Saturday, February 3, 2007

Review: A Princess on Mars by E. R. Burroughs

The problem for this book is that it has had so many imitators that its innovations have become cliches. For me, the same fate has befallen 'Citizen Kane', and, unfortunately, while intellectually I realise I am encountering a genuine original, my guts keep spotting the works which built on it. So, instead of thrilling to John Carter's heroic fist-fights, I keep seeing Captain Kirk wrestling gingerly with a man in a green suit, so as not to tear the costume. Instead of being amazed by descriptions of amazing alien life forms, I see the cantina scene in 'Star Wars'. And too often, the cheesy 80's Flash Gordon movie was foremost in my mind, complete with the 'Queen' soundtrack.
None of this is the fault of the book, which is packed with daring-do, and incident. In spite of saying this, one of the features of many of the 'Boys Own' adventure style books I have read recently, is that they start so sedately, with descriptions of boyhoods, and parentage. I suspect these pages would be the first cut by a modern editor, and it presumes a patient reader. I wondered why this was so. Perhaps books had less competition at the end of the 19th Century.
At first I was pleasantly surprised that there were several races on Mars, and each race had its own subdivisions with cultural differences. (A pet dislike of mine in the past was the lazy assumption that any planet would only have one culture across its whole surface, a la George Lucas). And then I wondered: is it the inevitable fate of any populated planet, to become one culture, given enough time? In a few thousand years, will the whole of the earth have one skin tone, one language, one culture? Would that be desirable, given the greatly reduced potential for conflict and hatred? Or are our cultural differences worth preserving? How many hundreds of languages are being lost each year? Could I save myself from hunger on 80% of the earth, knowing only the word 'MacDonalds'? Is a literary masterpiece still a literary masterpiece if no-one can read it?
Obviously, I don't really know the answers to any of these questions. I suspect that if you speak a minority language, you have a strong financial incentive to learn the language of the majority. Which suits us when it is English they learn. I just wonder how we would feel if we are suddenly expected to know Chinese or Hindi.
Here is where Burrough's Martians have it right: they all speak the same language, while retaining their separate cultural identities. Except they spend all their time fighting, so it seems makes no difference. Oh, and their global warming problem makes ours look very small beer.

Next: Gustave Flaubert, "Three Short Works"

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