Barsoom: Everyone Looks Alike

NOSTALGIA

One of my best memories of my father’s house is a wall of books. The entire wall was made of inset shelves, and reached from floor to ceiling. This was one of my favorite places in that house, and I spent hours looking through the shelves searching for the stories that would carry me far away from normal life. It’s there that I first found and enjoyed Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series, the first two books of which have recently been fused into the movie ‘John Carter’.

After going to see the movie (and enjoying it, even though it’s definitely not the same story) I’ve started to reread the series. Now that I’m not in my early teens I’m still enjoying the books, though I’m definitely picking up things that I missed on the first read through. These are well crafted stories, and this author has been a great inspiration to later writers. But there are definite flaws, and I’d like to go into the first of them here.

EXTREME HOMOGENEITY

The Barsoom stories are full of noble feats, reckless actions, and daring acts of trickery. At least once a book the main character, John Carter, bewilders and befuddles his enemies by disguising himself. It seems fairly obvious in the first book, especially when you consider that the planet of Barsoom (Mars) is inhabited mostly by people that look exactly like humans, except for their skin color. In the course of the first three books you learn that the races of man come in red, white, black, and yellow. They all lay eggs, but that aside they are exactly like us. There is also one race of non-humans, the extremely tall, four armed, tusked, nomadic race of green men.

So it seems to make sense that at various turns John Carter is disguised as a thern (white skin, yellow hair), a red man, and a yellow man. The first of these escapades is natural enough. He’s new to the planet and city and needs to sneak around undetected, so he poses as a newcomer to the city. Easy enough to understand.

The next instance is where it strains credulity. John Carter must escape from the Holy Therns, and so he dons a wig of yellow hair and the trappings of a man he’s killed and strolls about thusly disguised. This would be just another normal adventure if it wasn’t for a later event. The group runs into another thern, one who obviously knows the man John Carter is impersonating. And he doesn’t notice the difference in facial features.¬†In fact he only gets tipped off when he sees the dead body of the man he knows. And even then he’s only suspicious.

In several other instances John Carter  is disguised as various races of man and actually comes face to face with his bitterest enemies, who also do not recognize him. His wife does not recognize him under his disguise either. At this point I had to put the book down.

Remember that the only thing that changed about him is his skin color or his hair color. Which means that either everyone on Barsoom has really bad facial recognition skills, or every member of each race looks incredibly similar to the others, even up to being nearly indistinguishable.

There’s been a decent amount said about E.R.B’s racial politics, and I don’t want to either rehash all of it or speak too much about something I’m not as well versed in. * But can I just say that this sounds a bit like the things I’ve heard about people from Africa, or China, or any other culture and race that we in the west deem to be ‘Other’? And it certainly doesn’t help the case that the Tharks, the green nomadic race, are blatantly cast in the role of the noble savage. I have to say I’ll definitely be looking into the racial side of this more as I continue to read on. And I think anyone else reading this series who really wants to get the most out of their reading should do the same.

*I’ve only had the chance to read a little bit of it so far, but I’d already recommend Dying Planet. That link takes you to a Google Book preview of the relevant section that I found in my searching. It also gets a bit into the treatment of gender, which I am also eager to jump into, especially since that’s something I feel like I have the experience and learning to speak to.