Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote science fiction.
I know it doesn't seem that way now, it's all an unending assortment of
lost races, hidden civilizations, strangely implausible planets and biologies.
It doesn't seem like science fiction at all, but some species of adventure
fantasy, with a few glossings of '30s pseudo-science jargon. But
then, he was a man of his time, and as hard as it is to believe, he often
wrote to and with the science of the day in mind.
When Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars
reputable scientists really did believe that there were channels on Mars,
and some astronomers, such as Percival Lowell, freely speculated that they
were the product of intelligent life. His Barsoom followed
closely upon the theories of Lowell, so closely at points, that perhaps
Burroughs should have given Lowell some credit. His Green Men
were one of the first sympathetic portraits of genuine, and even plausible,
true aliens. These were beings whose lives he took the time to explain,
but whose histories and personal life cycles, despite being inhuman were
depicted as real. These creatures lived their lives on their
Burroughs Amtor reflected in part the ambiguous
state of knowledge as to what might be on Venus. Pellucidar
was a crackpot notion, even in his time, but the notion of an inner world
had its proponents and he saw the fertile for a grand yarn, or series of
yarns. Burroughs paid enough attention to science to realize that
the surface of the Moon was uninhabited and uninhabitable.
But having placed a hollow world inside the Earth, he could allow himself
to do it for the Moon.
For Beyond the Farthest Star, he consulted
an Astronomer and carefully designed a ring of worlds, sharing an orbital
atmosphere, a notion not too far from Larry Niven's ‘Smoke Ring.’
But of course, for Burroughs, the science served
the tale. His object was to create an exotic location, and
his researches in the astronomy, physics, paleontology and even meteorology
of the day served to build his worlds. But if science ruled
his world impossible, he was prepared to bend it, as long as he could make
it seem plausible.
He isn't alone in this. Science fiction
regularly embraces the impossible, bending the rules we know to allow for
stories about gray aliens and faster than light travel and a dozen other
things. The point is to make it plausible.
Science fiction is all about taking an idea and
exploring it. With his Caprona stories, he took an archaic
but current evolutionary notion of 'ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny',
that is, that an embryo goes through all the evolutionary stages, and played
it large. But deep down, he was using what was then believed to be
science as the springboard for his story. It was a bold concept,
and in some ways an inherently ridiculous one, but he launched into it
fearlessly and crafted a trilogy of rousing tales.
When he got to Jupiter....
Let's just say, the Master winced.
John Carter Gets
The last novella of the Barsoom series, Skeleton
Men of Jupiter, published in John Carter of Mars, begins with his protagonist,
Carter, shamefacedly apologizing for the yarn he is about to participate
“I AM NO SCIENTIST. I am a fighting man.
.... of the scientists. They are constantly abandoning one theory for another
one.... Theories come and theories go -- scientific theories.
The law of gravitation is about the only theory that has held throughout
my lifetime -- and if the earth should suddenly start rotating seventeen
times faster than it now does, even the law of gravitation would fail us
and we would all go sailing off into space. I recall that there was
once a theory that Time and Space moved forward constantly in a straight
line. There was also a theory that neither Time nor Space existed
-- it was all in your mind's eye. Then came the theory that Time
and Space curved in upon themselves. Tomorrow, some scientist may
show us reams and reams of paper and hundreds of square feet of blackboard
covered with equations, formulae, signs, symbols, and diagrams to
prove that Time and Space curve out away from themselves. Then our
theoretic universe will come tumbling about our ears, and we shall have
to start all over again from scratch.”
We know we're going to be asked to swallow a whopper
when our narrator starts taking gratuitous kicks at the law of gravity.
“Like many fighting men, I am inclined
to be credulous concerning matters outside my vocation; or at least I used
to be. I believed whatever the scientists said. Long ago, I believed with
Flammarion that Mars was habitable and inhabited; then a newer and more
reputable school of scientists convinced me that it was
And now, our narrator is cajoling, reminding us that
we swallowed him and his world so far, and its been a rewarding experience.
neither. Without losing hope, I was yet forced
to believe them until I came to Mars to live. They still insist that Mars
is neither habitable nor inhabited, but I live here.”
“In the adventure that I am about to
narrate, fact and theory will again cross swords. I hate to do this to
my long-suffering scientific friends, but...”
Okay, he puts his cards down on the table and tells
us that its unbelievable, but what the hell, come along for the ride anyway.
So, what is so unbelievable, so absolutely catastrophically
preposterous that Burroughs is kicking holes in physics, dissing space
and time, cajoling, bribing and finally fessing up? It's very
Human life on
Snap Goes the Suspension of Disbelief
“My passing reference to scientists started
me to thinking of the vast accumulation of theories I was about to see
shattered when I landed on Jupiter within the next twenty-four hours. It
certainly must be habitable for a race quite similar to our own. These
people had lungs, a heart, kidneys, a liver, and other internal organs
similar to our own. I knew this for a fact, as I could see them every time
one of the Morgors stood between me and a bright light, so thin and transparent
was the parchment-like skin that stretched tightly over their frames.
Once more the scientists would be wrong. I felt sorry for them.”
Burroughs first tactic, having let us know what we
were in for, is to come out boldly and say: “Okay, yes its preposterous
and lunatic, but there are definitely people from Jupiter, because you're
looking at them!”
But now that he goes on the attack, he makes a
good try, pointing out that our modern theories are only the most modern
notions of science, and that quite possibly they shall be superseded, even
as past theories were. So he begs us to allow the possibility that
if our science does not yet admit to the possibility, that some sort of
possibility still exists in the future. “Science is fallible,”
he argues, “but my Jupiter men are obviously real in this story, because
they've just kidnapped John Carter.”
“They have been wrong so many times and
had to eat humble pie. There were those scientists, for instance, who clung
to the Ptolemaic System of the universe; and who, after Galileo had discovered
four of the moons of Jupiter in 1610, argued that such pretended discoveries
were absurd, their argument being that since we have seven openings in
the head -- two ears, two eyes, two nostrils, and a month, there could
be in the heavens but seven planets. Having dismissed Galileo's absurd
pretensions in this scientific manner, they caused him to be thrown into
Of course, there's an art to gentling the reader
along. All writing, particularly good writing, is about getting
the reader to suspend his disbelief, whether its in the Witches of Eastwick,
Jude the Obscure or Conan. All writing is inherently about
the unreal, and good writing persuades the reader to stop realizing that
it is unreal, and simply join the story.
But as I've said, there's an art to it.
You cannot just demand the reader's acquiescence, and you can't simply
ignore the subject.
“Gorgeous Jupiter loomed before
me in all his majestic immensity. Five of his planets were plainly visible
in the heavens. I could even see the tiny one closest to him, which is
only thirty miles in diameter. During the ensuing two days, I saw, or at
least I thought I saw, all of the remaining five moons. And Jupiter grew
larger and more imposing.”
One of the ways that you do it is to throw in some
real astronomy, referring to the five inner moons of Jupiter, dropping
a few facts here and there. Burroughs is telling the reader, “I'm
not making it all up, look, this is real! And this!
“Although Jupiter rotates upon its axis
in less than ten hours, its day is for eternity. U Dan and
I learned much concerning conditions on the planet from Zan Dar. He told
us of the vast warm seas which seethed in constant tidal agitation
resulting from the constantly changing positions of the four larger moons
which revolve about Jupiter in forty-two hours, eighty-five hours,
one hundred seventy-two hours, and four hundred hours respectively
while the planet spins upon its axis, making a complete revolution
in nine hours and fifty-five minutes.”
It's like a spoon full of sugar with the medicine.
A coating of good science makes the bad stuff go down easier, it's just
human nature. In one sense, these passages are not necessary
to the story. In another sense, they're critical: Burroughs
is showing us that he's done his homework, thus, he knows what he's talking
about. It's an invitation to trust him...
“We were approaching him at the very
considerable speed of twenty-three miles per second, but were still
some two million miles distant. Freed from the monotony of language
lessons, my mind was once more enslaved to my curiosity. How could
life exist upon a planet which one school of scientific thought claimed
to have a surface temperature of two hundred and sixty degrees below
zero and which another school was equally positive was still in a half
molten condition and so hot that gases rose as hot vapor into its thick,
warm atmosphere to fall as incessant rain? How could human life exist
in an atmosphere made up largely of ammonia and methane gases? And
what of the effect of the planet's terrific gravitational pull? Would
my legs be able to support my weight? If I fell down, would I be
able to rise again?”
Again, Burroughs is showing off, showing that he
has done his homework. But his work is cut out for him.
Cleverly, he is using John Carter to express the reader's doubts.
It's a neat trick, because the reader identifies with John Carter.
Through the course of adventure, John Carter's thoughts are our thoughts,
except here, Burroughs has reversed the equation. Our thoughts have
become John Carter's thoughts. Burroughs has neatly roped the reader
into the story, and he plays us out like a fish on a line, letting his
character voice our doubts, all the while, preparing to reel us back in.
“However, here I was, and conditions
were not at all as the scientists had described. Unquestionably,
the mass of Jupiter is far greater than that of earth or Mars, yet
I felt the gravitational pull far less than I had upon earth. It
was even less than that which I had experienced upon Mars. This was
due, I realized, to the rapid revolution of the planet upon its axis.
Centrifugal force, tending to throw me off into space, more than
outweighed the increased force of gravitation. I had never before felt
so light upon my feet. I was intrigued by contemplation of the height
and distances to which I might jump.”
Centrifugal force? Since when does John
Carter sit there and make theories, he simply acts. Nope, its Burroughs
standing just behind John pulling a double whammy. First he's
gentled us by having John Carter voice our doubts for us. Then John
says... “Well, but whatever my doubts, here I am!” Usually
that would work, but this is too big a whopper. So then John
sweetens the deal with some bits on centrifugal force lightening the apparent
feeling of gravity.
Does it work? Mmmm maybe.
I'm no physicist so I can't say that it is impossible. We know
that you can use centrifugal force to supply artificial gravity, and in
fact, many science fiction stories, even of this time used such a device.
So we're halfway there. Burroughs knows this, so he's skillfully,
or desperately taken this notion and turned it on its head.
And admittedly, there's a certain plausibility
to it. Jupiter has ten times the diameter of Earth, a hundred
times its circumference, and yet it makes its rotation in less than half
a day. Jupiter is clocking!
Of course, to get the rotation speed necessary
to have Jupiter's gravity reduced to Earth or Martian levels, I suspect
that the planet would have to be going so fast its very stability would
be in danger. It would be throwing off its atmosphere in great
tales like the Universe's most cosmic fireworks toy.
But frankly, it's the best he can come up with,
and to be honest, I can't come up with anything better. So
let's just live with it.
More Doubts Assailed!
“There are no nights upon Jupiter. It
is always day. The sun, four hundred eighty-three million miles away,
would shed but little light upon the planet even were it exposed
to the full light of the star that is the center of our solar system;
but that little light is obscured by the dense cloud envelope which
surrounds this distant world. What little filters through is negated
by the gigantic volcanic torches which bathe the entire planet in
perpetual daylight. He told us of vast continents and enormous islands;
and I could well imagine that such existed, as a rough estimate indicated
that the area of the planet exceeded twenty-three billion square
miles. As the axis of Jupiter is nearly perpendicular to the
plane of its motion, there could be no great variety of seasons;
so over this enormous area there existed an equable climate, warm and
humid, perpetually lighted and heated by the innumerable volcanoes which
pit the surface of the planet.”
Note that he's dropping physics on us once again.
I'm sure that this isn't his normal bedroom talk with Dejah Thoris.
Burroughs is still responding to the audiences doubts and still gentling
us along, treating the reader like a wild bronco that could buck and throw
him at any moment.
But now he's going a little far. Burroughs
has done his homework, and he's now answering the questions that he was
asking himself. “If the sun is so far away, where does my light
and heat come from?” He might have simply never raised it,
and hope to divert the audience's attention. Or he might have had
John Carter say ‘how the hell should I know,’ and chop someone's head off.
But Burroughs is a serious science fiction writer.
He's asking these questions of himself. He's looking at his research
and trying to build a convincing world out of it. Sometimes
in ways that might not necessarily be useful. He notices that
there's practically no inclination, and deduces that there aren't really
any seasons. Light and heat must come from Volcanoes, but if
that's the case.... Then there is no day and night. And
further, that light is going to be quite unlike normal light:
“Now, for the first time, I was struck
by the color of these Morgors. Instead of being ivory color, they
were a pink or rosy shade. I looked at U Dan. He was a very dark
red. A glance at my arms and hands showed that they, too, were dark
red; but not as dark a red as U Dan. At first I was puzzled; then I realized
that the reflection of the red glare of the volcanoes from the inner surface
of the cloud envelope turned our reddish skins a darker red and made
the yellow, parchment-like skins of the Morgors appear pink. As I
looked around, I realized that this same reddish hue appeared upon
everything within sight. It reminded me of a verse in a popular song I
heard some time ago on one of my visits to earth. It went, I think:
"I am looking at the world through rose colored glasses, and everything
is rosy now." Well, everything wasn't rosy with me, no matter how rosy
this world looked.”
In short, he develops his world, tries to come up
with theories as to how it works, and then follows the consequences of
those theories, adding them to the story to create the aura of the exotic,
and also to give it a kind of verisimilitude. Without Burroughs,
we probably wouldn't think about what a world lit by Volcanoes would do
to the shades and hues, but once he's pointed it out to us, we're persuaded
to accept. It seems more real.
Of course, in really good writing, this is so
well done as to be seamless. But let's be honest, this is a
snake swallowing an elephant, which is an impressive feat. But like
the Skeleton Men of his story, it renders the processes transparent and
we can deconstruct what he does and how he does it.
“Zan Dar told us that the continent upon
which we were was the largest. It was the ancestral home of the Morgors,
from which they had, over a great period of time, sallied forth to conquer
the remainder of the world. The conquered countries, each of which was
ruled by what might be called a Morgor Governor-General, paid tribute to
the Morgors in manufactured goods, foodstuffs, and slaves. There were still
a few areas, small and considered of little value by the Morgors, which
retained their liberty and their own governments. From such an area came
Zan Dar -- a remote island called Zanor.”
And here of course, he's got his world building completely
on display, showing us the society he has constructed for this world.
It's exposition, a bit clumsy and something of an info dump. But
hell, he's bit off a lot, and all he's got is a novella. Usually
its best to try and sneak these things in, but sometimes its simpler to
just dump it and move on.
“When he told me the height of some of
the lofty peaks of Zanor, it was with difficulty that I could believe
him: to a height of twenty miles above sea level rose the majestic
king of Zanor's mountains.”
Except of course, that he's in a prison cell on Jupiter.
Burroughs has pushed a little further and performed a neat trick:
John Carter is now more skeptical than the reader. He's headed
us off at the pass! By presenting his character as more skeptical
than the reader, who is now along for the ride, he's short circuited our
suspension of disbelief. We're used to John Carter questioning things
we have had to swallow, and even things we've willingly swallowed.
So how can we question or object to something if Carter doesn't?
Carter is now the outlier for our credibility, and if he accepts something
without objection, then we have to go along.
It's a virtuoso trick, and even if all Burroughs
moves are here on full display, performed so patently that we can see how
he does it, its still entertaining. At the top of his game,
Burroughs, or any good writer, can do this so quickly and effectively,
we never even notice until we're strapped to the Altar in Opar, or punching
out giant green stick men on Barsoom.
By relentlessly challenging his own story, he
sells it to us through the back door.