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Belated Reviews #10: Edgar Rice Burroughs

From the nineteen-tens to the nineteen-forties, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the better part of a hundred books. They were the stuff of pulps -- cousins to Howard's books about Conan the Barbarian, and written for much the same audience -- thrilling adventure stories featuring larger-than-life heroes making (or hacking) their way through more or less exotic locales to save the heroines from fates worse than death. (The fates in question generally arise from the fact that Burroughs's apemen, aliens, and monsters all prefer human women to their own.) This is another set of books I loved when I was in my early teens, though I might have found them intolerable had I encountered them a decade later.

That said, it is difficult to overstate the influence of Burroughs's books. Until relatively recently, anyone who grew up reading science fiction grew up reading Burroughs. His books were part of the common background of most science fiction fans and authors. This isn't to say that his readers turned around and started grinding out Burroughs pastiches (with the conspicuous exception of Otis Adelbert Kline) but that his writing became part of the shared context of the genre.

(Digression: Reading and writing sf both call for specialized skills and knowledge. It is notorious that mainstream writers who attempt to write science fiction usually produce books that don't work well *as* science fiction. They lack the background to know which themes and plot devices need to be explained in detail, which are old hat and can simply be invoked, and which are overused cliches. Burroughs is a big part of this background: Even if you've never read his books, most of the science fiction you'll have read was written by people who did.)

Most of the books written by Edgar Rice Burroughs fall into a few series:

Tarzan of the Apes (***) is the best known of his works. An English lord and his wife are marooned in Africa, and when they die, their infant sonis adopted by great apes. He grows up with all the abilities Burroughs attributed to these apes (superhuman strength, agility, sense of smell), but is also (by breeding, of course) an instinctive gentleman. The book which introduced Tarzan was followed by twenty-three sequels, most of them placed in Africa. This isn't the Africa we know, but a continent of killer gorillas, witch doctors whose magic works, and so many lost civilizations that it's amazing they don't require special zoning. In the first dozen books, Tarzan tangles with Atlanteans, microscopic humans, crusaders whose ancestors accidentally turned left when they got to the Mediterranean, and descendents of Romans whose sense of direction was no better.

"A Princess of Mars" (***) is the first of eleven books about John Carter, an immortal Virginian who, after the Civil War, finds himself on Mars. (Never mind how.) This Mars is an old old planet: Its atmosphere is thin, and there isn't much water left beyond what flows in the canals. The women are beautiful, and scantily clad. (They also lay eggs, which doesn't prevent folks from walking around with navels.) The men go around waving swords (despite their possession of airships and guns), though none do so as well as John Carter, of course. Yes, it's silly, but don't underestimate its charms. (I remember how hard I wished *I* could be transported to Mars. It never worked, of course, but that's probably because I made the mistake of wishing on the *first* star, instead of on the *red* star.)

(Readers might find a comparison of the plots of the first couple of Mars novels to the plots of the first three Gor novels instructive. Books, like people, can't choose their own relatives.)

"At the Earth's Core" (***) is the first book in the Pellucidar series, which takes place inside the Earth. Turns out the Earth is hollow, and when you get past the crust you find yourself in a prehistoric land. ('Prehistoric' means cavemen *and* dinosaurs.) The Earth's actual core is now 'up' of course (Burroughs is as innocent of science here as he is inany of his other series) -- a flaming sphere which serves Pellucidar (the name of this inner Earth) as a sun. (Since it's straight up no matter where in Earth you are, it's always noon in Pellucidar.) David Innes finds his way to Pellucidar with an experimental mechanical borer, and eventually winds up making a life for himself there and introducing *some* of the benefits of modern civilization.

"The Land That Time Forgot" (***) is the first in a short series with a quirky premise: This is a land in which evolution is personal. You goto sleep one night as a Homo Erectus and wake up the next morning realizing that you've become a Neanderthal, and that it's time for you to move to a more evolved neighborhood.

There's a Venus series, too ("Pirates of Venus" (**) et. al.), but it never really worked for me. Many of his one-shots didn't work that well either. My personal favorites, back when, were "The Mad King" (***), his rewrite of "Prisoner of Zenda", and "The Moon Men" (***) (sequel to "The Moon Maid" (**)) -- a sequence of linked stories about Earth's conquest at the hands of Lunar invaders, and its aftermath.


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Dani Zweig