07 March 2012

Go Barsoom!

I am excited that Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars is coming to the movie theatres*,  just in time for its hundredth anniversary.

While the story has a lot of trappings that we’ve come to associate with high fantasy (swords, princesses, and the like), I want to make the case that A Princess of Mars is truly science fiction. And despite that it’s early science fiction, and that scientific knowledge has moved on in the last century, Burroughs got something right. Indeed, it’s something that later, ostensibly more sophisticated science fiction tends to gloss over, particularly in film and television.


Mars, Burroughs reminds us, has lighter gravity than Earth. Lower gravity means that John Carter, a Virginia everyman, becomes stronger than he ever would be on Earth. (Later, Superman’s would repeat the twist, with Krypton and Earth substituting for Earth and Mars.) The scientific fact about this basic force of nature is woven into the warp and weft of the books, and is never forgotten.

In contrast, gravity is ignored in most popular science fiction. People walk around on spaceships in the middle of interstellar travel as though they were on a building, not in weightlessness.

Occasionally, you’ll hear some one-liner tossed off about “artificial gravity generators” or some such to explain this. This is a good time to remember that of the four fundamental forces we know in this universe – gravity, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force, and electromagnetism – we can only manipulate the last of those. Physicists are still betting on whether the Large Hadron Collider will finally reveal why things have mass.

I sympathize with filmmakers. Trying to simulate weightlessness is tricky, and requires complicates special effects. But I do wish that they would address it more often. And judging from the previews, I’m happy that the makers of John Carter have chosen to embrace this aspect of the story, and that it is given due credit as the science fiction pioneer that it is.

* This is despite Disney giving the film the most boring and nonevocative logo in memory. Akzidenz-Grotesk? This does not convey any of the familiarity of the turn of the Victoria era or the alien nature of the Martian landscape. And the title isn’t much better. Just John Carter? Not even John Carter of Mars?

Book cover from here, a great site that contains lots of information and artwork from many printings of the story. For me, Frank Frazetta’s interpretation of Barsoom is definitive.

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