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,
or 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, Dejah Thoris?’
“‘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?’ I asked.
“‘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.” (PM/20)
“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 habitation.
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
“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
“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.
“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 of Mars.
“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 waterways.
“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 farm lands.
“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 them.
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
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
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
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
And there you have it, ERB’s Canals of Mars: the Fourteenth
Runner-Up in the Seven Wonders of Barsoom!