Wednesday, October 13, 2010

(Classic) Review: "A Princess of Mars," by Edgar Rice Burroughs

"So this was love! I had escaped it for all the years I had roamed the five continents and their encircling seas; in spite of beautiful women and urging opportunity; in spite of a half- desire for love and a constant search for my ideal, it had remained for me to fall furiously and hopelessly in love with a creature from another world..."


Ask anyone about Edgar Rice Burroughs, and one word will come to mind: Tarzan. Among all his works, Tarzan alone has become an integral part of our popular culture, to the point that any civilized-feral culture shock story will draw comparisons to the seminal character. However, in terms of literary influence, another one of Burroughs's works may be even more important. His John Carter of Mars (or Barsoom, in the Martian native tongue) series serves as one of the earliest examples of a space opera*, featuring a faraway planet, strange creatures, a passionate romance, and, of course, martial combat.


The first novel in the series, A Princess of Mars, first introduces us to John Carter, a confederate soldier who is inexplicably transported to Mars. Once there, he finds out that the society is nearly barren of resources, and as such, has reverted in large part from an advanced, intelligent society to a number of barbaric, warring tribes. John jumps from tribe to tribe, learning their customs and befriending their natives, before finally setting off on a mission to save the entire planet from destruction. On the way, he meets the titular Princess (who unlike the four-armed insectoid Green Martians, is completely humanoid), and falls head over heels (as you can see in the quote above). One of the book's weak points is its poor handling of female characters (something that, unfortunately, carried through to a lot of the science fiction genre). The Princess, Dejah Thoris, has little to no agency, and serves only as a damsel-in-distress, and, to a lesser extent, a source of exposition and explanation for John. The other main female character, a Green Martian, at least has a story and motivations, but is also placed in the story to spur a male character to action (in this case, Tars Tarkas, a Green Martian that John befriends).


APoM was released nearly a century ago, in 1912. The age of the book alone is dizzying, as many of the aspects of the story are considered genre tropes, though these are admittedly borrowed from older genres such as romances and westerns. The fact that "Princess" is getting a big budget film adaptation soon is ample evidence of this; it's unlikely that they'll even have to change a great deal of the plot. The only places that the book truly shows its age is in some of the antiquated phrasing, and the aforementioned outdated thinking (at one point, Carter comments that the princess's naiveté is "good, feminine logic").


That said, the book has some technical issues that even age doesn't completely justify. This is understandable. A Princess of Mars was Burroughs' first full novel (though the first Tarzan novel was published at the same time, I believe what would eventually become A Princess of Mars was written first), and some of the amateur mistakes shine through. The most glaring problem, in my opinion, is Burroughs's ham-fisted use of foreshadowing -- but foreshadowing is the wrong word. Fore-outright-telling-you-what-is-going-to-happen is the closest I can come to describing the issue. At one point, John Carter meets a ferocious Martian "dog" who attacks him, and comments, before even resolving the attack, that the dog would one day become his close companion and risk his live to save Carter. This occurs often in the early stages of the novel, when the characters are being introduced, and it gets old quickly.


The first Barsoom novel is probably not one that is going to keep a modern reader on the edge of his or her seat from cover to cover. It lags in places, and many events tend to be quite similar. For example, Carter first arrives at a tribe of barbarians and is forced to adapt and fight his way into their good graces. Later, he falls in with another tribe, and goes through the exact same process with a slightly different outcome. These issues are worth the read for Science Fiction literature fans, however, to experience such a significant piece of the genre's history. At the very least, the next time you watch a science-fiction show or film you'll be able to roll your eyes and say "ERB did that 100 years ago."


Download A Princess of Mars for free at Project Gutenberg




*Technically, according to the experts at Wikipedia, the Barsoom novels are classified as "Planetary Romance," not "Space Opera." The distinction is mostly academic -- the Barsoom novels certainly inspired later space operas, such like Star Wars.



Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Review: "Deepsix," by Jack McDevitt.


"That anyone could believe the human animal was designed by a divine being defies all logic... The more pious among us should pray that next time he does the job right. But we might in justice concede that there is one virtue to be found in the beast: he is persistent." -Gregory MacAllister, "Bridge with the Polynesians"




Anyone familiar with my media consuming preferences knows how much I loathe entering a series from any point other than the very beginning. Every episode of a television show must be watched in perfect order, regardless of the strength of its continuity. I don't really care that 95% of Bones episodes are self-contained, thank you, please change the channel until I'm caught up on this season.

So it was an interesting experience for me to find out halfway through Deepsix, the second novel in Jack McDevitt's (unofficially named) Academy series, that I was missing out on a previous novel. That neurotic part of my brain that forces me to research chronology before reading a comic book immediately demanded I slam shut the cover and rush out to grab the first book, The Engines of God. However, after calming myself with a small cup of organic chocolate pudding, I realized that McDevitt had, thus far, done such a good job with characterization and (brief and rarely necessary) summaries of previous events, that I didn't feel lost or out of the loop. So I pressed on (and God help the author if I ran into a "See ACADEMY #1!" footnote).

Deepsix is a deceptively simple tale -- so simple that it's somewhat difficult to discuss without giving away the twists and turns of the plot. The story revolves around the titular planet, a world teeming with exotic-yet-familiar wildlife, and the efforts of a small group of characters investigating it. Not much needs to be said. The expected plot points are hit: getting on, exploring, and getting off. Like any good story, the characters make the experience. And the characters here are fantastic.

Our main protagonist is Priscilla Hutchins, intergalactic pilot and star of McDevitt's previous novel. To be honest, while Hutchins's determined but down-to-earth attitude is perfect for the main viewpoint character, she's not the most interesting member of the group. That distinction belongs to Gregory MacAllister, the most widely-known and widely-hated writer in the universe. I fully expected the misogynistic, misanthropic blowhard to play the "annoying sidekick" throughout the journey, finally redeeming himself in an unexpected act of heroics at the end while muttering "I ... I still don't like women!" at the end while the female characters bombarded him with appreciative kisses. This doesn't happen. Instead, it's an absolute joy to see how MacAllister's many complaints about humanity are more philosophical than pragmatic. He doesn't change drastically over the course of the novel -- only our perceptions of him change. The rest of the characters are equally fleshed out, but considering MacAllister's interesting persona and strong voice, Deepsix is clearly his book.

As is customary in most science fiction stories, the plot drives the narrative more than the characters. It's simple, but it works -- the team explores the planet, and in the end, must devise a way to get offplanet. The exploration is never boring, and it often raises a number of questions and mysteries about the inhabitants of Deepsix. Enough of these questions are left unanswered to keep the reader's imagination, but enough are answered to avoid frustration.

Of course, no story can come without criticisms, and I have a few: First of all, the book is dense. It is dense in words, which isn't so much a problem. The 500-odd (paperback) pages fly by, especially near the climax, when McDevitt ratchets up the tension. However, it is also dense in the number of characters and settings thrown into the mix. This issue resolves itself after the first hundred pages or so, when the author decides which characters to really focus in on. It really grates for those first few chapters, though. Characters are introduced with full names, viewpoint sections, and personality quirks -- and then never heard from again. It's damn overwhelming to try to keep track of them before you realize which ones you can forget about.

We're also treated to an entire subplot -- not even a subplot, really, as it takes up at least half of the book -- about the flight crew's efforts to weld some metal to their ships. I realize these sections are meant to give us a breath from the fast pace of the ground team. And these sections might be highly interesting to a civil engineer or hard, hard-scifi fan, as I'm sure all the descriptions of stress and atmospheric pressures and such are authentic. Nevertheless: 250 pages. About welding. I could have done with only, say, 100 pages, and been just fine.

As slow as these sections can be, however, McDevitt's fleshed-out characters and compelling situations rise above it. I can't recommend this book enough -- I don't remember enjoying a science fiction novel this much since Speaker for the Dead (and I reaaaaaally enjoyed Speaker for the Dead). Buy it and read it -- no matter what your personal neuroses tell you.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mini-Review: Carrie by Stephen King

Carrie Carrie by Stephen King


What Stephen King's first published novel lacks in literary merit, it makes up for in charm and originality. Carrie is not a long novel, and it's not a particularly moving or emotional novel (though, the emotion of the menstruation metaphor may be lost on my male sensibilities). But it is an interesting novel, one that clearly shows the potential that King cashes in with his long, illustrious career.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars