Book corner: John Carter of Mars (Burroughs, E., R., 1964, posthumously)

The Barsoom series ends not with a bang, but with a sort of a gurgling drain sound. The penultimate entry in the series, Llana of Gathol, was a 4 part story that took more of a comedic approach to the cliches and formula of the series. That was why it worked, despite the things that happened in it were more or less relatively typical to the series and the basic structure of the stories that came before it. John Carter of Mars, the final book in the series, offers only two short stories, neither of which are really that great. If the book is anything, it's an underwhelming send-off to a series, that had too many books in it in the first place.

The first story, John Carter and the Giant of Mars, feels like an odd piece of work. In many ways it doesn't even feel like a story written by Burroughs: it's a bit dark, gloomy and brooding and the plotting of it is just clumsy. On the previous stories, even on those, I'm not so keen on, despite the repetitious settings, Burroughs at least always wrote with a style that felt effortless. Here it seems that he was struggling in getting words to appear on the paper and never really managed to get the tone of the rest of the series in it.

The story itself is simple enough: John Carter and Dejah Thoris are checking out the farmlands of her grandfather when their thoat is killed and a huge lizard attacks them. After Carter has managed to kill the lizard, he notices that Thoris has been abducted. The culprit is, as he finds out, a synthetic man Pew Mogel, who managed to escape the laboratories of Ras Thavas long before Carter & Co. managed to put a cork on that operation.

Pew Mogel has two secret weapons: a huge giant he has created as well as an army of great white apes with brains of humans. With this army he intends at first take over Helium, then the rest of the world. Of course, John Carter and his brave companions manage to stop him, but the story itself never feels quite resolved.

One thing, that separates the John Carter and the Giant of Mars from the other stories starring Carter is, that it's told from a third person perspective. While Carter has been described by other narrators previously, he has never been the main character in a story that wasn't told by him. And this just feels odd, as without his straightforwardness it really doesn't feel like a proper John Carter story. And then he's also often described with an adjective ”Earth man”. While it's factually correct, it feels somewhat odd, as Carter with his first-person narratives rarely used such a term, but here it's thrown around like Burroughs was afraid that people would forget that he's not really a Martian. Also, from some reason, Burroughs has changed radium weapons to atom guns. I know that seems like a minor detail, but it also feels a bit like he forgot what kind of weapons the Martians used in the first place.

All the little things in the story made me think, while I was reading it if the story really even was written by Burroughs himself. Or that maybe it was outlined by him, but it was written in full by someone else, who wasn't really sure about the world Burroughs had created, nor was he sure about the style and tone the series usually had.

The second story, Skeleton Men of Jupiter, is closer to what you'd expect. It's also better of the two stories, but it also is left kind of unfinished. The ending it has really left you wanting a second part of it, as while it ends on a positive note, it at the same time leaves most things hanging in the air.

This time around, as a huge twist in the well-worn formula, it is John Carter who's abducted before Dejah Thoris. Just as Carter and Thoris are having some sexy times, he's called to meet the jeddak of Helium. He's a bit annoyed, as you know, the missus is the most beautiful woman of the whole universe, but still leaves. Some tension music, as he never gets to the jeddak, as it was all a setup. Skeleton men from Jupiter take Carter as a prisoner and take him to the huge gas giant as a prisoner in order to extort information about the defences of Helium from him.

Carter won't abide, so in order to make him talk, the walking, skin covered skeletons abduct Thoris as well, but Carter is no traitor, not even when the love of his life is threatened. Short things short, Carter manages to help Thoris escape but is taken as a prisoner himself. He ends up in an arena, where he, and 19 other prisoners, trained by him, manage to kill a load of walking skeletons before they escape.

In a hastily told latter part of the story Carter journeys through not so gassy inferno like Jupiter. He gets a ship with mere luck and finally arrives where Thoris managed to escape before him. Cue ending with nothing else really resolved, as a lot of things from the first part of the story are just left hanging there. If anything, the Skeleton Men of Jupiter feels like it was meant to be the first part of a longer story, but which was never finished, and that's is a shame, as it could have been something pretty decent.

And this is how the tale of John Carter ends, at least as told by Burroughs: one story that doesn't feel like it's a part of the series and an another, which is left hanging in the air. Of course, it doesn't take a lot to imagine how it could have ended, but still.

Of course, I can't really claim that the Barsoom series really is an unmatched masterpiece of literature. It is, at its best, a fun, adventurous and overly romantic set of stories. That is something the Skeleton Men of Jupiter tries to capture as well, but it leaves it half way. What the final book manages to do, is to leave a bit of a sour taste, as after it there's nothing else for the offer. The stories themselves were released after Burroughs's death and in the hindsight, it would have been better if they'd been left unpublished obscurities. Llana of Gathol, despite not really a serious entry, would at least been a fun, rollicking adventure sendoff. And in my book, that would have sufficed.

Also, what feels a bit odd, is the bit of a gloating attitude Burroughs seems to have towards science in the Skeleton Men of Jupiter. By the time the story was written it was already a scientific fact, that Mars, as it is now, would not be able to sustain the level of life Burroughs had in his stories. As Carter, he says, that the truth he knows is different from what is a scientific truth and that same thing applies to Jupiter as well: it's not a ball of gas, with hellish atmosphere, but a planet covered with clouds and filled with life. You could always argue, that the tone he tried there was a sarcastic one, but somehow it doesn't read out like that, not to me at least. It reads out more as a bitter sting, rather than a jab of self-sarcasm towards his own work. Of course, I'm probably just reading a bit too much on it, on the basis of how disappointing I found the stories in general, so perhaps I'm just trying too hard to find at least something from them.

But yeah. That's how it ends, the Barsoom series. In a disappointing collection of two stories, that should have been left in the writers' attic after his death. Of course, there really can't be a real ending to a tale of a seemingly immortal man, especially when he's as good at staying alive as Carter is, but I would have hoped that the final tales he was in would have been something with more finesse and ambition.