Comments on Burroughs: Hard Sci-fi

I’m rereading Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars. For all my love of Burroughs, I actually have little exposure to his canon. I read Tarzan when I was younger and thoroughly enjoyed it. I finally read A Princess of Mars in the past five years and loved it. Among the pulp commentary I’ve read, it’s always Burroughs who most draws me – I love the idea of planetary romance and his is the granddaddy of the genre with the Barsoom, Venus, and Pellucidar novels (the last is an inner earth novel, but it’s really just planetary romance going in, rather than out, of the planet).

So I’m going to try to read a lot more Burroughs in the coming months, especially the full expanse of his Planetary Romance stuff. I’m starting with the classic, though, so a few comments on A Princess of Mars.

Princess is Hard Science-Fiction. This is an statement of heresy to almost everyone in the camps I run with. One side likes to call Princess the softest of soft SF (see Karl Gallagher’s “The Mohs Scale of SF Hardness”). The other thinks it beneath Princess’s dignity to call it by such a trashy name (See anything by Jeffro Johnson on the topic, but especially “Hard SF Considered Harmful”). If you want to see the discussion, check out the archives of late March 2017 for Castalia House Blog and Superversive SF Blog. I’m personally a fan of Jon Mollison’s disjointed thoughts on the topic (Idle Thoughts on the Hard Question).

But as I reread Princess, I’m struck by how much Burroughs is delighting in his science speculation. He likes his Hard SF. I mean, right in the middle of a romantic walk between John Carter and Dejah Thoris (in a chapter called “Love-Making on Mars” which will be discussed soon) you have the beautiful titular princess offering this piece of scintillating exposition:

They have had me down in the pits below the buildings helping them mix their awful radium powder, and make their terrible projectiles . You know that these have to be manufactured by artificial light, as exposure to sunlight always results in an explosion . You have noticed that their bullets explode when they strike an object? Well, the opaque, outer coating is broken by the impact, exposing a glass cylinder, almost solid, in the forward end of which is a minute particle of radium powder. The moment the sunlight, even though diffused, strikes this powder it explodes with a violence which nothing can withstand. If you ever witness a night battle you will note the absence of these explosions, while the morning following the battle will be filled at sunrise with the sharp detonations of exploding missiles fired the preceding night. As a rule, however, non – exploding projectiles are used at night.” [ I have used the word radium in describing this powder because in the light of recent discoveries on Earth I believe it to be a mixture of which radium is the base. In Captain Carter’s manuscript it is mentioned always by the name used in the written language of Helium and is spelled in hieroglyphics which it would be difficult and useless to reproduce.]

-Burroughs, Edgar Rice. A Princess of Mars (Kindle Locations 1132-1140). Kindle Edition.

Note especially that last aside by the fictional editor. This it Burroughs pointing out that he’s thinking this through and trying to explain things as scientifically as he can. You get this throughout the novel. John Carter’s first challenge on Mars is in walking around in lessened gravity. The whole early experience with the Green Martians, the Tharks, is Burroughs discussing the relation of nature and nurture (he’s far more inclined to the nurture side – see Sola and the ability of the “uncivilized” Tharks to be struck by Carter’s mercy). He likes to explore how Tharkian society is both completely screwed up but also essentially functioning – (here, he’s far more realistic a dystopian than most).

Now yes, his speculation has mostly been debunked (or at least his biggest speculations have, damn you Mars Rover!). But that doesn’t change that he’s fundamentally a Hard SF writer in the vein of, say, Asimov.

But the comparison with Asimov is important. Asimov is a Hard SF writer who reveals all the flaws and weakness in writing Hard SF. Most his work is about the science – his characters and plot, without some imaginative help, are weak and pitiful. Thus if the science gets overtaken, the work will only be remembered as a curio in the history of science-fiction – as Newton has become for the theoretical physicist. Now Asimov is highly regarded because he, like certain Nye’s and Tyson’s of today, pushed himself into the cultural consciousness. We’ll see how well he’s remembered in another 50-100 years.

On the opposite end, Burroughs’ tale is not about the science. His tale is about a man set adrift from his world, finding a woman worth dying for, and achieving glory. The Hard SF is just there to spice things up. Thus when it falls apart (and the science has fallen apart, damn you Mars Rover!), the story still persists in importance. It ages gracefully.

It may be important for defenders of Hard SF to put this in their calculations. Their science will, inevitably, be overtaken and look quaint (Galileo and Newton thought they were the end-all, be-all folks…). Does the story hang on the science? Then the story will will become similarly antiquated. However, if the science is either just window-dressing or an outlet for the more human story, well, it’ll survive. Just like Burroughs has (See the similar comment of Misha Burnett’s on Heinlein – “Expiration Dates”).

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About Tomas

Catholic. Texan. Philistine. Teacher.
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3 Responses to Comments on Burroughs: Hard Sci-fi

  1. Joseph Moore says:

    Nice review. I really enjoyed Princess of Mars as well. Once you get past the magic of just how Carter gets to Mars in the first place, I agree that Burroughs strives hard to make things plausible after the level of current scientific knowledge of the day. It’s similar to the way a story set in a known location has to not violate what a visitor, let alone resident, would expect of the place. It may not need to be exactly right, but it needs to be close enough so that I, a frequent visitor to Scienceland, am not taken out of the suspension of disbelief. Burroughs does this to my satisfaction.

  2. But I did read “I, Robot”, on my own, with no prompting, and found it excellent – not because of the hard science but because of the expert plotting. It’s a series of intellectual puzzles, and looked at in that way the conceit of the stories and the interesting problems posed hold up very well.

  3. T. Everett says:

    ” In Captain Carter’s manuscript it is mentioned always by the name used in the written language of Helium and is spelled in hieroglyphics which it would be difficult and useless to reproduce.”

    Clearly ERB never corresponded with J.R.R. Tolkien*, who could have told him that fans** eat this stuff up.

    *To be fair, Burroughs had passed on by the time Tolkien was making this discovery.

    **I believe his exact words were, “deplorable cultus”.

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