Saturday, September 01, 2007

Current Light Reading: Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Princess of Mars."

I was feeling in need of some relatively mindless entertainment the other day when I happened upon a volume of science fiction by Edgar Rice Burroughs (famous as the inventor of Tarzan). Spiriting my new-found treasure home, I began at once to read the first of Burroughs' Mars Tales, A Princess of Mars.

First published in 1912, I knew I was in for an interesting read. Called by Time magazine in 1964 as an exemplar of American bad taste, the book is indeed a quaint read: The hero, Captain John Carter, is a Confederate Army veteran who mysteriously finds himself transported to a war-torn and dessicated Martian landscape. Burroughs' descriptions of Mars imply a eugenics-laced racism, and Carter seems to have the diplomatic policy of Teddy Roosevelt, evinced by the slogan: "Speak Softly, but Carry a Big Stick."

Carter is an intrepid and skillful fighter, who is always bashing and slashing himself out of a tight fix. He does have a certain charm about him, though, as he claims to be more civilized than his Martian foes and allies.

Aside from the action-packed plot-line (which really is a good read), my interest has really been piqued by the depictions of the fictional Martian landscape and civilization. Reading a book like this always says something about the time and place in which it was written. Burroughs' novel tells me that Americans in 1912 had some anxiety about the future of terrestrial civilization and about the future health of the environment around them.

Mars is depicted as possessing an ancient civilization of at least three distinct species of humanoids, but this civilization has been very much diminished due to constant warfare and widespread environmental degradation. Most of Mars is a desert; what little water there is, is cleverly channeled from the poles by the Red Martians to feed thin strips of arable land -- this was Burroughs' elaboration and depiction of the then-current idea that there were channels, possibly constructed by intelligent life, on the surface of Mars. Aside from the strips of cultivated land, the rest of the landscape consists of dried-up ocean beds, abandoned cities and warring tribes of Red Martians, Green Martians, mysterious white apes.

Scientifically, the 1912 view of Mars is quite at variance with what we now know. But it is also fascinating to see what Burroughs got right. On Burroughs' Mars, the atmosphere is very thin (and actually manufactured by the Red Martians!) and the gravity so weak that John Carter, the transplanted earthling, is extraordinarily strong and able to leap great distances with little effort. Burroughs also depicts a Mars where the temperatures swing widely from day to night.

Burroughs got the thinness of the atmosphere right: It is astounding to me to note that the Martian atmosphere has since been measured at less than 1% the atmospheric pressure of Earth's atmosphere! Why, that's practically no atmosphere at all! It still manages to have winds up to 250 miles per hour, but what such a thin air moving at such a great speed would feel like, I couldn't hazard a guess.

On the other hand, Burroughs was quite wrong on the range of Martian temperatures. On Burroughs' Mars (called by its inhabitants 'Barsoom'), practically nobody wears any clothes besides jewelry. I would advise against that on the real Mars. The warmest it ever gets there, and then only at the peak of summer in the southern hemisphere, is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. A bit chilly to be romping about in the altogether.

The other hazard of going about in your birthday suit on Mars is that the total lack of a magnetic field, coupled with the thin atmosphere, results in constant bombardment of the Martian surface by various forms of solar radiation, particularly the so-called "Solar Wind." This radiation will pretty thoroughly cook just about any tender living morsel to a crisp. We Earthlings should be grateful for a magnetic field, and for ozone. If you are vacationing on Mars, wear layers, or stay underground.

Speaking of underground, the Martians of Barsoom wisely keep their very limited supply of water beneath the surface in underground conduits, ingeniously irrigating their crops from below. Likewise today, if we're ever going to find liquid water on Mars, it will probably be below the surface. Interestingly, I recently read somewhere (probably the Wikipedia, or perhaps one of the many NASA pages devoted to Mars) that there is enough frozen water at the Martian south pole to completely cover the planet in 36 feet of liquid water, if it should ever melt. (I haven't checked these figures, so take this with a grain of salt, please.) Unfortunately, the atmospheric pressure is too low to sustain liquid water for any length of time, if at all.

Burroughs' books, as dated as they may be, have certainly influenced subsequent science fiction, as many later writers (for example, Ray Bradbury) readily admit. I was delighted to find in the person of the Jeddak of the Tharks (the leader of one of the Green Martian tribes) the fat, lascivious model for Jabba the Hut of Star Wars fame. And what about Superman, an alien from a planet with extra-strong gravity, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? Why, John Carter was the first Superman, in a fashion.

Let's return to that circa 1912 eco-anxiety I made note of a few lines back. We very much live in an era of intensifying eco-anxiety today. Perhaps this anxiety has never really left us in the past 95 years, only waxing and waning with each piece of good or bad news.

Is Earth destined to become like Mars? I'll make no claim to being an expert in these matters, but I can venture some of my own educated fictionalizing as a plain-old, well-read citizen of Earth.

Earth and Mars are quite different. The mass and gravity of Earth is sufficient to trap a much more substantial atmosphere, consisting mainly of relatively dense nitrogen gas. Earth has a very active geology, whereas Mars appears to be internally dead. All the volcanic and seismic activity on Earth should keep things lively here for some time to come. Our atmosphere is not likely to drift off into space anytime soon, nor do I think it at all likely that our oceans could really dry up -- or if they do, it will be result in a lot of water vapor in the air. I get a picture of constant, violent hurricane-like storms, torrential downpours and sickening, moist heat. But maybe only along the coasts. The interiors would perhaps become quite dry, as they tend toward anyway.

If there is a cataclysmic fate for Earth, it is more likely to be in the form of our evil twin Venus, which is a most alien and inhospitable world complete with a runaway greenhouse effect, noxious acidic atmosphere and violent storms.

As far as human civilization goes, I'm not so sanguine. Earthlings seem pretty much committed to a life of hatred, greed and ignorance. There is a recently published book out there (I wish I had bought it when I saw it!), author and title unknown to me, that imaginatively describes a future Earth without Homo sapiens. I think that is a more likely scenario.

All of our foolishness is less likely to destroy the planet, per se; it is more likely that it will push us to extinction.

I'm not done with A Princess of Mars yet, so I don't know how Captain Carter will manage to save the Princess or what other wonders of the dying Martian civilization will yet be revealed. I'll let you know if the Barsoomians have any lessons to impart to us, their near neighbors.

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