Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Yes, I'm a nerd. I want to see the film John Carter opening this weekend (March 9).  For those lacking a classical literary education, it's based on the novel A Princess of Mars (1917) by Edgar Rice Burroughs (also known as the creator of Tarzan).

John Carter, the protagonist, was a Confederate War veteran who goes prospecting in Arizona.  Chased into a cave by the Apaches, he's mysteriously transported to Mars (Barsoom) where he meets the Green Martians - the insect-like Tharks.  The low Martian gravity gives him superhuman strength and he soon befriends the warrier Tars Tarkas and rises to a position of power in the tribe.  Enter the beautiful Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris, captured by the Tharks but rescued by Carter.  Dejah Thoris belongs to the race of Red Martians, humanoids who control the canals of a dying, increasingly arid Mars.  Carter eventually marries her and lives as Prince of Helium.  When the plant that creates the oxygen in the atmosphere of Barsoom breaks down, Carter is able to save the planet but asphyxiates in the process waking up back on Earth, heartbroken.  Other novels followed...

Being a Disney movie, they probably changed a few things.  For example, Burroughs described the Red Martians like Princess Dejah Thoris as being entirely naked except for some jewelry!

She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.

In the movie trailer, it looks like the actor who plays Carter shows more skin.  Oh well...

You can read an ebook version of A Princess of Mars for free, by the way (although that will probably just piss you off when you see the movie and note all the inevitable random plot changes that always happen in movies).  It's great for those, like me, who have never outgrown their male adolescent fantasies.  I have no idea if women would like it (although I suppose there's that whole "rescued damsel in distress" fantasy and Carter does look pretty good without a shirt I suppose).

Burroughs probably based his image of Mars on the work of astronomer Percival Lowell (1855-1916) whose telescopic observations of Mars at his observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona convinced him that the red planet was criss-crossed with canals.  Perhaps, Lowell speculated, built by a dying Martian race to carry water from the icy poles to the rest of the increasingly arid planet.

By the way, I came across this great article by Leathem Mehaffey, another nerd professor at nearby Vassar College, trying to locate the Barsoom geography of Burroughs onto Lowell's map!

Anyway, it turns out the "canals" on were imaginary.  Linear features seen on the surface that Lowell's mind fashioned into a system of canals.  Even scientists were disappointed when, in 1965, the Mariner 4 probe returned the first real images of Mars (at right) showing a cratered, almost Moon-like surface.  It would have been much more exciting if Lowell had it correct!

Also, go out any night after dark these next few weeks at look to the east.  See that bright red "star"?  It's Barsoom, shining brightly as the Earth swings past it in our mutual orbits around the Sun.

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