So about a month ago I suggested that we hold a book discussion regarding A Princess of Mars, the first science fiction novel in the John Carter series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I had not had a chance to read the book at the time, but was looking forward to doing so in preparation for the release of John Carter by Disney.
On Monday of this week I laid out the five questions I wanted to focus our discussion around so without further ado, here are my answers:
1. Do you like the book? Why or why not
So this may seem like a banal question. However, I have a point, when I ask this question regarding A Princess of Mars. You see, I loved the book, but by all rights I shouldn’t have. I will bet that there will be those who for one reason or another strongly dislike the book. I really hope they share their point of view. After all, there is so much to dislike: the blatant racism toward Native Americans, the overwrought swooning Dejah, the melodrama, the long string of implausible MacGuffins, and the tendency to solve every problem at the end of a sword or a gun.
Yet somehow despite all these potential pitfalls, I ended up really enjoying what I read. I am left asking myself why? Is this what is meant by a book being a guilty pleasure? Perhaps, but I don’t exactly feel guilty for liking the book despite its flaws.
If there is one flaw which does prick my conscience, it would be the racism. I can somewhat bracket that as an artifact of history and past culture, but I am a big believer in the concept of universal human rights. There were plenty of white male Americans at the turn of the twentieth century who had better points of view on race than Burroughs. I think we can hold him somewhat accountable. Culture cannot be an excuse.
So that said, why did I like the book? Well to be honest the next four questions are a bit of a cheat. I think I know why I liked A Princess of Mars and I am going to try and answer these questions below to explain it to you and myself. Then we can all traipse over to the new GeekDad communiy forums and you can tear my flimsy reasoning apart.
2. Did you lose your suspension of disbelief anywhere in the book? Did you care? Why or why not?
This is a bit if a tricky wicket for me because the answer is no, but with a couple of giant white ape sized caveats. Classical 20th century notions of story argue that if a writer is able to create an internally consistent world, a reader will willingly suspend their disbelief and follow the writer through that world no matter how implausible its events might seem in our world. Over achieving geeks will often point to the essay “On Fairy Stories,” written by the patron saint of all geek literature JRR Tolkien, to argue that a book or movie floated or failed based upon its internal consistency. In the essay, which is included in The Tolkien Reader,Tolkien argues that internal consistency is the key to maintaining that sense of wonder a reader feels when absorbed by a good book. Although, he preferred to call this rapture “literary belief” or “secondary belief” and reserve the concept of “willing suspension of disbelief” for the effort a reader puts out to ignore their qualms and finish a book which has failed to keep them enraptured.
Yet by Tolkien’s measure my “literary belief” should have broken right about the time that John Carter rescued the cousin of the Jeddak of Zodanga, who he ran into by chance some two hundred miles away from town. Umm…yeah right! When an author piles up as many chance meetings as Burroughs does my literary belief takes a beating. Chance is chance no matter what the rules of the internal universe, even if you have an improbability drive. Yet, here is the rub. I may have paused and chuckled at another chance encounter which conveniently advanced the story toward its conclusion, but it did little to affect my sense of wonder and absorption in the story.
I am left to conclude that Tolkien’s idea that willing suspension of disbelief depends greatly upon the internal consistency of a story is bunk! It is that little word willing which the internal consistency model cannot deal with. (I find it telling that Tolkien ignores it when he chooses to use the term “literary belief.”) I choose to be absorbed into the world of a story, and while the internal consistency of a story may have some role in that choice, it plays but a small part. Rather, I would argue it is my hopes, my dreams, and my desires for the book, for the world around me, and for the characters in the story which I take with me as I read. I will go miles down the road with an author who blows the internal consistency but keeps my hopes and dreams alive.
3. What did Burroughs do well?
So what did Burroughs get right which led me to willingly absorb myself in his work. I am a huge fan of integrity in the characters I read. I can handle foibles, messed up choices, and stupidity. But take away a character’s integrity with no sign of regret or coming redemption in the book, and I will start rooting against that character faster than Woola can track down John Carter half way across the planet.
John carter shows integrity and a sense of purpose in all his actions on the planet Mars, and that is the kind of person I would like to be. But in my life I seldom achieve his unity of purpose and vision. Of course when a super hot chick falls from the sky naked, swoons for you and then spends the next several hundred pages needing you to rescue her repeatedly, it would be easy to have a clear sense of mission, purpose and integrity. As my wife put it, A Princess of Mars is a boy romance—she showed little interest in reading it with me. Here my hopes, dreams and desires for my own life lead me to accept Burroughs book despite its weaknesses. Other readers with different hopes and dreams may not find it so appealing.
4. What did Burroughs not do well?
I have already stated most of my qualms in answering question one so I don’t feel I have much further to say on the topic. However, there are two things I would mention here. Burroughs pacing which proceeds from mortal peril to mortal peril helps create a sense of melodrama in the story which I chuckle at but enjoy as part of the campy goodness of Burroughs work. Secondly and more importantly, Dejah is a weak character with little to add to her own story other than to look beautiful, stay naked and convince us that men of integrity and courage like John Carter are eminently desirable to women.
5. Does the book hold up today? Why or why not?
For me, Burroughs work holds up today very well when one puts it in proper perspective. This is not a tour-de-force of literary talent and skill. The reader will have to value the character of John Carter if they are going to appreciate the book. If he does not appeal to the reader the whole project will fail. Yet Carter’s integrity and courage can loft the dreams and hopes of many a young man better than the eighth ray of the sun, and in a society which tends to give young men so little to aspire to, this has value today.
We are going to host our discussion in the forums over on the new GeekDad community site. So if you haven’t had a chance to do so yet, head on over and create a profile for yourself and look for our discussion thread in the forums under books. For those of you who already have a profile you can find our discussion here. And may I be the first to say welcome to the community.