I don’t feel like I read enough science fiction anymore, and it bothers me. Not all of us have the spark to want to read, and many of us had our enjoyment for the written word driven out by the mandatory reading our primary or secondary schools forced on us. That said, science fiction, in my opinion, is strongest and most fulfilling when coming from the written word.
If you go to a science fiction convention, how many characters or cosplayers are literary characters? Okay, I love comics, don’t get me wrong, but I am excluding graphic novels. I imagine you could be having trouble trying to think of someone. This is what I am talking about when I say I know I am not reading enough, because I am just watching, or looking. Science fiction at the moment, at least to me (and disintegrate me if you think I am wrong here), seems to be focused on watching and passive participation, at least when it comes to the media we all enjoy.
Reading a book is my idea of the purest way to experience the genre. The wonderful thing about sci-fi is that it requires imagination. Sure, some of it could happen – some of it has come to pass, but at the end of the day the genre that we all know and love is based upon letting go of a little bit and embracing imaginative storytelling. Where is the imagination in watching a science fiction movie? Sure, we can appreciate another person’s imagination, but the image, the sounds, the emotion…..we aren’t creating that with our own minds. It is just there, projected. Graphic novels are a little better, but still, the art, the expression, they are there. This is why having the right artist for the graphic novel is so important, because you are presenting in essence a book, but you are substituting art and another person’s imagination in place of the readers’.
Good sci-fi also has to have one thing to anchor it. Strong character development and believable characters. I would read a book about pixies that ride cyborg rainbow farting unicorns, but without those pixies having motivation, personality, a good story arc, it just becomes crap – not something that stirs the imagination. I mean, maybe the cyborg unicorns rebel and then pixie land becomes a blood and glitter soaked apocalyptic wasteland. There is something of a struggle for a protagonist to work on.
So where is this all going in relation to my title. A while back I decided I was tired of watching movies and reading tie in books. Or reading books that are an extension of a toy or video game. I wanted to get back to the root of things. That is when I discovered Burroughs. Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Burroughs wrote several books and if you have not in some way come across one of them, you have been living under a rock. Any of you that saw Batman V Superman have. And I bet I am about to blow your mind – his works inspired Superman, and that trailer for the Legend of Tarzan….guess who wrote Tarzan? He also wrote The Land That Time Forgot as well. If this hasn’t piqued your interest or sent you to Wikipedia already then keep reading.
I love adventure stories, especially ones in a science fiction setting and even more so if they throw in a dash of romance. Ok, maybe not a dash of romance, a lot of romance. E.R.B. essentially wrote romantic novels for boys and men and wrapped them in stirring adventure.
While it could be argued that Tarzan of the Apes could be his most well known character, I will argue that The Princess of Mars has had the biggest impact on the genre of science fiction. So what is this book about, and why is it so important in science fiction?
Well for starters, there is a princess of Mars, but she is not the protagonist, although she is an interesting character in the book. The main character is actually a man from Earth named John Carter. Now if you know your sci-fi, you will know a few years ago that Disney had a financially disappointing outing trying to make this book into a live action film, basing its name on that of the main character. Love the film or hate it, it shouldn’t influence a decision to read the book.
In the book, John Carter is a man looking to put his past behind him. He was on the losing side of the Civil War in the US and had gone out West to seek his fortune and a fresh start. Along the way he is transmitted to Mars by alien technology and has to make the most of the situation. Luckily for John, having just survived a war he can hold his own among the war-band tribes of Mars. The fun thing is though, since he is from Earth, which has a higher gravity, John is tougher than his new found companions in many respects. This is where the inspiration for Superman comes from, and one of the most direct connections between the two characters is their ability to jump great distances. Fun fact for those of you who are not Superman fans, Superman originally couldn’t fly. He could only jump long distances. He was also an alien stranger that came to a new planet. But I digress.
To be frank, Princess of Mars really held my attention, and one of the reasons it did so was because of the princess herself. This woman is not helpless, and is a warrior scholar in her own right. The romance between her and John is great, as it is a nice slow burn, and it is done tastefully, she doesn’t just fall into his arms. If you have seen the film John Carter that Disney made, you may notice that the Princess Dejah Thoris doesn’t really follow the typical Disney Princess formula.
Then there is the action. Pulp fiction has some of the best action, and Burroughs arguably did the best job of describing and choreographing action sequences. He did just enough to describe the fights while leaving a bit open to the imagination. The perfect mix of knowing what was happening but not knowing who would come out on top.
If you get the chance, A Princess of Mars is actually in the public domain, so you can either pay to read it, or in some cases find a free copy online. Gotta love that!
So now that I have touched on A Princess of Mars, it is time to head back to Earth to a meet a rather famous literary character. Tarzan of the Apes.
Tarzan is the character that made Burroughs famous, and he milked the character to death. Even today, most people know who Tarzan is before they reach the age of 8 years old. The character is iconic, as is his partner Jane. Admit it, the famous line “Me Tarzan, You Jane” came into your mind as you were reading that. Surprise….that’s not how it actually goes in the book, and Tarzan, he’s pretty smart.
Tarzan of the Apes is such a famous story, most people think that they know it and never give the book a chance. Huge mistake. Massive.
To tell a personal secret, I am a huge romantic. If there isn’t a good love story to attach to the main character, I can lose patience. Tarzan pays off. Probably 3/4 of the story is jungle man growing up in the jungle and becoming lord of the apes. The last quarter of the novel is probably one of the more passionate love stories I have read, but it has one of those endings that just leaves you screaming for the next book. I won’t spoil it for you, but you really need to read the book because to my knowledge no movie, comic etc has actually followed the original plot because it just has THAT ENDING.
If you decide to read Tarzan, do yourself a favor and buy the sequel when you buy the first. You’ll understand once you have read it.
So those are two of Burroughs’ better known and influential works, but I am going to throw in a third and personal favorite: The Land That Time Forgot. This book has flippn’ everything. World War 1, German submarines, dinosaurs, fantastic islands…it’s epic – and naturally, there is a romance as well.
I really do not want to describe what is in this book, because it takes so many unexpected turns. Obviously, the characters end up in a land that time forgot, but how they get there is half the fun. When they get there…that is great, and the island has a secret that isn’t just dinosaurs, it goes deeper than that. The good Mr. Burroughs essentially took what Mr. Doyle (The Lost World) had done and gave it action, romance and mystery rather than just make up a story about an expedition that had some hard times.
If you have read this far, hopefully I have stirred some interest in some books from a bygone era of science fiction. From a time before super heroes or special gadgets. Back when the stories were utterly fantastic and the characters were deeply developed, so much so that you feel like you know them, that you are them. I believe that by reading true classics that a deeper appreciation of what good science fiction and adventure is, and by doing this we can begin to hold the genre to the standard that it set all of those years ago. It also opens up the door to other incredible works like Frank Herbert’s Dune series, Asimov’s Foundation trilogy – there are so many great stories out there.
So how about you, have you read any of Burroughs’ books? Is there a work of science fiction that you have read that inspired you and developed your love for the genre? Let us know in the comments below!