inhabitants. How many tales were set on Mars during the heyday of the science-fiction pulps? Hundreds, surely. Thousands, probably. Tens of thousands? Maybe. The Mars of my childhood was an amalgam created by many different writers, each adding their own touches and twists over the years and decades to create a kind of consensus setting, a world that belonged to everyone and no one.

The article is an excellent read, and highly recommended.  Here is the link.  Enjoy!

(And thanks to Bob Zeuschner for flagging this one for us.)


  • Pascalahad….exactly. Maybe you could say “not a great literary stylist” …. but to say “not a great writer” ignores the scope and nature of his accomplishment.

  • And then there’s always this intriguing paradox: Burroughs being never a great writer, but a master storyteller. How can that be? It’s beyond my understanding. Either he’s great or he’s not, or is it too simplistic?

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