Barsoom – Mars or Exoplanet?

A Princess of Mars, Barsoom, Edgar Rice Burroughs, ERBDOM, Future of John Carter Film Franchise, John Carter Fantasy Reboot, John Carter of Mars, The John Carter Files

Whether or not a future John Carter/Barsoom reboot should keep the story on the seemingly dead world of Mars, or instead move it to a more scientifically plausible exoplanet, is a question that has been raised by many ERB fans and film industry commentators. It comes down to how much of a problem the average filmgoer has with a fantasy version of Mars. Did Mariner and Viking reveal “the man behind the curtain” of ERB’s Barsoom? Or did Barsoom never really depend on scientific plausibility to work its alchemy? Is Barsoom embraced as a symbol of the ultimate frontier, or is it appealing only when thought to be genuinely possible? Is it science fiction or is it fantasy? Or is it a science-fantasy hybrid that shakes up our definitions of genre constraints?

There are many other imaginary worlds that are related to Earth and are essentially impossible (Hogwarts, Middle-earth, just about every superhero setting), yet they are accepted because they have internal consistency. If a world convincingly makes its own sense, we will go there gladly, even if it is scientifically impossible.

When ERB was submitting his manuscript for Tarzan of the Apes, he described it as “another story of the unlikely sort.” He indicated that he thought of Barsoom as his first “unlikely” story – something we would consider to be closer to fantasy than to science fiction. He researched what was known of Mars in 1911, and used what he learned to flesh out his fantasy world and give it a sense of verisimilitude. The result is a world that is much more interesting than the real Mars.

Do people get jazzed about space travel at the prospect of traveling to an exotic desert much like the ones on Earth? Or do they get jazzed about the idea of travelling to an alien world to make unimaginable discoveries? The former describes Mars. The latter describes Barsoom. We may be actually capable of going to Mars, but the romantic promise of worlds like Barsoom is WHY we even try to go to the Moon, or Mars, or Proxima b. The fire and initiative to explore comes from imagination, even imagination blatantly untethered and unrestricted by reality – and perhaps especially that kind of imagination, since it provokes us to think of things which aren’t real yet, but which could become real if we work toward it. ERB’s Barsoom is one of the most imaginative worlds ever created, and it hangs a carrot close enough in front of us (right next door in the solar system!) that we are immediately inspired to race for it.

Barsoom is more about WHY we go than about WHAT we find. It could be argued that the “why we go” quality of Barsoom could be transplanted to an exoplanet where it would include some degree of possibility for “what we find.” James Cameron’s Avatar took that approach. A case can also be made, supported by innumerable comments online surrounding the release of Disney’s John Carter, that most people regard Barsoom as fantasy, and aren’t distracted by its scientific impossibility. Is it more compelling as a fantasy symbol, or as a genuine scientific possibility?

The name MARS commands some very special real estate in the human psyche. It evokes myth, history, exotic cultures – all inherent qualities of Barsoom as well. There is a special synergism with ERB’s world that connects the subconscious heft and intrigue surrounding ancient cultures with the romance, imagination and excitement of the space explorer’s impulse. To take Barsoom off of Mars wouldn’t necessarily ruin that synergistic appeal, but it would sacrifice the direct link to the enduring myths of Earth.

When I hear the word “Mars,” it is very easy to imagine crumbling ruined cities, airships derived from the designs of previously sea-going vessels, epic clashes of sword-and-spear-and-radium-rifle-equipped armies, technology that feels indistinguishable from magic, princesses, knights errant, and fantastic beasts. Having those same things on a different planet, where none of it is connected with what “Mars” means on Earth (history, Roman myth, etc.) just doesn’t pack the same punch. Setting Barsoom somewhere out there in the impersonal vastness of space seems to tread unnecessarily close to the territory that has already been claimed by Star Trek and Star Wars, rather than preserving ERB’s Mars as its own unique thing.

Putting Barsoom on an exoplanet cuts any meaningful link with Earth. It’s true that the stories have very little to do with Earth, aside from the framing device, but there is an alternate history/steam-punk romanticism that is lost when Earth has no bearing on Barsoom. The idea that the Barsoomians can look through their telescopes and see things on Earth, and maybe offer some ironic commentary about what they see, is appealing to me. Would John Carter so eagerly embrace Barsoom as his new home, as he does with ERB’s Mars, if it were incomprehensibly far removed from Earth? There is a lot of thematic stuff that gets shortchanged when Barsoom isn’t on Mars. Moving Barsoom to an exoplanet also arguably throws the door open wide for modernization, which would be a mistake that would undermine too much of the heart of Barsoom.

I first read ERB’s Mars novels in 1993 or so. I knew that Mars was a dead world. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying ERB’s books at all. I remember a rapid transition in my imagination from a moonscape type of Mars to the vastly preferable exotic settings of Barsoom. ERB, generally speaking, had the philosophy that romance and humor are essential if a person is going to LIVE, rather than just SURVIVE. Much of modern science-fiction focuses more on surviving than on living. ERB’s works are an antidote to the desiccating effect of a sterile, mechanical, nihilistic future. The romance of Barsoom on Mars is a “better than reality” inspiration that is worth preserving.

On the flipside, someone could point out that ERB’s purpose in setting Barsoom on Mars was to put the story just beyond the horizon of his day. If a reboot seeks to match that purpose, it can be argued that an exoplanet is just beyond the horizon of the present day.

If future filmmakers decide to move Barsoom to Proxima b (“b” for Barsoom!) 😉 or some other real exoplanet, the sky will not fall, but it will be a step of debatable merit away from the brilliance that ERB created for us.


  • I have long thought that the transfer process that spans the space between Earth and Barsoom could, in a movie, also span time. Start the movie with future human archeologists in space suits revealing the hidden remnants of a long-buried civilization. It’s there right now but we won’t discover it for another century. John Carter, however, transports back in time to near the end of Barsoomian life. 10,000 years or so.

    In the book, Dejah Thoris reveals that Barsoomians can view Earth up close. In this alternate version she won’t be sure of John’s story because all they can see are very primitive civilizations on Earth. Nothing like what he describes. He will take a look and realize he’s travelled into the past.

    Simple and easy explanation, right?

  • I think you could place it on a distant exoplanet to make it more believable but it’s not really about how realistic it is. It never was about that. It is about a man (boy) and his dog (woola) who fight off hordes and gets the girl. It’s an adventure novel at heart and however you have to do that to keep those basic prototypes working for our modern audiences, that’s what you have to do. Maybe Mars is just out there, no longer a place of mystery or wonder, set it on some other planet that we know about but haven’t really seen and you get the same effect like in Avatar.

    You could alternatively add mystery by not naming the planet in our solar system like C.S. Lewis did in his silent planet series. Malacandra is also Mars but told to us by a different name.

    Space has turned into a horror genre and has killed most of the adventure in latest books, movies and post apocalyptic teen novels. James Cameron did a pretty good job of transporting us to a close-enough planet’s moon with modern adventure, but it wasn’t John Carter. John carter was a man’s man who thirsted for battle. We cannot forget the association during that time (early 20th century) with the god of war (Mars) and the planet.

  • By that definition, the realm of Faerie in Anderson’s “Three Hearts And Three Lions” would have to be considered science fiction. The rules in Faerie are consistent, the protagonist is transported there, and returned to Earth by basically the same unexplained process as Burroughs uses to send and return Carter to and from Mars. Simply being consistent isn’t enough to qualify the working of a magical realm as science fiction.

    My point is, John Carter’s adventures would be far more acceptable to the general public if it had been promoted as a fantasy adventure rather than trying to put it into the same category as the majority of what people define as science fiction. Simply define Barsoom as a fantasy world in a fantasy universe similar to our own, or place it in a time so far in the past (long, long ago, in a place far, far away? Lucas stole the idea from Burroughs in the first place) that the 4th planet from the sun actually had an atmosphere and life, and it becomes much easier to accept by people who know as fact that Mars has neither a breathable atmosphere nor any form of life, ant it becomes much easier to suspend disbelief enough to accept it.

    Isaac Asimov, once asked to explain the difference between science fiction and fantasy, replied that science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not. By that definition, Barsoom, at least as Burroughs actually portrayed it, could only be described as science fiction if the “science” used there had any sort of basis in real science, which it does not.

    That is what I mean when I say that John Carter is fantasy, not science fiction.

  • There is nothing in the original story to prevent Barsoom from being a “Mars” in an alternate universe.
    When Carter holds his arms up to the bright red star in the sky and is transported to another planet, he wants to go to “Mars” – but a specific kind of Mars. A Mars that will fit him like a glove, one that will allow him to display and practice his unique personal gifts.

    The trip was from our Earth to a Mars in an alternate timeline – same planet, same solar system, different history.

    Considering that other authors (A. Bertram Chandler for one – The Alternate Martians – has already advanced this “theory”, and considering that it would be completely in line with the original novel itself, and that it would not take more that two or three lines of dialogue to get the idea across, I think this is the ideal solution.

  • The Barsoom stories ARE science fiction, whether you like it or not. They rely on scientific explanations, even if apparently bogus ones to us. But the rules in place there are consistent. The same causes produce the same effects in that world. It’s not because the science here works differently that it’s magic. All the rules are laid out and all the inner workings are very well thought out by Burroughs. That’s part of what is fascinating even to modern audiences. It’s not the way our world functions, that’s all. Calling those stories pure fantasies would be disrespectful for what Burroughs intended. As for Mars, as your brilliant text demonstrates, Abraham, it has a meaning in the human psyche that is too strong to ignore. So it can only be Mars for all intent and purpose!

  • I’ve said this before, but it won’t hurt to say it again. If there’s such a big problem about having Mars, as we know it today, being Barsoom, then why not just say that Barsoom is Mars of several million years ago, when our scientists say that it was, indeed, a healthy, thriving planet? If some sort of mysterious force is capable of transporting John Carter all of those miles across space in an instant, why couldn’t they transport him through time as well? Otis Adelbert Kline, a Burroughs contemporary, used that exact same explanation for the protagonists of his books, “Swordsman Of Mars,” and “Outlaw Of Mars,” which are quite similar to the Barsoom novels.

    Burroughs’ Mars series is much more about magic, whether or not it is actually mentioned or not, than science, from the very beginning, where we are introduced to a character who is, for all intents and purposes, immortal, so old that he recalls no childhood, and has always been a man of about 25 years of age. Science has no real place in the Barsoom novels, and even when it is mentioned, it seems in total conflict with what we call science today. Barsoomian air ships are powered by the 8th ray, which is stored in tanks, and can leak out like some sort of gas. That’s magic, not science. Thoats and calots are commanded by telepathy. A “scientist” can transfer the brain from one body to another, or grow an entire race of synthetic men in vats.

    That’s magic, not science, and Barsoom is a fantasy planet. Let’s quit trying to categorize it as science fiction.

  • I first read A Princess of Mars in 2010 and loved it. You gotta keep the long-standing, profoundly rich connotations of Mars. Just make it ancient Mars — but after “the time of oceans.”

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