Rick Johnson emailed me while I was writing the series on the ancient
oceans, asking me when I was going to do an article on the waterways. I
said that I thought I had already covered that topic in the First Wonder
of the Life-Saving Pumping Stations of Mars, but he protested that I had
not really. After examining that article more closely, I realized Rick
was right and I dedicate this article to him.
First of all, there are no open water canals on Mars. That’s why ERB
preferred to call them “waterways,” covered conduits through which the
life giving water of Barsoom can flow.
Since the waterways can be discerned by the wide tracts of fertile land
that line each side of the conduit, these long tracts show up as the lines,
canals, of Mars when viewed from a telescope on Earth. Which brings us
to our next point: Barsoom is not the real Mars. It is a fictional wonderland,
like Oz, Pellucidar or Tarzan’s Dark Continent, not to be mistaken for
a real place, but a place where fantastic, impossible things, can happen.
That’s why, other than the actual global coordinates given in the stories,
a map of Barsoom is as much a work of the cartographer’s imagination, as
it is a trustworthy guide to the planet. Thus, it is not my belief that
ERB ever really attempted to match the watered cultivated tracts to any
actual physical geography on the real Mars. He was more interested in storytelling
and entertaining his millions of readers. And that he never ceases in doing.
We discover our first description of the Martian waterways in the first
book of the Mythos, A
Princess of Mars. It comes as the horde of Tars Tarkas is returning
to their capital city of Thark:
“The remainder of our journey to Thark
was uneventful. We were twenty days upon the road, crossing two sea bottoms
and passing through or around a number of ruined cities, mostly smaller
than Korad. Twice we crossed the famous Martian waterways, or canals, so-called
by our earthly astronomers. When we approached these points a warrior would
be sent far ahead with a powerful field glass, and if no great body of
red Martian troops was in sight we would advance as close as possible without
chance of being seen and then camp until dark, when we would slowly approach
the cultivated tract, and, locating one of the numerous, broad highways
which cross these areas at regular intervals, creep silently and stealthily
across to the arid lands upon the other side. It required five hours to
make one of these crossings without a single halt, and the other consumed
the entire night, so that we were just leaving the confines of the high-walled
fields when the sun broke out upon us.
Soon after they arrive in Thark, John Carter and Dejah Thoris recruit Sola
for their escape to Helium. Sola speaks:
“Crossing in the darkness, as we did, I was unable
to see but little, except as the nearer moon, in her wild and ceaseless
hurtling through the Barsoomian heavens, lit up little patches of the landscape
from time to time, disclosing walled fields and low, rambling buildings,
presenting much the appearance of earthly farms. There were many trees,
methodically arranged, and some of them were of enormous height; there
were animals in some of the enclosures, and they announced their presence
by terrified squealings and snortings as they scented our queer, wild beasts
and wilder human beings.
“Only once did I perceive a human being, and that
was at the intersection of our crossroad with the wide, white turnpike
which cuts each cultivated district longitudinally at its exact center.
The fellow must have been sleeping beside the road, for, as I came abreast
of him, he raised upon one elbow and after a single glance at the approaching
caravan leaped shrieking to his feet and fled madly down the road, scaling
a nearby wall with the agility of a scared cat. The Tharks paid him not
the slightest attention; they were not out upon the warpath, and the only
sign that I had that they had seen him was a quickening of the pace of
the caravan as we hastened toward the bordering desert which marked our
entrance into the realm of Tal Hajus.” (PM/16.)
“‘The great waterway which leads to Helium
is but fifty miles to the south,’ murmurred Sola, half to herself; ‘a swift
thoat might make it in three hours; and then to Helium it is five hundred
miles, most of the way through thinly settled districts. They would know
and they would follow us. We might hide among the great trees for a time,
but the chances are small indeed for escape. They would follow us to the
very gates of Helium, and they would take toll of life at every step; you
do not know them.’
We next get a fairly thorough idea of the cultivated areas after Carter
escapes the Warhoons and finds himself at the atmosphere factory, which
appears to be built close to or on a waterway:
“‘Is there no other way we might reach Helium?’
I asked. ‘Can you not draw me a rough map of the country we must traverse,
“‘Yes,’ she replied, and taking a great diamond
from her hair she drew upon the marble floor the first map of Barsoomian
territory I had ever seen. It was crisscrossed in every direction with
long straight lines, sometimes running parallel and sometimes converging
toward some great circle. The lines, she said, were waterways; the circles,
cities; and one far to the northwest of us she pointed out as Helium. There
were other cities closer, but she said she feared to enter many of them,
as they were not all friendly toward Helium.
“Finally, after studying the map carefully in
the moonlight which now flooded the room, I pointed out a waterway far
to the north of us which also seemed to lead to Helium.
“‘Does this not pierce your grandfather’s territory?’
“‘Yes,’ she answered, ‘but it is two hundred miles
north of us; it is one of the waterways we crossed on the trip to Thark.’
“‘They would never suspect that we would try for
that distant waterway,’ I answered, ‘and that is why I think that it is
the best route for our escape.’” (PM/16.)
“Through two long weeks I wandered, stumbling
through the nights guided only by the stars and hiding during the days
behind some protruding rock or among the occasional hills I traversed.
. . .
We get a better picture of this district after Carter escapes the clutches
of the caretaker of the atmosphere plant:
“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.”
“Hastening away from the shadows of the
formidable pile I made for the first crossroad, intending to strike the
central turnpike as quickly as possible. This I reached about morning and
entering the first enclosure I came to I searched for some evidences of
The Ptor brothers provide a red pigment for his skin, then give him money
and letters of introduction for when he arrives in Zodanga, since they
are well connected with the ruling class.
“There were low rambling buildings of concrete
barred with heavy impassable doors, and no amount of hammering and hallooing
brought any response. Weary and exhausted from sleeplessness I threw myself
upon the ground commanding Woola to stand guard.
“Some time later I was awakened by his frightful
growlings and opened my eyes to see three red Martians standing a short
distance from us and covering me with their rifles.
“‘I am unarmed and no enemy,’ I hastened to explain.
‘I have been a prisoner among the green men and am on my way to Zodanga.
All I ask is food and rest for myself and my calot and the proper directions
for reaching my destination.’
“They lowered their rifles and advanced pleasantly
toward me placing their right hands upon my left shoulder, after the manner
of their custom of salute, and asking me many questions about myself and
my wanderings. They then took me to the house of one of them which was
only a short distance away.
“The buildings I had been hammering at in the
early morning were occupied only by stock and farm produce, the house proper
standing among a grove of enormous trees, and, like all red-Martian homes,
had been raised at night some forty or fifty feet from the ground on a
large round metal shaft which slid up or down within a sleeve sunk in the
ground, and was operated by a tiny radium engine in the entrance hall of
the building. Instead of bothering with bolts and bars for their dwellings.
the red Martians simply run them up out of harm’s way during the night.
They also have private means for lowering or raising them from the ground
without if they wish to go away and leave them.
“These brothers, with their wives and children,
occupied three similar houses on this farm. They did no work themselves,
being government officers in charge. The labor was performed by convicts,
prisoners of war, delinquent debtors and confirmed bachelors who were too
poor to pay the high celibate tax which all red-Martian governments impose.
“They were the personification of cordiality and
hospitality and I spent several days with them, resting and recuperating
from my long and arduous experiences.
“When they had heard my story – I omitted all
reference to Dejah Thoris and the old man of the atmosphere plant – they
advised me to color my body to more nearly resemble their own race and
then attempt to find employment in Zodanga, either in the army or the navy.
“‘The chances are small that your tale will be
believed until after you have proven your trustworthiness and won friends
among the higher nobles of the court. This you can most easily do through
military service, as we are a warlike people on Barsoom,’ explained one
of them.” (PM/20.)
As Carter journeys down the turnpike of the waterway, he encounters
a strange cross-section of Martian culture:
“As I proceeded on my journey toward
Zodanga many strange and interesting sights arrested my attention, and
at the several farm houses where I stopped I learned a number of new and
instructive things concerning the methods and manners of Barsoom.
As we saw from our article on the River Iss, the
First Born Black Pirates adjust the water level in the underground Sea
of Omean by pumping the water run-off from the Lost Sea of Korus into the
reservoirs of the Red Martians. As Xodar, the Black Dator, explains to
Carter and Phaidor as he points to the Sea of Omean:
“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 government
“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
“On this trip I tasted the first meat I had eaten
since leaving Earth – large, juicy steaks and chops from the well-fed domestic
animals of the farms. Also I enjoyed luscious fruits and vegetables, but
not a single article of food which was exactly similar to anything on Earth.
Every plant and flower and vegetable and animal has been so refined by
ages of careful, scientific cultivation and breeding that the like of them
on Earth dwindled into pale, gray, characterless nothingness by comparison.
“At a second stop I met some highly cultivated
people of the noble class and while in conversation we chanced to speak
of Helium. One of the older men had been there on a diplomatic mission
several years before and spoke with regret of the conditions which seemed
destined ever to keep these two countries at war.
“‘Helium,’ he said, ‘rightly boasts of the most
beautiful women of Barsoom, and of all her treasures the wondrous daughter
of Mors Kajak, Dejah Thoris, is the most exquisite flower.
“‘Why,’ he added, ‘the people really worship the
ground she walks upon and ever since her loss on that ill-starred expedition
all of Helium has been draped in mourning.
“‘That our ruler should have attacked the disabled
fleet as it was returning to Helium was but another of his awful blunders
which I fear will sooner or later compel Zodanga to elevate a wiser man
to his place.
“Even now, though our victorious armies are surrounding
Helium, the people of Zodanga are voicing their displeasure, for the war
is not a popular one, since it is not based on right or justice. Our forces
took advantage of the absence of the principal fleet of Helium on their
search for the princess, and so we have been able easily to reduce the
city to a sorry plight. It is said she will fall within the next few passages
of the further moon.’” (PM/21.)
“‘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 the reservoirs far north from which
the red men draw the water which irrigates their farm lands.’
The waterways disappear as elements of drama until
once again they take center stage in Thuvia,
Maid of Mars. Carthoris and Kar Komak, the reincarnated Lotharian
bowman, seeking Thuvia and escaping the Torquasians, stumble upon a Dusarian
“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
is origin.” (GM/8.)
“All that night and the following day
and the second night they rode toward the north-east. No indication of
pursuit developed, and at dawn of the second day Carthoris saw in the distance
the waving ribbon of great trees that marked one of the long Barsoomian
“Immediately they abandoned their thoats and approached
the cultivated district on foot. Carthoris also discarded the metal from
his harness, or such of it as might serve to identify him as a Heliumite,
or of royal blood, for he did not know to what nation belonged this waterway,
and upon Mars it is always well to assume every man and nation your enemy
until you have learned the contrary.
“It was mid-afternoon when the two at last entered
one of the roads that cut through the cultivated districts at regular intervals,
the arid wastes on either side with the great, white, central highway that
follows through the center from end to end of the far-reaching, threadlike
“The high wall surrounding the fields served as
a protection against surprise by raiding green hordes, as well as keeping
the savage banths and other carnivora from the domestic animals and the
human beings upon the farms.
“Carthoris stopped before the first gate he came
to, pounding for admission. The young man who answered his summons greeted
the two hospitably, though he looked with considerable wonder upon the
white skin and auburn hair of the bowman.
“After he had listened for a moment to a partial
narrative of their escape from the Torquasians, he invited them within,
took them to his house and bade the servants there prepare food for them.
“As they waited in the low-ceiled, pleasant livingroom
of the farmhouse until the meal should be ready, Carthoris drew his host
into conversation that he might learn his nationality, and thus the nation
under whose dominion lay the waterway where circumstance had placed him.
“‘I am Halvas,’ said the young man, ‘son of Vas
Kor, of Dusar, a noble of the retinue of Astok, prince of Dusar. At present
I am Dwar of the Road for this district.’” (TMM/ 11.)
The average width of the cultivated areas, from one boundary on one
side to the boundary on the other side, must be vast. It took the Tharks
five hours to cross the first one, and all of the night to cross the other
one as they made their way to Thark. We are reminded that Sola said that
a fast moving thoat could cover a distance of fifty miles in three hours.
Thus, the cultivated areas from boundary to boundary could be about this
distance since it took the slow moving thoats of the Tharks five hours
to cross the first area, and all night to cross the next one, which would
mean in about six or seven hours.
One central great white turnpike runs down the center of each waterway,
which are crisscrossed by crossing roads at consistent intervals. It appears
that not every cross highway is guarded, since the Tharks were able to
cross without challenge, and the one man who jumped the wall that Carter
saw, did not appear to be a government official. Each section of each district
is ruled by a government official. Except for the cross streets and central
turnpike, the cultivated fields and animal pens have high walls surrounding
The actual farming appears to be a farmer’s dream: no droughts, high
winds, destroying insects or birds, and no rain. The water appears to have
a constant flow from year to year, evidencing a uniform supply of water
from pole to pole. The first thing that marks a cultivated area is the
presence of high trees.
How much water would be needed to cultivate the fields and quench the
thirst of all of the Martians on the planet? I cannot remember if ERB ever
gave the population of Mars while Carter was there. All I can give by way
of analogy is the amount of water necessary to cultivate the fields and
quench the thirst of the citizens of the San Joaquin Valley.
There are approximately thirty million people in California as of this
date. The vast majority of this population is in the San Francisco Bay
Area and Southern California. The main sources of water for these areas
comes from the Shasta reservoir and the dams along the Sierra Nevada that
border the Sacramento Valley. Southern California obtains most of its water
from the Owens Valley and the Colorado River. However, in the San Joaquin
Valley, a large proportion of the water from the San Luis Reservoir goes
to Los Angeles.
Fresno has an average rainfall of 11.23 inches a year. This year we’ve
had an exceptional rainy season and most of the reservoirs that feed the
San Joaquin Valley are either at full capacity or are being prepared for
spring and summer runoff. We’ve had 15.26 inches of rain this year.
Since the Martian supply of water is not subject to El Ninos and other
weather conditions, let’s say for the sake of argument that this year’s
water levels are normative for Mars for a population of 15 million people.
After all, Mars is a dying planet, and the statistics I am about to give
are for a population of approximately that size, including the cultivation
of the vast farm lands in the San Joaquin Valley.
The following statistics are for the San Joaquin Valley reservoirs and
rivers and come from the April 10, 2011, issue of The Fresno Bee:
If the reader is interested in the California water system and would like
to learn more, let me recommend the article on the system that appears
in Joan Didion’s White Album, a perhaps out-dated but excellent example
of reporting. I am neither a meteorologist nor an engineer so these numbers
are just that to an amateur like me. However, they are indicative of how
much water is necessary for crops and people for the central part of California.
Current acre feet % of capacity
Eastman Lake: 127,873
Hensley Lake: 57, 412
Huntington Lake: 35, 446
Lake Kaweah: 103,694
Lake Success: 43,442
Mammoth Pool Res.: 99,832 82%
Millerton Lake: 370,890
Pine Flat Res.: 786,479
San Luis Res.: 2,034,192
Shaver Lake: 106,021
Wishon Res.: 0%
Cubic feet per second
Natural flow at Piedra 5,920
Actual release 6,994
Calculated natural flow 6,754
Millerton Lake inflow 4,542
Average Millerton release:
San Joaquin 6,985
Friant-Kern Canal 1,411
River Water Association; U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; State Department of
We must always remember that Barsoom is purely an imaginary place, but
if you are so inclined, you may take the statistics above as a starting
point in your calculations of how much water is on Barsoom in the Mythos.
And there you have it, ERB’s Canals of Mars: the Fourteenth Runner-Up
in the Seven Wonders of Barsoom!