Official Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute Site
Since 1996 ~ Over 10,000 Webpages in Archive
Volume 1504

Den Valdron


Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote science fiction.  I know it doesn't seem that way now, it's all an unending assortment of lost races, hidden civilizations, strangely implausible planets and biologies.   It doesn't seem like science fiction at all, but some species of adventure fantasy, with a few glossings of '30s pseudo-science jargon.  But then, he was a man of his time, and as hard as it is to believe, he often wrote to and with the science of the day in mind.

When Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars reputable scientists really did believe that there were channels on Mars, and some astronomers, such as Percival Lowell, freely speculated that they were the product of intelligent life.   His Barsoom followed closely upon the theories of Lowell, so closely at points, that perhaps Burroughs should have given Lowell some credit.   His Green Men were one of the first sympathetic portraits of genuine, and even plausible, true aliens.  These were beings whose lives he took the time to explain, but whose histories and personal life cycles, despite being inhuman were depicted as real.   These creatures lived their lives on their own term.

Burroughs Amtor reflected in part the ambiguous state of knowledge as to what might be on Venus.   Pellucidar was a crackpot notion, even in his time, but the notion of an inner world had its proponents and he saw the fertile for a grand yarn, or series of yarns.  Burroughs paid enough attention to science to realize that the surface of the  Moon was uninhabited and uninhabitable.  But having placed a hollow world inside the Earth, he could allow himself to do it for the Moon. 

For Beyond the Farthest Star, he consulted an Astronomer and carefully designed a ring of worlds, sharing an orbital atmosphere, a notion not too far from Larry Niven's ‘Smoke Ring.’

But of course, for Burroughs, the science served the tale.   His object was to create an exotic location, and his researches in the astronomy, physics, paleontology and even meteorology of the day served to build his worlds.   But if science ruled his world impossible, he was prepared to bend it, as long as he could make it seem plausible.

He isn't alone in this.  Science fiction regularly embraces the impossible, bending the rules we know to allow for stories about gray aliens and faster than light travel and a dozen other things.  The point is to make it plausible.

Science fiction is all about taking an idea and exploring it.  With his Caprona stories, he took an archaic but current evolutionary notion of 'ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny', that is, that an embryo goes through all the evolutionary stages, and played it large.  But deep down, he was using what was then believed to be science as the springboard for his story.   It was a bold concept, and in some ways an inherently ridiculous one, but he launched into it fearlessly and crafted a trilogy of rousing tales.

When he got to Jupiter....    Let's just say, the Master winced.

John Carter Gets Cold Feet

The last novella of the Barsoom series, Skeleton Men of Jupiter, published in John Carter of Mars, begins with his protagonist, Carter, shamefacedly apologizing for the yarn he is about to participate in:

“I AM NO SCIENTIST. I am a fighting man. .... of the scientists. They are constantly abandoning one theory for another one....  Theories come and theories go -- scientific theories.   The law of gravitation is about the only theory that has held throughout my lifetime -- and if the earth should suddenly start rotating seventeen times faster than it now does, even the law of gravitation would fail us and we would all go sailing off into space. I recall that there was  once a theory that Time and Space moved forward constantly in a straight line.   There was also a theory that neither Time nor Space existed -- it was all in your  mind's eye. Then came the theory that Time and Space curved in upon themselves.  Tomorrow, some scientist may show us reams and reams of paper and hundreds of  square feet of blackboard covered with equations, formulae, signs, symbols, and  diagrams to prove that Time and Space curve out away from themselves. Then our  theoretic universe will come tumbling about our ears, and we shall have to start  all over again from scratch.”
We know we're going to be asked to swallow a whopper when our narrator starts taking gratuitous kicks at the law of gravity.
“Like many fighting men, I am inclined to be credulous concerning matters outside my vocation; or at least I used to be. I believed whatever the scientists said. Long ago, I believed with Flammarion that Mars was habitable and inhabited; then a newer and more reputable school of scientists convinced me that it was 
neither. Without losing hope, I was yet forced to believe them until I came to Mars to live. They still insist that Mars is neither habitable nor inhabited, but I live here.”
And now, our narrator is cajoling, reminding us that we swallowed him and his world so far, and its been a rewarding experience.
“In the adventure that I am about to narrate, fact and theory will again cross swords. I hate to do this to my long-suffering scientific friends, but...”
Okay, he puts his cards down on the table and tells us that its unbelievable, but what the hell, come along for the ride anyway.

So, what is so unbelievable, so absolutely catastrophically preposterous that Burroughs is kicking holes in physics, dissing space and time, cajoling, bribing and finally fessing up?   It's very simple.

Human life on Jupiter

Snap Goes the Suspension of Disbelief

“My passing reference to scientists started me to thinking of the vast accumulation of theories I was about to see shattered when I landed on Jupiter within the next twenty-four hours. It certainly must be habitable for a race quite similar to our own. These people had lungs, a heart, kidneys, a liver, and other internal organs similar to our own. I knew this for a fact, as I could see them every time one of the Morgors stood between me and a bright light, so thin and transparent was the parchment-like skin that stretched tightly over their frames.  Once more the scientists would be wrong. I felt sorry for them.”
Burroughs first tactic, having let us know what we were in for, is to come out boldly and say: “Okay, yes its preposterous and lunatic, but there are definitely people from Jupiter, because you're looking at them!”

But now that he goes on the attack, he makes a good try, pointing out that our modern theories are only the most modern notions of science, and that quite possibly they shall be superseded, even as past theories were.  So he begs us to allow the possibility that if our science does not yet admit to the possibility, that some sort of possibility still exists in the future.   “Science is fallible,” he argues, “but my Jupiter men are obviously real in this story, because they've just kidnapped John Carter.”

“They have been wrong so many times and had to eat humble pie. There were those scientists, for instance, who clung to the Ptolemaic System of the universe; and who, after Galileo had discovered four of the moons of Jupiter in 1610, argued that such pretended discoveries were absurd, their argument being that since we have seven openings in the head -- two ears, two eyes, two nostrils, and a month, there could be in the heavens but seven planets. Having dismissed Galileo's absurd pretensions in this scientific manner, they caused him to be thrown into jail.”
Of course, there's an art to gentling the reader along.   All writing, particularly good writing, is about getting the reader to suspend his disbelief, whether its in the Witches of Eastwick, Jude the Obscure or Conan.   All writing is inherently about the unreal, and good writing persuades the reader to stop realizing that it is unreal, and simply join the story. 

But as I've said, there's an art to it.   You cannot just demand the reader's acquiescence, and you can't simply ignore the subject.

“Gorgeous  Jupiter loomed before me in all his majestic immensity. Five of his planets were plainly visible in the heavens. I could even see the tiny one closest to him, which is only thirty miles in diameter. During the ensuing two days, I saw, or at least I thought I saw, all of the remaining five moons. And Jupiter grew larger and more imposing.”
One of the ways that you do it is to throw in some real astronomy, referring to the five inner moons of Jupiter, dropping a few facts here and there.  Burroughs is telling the reader, “I'm not making it all up, look, this is real!  And this!  And this!”
“Although Jupiter rotates upon its axis in less  than ten hours, its day is for eternity.  U Dan and I learned much concerning conditions on the planet from Zan Dar. He told us of the vast warm seas which seethed in constant tidal agitation  resulting from the constantly changing positions of the four larger moons which  revolve about Jupiter in forty-two hours, eighty-five hours, one hundred  seventy-two hours, and four hundred hours respectively while the planet spins  upon its axis, making a complete revolution in nine hours and fifty-five  minutes.”
It's like a spoon full of sugar with the medicine.   A coating of good science makes the bad stuff go down easier, it's just human nature.   In one sense, these passages are not necessary to the story.   In another sense, they're critical: Burroughs is showing us that he's done his homework, thus, he knows what he's talking about.  It's an invitation to trust him...
“We were approaching him at the very considerable speed  of twenty-three miles per second, but were still some two million miles distant.  Freed from the monotony of language lessons, my mind was once more enslaved to  my curiosity. How could life exist upon a planet which one school of scientific  thought claimed to have a surface temperature of two hundred and sixty degrees  below zero and which another school was equally positive was still in a half  molten condition and so hot that gases rose as hot vapor into its thick, warm  atmosphere to fall as incessant rain? How could human life exist in an  atmosphere made up largely of ammonia and methane gases? And what of the effect  of the planet's terrific gravitational pull? Would my legs be able to support my  weight? If I fell down, would I be able to rise again?”
Again, Burroughs is showing off, showing that he has done his homework.  But his work is cut out for him.   Cleverly, he is using John Carter to express the reader's doubts.  It's a neat trick, because the reader identifies with John Carter.  Through the course of adventure, John Carter's thoughts are our thoughts, except here, Burroughs has reversed the equation.  Our thoughts have become John Carter's thoughts.  Burroughs has neatly roped the reader into the story, and he plays us out like a fish on a line, letting his character voice our doubts, all the while, preparing to reel us back in.
“However, here I was, and conditions were not at  all as the scientists had described. Unquestionably, the mass of Jupiter is far  greater than that of earth or Mars, yet I felt the gravitational pull far less  than I had upon earth. It was even less than that which I had experienced upon  Mars. This was due, I realized, to the rapid revolution of the planet upon its  axis. Centrifugal force, tending to throw me off into space, more than  outweighed the increased force of gravitation. I had never before felt so light  upon my feet. I was intrigued by contemplation of the height and distances to  which I might jump.”
Centrifugal force?   Since when does John Carter sit there and make theories, he simply acts.  Nope, its Burroughs standing just behind John pulling a double whammy.   First he's gentled us by having John Carter voice our doubts for us.  Then John says...  “Well, but whatever my doubts, here I am!”   Usually that would work, but this is too big a whopper.   So then John sweetens the deal with some bits on centrifugal force lightening the apparent feeling of gravity.

Does it work?   Mmmm maybe.   I'm no physicist so I can't say that it is impossible.   We know that you can use centrifugal force to supply artificial gravity, and in fact, many science fiction stories, even of this time used such a device.   So we're halfway there.  Burroughs knows this, so he's skillfully, or desperately taken this notion and turned it on its head.

And admittedly, there's a certain plausibility to it.   Jupiter has ten times the diameter of Earth, a hundred times its circumference, and yet it makes its rotation in less than half a day.   Jupiter is clocking!

Of course, to get the rotation speed necessary to have Jupiter's gravity reduced to Earth or Martian levels, I suspect that the planet would have to be going so fast its very stability would be in danger.   It would be throwing off its atmosphere in great tales like the Universe's most cosmic fireworks toy.

But frankly, it's the best he can come up with, and to be honest, I can't come up with anything better.   So let's just live with it.

More Doubts Assailed!
“There are no nights upon Jupiter. It is always  day. The sun, four hundred eighty-three million miles away, would shed but  little light upon the planet even were it exposed to the full light of the star  that is the center of our solar system; but that little light is obscured by the  dense cloud envelope which surrounds this distant world. What little filters  through is negated by the gigantic volcanic torches which bathe the entire  planet in perpetual daylight. He told us of vast continents and enormous islands; and I could well  imagine that such existed, as a rough estimate indicated that the area of the  planet exceeded twenty-three billion square miles.   As the axis of Jupiter is nearly perpendicular to the plane of its motion,  there could be no great variety of  seasons; so over this enormous area there existed an equable climate, warm and  humid, perpetually lighted and heated by the innumerable volcanoes which pit the  surface of the planet.”
Note that he's dropping physics on us once again.   I'm sure that this isn't his normal bedroom talk with Dejah Thoris.   Burroughs is still responding to the audiences doubts and still gentling us along, treating the reader like a wild bronco that could buck and throw him at any moment.

But now he's going a little far.  Burroughs has done his homework, and he's now answering the questions that he was asking himself.   “If the sun is so far away, where does my light and heat come from?”   He might have simply never raised it, and hope to divert the audience's attention.  Or he might have had John Carter say ‘how the hell should I know,’ and chop someone's head off.

But Burroughs is a serious science fiction writer.   He's asking these questions of himself.  He's looking at his research and trying to build a convincing world out of it.   Sometimes in ways that might not necessarily be useful.   He notices that there's practically no inclination, and deduces that there aren't really any seasons.   Light and heat must come from Volcanoes, but if that's the case....  Then there is no day and night.   And further, that light is going to be quite unlike normal light:

“Now, for the first time, I was struck by the color of these Morgors. Instead of  being ivory color, they were a pink or rosy shade. I looked at U Dan. He was a  very dark red. A glance at my arms and hands showed that they, too, were dark  red; but not as dark a red as U Dan. At first I was puzzled; then I realized that the reflection of the red glare of the volcanoes from the inner surface of  the cloud envelope turned our reddish skins a darker red and made the yellow,  parchment-like skins of the Morgors appear pink. As I looked around, I realized  that this same reddish hue appeared upon everything within sight. It reminded me of a verse in a popular song I heard some time ago on one of my visits to earth.  It went, I think: "I am looking at the world through rose colored glasses, and  everything is rosy now." Well, everything wasn't rosy with me, no matter how rosy this world looked.”
In short, he develops his world, tries to come up with theories as to how it works, and then follows the consequences of those theories, adding them to the story to create the aura of the exotic, and also to give it a kind of verisimilitude.   Without Burroughs, we probably wouldn't think about what a world lit by Volcanoes would do to the shades and hues, but once he's pointed it out to us, we're persuaded to accept.  It seems more real.

Of course, in really good writing, this is so well done as to be seamless.   But let's be honest, this is a snake swallowing an elephant, which is an impressive feat.  But like the Skeleton Men of his story, it renders the processes transparent and we can deconstruct what he does and how he does it.

“Zan Dar told us that the continent upon which we were was the largest. It was the ancestral home of the Morgors, from which they had, over a great period of time, sallied forth to conquer the remainder of the world. The conquered countries, each of which was ruled by what might be called a Morgor Governor-General, paid tribute to the Morgors in manufactured goods, foodstuffs, and slaves. There were still a few areas, small and considered of little value by the Morgors, which retained their liberty and their own governments. From such an area came Zan Dar -- a remote island called Zanor.”
And here of course, he's got his world building completely on display, showing us the society he has constructed for this world.   It's exposition, a bit clumsy and something of an info dump.  But hell, he's bit off a lot, and all he's got is a novella.   Usually its best to try and sneak these things in, but sometimes its simpler to just dump it and move on.
“When he told me the height of some of the lofty peaks of Zanor, it was with  difficulty that I could believe him: to a height of twenty miles above sea level  rose the majestic king of Zanor's mountains.”
Except of course, that he's in a prison cell on Jupiter.   Burroughs has pushed a little further and performed a neat trick:   John Carter is now more skeptical than the reader.   He's headed us off at the pass!  By presenting his character as more skeptical than the reader, who is now along for the ride, he's short circuited our suspension of disbelief.  We're used to John Carter questioning things we have had to swallow, and even things we've willingly swallowed.   So how can we question or object to something if Carter doesn't?   Carter is now the outlier for our credibility, and if he accepts something without objection, then we have to go along.

It's a virtuoso trick, and even if all Burroughs moves are here on full display, performed so patently that we can see how he does it, its still entertaining.   At the top of his game, Burroughs, or any good writer, can do this so quickly and effectively, we never even notice until we're strapped to the Altar in Opar, or punching out giant green stick men on Barsoom.

By relentlessly challenging his own story, he sells it to us through the back door.

Quite clever.

NASA Image Library

To the Main Navigation Chart
Den Valdron's Fantasy Worlds of ERB

ERBzine Weekly Webzine
Visit our thousands of other sites at:
ERB Text, ERB Images and Tarzan® are ©Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.- All Rights Reserved.
All Original Work ©1996-2006/2010 by Bill Hillman and/or Contributing Authors/Owners
No part of this web site may be reproduced without permission from the respective owners.