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.