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THE SCIENCE FICTION OF EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS


While H. G. Wells was offering erudite, intelligent parables on the future fate of Humanity, Edgar Rice Burroughs was writing gloriously shameless fantastic, exotic pulp fantasies that no one could have taken too seriously. His most famous creation was of course, TarzanThe Ape Man , in which the last lord of Greystoke, raised in the ways of the African jungle by the great apes, and renounces the bourgeois life for the freedom of the jungle. Tarzan’s original literary adventures, (unlike the film ones) usually depicted him battling monsters and demons rather than lions and crocodiles. Burroughs even sent Tarzan to the Earth’s core, in one adventure, and seriously considered sending him to Venus in another. Burroughs capitalised on Arthur Conan Doyle’s pre-Jurassic Park novel The Lost world with a lost Dinosaur civilisation of his own, in a series of novels that began with The Land That Time Forgot . Forget the naff film version with Doug McClure. The book is a great adventure story. Survivors of a ship sunk by a German U –Boat, capture the sub responsible, and as the crew try to take it back, they stumble upon an arctic entrance to a dinosaur island, Caprona. As crew and captors play a cat and mouse game against each other as well as the island creatures, the story proves genuinely imaginative and exciting. It spawned a number of sequels. More readable are Burroughs’s Martian stories, featuring John Carter, finest swordsman of two worlds. Carter’s adventures usually involve very little story line. Some evil megalomaniac kidnaps his Martian girlfriend, Deja Thoris,, and Carter fights his way across an increasingly exotic, lurid landscape, fighting various monsters and madmen on his way. Burroughs has his Martians depicted naked. (Though there is no mention of sex acts in any of the stories). The people on Barsoom (the native name for the planet) are tall, like humans, but their skin is either blue, or green, or red, depending which clan Carter is fighting for or against at any given time. Burroughs doesn’t even give Carter a spaceship for his journey to Mars. He travels there by some kind of astral projection, while his earthly body rests in a deserted cave until he comes back to narrate his various unlikely, but always delightful adventures. Burroughs also wrote a small number of Venus based stories, featuring Carson Napier, a hero who tries to meet up with John Carter but gets lost in space and ends up on the other planet instead. Then there are his Earth’s Core sagas, set in the land of Pellucidar, a take on ‘Hollow Earth’ nonsense theories and Verne’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth. The core proves to be another monster’s paradise, described so well that you wish it could be remotely possible. It was to this world that even Tarzan paid an unlikely visit. Brian Aldiss, in his history of Science Fiction, Trillion Year Spree, accuses Burroughs of ‘dishing out daydreams’. That seems unfair. Burroughs knew that his Mars was an impossible world, as unattainable in reality as Lucien’s bird-driven flights to the Moon, or Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. His stories are a celebration of the imagination, and no worse for being seen merely at that level. His stories sold well. They were easier to digest than Wellsian novels, and sadly, also easier to write. Burroughs and his contemporary author, Arthur Conan Doyle fuelled the imagination of countless hack writers, each failing to write half as well as Doyle or Burroughs. The 1920’s saw a plethora of bad Scientification stories, and unlikely journey stories, that were soon to be labelled as bad science fiction. Sadly, too many people believe that the bad stuff is all that exists. They need to read Burroughs to see what they have missed.

 

© Copyright. Arthur Chappell          

 

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