THE SEVEN WONDERS OF BARSOOM SERIES
THE LIFE-SAVING PUMPING STATIONS OF MARS:
The First Wonder of Barsoom
Woodrow Edgar Nichols, Jr.
The Mars of ERB is a dying planet. When the five oceans of Barsoom evaporated,
life became impossible and only the innovations of Martian scientists made
it possible for life to continue. In light of global warming and climate
change on today’s Earth, the story of ERB's Barsoom is more relevant than
ever. How do intelligent beings cope when their extinction is
When ERB started his Martian series of books in 1911, the idea of Earth
sharing the same fate someday must have been viewed as pure fantasy. Then
came the atom bomb and evidence of collisions with meteors and comets,
an idea first mocked as insane when proposed by Immanuel Velikovsky in
his controversial Worlds
in Collision published in 1950.
Yes, the world has changed and ERB's Martian series is just as fun to
read today as it was to the less scientific sophisticated folk of his day.
As we bring the Seven Wonders of Barsoom series to a close, it is
no wonder that the Life-Saving Pumping Stations should receive the
A. The Water Pumping Stations of Barsoom.
Canals of Mars from Camille
Flammarion and a more recent artist interpretation - ERBzine
Life is impossible without water and the Barsoomians have the black
race to thank for making over half of this precious resource possible.
Carter, like most of the inhabitants of the planet, had no idea of the
role of the black race as the providers for most of the water in its canals
that made the Red Martian civilizations possible, but that view is corrected
by the black Dator Xodar in The Gods of Mars as he explains the
marvels of Omean to Carter:
“Xodar was at my side as I stood looking
out over the ship's rail.
Many artistic depictions of this area appear in wonderful maps that can
be viewed at ERBzine #2807.
They then view a village in the valley which Xodar explains is a village
of lost souls, neutral ground where pilgrims to the Valley Dor reside who
have lost their nerve and fearful of the fate they face if they return
to their homes. Other inhabitants are slaves who have escaped from the
“‘What course?’ I asked him.
“‘A little west of south,’ he replied. “You will
see the Otz Valley directly. We shall skirt it for a few hundred miles.”
“‘The Otz Valley!’ I exclaimed; ‘but, man, is
not there where lie the domains of the therns from which I but just escaped?’
“‘Yes,’ answered Xodar. ‘You crossed this ice
field last night in the long chase that you led us. The Otz Valley lies
in a mighty depression at the south pole. It is sunk thousands of feet
below the level of the surrounding country, like a great round bowl. A
hundred miles from its northern boundary rise the Otz Mountains which circle
the inner Valley of Dor, in the exact center of which lies the Lost Sea
of Korus. On the shore of this sea stands the Golden Temple of Issus in
the Land of the First Born. It is there that we are bound.’
“As I looked I commenced to realize why it was
that in all the ages only one had escaped from the Valley Dor. My only
wonder was that even the one had been successful. To cross this frozen,
wind-swept waste of bleak ice alone and on foot would be impossible.
“‘Only by air boat could the journey be made,’
I finished aloud.
“‘It was thus that one did escape the therns in
bygone times; but none has ever escaped the First Born,’ said Xodar, with
a touch of pride in his voice.
“We had now reached the southernmost extremity
of the great ice barrier. It ended abruptly in a sheer wall thousands of
feet high at the base of which stretched a level valley, broken here and
there by low rolling hills and little clumps of forest, and with tiny rivers
formed by the melting of the ice barrier at its base.
“Once we passed far above what seemed to be a
deep canyon-like rift stretching from the ice wall on the north across
the valley as far as the eye could reach. ‘That is the bed of the River
Iss,’ said Xodar. ‘It runs far beneath the ice field, and below the level
of the Valley Otz, but its canyon is open here.’” (GM/8.)
“Now we swung a little north of west,
leaving the valley of lost souls, and shortly I discerned over our starboard
bow what appeared to be a black mountain rising from the desolate waste
of ice. It was not high and seemed to have a flat top....
They land on the water after the ship changes from air to water propellers
and Carter and Phaidor marvel at all of the ships, mainly war ships, floating
on the underground sea.
“As we neared the dark, truncated cone the vessel’s
speed was diminished until we barely moved. Then we topped the crest of
the mountain and below us I saw yawning the mouth of a huge circular well,
the bottom of which was lost in inky blackness.
“The diameter of this enormous pit was fully a
thousand feet. The walls were smooth and appeared to be composed of a black,
“For a moment the vessel hovered motionless directly
above the center of the gaping void, then slowly she began to settle into
the black chasm. Lower and lower she sank until as darkness enveloped us
her lights were thrown on and in the dim halo of her own radiance the monster
battleship dropped on and on down into what seemed to be the very bowels
“For quite half an hour we descended and then
the shaft terminated abruptly in the dome of a mighty subterranean world.
Below us rose and fell the billows of a buried sea. A phosphorescent radiance
illuminated the scene. Thousands of ships dotted the bosom of the ocean.
Little islands rose here and there to support the strange and colorless
vegetation of this strange world.” (GM/8)
“‘Here is the harbour of the navy of
the First Born,’ said a voice behind us, and turning we saw Xodar watching
us with an amused smile on his lips.
Carter learns that the sea is called Omean and that its pumping stations
can bring as much harm as good when the pumps are stopped as Carter and
his allies invade the First Born:
“‘This sea,’ he continued, ‘is larger than Korus.
It receives the waters of the lesser sea above it. To keep it from filling
above a certain level we have four great pumping stations that force the
oversupply back into reservoirs far north from which the red men draw the
water that irrigates their farm lands.’
“A new light burst on me with this explanation.
The red men had always considered it a miracle that caused great columns
of water to spurt from the solid rock of their reservoir sides to increase
the supply of the precious liquid which is so scarce in the outer world
“Never had their learned men been able to fathom
the secret of the source of this enormous volume of water. As ages passed
they had simply come to accept it as a matter of course and ceased to question
its origin.’” (GM/8.)
“As we were about to leave the pool and
enter the corridors, an officer called my attention to the waters upon
which the submarine floated. At first they seemed to be merely agitated
as from the movement of some great body beneath, and I at once conjectured
that another submarine was rising to the surface in pursuit of us; but
presently it became apparent that the level of the waters was rising, not
with extreme rapidity, but very surely, and that soon they would overflow
the sides of the pool and submerge the floor of the chamber.
After many harrowing episodes, they make it to the upper levels and bring
the reign of Issus and the First Born to an end. But what happens to the
water at the South Pole that the First Born pump to the outside world?
“For a moment I did not fully grasp the terrible
import of the slowly rising water. It was Carthoris who realized the full
meaning of the thing – its cause and the reason for it.
“‘Haste!’ he cried. ‘If we delay, we all are lost.
The pumps of Omean have been stopped. They would drown us like rats in
a trap. We must reach the upper levels of the pits in advance of the flood
or we shall never reach them. Come.’” (GM/21.)
Carter becomes acquainted with the water-works of Barsoom as he and
his faithful calot, Woola, make their way to Zodanga by searching for a
canal that will lead them to it in A Princess of Mars:
“The water which supplies the farms of
Mars is collected in immense underground reservoirs at either pole from
the melting ice caps, and pumped through long conduits to the various populated
centers. Along either side of these conduits, and extending their entire
length, lie the cultivated districts. These are divided into tracts of
about the same size, each tract being under the supervision of one or more
“Instead of flooding the surface of the fields,
and thus wasting immense quantities of water by evaporation, the precious
liquid is carried underground through a vast network of small pipes directly
to the roots of the vegetation. The crops upon Mars are always uniform,
for there are no droughts, no rains, no high winds, and no insects, or
destroying birds.” (PM/21.)
Bradbury's Martian Chronicles
~ © Bantam Books
B. The Atmosphere Factory.
the Kurt Metz Animation Project: ERBzine 1350
The origin of the atmosphere factory, which also makes life possible
on Mars, is obscure, but it appears to have been invented by the Orovars
of Horz. We get this tidbit of information from Pan Dan Chee in the first
installment of Llana of Gathol, as he explains the history of his
race to Carter:
“‘They had reached the ultimate pinnacle
of civilization and perfection when the first shadow of impending fate
darkened their horizon – the seas began to recede, the atmosphere to grow
more tenuous. What science had long predicted was coming to pass – a world
By the time of Carter's advent on the red planet, the atmosphere factory
is fully functional and is off limits as a trophy of war. Carter and Woola
accidentally stumble upon it as they make their way to the canal that will
lead them to Zodanga in A Princess of Mars:
“‘For ages our cities followed the receding waters.
Straits and bays, canals and lakes dried up. Prosperous seaports became
deserted inland cities. Famine came. Hungry hordes made war upon the more
fortunate. The growing hordes of wild green men overran what had once been
fertile farm land, preying upon all.
“The atmosphere became so tenuous that it was
difficult to breathe. Scientists were working on an atmosphere plant, but
before it was completed and in successful operation all but a few of the
inhabitants of Barsoom had died. Only the hardiest survived – the green
men, the red men, and a few Orovars; then life became merely a battle for
the survival of the fittest.’” (LG/I-4.)
“At daybreak of the fifteenth day of
my search I was overjoyed to see the high trees that denoted the object
of my search. About noon I dragged myself wearily to the portals of a huge
building which covered perhaps four square miles and towered two hundred
feet in the air. It showed no aperture in the mighty walls other than the
tiny door at which I sank exhausted, nor was there any sign of life about
Carter explains his situation to the voice, who is suspicious because Carter
is so different from any other race of men on Barsoom. Carter tells him
he is a friend of the red men and is starving to death.
“I could find no bell or other method of making
my presence known to the inmates of the place, unless a small round hole
in the wall near the door was for that purpose. It was of about the bigness
of a lead pencil and thinking that it might be in the nature of a speaking
tube I put my mouth to it and was about to call into it when a voice issued
from it asking whom I might be, where from, and the nature of my errand.”
“Presently the door commenced to recede
before me until it had sunk into the wall fifty feet, and then it stopped
and slid easily to the left, exposing a short, narrow corridor of concrete,
at the further end of which was another door, similar in every respect
to the one I had just passed. No one was in sight, yet immediately we passed
the first door it slid gently into place behind us and receded rapidly
to its original position in the front wall of the building. As the door
had slipped aside I had noted its great thickness, fully twenty feet, and
as it reached its place once more after closing behind us, great cylindars
of steel had dropped from the ceiling behind it and fitted their lower
ends into apertures countersunk in the floor.
The voice reveals himself at last after Carter passes the examination:
“A second and third door receded before me and
slipped to one side as the first, before I reached a large inner chamber
where I found food and drink set out upon a great stone table. A voice
directed me to satisfy my hunger and to feed my calot, and while I was
thus engaged my invisible host put me through a severe and searching cross-examination.”
“Then a door opened at the far side of
the chamber and a strange, dried up, little mummy of a man came toward
me. He wore but a single article of clothing or adornment, a small collar
of gold from which depended upon his chest a great ornament as large as
a dinner plate set solid with huge diamonds, except for the exact center
which was occupied by a strange stone, an inch in diameter, that scintillated
nine different and distinct rays; the seven colors of our earthly prism
and two beautiful rays which, to me, were new and nameless. I cannot describe
them any more than you could describe red to a blind man. I only know that
they were beautiful in the extreme.” (PM/20.)
Because Carter has the ability to read the unguarded Martian mind with
no Martian capable of his reading his own, he learns a lot more about the
atmosphere factory than the old man would have otherwise allowed.
“The building in which I found myself
contained the machinery which produces the artificial atmosphere which
sustains life on Mars. The secret of the entire process hinges on the use
of the ninth ray, one of the beautiful scintillations which I had noted
emanating from the great stone in my host’s diadem.
Carter discovers that every Martian as a child learns the principles of
the manufacture of atmosphere but only two men hold the secret of ingress
into the building. The factory is virtually unassailable with walls a hundred
and fifty feet thick and the roof is guarded from air assault by a glass
covering five feet thick. The only fear is of some demented person or by
an attack by the green men, for all Barsoomians realize that their very
existence hinges on the survival of the factory.
“This ray is separated from the other rays of
the sun by means of finely adjusted instruments placed upon the roof of
the huge building, three-quarters of which is used for reservoirs in which
the ninth ray is stored. This product is then treated electrically, or
rather certain proportions of refined electrical vibrations are incorporated
with it, and the result is then pumped to the five principal air centers
of the planet where, as it is released, contact with the ether of space
transforms it into atmosphere.
“There is always sufficient reserve of the ninth
ray stored in the great building to maintain the present Martian atmosphere
for a thousand years, and the only fear, as my new friend told me, was
that some accident might befall the pumping apparatus.
“He led me to an inner chamber where I beheld
a battery of twenty radium pumps any one of which was equal to the task
of furnishing all Mars with the atmosphere compound. For eight hundred
years, he told me, he had watched these pumps which are used alternately
a day each at a stretch, or a little over twentyfour and one-half Earth
hours. He has one assistant who divides the watch with him. Half a Martian
year, about three hundred and forty-four of our days, each of these men
spend alone in this huge, isolated plant.” (PM/20)
Carter also learns one fact that he is not supposed to in a moment when
the old man lets down his mental guard:
“One curious fact I discovered as I watched
his thoughts was that the outer doors are manipulated by telepathic means.
The locks are so finely adjusted that the doors are released by the action
of a certain combination of thought waves. To experiment with my new-found
toy I thought to surprise him into revealing this combination and so I
asked him in a casual manner how he had managed to unlock the massive doors
for me from the inner chambers of the building. As quick as a flash there
leaped to his mind nine Martian sounds, but as quickly faded as he answered
that this was a secret that he must not divulge.” (PM/20.)
From then on the old man supects that he has given the secret away to Carter
and resolves to kill Carter while he is sleeping to make sure the secret
stays safe. However, Carter reads the old man's mind and escapes with Woola
using the nine Martian sounds. This knowledge eventually helps Carter to
save the planet when the old man and his assistant mysteriously die.
As a last desperate act, Carter races from Helium in a flier to the
“An hour before dark the great walls
of the atmosphere plant loomed suddenly before me, and with a sickening
thud, I plunged to the ground before the small door which was withholding
the spark of life from the inhabitants of an entire planet.
Carter is then astrally projected back to the Arizona cave where his adventure
began and is unable to return to Mars for ten years to see if the man made
it to the pumps.
“Beside the door a great crew of men had been
laboring to pierce the wall, but they had scarcely scratched the flint-like
surface, and now most of them lay in the last sleep from which not even
air would awaken them.
“Conditions seemed much worse here than at Helium,
and it was with difficulty that I breathed at all. There were a few men
still conscious, and to one of these I spoke.
“‘If I can open these doors is there a man who
can start the engines?’ I asked.
“‘I can,’ he replied, ‘if you open quickly. I
can last but a few moments more. But it is useless, they are both dead
and no one else upon Barsoom knew the secret of these awful locks. For
three days men crazed with fear have surged about this portal in vain attempts
to solve its mystery.’
“I had no time to talk, I was becoming very weak
and it was with difficulty that I controlled my mind at all.
“But, with a final effort, as I sank weakly to
my knees I hurled the nine thought waves at that awful thing before me.
The Martian had crawled to my side and with staring eyes fixed on the single
panel before us we waited in the silence of death.
“Slowly, the mighty door receded before us. I
attempted to rise and follow it but I was too weak.
“‘After it,’ I cried to my companion, ‘and if
you reach the pump room turn loose all the pumps. It is the only chance
Barsoom has to exist tomorrow!”
“From where I lay I opened the second door, and
then the third, and as I saw the hope of Barsoom crawling weakly on hands
and knees through the last doorway I sank unconscious upon the ground.”
To say that ERB was ahead of his time is cliche. I read somewhere that
H.G. Wells said that he was mad. And no wonder. I remember when I was in
the fifth grade that only about 5% of Americans thought that intelligent
life existed outside of Earth. Anyone who believed we were not alone in
the universe were mocked as believers “in little green men from Mars.”
I recall dreaming that I would be the first man on the moon. That was
in 1957. Imagine how the Martian series must have appeared to the average
educated reader in 1912 when A Princess of Mars was first published.
And yet it only took twelve years since I dreamed of being the first man
on the moon for Neil Armstrong to beat me to it.
I also have a theory of who killed the caretaker of the atmosphere plant
and his assistant, which I think makes sense as our own world faces some
of the greatest challenges to its water supply and atmosphere. I think
after eight hundred years living in isolation that the old man became so
paranoid that he went mad and decided to take the whole planet with him
in a mass suicide.
I see the same kind of madness today with the disaster in the Gulf of
Mexico and an incredible amount of people actually entertaining the possibility
that the world will come to an end on December 21, 2012. I don't know about
you, but I intend on waking up on December 22, 2012, with a hangover and
a beautiful woman who thought she would go out with a bang.
Hopefully, there are still some Orovars among us that will save our
lovely paradise from ending up like Barsoom. ERB sure gave us something
to think about.
And there you have it,
ERB's Life-Saving Pumping Stations of Mars: The First Wonder of