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 aftermath.
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 but abandoned.
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 longbow.
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
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
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 only speculate.
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
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
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
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 dominate.
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 edge.
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
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
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
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 desperate people.
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 region.
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
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 consequences.
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 regard.
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
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 interests.
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 other up.
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
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 responsibility.
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
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
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
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
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 limited wealth.
The ability to make a commitment
to the large scale projects which might restore Barsoom simply does not
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 past it.
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
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.