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A PRINCESS OF MARS

When we think of the classics it's the past that we're usually enshrining, often in acknowledgment of the continuity between the past and the present, and in tribute to the ideals—literary or otherwise—that we wish to uphold. But one of our latest additions to the Penguin Classics points thrillingly to the future.

A Princess of Mars is the first novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose Tarzan of the Apes spawned twenty-two sequels, with sales of more than thirty million copies in fifty-eight languages around the world. A futuristic sci-fi fantasy, A Princess of Mars has also given rise to a number of great American imaginative franchises, among them Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles and George Lucas's Star Wars. Read an appreciation of A Princess of Mars contributed by John Seelye, general editor of the Penguin Classics.

A reader whose notion of Edgar Rice Burroughs' artistry has been derived from his best-known novel, Tarzan of the Apes, is going to be surprised by the sophistication and inventiveness of A Princess of Mars.

Tarzan is a masterly exercise in primitivism that draws on a myth dating back to the origins of human culture, and its style enhances that myth—that of a wild man who rules supreme in a wilderness world. A Princess of Mars also thrusts the reader into a world that has its primitive elements, but they are figured as the brutish, ugly villains of the action. The hero, by contrast, is an American aristocrat, one who has been granted extraordinary powers because of the difference in gravity on Earth and on Mars.

As the hero—a Virginian officer veteran of the Civil War named John Carter—rushes about the Martian territory, able to kill his adversaries with a single blow and leap over tall buildings in a single bound, we are carried by him not into a mythic past but into a fantastic future. For in Carter's chivalric character and superhuman strengths we are given a visionary glimpse of one of the most popular creations of the twentieth century, who is ever ready to strip to his monogrammed costume and do battle with the evil forces of this world. Moreover, the idiosyncratic world of Burroughs' Mars—in which men go into battle with swords and ray guns and ride ATV-like spaceships and lumbering, dinosaur-like steeds—seems like an undeniable pre-vision of George Lucas's Star Wars, which surely rivals Superman as a fantastic adventure story. The literary origins of A Princess of Mars are obscure and debatable, unlike the clear footprints left by Tarzan's progenitors; but as a futuristic novel, A Princess of Mars points most appropriately to literature yet to come, not one identified with a distant past.

A Princess of Mars
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