Early Barsoom, Pre-Drought
Beginnings of the End, or the Ends of the Beginning
The Planetary Crisis
The Shape of
Carter enters a strange new world when he wakes on Barsoom.
It is a world of contradictions, slavery and feudalism live cheek by jowl
against rifles with exploding shells and anti-gravity sleds.
It is a world of unparalleled technology, but which still manages to cling
to traditions of personal honour and swordsmanship.
It is a world that is past its prime and is arguably
dying. Certainly it is a world that has experienced a cataclysm,
and this cataclysm now shapes the society and individuals who live in the
But beyond a few particulars, the fact that the
planet dried up, the shape and nature of this catastrophe is not at all
clear. In some stories we hear of whole nations fleeing across
dried sea beds, looking for safety. In others, there is a picture
of gradual decay. There are mighty ruined cities, still intact
And there are historical anomalies like bowmen
and sailing ships mixed with eternally glowing lights. It's
clear that there was a complex world and a complex history that preceded
John Carter's present.
To truly appreciate John Carter's new world, we
have to examine how that world has evolved to its present form, including
a rough history of intelligent life on Mars.
The Barsoomian hominids, or first men, probably
originated in the fertile equatorial region. The black Martians
claim to be the First Born and there is no need to challenge that claim.
The First Born, given their current habitats in Omean and Kamtol, probably
emerged in fertile well watered, relatively warm and humid climates.
Their likely habitats were the sheltered bays at the southern regions of
the northern hemisphere ocean, possibly even in or around Valles Marinis.
However, it is likely that Barsoomians began to
speciate or diverge almost immediately after moving out of their favoured
climate. The First Born would have begun moving up the coastlines,
advancing into colder, wet northern latitudes, and adapting accordingly.
These adaptations might have included a thicker layer of fat, facial hair,
and a change in skin tone. The resulting race was the yellow
Okar who thrived in northern seas and shores.
Out on the great flat plains, nomadic wanderers
evolved into the Kangaroo Men, of whom a remnant population remains in
the Toonolian swamps. Think about it for a second, Kangaroo
leapers in swamps? That's ridiculous. The Kangaroo men
evolved in another habitat, the plains, and the swamp simply became an
isolated refuge. The relic population of Kangaroo Men in the
Toonolian Marshes is very suggestive, however. It implies that the
human races of Mars may once have been more diverse than the handful left
today. As to what these other human races may have been like, we
can only guess, or perhaps refer to other chronicles of Mars from other
The Orovar were the next major race to emerge.
The Orovars moved inland, crossing into the Southern hemisphere and adapting
to hot dry climates. They founded their culture upon
the great sea, Torquas, occupying the Hellas basin, and built their cities,
including their capital, Horz. One subgroup of the Orovar occupied
the Valley Dor around the Sea of Korus, actually the Argyre Basin, and
became the Therns.
But the bulk of the Orovar culture expanded back
into the northern sea, eventually dominating the established societies
of First Born and Okar. As to how this was possible, given
the entrenchment of the First Born and Okar on their home ground, there
is an interesting possibility. A major meteor strike in the Polar
Ocean, the resulting tsunami and disruptions would have shattered the north
polar societies, while the Hellas basin people were untouched.
The Orovars expansion probably took place after such an event.
Of course, there may have been other reasons.
The Orovars may have simply developed better technology as the 19th century
Europeans did, or better resistance to climate changes and diseases as
the Mongols did.
Or they may simply have been more organized, with
their Hellas based society forming a single state or Empire which the smaller
nations were unable to resist. Earth's history is full of peripheral
or hinterland regions on the edges of cutting edge civilizations simply
expanding until they were large enough to dominate the core.
Macedonia happened to the Greek city states, Persia happened to the Mesopotamians,
the Mongols and Turks invaded China and Islam, on the edges of Europe the
United States and Russia grew into super-states.
The recurring feature of history is that the centre
of civilization is always crowed, the factions and states war constantly
and no one faction or state ever gathers enough power to dominate.
Instead, the opportunity is on the periphery, where a small weak state
which is a marginal backwater has almost indefinite room to grow...
And it grows, until finally it becomes an Empire or Superstate large enough
to dominate the core civilization.
Whatever the reason, it is clear that the Orovars
became the dominant race in both the northern and southern hemispheres.
This did not mean that other races disappeared, indeed, by all accounts
both the Okar and the First Born continued to prosper.
We don't know very much about the technology and
society of this earlier Barsoom. It appears that during this
golden age, the technology was not too high. Ships were powered by
sail, flight if used was by riding giant birds, the principle weapon was
The Orovars appear to have been a commercial/mercantile
society, somewhat like the Phoenicians or the British. They
were great sailors and traders and plied all the five seas.
There are some signs that the Orovars may have been formally constituted
as an Empire, or perhaps as Empires, rather than as City states or even
Most of the human societies of Barsoom seem to
have been oriented around seas and rivers. The constant refrain of
references to the human races of the past is of seashore or rivershore
societies. Even the origin legends of the First Born have the race
emerging on the edge of a river. The legends of the Orovars
are invariably bound up with stories of ships, harbours and ports, and
of a nautical society.
Obviously, there were likely some inland human
races and cultures. The Kangaroo men were one. But they seem
to have existed on the margins of human culture, the mainstream were clearly
oriented to the seas.
Possibly the lack of interest or commitment to
the inlands was because these inlands, particularly the highlands were
already occupied by another intelligent species: The Green
Men. Adapted for colder drier highland climates, the Green
Men maintained a parallel culture. Any inland human cultures
were probably confined to lowlands, with the midlands being a meeting point
between the two races. Their very different preferred habitats
and adaptations to those habitats probably kept conflicts minimal.
Beginnings of the End, or the Ends of the Beginning
What happened? At first, nothing much.
The seas receded. It appears that initially, the effects were
gradual, taking place over lifetimes. The Cities of the Orovars
and others clearly did not perceive any great crisis. They simply
built their harbours further out to the new waterlines, and over time,
may have moved their cities closer to the receding shores.
There are indications in the old ruins of docks being rebuilt further and
further out, and of neighborhoods, even cities moving or developing to
follow the shores. Sometimes cities were abandoned, and new
cities built closer to shorelines.
Obviously, people of the day weren't seeing this
as a catastrophe. In fact, there seems to be very little indication
of crisis at this point. You don't rebuild your harbours or
relocate your neighborhoods in a crisis, you abandon them.
The response of the early Martians, suggests that in its early phases the
drought was extremely gradual, with the response to it being gradual and
incremental. Instead of perceiving a problem, people made small
adjustments to their lifestyles and plans.
We don't know how long this period of gradual
decay or desiccation went on, but it may have been for a prolonged period.
There are signs of cities being abandoned and rebuilt far out onto ancient
sea beds. We can assume that over centuries, the surface area
of the seas and oceans must have diminished by a substantial amount without
the human cultures going into crisis mode.
Instead, what we would have seen over millennia
is a continual rebuilding of cities, restablishments of communities, but
an increasingly poor community. It would not just be the costs
of reconstructing cities over and over. But the sea was the highway,
it was the source of wealth and food through fishing, it was the route
for trade and commerce. Reduce the size of the seas, and more
and more areas become inaccessible, the resources available along the shores
become narrower and poorer, the quality and volume of seafood drops.
Suddenly, travel between widely separated regions,
like the three lobes of the Polar Ocean (the three northern seas) becomes
difficult or impossible. Communication with the Hellas Sea
involves increasingly longer portages over increasingly harsher territory.
Eventually communication between the seas stops. The worldwide
society of the Orovars becomes a series of isolated groups, huge groups,
but still isolated from each other.
The result, in modern terms, is something very
like a worldwide depression. The economy sputters and stalls, the
amount of wealth, the resources available, drops. The quality
of life for lower classes deteriorates. This has an effect, societies,
unable to participate, without the resources for major projects, turn inwards,
people go into holding patterns.
Necessity is often the mother of invention, and
in fact, there are signs that this period was also one of technological
progress. Certainly in the abandoned cities there are eternally
glowing lights that Martian technology can no longer manage.
The Atmosphere Plant, the great Polar Domes of Okar and Panar, the discovery
of flight and of the Eighth and Ninth Ray, the development of firearms,
must all have been taking place during this period of slow decay.
In fact, its likely that some societies remained
relatively wealthy and powerful. Even during a depression there
are rich people. This is probably the period in which Thuria
was converted to a space habitat and settled.
Nevertheless, despite occasional flashes like
this, the human civilizations of Barsoom were, at best, treading water,
or more likely on an extremely gradual, but steady, downward spiral.
Then all of a sudden, things seem to have really
gone to hell, and gone to hell rapidly.
So, What's Going On?
It was clear from this history of decline that
Barsoom's oceans and perhaps its atmosphere are slowly vanishing.
What is not clear is how or why.
We know that the Mars of our Universe once was
once a wet warm world, holding a thick atmosphere with seas and running
water. That Mars vanished forever, devolving into the
sparse dry world we know today.
So what happened to our Mars.
No one is quite sure. One theory holds that Mars was simply too small
to hold its atmosphere for any length of time, and it gradually thinned
out. A related theory argues that it was the solar winds that
ceaselessly swept the planet dry, ceaselessly wearing the upper levels
of the atmosphere. The loss of Mars magnetic field may have
contributed as well. One notion suggests that comets
and asteroids were responsible, that over time, the impacts of large meteors
would blow pieces of the atmosphere out into space.
None of these are responsible, or wholly responsible
for the transformation of Barsoom during this period. Simply
put, they would take too long. For a gradual thinning of the
atmosphere, or a sweeping of the solar winds, we would require millions
of years and tens of millions, not the thousands or tens of thousands that
As for a comet or asteroid blowing away the atmosphere,
you'd require either an object so large it would wipe Barsoom clean of
life, or alternately an unending succession, an assembly line of impacts.
Neither of these could possibly escape notice.
It may be that Barsoom's magnetic field had waned
at around this time. The immediate effect of such a waning
would be more hard solar radiation hitting the planet. In the
oceans this would have resulted in a runaway oxidation of the seas, as
radiation would have broken apart the molecular bonds, liberating hydrogen
and oxygen. The hydrogen, an extremely light gas, would be prone
to escaping, the oxygen atoms would combine, forming more oxygen.
The problem with this possibility is that such
radiation would have sterilized much of the surface. Bacteria
would have died off, as would the leafy plants, and even the animals.
All at once. Had the magnetic field failed, most of the life
on the planet would be gone long before the oceans.
So what actually happened? We can
It is possible that around this time, gradual
natural processes had thinned the atmosphere to the point where a cascade
began to take place. Lower the air pressure, and water boils
more easily. It sublimates into atmospheric vapor more quickly.
So what we may have is a situation where an air pressure threshold was
reached, so gradually that living things and the Barsoomians may never
have noticed. At the same time, the magnetic field might have
diminished, but not vanished, again, in a way that life on the surface
might have tolerated, but which had severe effects on the oceans.
If this was occurring, the oceans might well have
started to bleed off. The effects on life would be unnoticeable.
Increased solar radiation might have made it harder on plants, but then
again, the atmosphere was humid and had more oxygen, so plants and animals
would have thrived. Meanwhile, the freed hydrogen and oxygen atoms
of the oceans water molecules would be drifting to the upper atmosphere
and blown away on the solar wind. Barsoom's seeming prosperity,
despite the withering of the oceans, would be the planet literally eating
its seed corn, a one way process.
But still, this seems too slow. Perhaps
natural processes were at work. Perhaps what we were looking
at was a Barsoomian Ice Age.
In fact, on Earth, if all the water in the Greenland
ice cap melted, the Earth's water levels would rise dozens of feet.
If all the water in Antarctica melted, the water would go up well over
200 feet. It is estimated that the Ice Age glaciations of Europe
and North America caused the worlds oceans to fall by hundreds of feet.
Consider that both of Barsoom's polar ice caps
were fixed structures. Once water gets locked up in them, its
hard to leave. Antarctica on Earth is constantly calving huge
ice bergs off its glacial shelves. The Barsoomian and Martian
south poles are on highlands in a dry land area. So there is
nothing to carry away icebergs and spread water around. Instead,
Ice simply piles up and piles up.
The north polar ice cap is also a highland, but
surrounded by water. It is likely to behave like Antarctica.
But the lower gravity of Barsoom has a price. On Earth, glaciers
and ice caps wither under the pressure of Earth's gravity.
The higher and more massive they get, the more gravity forces them to crawl,
the massive channels of ice behaving like slow rivers. As the
ice builds up, the glaciers march south, spreading across the northern
parts of Europe, Siberia and North America. And of course,
once on land, they are slow to dissipate, because there are no currents
to steal away the waters.
Mars gravity is only 38% of Earth's, which suggests
that the ice caps could mount more than twice as high, and would move more
slowly. The northern ice cap is not floating but fixed to the
surface, only its edges break off. So its entirely possible
that the northern ice cap could wind up storing immense volumes of water
without spreading nearly as far across the north. The landlocked
south cap would also store water quite high, without sprawling spreading
Under this view, a Barsoomian ice age might not
be as apparent as Earth's ice age. We don't have glaciers marching
over Europe and North America. Instead, the glaciers simply
sit up at the poles, soaking up water from the planets hydrological cycle
like a pair of giant sponges. The temperature at the poles
drops savagely, the temperature in the northern latitudes drops massively.
But the equatorial and temperate latitudes might notice very little difference.
The highlands might find harsh conditions, thinning
out life and forcing the green men to adapt to a more marginal existence,
but the temperate lowlands are where most of the human population lies.
They might well notice very little more than that the oceans are dropping
steadily over the centuries, which is a cause for concern, but on the bright
side, the Green Men are a lot less troublesome.
In fact, there might be scope for further catastrophe.
Was this an ice age produced by natural processes? We don't
know what triggers an ice age on Earth, so we can't be sure for Barsoom.
One suggestion is that Ice Ages are linked towards
periods of low intensity in the sun. It's a fairly naked chain of
cause and effect, less heat from the sun, colder planets, and therefore
ice ages. If this is correct, then it suggests that Barsoom
and Earth went in and out of Ice Ages at about the same time.
Or ice ages may be linked to other more subtle
effects. Perhaps a profusion of plants produces too much oxygen
and locks up too much carbon dioxide. With less carbon dioxide,
the atmosphere traps less heat, the planet gets colder, the polar caps
start to build. Of course, these things usually produce feedback
loops. So with plants doing poorly, they stop locking up as
much carbon dioxide, animals release more carbon dioxide, and greenhouse
gases build up again, warming the planet.
But there are all sorts of feedback loops at work
on a planet, and some of them can run away on you. It
gets cold, for instance, a lot of ice and snow winds up at the poles and
doesn't melt. The poles become cold spots that act like natural
refrigerators, freezing out water vapour in their regions. Some of
this water vapour falls away from the poles and melts. Some
of it falls on the poles and doesn't melt. Inevitably, the
polar caps keep on building and growing until they pitch the whole planet
into a deep freeze.
In short, the system is stable and self correcting
most of the time... Except occasionally when it isn't.
Or there might have been a different kind of trigger
for the Barsoomian Ice Age: Nuclear Winter.
All right, primitive Barsoomians did not have
nuclear weapons. But if you take a look at the map of the solar system,
you'll notice that they are parked next to a very big asteroid belt, with
lots of loose rocks. So the odds are pretty good, much better
than Earth's, that one of those rocks will wander on out and whack Barsoom.
So imagine a really big rock, a small asteroid
or comet, comes along and slams into Barsoom. Odds are it hits
the ocean, in which case, you get immense tsunamis which disrupt the north
polar ocean civilizations, paving the way for the Orovar to come in and
But there's more to it than that.
The comet disrupts the atmosphere, blowing off a small but measurable chunk
into space. It disrupts weather patterns. Worse of all,
it kicks massive amounts of water vapor and debris up into the upper atmosphere
which reflects sunlight away, causing temperatures to drop.
This water vapor condenses at the pole around the ice cap, perhaps even
creating an ice cap, but either way, causing it to expand rapidly.
The ice cap starts trapping water, lowering ocean levels even after the
effects of the comet vanish. Even if the ice cap hits on land,
the dust kicked up will shield the planet from light, dropping the temperature
and spurring the expansion of the poles, although more slowly.
But of course, Earth has had comet strikes and
its had ice ages, and we've recovered quite nicely. Probably
so did Barsoom, every time except this last one. So why, what
made this ice age so much more devastating?
Well, Mars is a much smaller planet than Earth,
with a quarter of its surface area and one sixteenth its volume.
So its entirely possible that smaller effects might have a much bigger
And there is one special wrinkle which might make
a Barsoomian ice age particularly risky: The poles get so cold that carbon
dioxide freezes out of the atmosphere.
This is dangerous, because carbon dioxide
is a greenhouse gas. Take too much out, and not only are you
thinning the atmosphere, but you are trapping less heat and cooling the
planet. Which means that more water and carbon dioxide winds
up at the poles, the atmosphere gets thinner and colder, water sublimates
to vapour more quickly, which means that more water and carbon dioxide
wind up at the pole, thinning and chilling the atmosphere.... And
so on, and so forth, until you've got a runaway ice age emptying the oceans
and rendering the atmosphere unbreathable. And at some point,
natural chemical and thermal processes would do the rest in a relentless
cascade until the planet was dry as a bone and the atmosphere was a lifeless
wisp... The Mars we know now.
So, maybe Barsoom's luck simply ran out, and it
had an ice age, like others it had endured and overcome. But this
time, the bullet had its name on it, the poles got just a little too cold,
a little too big, the chain reaction set in, and there was no way to stop
it. Sometimes its just your time.
The reality is that the fate of Barsoom was probably
a combination to some degree of all these factors: Reduced
solar output, more radiation getting through a weakened magnetic field,
an atmosphere thinned to near tipping point by millions of years of solar
wind, gravity loss and meteor strikes, perhaps one big meteor or asteroid
hit to start the ice age ball rolling with particular intensity, or possibly
the strike or a second strike, coming later to push things right over the
It is likely that in each previous ice age, some
of these factors had not quite been in play. The planet shook wobbled
and recovered, its poles melting and releasing their water and carbon dioxide
back, the planet warming up and recovering. But not this time.
This time, Barsoom had the perfect storm, all the ducks lined up in a row,
all the worst factors combining at the worst times....
And the result was a slow fall of the oceans over
centuries and millennia, until some cascade point was reached, the chain
reaction set in, and it all hit the fan.
We know, from the legends and histories, that
after a long period of slow drought, of oceans declining slowly, suddenly,
something went terribly wrong.
The histories change. Now they record
the oceans literally vanishing overnight, the drop in water levels both
dramatic and relentless, too fast for cities to simply relocate.
The result was a worldwide economic crisis as transportation and communication
simply ceased. Large areas were isolated, thrown upon their own resources
to survive, their means of livelihood simply gone.
Barsoomian cities and towns had likely subsisted
on a combination of agriculture and fishing, and suddenly, both of these
were in crisis. The continued decline of the ocean and seas effectively
ended fishing as well as trade as economic activities. To make
matters worse, drought and cold weather brought about massive crop failures.
The crisis likely did not hit the planet immediately
and all at once. Most likely, it was a rolling crisis, hitting
one area, destabilizing it, and then as conditions worsened, hitting another
area which had already been burdened by refugees from the preceding area.
The progression was probably similar to the Yugoslav
civil wars in the '90s. First the Croatians revolted, then
after they had won independence, the Slovenians rose up, and then after
that, Bosnia went up in flames, the war moved south to Servia and finally
wound up in Kosovo. Or perhaps a better example might
be our society, where we watch Africa disintegrate on the nightly news,
patiently observing the chaos spread to the muslim world and from there
to asia, confident that it will not wind up on our shores.
On Barsoom, it first hit the Green Men of the
Highlands, then devastated the Okars of the north, moved south to disrupt
the First Born and Orovars of the lowlands and coasts, and then crossed
the equator to finally destroy the Orovars of Hellas.
The Green Men, having adapted to the harsh conditions
as well as they could and having rebuilt their numbers, were forced by
thinning air and spreading deserts to sweep down from the highlands, trying
to re-establish themselves at lower elevations.
This brought them into direct conflict with the
Orovars, First Born and Okar, all of whom were paralyzed by crisis.
Bereft of food, their harbours gone, defenses compromised, short even on
water, city after city was overrun, the inhabitants massacred.
Survivors and refugees grouped into large mobile columns or swarms, looking
The Okar found their situation most precarious.
Northern lowlanders, and therefore highly vulnerable to weather changes,
their habitats and crops collapsed first and earliest. This meant
they were the first and most vulnerable to the green man hordes.
City after city of their nation collapsed, with untold numbers killed.
Refugees streamed north and south. The northern refugees eventually
finding their way into the Carrion Caves and out of history, building their
The Okar refugees moving south were followed by
Green Man hordes and progressive environmental collapse from receding seas,
failing crops and fisheries, and the cessation of trade and communication.
They mixed with populations of Orovars and First born in huge masses of
Cities were abandoned, and populations fled over
dried sea beds, looking for a promised land, or at least a place to make
a stand. Civilization was in a state of collapse throughout
the northern hemisphere, and all contact was lost with the Thuria colony.
The Toonolian Marshes, a well watered valley complex
in the north became another refuge, with cities of Toonol and Phundahl
absorbing huge numbers of refugees, but beating back the hordes of Green
Martians. Another city uniquely able to defend itself was Gathol,
on its sheltered sea mountain.
The collapse was not uniform everywhere.
In the southern hemisphere, it happened later and more slowly, and some
areas managed to survive almost unscathed.
The sea of Torquas in the Hellas basin was the
deepest on Barsoom, and surrounded by highlands. It's deterioration
was steady, but not quite as rapid as the polar sea. The Orovars
of Torquas began a desperate project to reverse the desiccation of the
planet, building a giant atmosphere plant to pump carbon back into the
atmosphere and stabilize the planetary environment.
But even as the plant was being built, the Orovar
were disintegrating under the pressure of water loss, crop failures, their
cities collapsing and both hordes of fleeing refugees seeking shelter and
green men seeking new lands. Only a few isolated redoubts of
the Orovars, hiding in mountain and hill country, survived the onslaught.
The First Born were similarly wiped out, surviving
only in the hidden Kamtol valley, and in an Iss Cult based in and around
the hidden sea of Omean at the south pole.
Also in the Southern Hemisphere, in the Argyre
Basin, the sea of Korus was completely cut off by the desiccation of regions
beyond the Otz mountains. The high steep rings of the Otz mountains
formed a barrier preventing moisture and water vapour from escaping.
The Korus/Dor region became an Island of Stability.
The Kaldanes of Bantoom survived in their microclimate
and in their underground warrens, managing to create a self sustaining
The Barsoomian humans were reduced to luckless
nomads, bands of refugees constantly moving across the drying sea beds,
harried by the Green Men, struggling to find places to make a stand and
re-establish their cities.
The ceaseless migration and ethnic mixing brought
about the emergence of the Red Men, best adapted to survive in these new,
cold and dry conditions.
By John Carter's time, the planet seems to hover
on the knife's edge. The atmosphere plant appears to be keeping
the world from the precipice, pumping out enough carbon dioxide and oxygen
to keep the greenhouse effect going and maintaining stable planetary conditions.
The temporary shutdown of the Atmosphere plant
at the end of A Princess of Mars, however, resulted in the planetary
system plummeting. Without the replenishment of greenhouse
gases, planetary temperatures dropped, carbon dioxide rapidly froze out
of the atmosphere at the poles in a runaway effect and the air began to
thin dramatically, almost to the point where human life was incapacitated.
The resumption of activity of the plant created
a warm greenhouse bubble which diffused, eventually sending warm winds
to the poles and liberating the frozen carbon dioxide, stabilizing the
atmosphere once again.
However, this incident clearly shows us that the
planet is well into its cascade, and is only artificially stabilized.
Left to itself, it will simply finish its cascade, drying and thinning
Shape of Modern Barsoom
Much of what we know of as modern Barsoom was
shaped during this period of crisis. The rise of the Red Men
as the dominant human race, the fall and near extinction of the Tur Cult,
the rise of the Iss Cult, and the emergence of a common language are obvious
But it goes further than that. The
shift of Barsoom, both politically and psychologically, from Empires or
Nation States to stand alone City States occurred during this time.
Partly it was a symptom of resource collapse which left only oasis of relatively
productive territory in large desolate regions. But it was also a
psychological shift of loyalty away from nations and ethnic groups to tightly
woven warrior bands defending their oasis.
City states became the dominant political unit,
with most social and political loyalty fixing around the City states.
Even the political expansion of those states across large territories,
as with the empires of Zodanga, Helium and Ptarth, have not eroded this
social and political loyalty. Thus, for a Zodangan, Zodanga
was his city, and not the areas it controlled. A resident of
a city under Heliumatic control, such as Zor or Hastor, were first and
foremost Zorites or Hastorites. For the people of the Roman
Empire, Rome became contiguous with a large part of the Empire and Roman
citizens were born and lived everywhere from Italy, to Gaul to Iberia and
North Africa. For the Heliumatic, only a citizen of Helium
itself was truly part of the Heliumatic Empire. Other city
states were simply subjects or tribute givers.
This is changing, with Helium, Jahar and Ptarth
becoming super-city states ruling over other cities and large areas, and
at least some common ‘national’ feeling. But the concept
of nations as a social unit or motivating force remains weak.
Individual morals and values elevate the cult
of the warrior to primacy within Barsoomian society. This is atavistic
in the extreme, as warriors in a stable society are often next to criminals.
It is notable that Barsoomian society does not place either merchants or
traders, farmers or herders, scientists or explorers in any particular
With respect to scientists for instance, Ras Thavas
is a perennial exile from his home city of Toonol, rather than its leading
citizen. Phor Tak is driven near to madness, Fal Sivas is an eccentric
and disreputable character. Not a well venerated lot.
Nor is any other trade given any sort of attention in the Martian series.
But in a civilized context, a warrior is a trained
killer a destabilizing force. Martian societies are so rife with
assassins that people sleep in fortified or elevated homes.
Assassins are such a destabilizing force that John Carter himself seeks
to purge them from Zodanga in Swords of Mars. Meanwhile, it appears
that the default trade of young men is that of the ‘Pathan’ or mercenary
Well, think this through. A society
that elevates its warriors above its scientists is saying something about
the skill which it values, it values prowess over knowledge.
A society that elevates its warriors over its traders is also making a
statement about which skill it values, and is saying that it prefers fighting
and plunder, acts of murder and theft, to acts of peace and trade.
Neither of these particularly fit in an advanced
society like Barsoom's which has gravity sleds and projectile weapons.
The swordsman in normal society is an atavistic relic, he is a product
and an expression of a chaotic broken society. There is a social
disconnect at work, particularly when we see merchants and scientists having
more actual power or wealth than warriors, but less social status.
The veneration of the Warrior in Barsoomian society
carries with it toxic consequences, including runaway crime and assassination.
It also promotes and venerates war, even when this is not in the nation's
The only thing similar in terrestrial terms is
the veneration of the Cowboy or Samurai in American and Japanese societies,
but the Barsoomians carry it to an extreme degree. It is as
if most male Americans and Japanese fancied themselves gunslingers or samurai,
walked around with pistols and swords, and regularly shot or hacked each
The warrior and the warrior way was essential
to the survival of the Barsoomian humans during the time of crisis, and
essential to the establishment of the modern city states. There
is no question of that. However, Barsoomian society has clearly
stabilized since that time, and the cult of the warrior is now increasingly
counterproductive and overemphasized.
The emphasis on war and warriors clearly
spells out a pre-eminence and greater status for conquest and looting.
During the period of the crisis, trade and peace was impossible.
No one had anything to trade. Groups attacked and conquered each
other, plundering each other for shares of dwindling resources.
War and plunder is the natural state of the Barsoomian civilization in
But despite it all, Barsoom is no longer in crisis,
the cities have achieved stability and security, and trade and cooperation
would seem to be in the cities long term interests. Yet there
is only erratic evidence for inter-city trade, for the most part, they
are isolated armed camps, hostile and suspicious of each other.
This may well be seriously counterproductive, since cooperation and peace
may be their only way of restoring their shattered world.
In the long run, peaceful trade between City States
would greatly enlarge the economies of all. However, this is
minimal, and most Barsoomian city states are armed camps constantly prepared
for war. This commitment to war, and lack of trade, means that their
economies are likely smaller and poorer than they should be.
Isolationism is rampant. Barsoom's
major city states are all strongly isolationist, to the point where they
do not know all that much about each other. Jahar and Gathol
are only imperfectly known in Helium. Even worse, some city
states are so strongly isolationist that they are literally in hiding from
the rest of Barsoom, concealing their existence, in this category, we have
Kamtol and Omean of the First Born, Okar and Panar at the north pole, the
cities of Invak and Onvak, the hidden valley of Ghasta.
The trend to isolationism comes when every other
organized group is an enemy or potential enemy on a dying world.
When no ally can reach you in time to render assistance. The
trend to concealment and invisibility comes about when you are surrounded
by powerful enemies and the only hope is to avoid attention. Barsoom
is a world of fortresses and hidden fortresses.
But many other Barsoomian social features appear
to date back to the time of crisis. The Barsoomian institution
of slavery appears to have more than a few resemblances to Medieval feudalism,
or Indian kidnappings, and rather less resemblance to chattel slavery.
Historically, during the crisis period, imposing
and accepting slavery was the alternative to simply executing prisoners
of war. Entering into slavery, either voluntarily or by surrendering
after conquest, also offered safety and security to those without power.
In turn, accepting slaves seemed to create personal bonds of almost feudal
The system of Jeds and Jeddaks also speaks to
a feudal, or quasi-military social organization which likely found its
current form during the period of crisis, when strong leaders and war-lords
ruled. The pre-crisis Barsoom probably saw a diversity of forms
of government, including Democracy. The post-crisis Barsoom
sees almost no diversity of government or social organization beyond the
feudal rule of Jed and Jeddak. (The theocratic governments of First
Born and Thern seem the sole exception). As in Europe, we seem
to witness a slow transition of power from Jeds or feudal lords, to Jeddaks
or absolute monarchies. However, on Barsoom, this transition
seems much slower and far from uniform.
Most of modern Barsoom seems to enjoy a level
of technology, and in particular, cities enjoy a level of mechanization
and creature comfort that would appear to make slavery unnecessary.
Yet it remains a staple feature of Barsoomian society.
The emphasis on honour, on personal loyalty and
oaths, the famous Barsoomian fatalism, are all symptoms of a society that
came all too close to barbarism and extinction.
Even the technology of modern Barsoom seems a
legacy of this period of crisis, with the applications and adaptations
of that technology being unchanged. Significant technology
seems derived from the Thuria Colony project. Thus, the life
support technology became the basis of both the Okar and Panar Domes and
the Atmosphere Plant, and the anti-gravity technology became the basis
of the flying sleds that tried to replace sailing ships.
Oddly however, there was a remarkable lack of
innovation after the crisis period. Stop for a few minutes
and imagine the variety of ways and applications for which workable anti-gravity
systems can be used. So far as we can determine, they are only
used for sleds and ships for warriors and travellers. There is barely
any indication of cargo anti-gravity ships, and only minimal exploration
and science expeditions.
Not only was technology shaped by the Crisis,
but he use and application of this technology was frozen. For
much of the subsequent history, until the time of the Warlord, there was
no refinement or adaptation of existing technology, no new applications,
no new research. This is, perhaps to be expected from a culture which
shows a contempt for science and technology, and for scientists and technologists,
and which elevates the warrior to pride of place.
The society of Barsoom is similar to a child whose
life has been subject to a horrible trauma, and who then grows up shaped
by and defined by, reacting to that trauma, whose behaviour and actions
are guided by the memory of that trauma, even where those behaviours and
actions are not successful or appropriate in adult life.
In short, religion, language, city-states, systems
of government, institutions like slavery, systems of warfare, lack of interest
in trade or science, emphasis on warrior ethos and codes of personal bravery
and prowess, as well as fatalism, current Barsoomian society is the direct
result of, and was directly shaped by the crisis of millennia ago.
Barsoom's Fate Inevitable?
Not at all. If we are correct in that
what Barsoom is experiencing is a runaway ice age on the verge of catastrophic
desiccation, then it should be possible to reverse the phenomena.
How? More and larger atmosphere plants.
Liberate even more carbon dioxide, and pump the oxygen, nitrogen and other
gases trapped in the soil and rock back up into the atmosphere. With
a thicker atmosphere with more carbon dioxide, you've got much more of
a greenhouse effect. The planet gets warmer.
You reach a tipping point of warmth where the
frozen carbon dioxide and other atmosphere components trapped at the poles
are liberated, and things start to get really warm, particularly in the
polar and sub-polar regions. The ice caps start to melt.
Build giant canal systems to carry water and ice
slush away from the south and north poles, accelerating the liberation
of polar water. Barsoom becomes wet. The seas return.
The rains fall.
Then, places like Kamtol, Dor, Ghasta, the
Toonolian Marshes, the Kaolian and Invak forests are used to reseed plant
and animal species all over Barsoom.
The dying world lives again.
Exactly the way it was?
No, unfortunately not. There is no
way to bring back extinct plant and animal species, and Barsoom has suffered
a crushing mass extinction. The various ecological ‘islands’
or ‘refuges’ can only offer a fraction, perhaps twenty or thirty per cent
of the species which may once have existed. In particular, the ocean
species may be all but totally extinct. There are not a lot
of fish species left on Barsoom.
The atmosphere will remain thinner and colder
and at higher risk of catastrophic ice age chain reactions.
Partly, this is because some of the atmosphere has been permanently lost,
boiled away into space as the air pressure thinned. And some of it
is locked away in chemical reactions in the soil. It will take millennia
for Barsoom's plant life to liberate those some of those chemicals and
gases back into the air.
And the Ocean and Seas will never quite return.
As the air thinned, the waters of the seas sublimated to vapours, some
of which wound up at the poles, some of which made it into the upper atmosphere.
There in the upper atmosphere, hydrogen split from oxygen, and free atoms,
far lighter than the rest of the atmosphere rose to the top and were rapidly
carried away by the solar winds. Barsoom may have about 50% of its
original seas and ocean back, perhaps more, perhaps less.
Of course, there is a risky means of restoring
the oceans. Assuming that Barsoomians are prepared to invest
in a major space program, a worldwide undertaking, they could travel out
to the Jovian system, or beyond, to liberate icebergs from the outer solar
system and drop them back on Mars. In fact, Isaac Asimov wrote
about this with Terrestrial colonists on Mars in the Martian Way.
They'd have to be careful about accidentally setting off another ice age.
But conceivably, through sustained careful effort over millennia, Barsoom
could be restored to something closer to its former glory.
The question is not could it be done.
The technology is there already, for millennia the Barsoomians have maintained
an atmosphere plant, have built and maintained canals, and have even possessed
the capacity for interplanetary travel and large scale engineering.
But rather, the real question is, ‘Can Barsoomian
society in its present form, accomplish these tasks?’ The answer,
is, unfortunately no. In the millennia of time since the Orovars,
no Barsoomian City State has husbanded the resources and wealth, the time
and the manpower, to build a second atmosphere plant.
In fact, such a titanic project may well be beyond
the financial and technical resources of any city state, even Helium.
Individual city states may simply be too small to afford the costs, or
to be able to marshall the resources and manpower necessary.
Even if one was so wealthy that it could, there is no certainty that such
a city state would be situated in the right place, geographically, or with
access to the right natural resources, to make it work.
Even were a city state as powerful and wealthy
as Helium to make the attempt, such an effort might consume a measurable
fraction of its wealth and power, weakening it militarily.
Thus, in attempting to save Barsoom by building a second atmosphere plant,
Helium merely makes it easy prey for its enemies.
This is the catch 22 found by every other city
state on Barsoom. They must devote a large proportion of their
resources simply to defending themselves from their enemies.
Trade is minimal between City states, which limits their economies.
Wealth and power is obtained through the plunder of weaker city states,
the capture of slaves in war, and similar means.
In short, the Barsoomian city states are a series
of armed camps, devoting all their resources to defending themselves, prepared
at a moments notice to plunder each other, with limited populations and
The ability to make a commitment to the large
scale projects which might restore Barsoom simply does not exist.
This is the tragic legacy of the Barsoomian crisis.
It has so thoroughly transformed and shaped modern Barsoomian society that
now, even where opportunities exist, the Barsoomians are culturally, socially,
politically and economically incapable of taking advantage of the planet.
The situation has stabilized, and even improved.
But the Barsoomians culture is locked in crisis mode, and they cannot move
The Barsoomians, some of them at least, even realize
this themselves. Dejah Thoris delivers an impassioned
speech to the Green Martians on the opportunity to work together to save
the planet which leaves them astonished and nonplused. One
gets the feeling that even in Helium, Dejah Thoris’ speech might have received
a similar reaction.
Dejah Thoris’ expedition in the Princess of Mars
was a rare science/exploration expedition to map air currents.
In fact, it is the only major science project undertaken by a city state
that we encounter in the entire Martian series. The presence
of Dejah Thoris on this expedition suggests that it may have been a pet
project for her.
(Other notable science projects, such as Ras Thavas,
Phor Tak and Fal Sivas, are undertaken by individuals with varying levels
of commitment from their states. Ras Thavas, for instance,
is exiled by Toonol. Fal Sivas is a lone wolf. Phor Tak
worked for Jahar, but the relationship is perilous and they live in fear
of each other.)
Of course, where there is life, there is hope.
The rise of individuals like Ras Thavas, Phor Tak, Fal Sivas and others
suggest that Barsoomian society was changing, even before the Warlord,
at least to the extent of making room for scientists and savants to shake
up the established orders. Dejah Thoris in her remarkable speech,
expresses the vision that things can be made different.
The Warlord himself, offers some hope, for Barsoom
to save itself. During John Carter's time, he has helped to
unite Thark and Warhoon and ally them to Helium, he has brought down the
Zodangan’s, elevating Helium to literally a planetary superpower.
Through conquest and valor, he has made allies of the Omean and Okar.
Through marriages, he has allied Helium with Ptarth and Gathol.
In short, John Carter has a possibly brief window,
where he has become the one man capable of uniting a large enough proportion
of Barsoom's population and resources to allow it to save itself.
John Carter and Dejah Thoris may be the last hope
of Barsoom, as to whether this hope came to anything, that book has yet
to be written.