A delegation of green Martians, with four arms and two legs, as well as tusks and an ugly, hard-shelled head, attack him, whereupon he leaps backwards some hundred feet or so (Martian gravity being lighter, and his body having been accustomed to the heavier gravity of Earth), quite astonishing the Martians. They take him back to the city, which is a beautifully decorated city that was once on the shores of a Martian ocean. The oceans since dried up, and the inhabitants left, leaving these ancient cities to be inhabited by the green Martians, who are mostly interested in fighting with each other and oblivious to the artistry around them. John is quartered with Sora, one of the women, and the only one that has concern for others. He tests the limits of the hideous animal guarding him, Woola, and finds that Woola is happy to accompany him, so he wanders the town and gets attacked by white apes, from which he is rescued by Woola. Woola is, in turn attacked by a green Martian, and John rescues him, killing the Martian, who turns out to be a chieftain. This impresses the head chieftain who turned out to be nearby.
A delegation of large ships floating nearby the city is attacked and destroyed by the Tharks (the green Martians), who attack pretty much everything, especially red Martians, and John discovers that a very human-looking female has survived. She turns out to be Dejah Thoris, the princess of Helium, a red Martian, and as a Southern gentlemen, rescues Dejah Thoris from the rough treatment of the Tharks. They promptly fall in love, somewhat unbeknowst to each other, and a cultural misunderstanding causes Dejah Thoris to be insulted and she gives John the cold shoulder. Meanwhile, he dispatches another Thark chieftain that attempted to kill him, leading to him gaining that chieftain’s retinue, as well as some authority, despite the fact that he is effectively a prisoner. A vengeful Thark female attempts to kill him by blinding him during a combat with a Thark who attacks him, but he is victorious anyway.
John plans an escape with Dejah Thoris and Sora. The plan is discovered, but John avoids discovery and changes the plan. At this time Sora confides in John that, unlike all green Martians, she knows who her parents are, and that her father is Tars Tarkas, ruler of that clan of Tharks. (Her father does not know, as he was sent on a military mission for the five years that it takes for Martian eggs to hatch, and her mother mingled her with the other anonymous children to protect her from a jealous female. It is because she knows her parents and received love that she is able to love, and the lack of the family is why the green Martians have such a warlike culture. In-between the philosphizing, they escape, and ride for a couple days on animals that serve the same function as horses, but they do not reach the canals that would take them to Helium and realize that they are lost. Shortly afterwards the party is discovered by a party of Tharks from a different faction, and John forces Sora and Deja Thoris to flee to the canyons.
John is captured by this different clan of Tharks and sent to the arena as entertainment. He and another prisoner are good fighters and are the last two standing. They plan an escape: they will fight until dusk, then the other prisoner will “kill” John by sending his sword in-between his arm and side. He wins his freedom by virtue of being the last man standing; John climbs out of the arena under cover of darkness after everyone has left. He finds a red Martian community, and they give him letters of introduction to Zodanga, the nearest city (which, unfortunately, is at war with Helium). On his way he is forced to flee from Tharks again, and takes with an old man in an impregnable tower.
As it turns out, this tower contains the machinery that creates the air supply for Mars, by means of separating a frequency of light that is unknown to Earth. Since the tower is of paramount importance, it is occupied by only one man, who operates and repairs the machinery, although all red Martian men are taught how to work the machinery. It is guarded by a complex telepathic signal, known only to the keeper. John asks what it is, hoping, as indeed happens, that it would come to the keeper’s mind, and he could read it, since he has been trained in telepathy and other Martian communication by Sora. The Martians are unable to read his thoughts, although he can read theirs, so the keeper is unaware that John can read his intention to kill him in his sleep since he might possibly know the signal. John escapes by means of using the telepathic keys he learns and arrives in Zodanga.
In Zodanga he meets a man from Helium who is seeking to find the princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris, since the Zodangans claim that they will only halt their war (which they are winning) if the princess marries the prince of Zodanga. The two decide to work together inside the Zodangan army. John distinguishes himself on his first air patrol by rescuing a Zodangan, whose fragile hovercraft had crashed, from Tharks. He is rewarded with a post guarding the ruler of Helium, where he observes Dejah Thoris promise herself to the prince of Zodanga, who turns out to be they guy John rescued. Since Dejah Thoris had made it clear that she reciprocated John’s love, he is quite distraught and follows her guard to her room, where he kills the four guards and discovers that Dejah Thoris thought that he was dead, hence her promise. Unfortunately, promises are binding on Mars, and since John had not asked when he had the opportunity, it is now gone. And, by the way, she can’t marry the man who kills the man she promised herself too, so no use thinking about that. John still loves her, though and repeats his promise to return her to Helium. He escapes from Zodanga, taking a ship he returns to the Tharks of Tars Tarkas and helps them defeat the Warhoon, clan of the chief Thark and the clan that sent him to the arena. This surprises Tars Tarkas, who professes that he has now learned what friendship is.
John tells Tars Tarkas that Sora is his daughter, and they immediately decide to kill the ruling Thark, which would place Tars Tarkas in charge, permitting him to acknowledge Sora as his daughter. John engineers the situation by insulting the ruling Thark, saying that Tars Tarkas would make a far better leader than the current one and citing the inaction of the current leader, the successes of Tars Tarkas, as well as the leader’s inability to kill John. Tharks settle disputes with duels, and the other Thark sub-chieftains think that a duel should settle this question. Tars Tarkas easily dispatches the rather fat ruler. John then suggests that Tars Tarkas could attack Zodanga with all the Tharks, providing satisfaction for their hostility toward the red Martians as well as much plunder. This suggestion is roundly approved and shortly afterwards they arrive in Zodanga, having acquired some additional Thark clans along the way. John scales the city wall (with his un-Martian Earthly strength) and opens the gates, which the Zodangans had left unguarded in the assumption that the huge walls would prevent any attack.
John takes an expedition to the palace to rescue Deja Thoris, whom he discovers is in the middle of the wedding ceremony, which he quite unceremoniously attacks and breaks up. The Zodangans fight bravely for their city, and John has a hard time evading the Zodangan prince, whom he cannot kill if he wants to marry Dejah Thoris, but eventually the city is completely subdued and the prince’s death is achieved. John asks for Deja Thoris’ hand in marriage which she happily gives. John then takes the Zodangan air fleet, mans them with Tharks, and attacks the Zodangan fleet attacking Helium. Short story even shorter, the Zodangan’s are quickly overcome and Helium welcomes the princess and John with much joy.
The pair is married and practically worshipped by the citizens of Helium (although, to be fair, the princess was already practically worshipped due to her position as princess and her exceeding beauty). They have an egg together and while eagerly waiting for it to hatch, the air generator is discovered to not be working. Apparently the keeper had died and the machines had broken down. As the air quickly disappears everyone prepares themselves for death by asphixiation, slipping into comas, until John remembers that he knows the telepathic codes to the tower, and motivated by love for Deja Thoris (of course), he grabs a personal hovercraft and races to the tower, opens it whereupon he dies from lack of oxygen, but allowing one of the workers still able to function access to the machines.
Presumably the worker succeeds, but we will not know until the sequel, as John finds himself back in his body in Arizona ten years later (he spent ten years on Mars). He keeps trying to be drawn to Mars, but it does not succeed until what possibly appears to be his sudden death, lying prostrate with his hands in supplication towards Mars. He requested to be buried in the tomb he had constructed, which, strangely, is only openable from the inside.
Project Gutenberg has a sci-fi collection, and a reader from Hacker News recommended A Princess of Mars. Having heard of Edgar Rice Burroughs in connection with early science fiction, I gave it a try. I had a vague feeling that he was associated with pulp fiction and I was not disappointed. There are two long-range goals: return the princess to Helium and succeed in marrying her. The first is the more developed plot, consisting of various subgoals of the formula: immediate problem, resolution resulting in partial advancement, which is stymied by another immediate problem; rinse, repeat. The second goal is similar, except that the problems are relational rather than situational: John Carter unknowingly commits a cultural faux-pax that insults Dejah Thoris, but when she takes the mirror that the Thark women is using to blind John he realizes that she does love him. Then, John forces her to leave him against her desires in order to save her from the Tharks when the party sees them. Against hope he finds her again at Zodanga, but she had already promised herself away.
Burroughs was apparently quite popular, and one can see why; A Princess of Mars has pretty much all the requirements of a blockbuster. There is the mystery of learning about a new planet, plenty of fighting (think action movie here), a plot that constantly leaves you wondering “what next?” but since there are references to the future (the book being officially John Carter’s memoir) you have the comforting reassurance that everything will work out in the end. The main character is a man’s man, a soldier in the civil war and various later conflicts, an adventurer, self-sufficient, able to overcome life-threatening situations, but sometimes only just barely and only with help from others, and in the end he saves the day and brings new hope to Mars. At the same time, he is the man every woman wants, a restless wander interested in no woman until he meets Her, who he is devoted to, rescues, and always protects, whose every action and plan is (stated to be) in service and protection of his woman.
From a literary standpoint, this is merely average. The foreshadowing is so obvious as to perhaps be something else; I knew how the story was going to end after John Carter arrives on Mars because the introduction so strongly hinted at it that even I, who makes no effort to predict plot, could tell. A more important failing is that everything is wrapped in a tidy package; there are not very many loose ends, and everything encountered is explained. Unlike Tolkien or Watership Down, where there is clearly more to the world, the reader is not left wondering “what does this mean?” Similarly, the Martian vocabulary is very haphazard and just sounds like something I would make up if I needed to make up some foreign words. The characters are clearly archetypes: John Carter is a superman, being given his fighting abilities largely because his muscles are more effective on Mars; Dejah Thoris is the damsel in distress. Neither character really grows much. In fact, the only character that really grows is Tars Tarkas, who realizes that friendship and loyalty exist and that constant warfare and lovelessness is not the only way to live life.
Burroughs does actually include a theme in the book, although it is fairly simplistic. The Tharks live a life tailored to warfare; love is not a part of it. John Carter comes and treats his thoats with love and unlike all other thoats, which are completely unmanageable, his are docile. Woola, the dog-like creature, is extremely loyal because of the love and assistance that John gives him. Sola is the only Thark woman that is at all gentle because she has been shown love. Through John’s actions, both the red and green Martians learn that constant warfare is not the only way of life. But Burroughs is knocking down a straw man here, nobody thinks that constant warfare is a good way to live (granted, he wrote 100 years ago, but I doubt that people thought that way in the early 1900s, either). Furthermore, it just isn’t believable: this one Thark woman is gentle despite all outside influences to the contrary, just because of the love of her mother, who somehow knew how to love despite no previous experience.
In fact, the book is simplistic in every category. I sit here writing this in Beijing, having been here for over a year and having, shall we say, limited communication ability, yet somehow John Carter is able to learn a Martian language that would have zero cognates with his native English, as well as learn to communicate telepathically, in the space of a few weeks. Furthermore, all of Mars speaks the same language, despite rather large differences in body shape between red and green Martians, not to mention the limited interactions within the Thark clans that on Earth have historically produced different dialects over spaces as small as several villages.
But this is pulp fiction. You expect one-dimensional characters, simplistic social analysis, and formulaic plots. It is still a fun story, as well as being historically interesting as early science fiction.
The book is one dimensional and formulaic; and is completely average from a literary standpoint, hence an average rating. That is not to say that it is not a fun read; I enjoyed reading it on the subway.