It’s a late-summer evening in northwest Wisconsin as I write this, sitting on the second-floor balcony of our home on Pickerel Lake. The sounds of the season surround us here–uncounted cheeps, chirps and the occasional car going by on State Road 48, about a hundred yards west of our driveway entrance.
I’ve just finished Gods of Mars, the second book in the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan. John Carter, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, is the lesser-known of Burroughs’ two great protagonists, after the Jungle Lord himself. Tarzan’s stories have been told in the movies and TV, not to mention near-countless books and comics, since his adventures were first published by Burroughs in magazine-serial form in 1912. The Ape-Man has overshadowed his literary colleague, but not by much.
Burroughs, who was nothing if not prolific as a writer, created Carter about the same time as Tarzan. Carter’s first story was published in 1912, and a hundred years later came the movie John Carter, which was a faithful telling of the story, although quite fanciful, as our knowledge of Mars in this century’s early decades is much advanced over what it was when Burroughs first sent his soldier to the Red Planet.
Carter is a rather mysterious man, one who never seems to age beyond his late thirties. Burroughs, in putting himself in the story, has always considered Carter to be an uncle, but isn’t sure exactly what branch of the family tree the man should be on. In any event, Carter entrusts Burroughs–whom he calls Ned–with his great secret: he can travel across millions of miles of space to Mars, spending years at a time there and engaging in fantastic adventures.
The method of Carter’s transportation is never explained in the book, but in the movie a slightly more scientific premise is provided. In any event, how he gets back and forth between Earth and Mars isn’t important; what matters is what happens to him on that distant, dying world, and it’s fantastic indeed.
In the introduction to the three-volume collection of Carter stories that I picked up last April at Fair Trade Books in Red Wing, Minn. (https://www.fairtradebooksrw.com), the writer Brian Stableford calls Burroughs’ work a great example of “adventure fiction”:
Adventure fiction is inherently “escapist,” in the sense that it allows readers to participate intimately in the thrilling exploits of larger-than-life characters performing heroic deeds in exotic locations. It is long on story and short on plot…It allows the reader to do little more than wonder, over again over again, what is going to happen next…Adventure fiction is exciting and relaxing, and–because the hero always wins in the end–eminently satisfying.
Because I’d seen the movie, I knew pretty much what to expect, but that hasn’t lessened my enjoyment of the books. Burroughs’ writing is definitely from an earlier era, quaint in many respects. There is no profanity and certainly no sex, despite the fact that he writes of the Martians wearing little if any clothing, aside from elaborate, ornamental necklaces and breastplates. There’s plenty of mayhem, much of it involving swordplay–the Martian races have developed gunpowder but prefer the blade, up close and personal, in their endless warfare against each other–but there’s little in the way of gore. Carter’s Earth-toned muscles, accustomed to our much heavier gravity, give him an enormous advantage, as does the fact that he just happens to be a highly-skilled swordsman in the first place. His strength allows him to wield a heavy broadsword that wreaks havoc among the enemy, and on Mars, which its natives call Barsoom, enemies are everywhere.
Mars is populated by a humanoid species that closely resembles Earth humans, and through the first two books of the series Burroughs has shown us three races. The people with red skin are the more technologically advanced, led by the city-state of Helium, whose princess, Dejah Thoris, becomes Carter’s wife after he rescues her from captivity. There are white people, the Thern, who live at the south pole and are almost as advanced as the red race, although they use their technology to capture and enslave red people from the north who come to the pole on religious pilgrimages to the Martian deity, Issus. And there is a black-skinned race, which serves Issus and keeps red and white captives as slaves. There are some semi-sentient animals, such as the “plant men” and the great white four-armed apes. The Martians have no land vehicles, but they have thoats, which are a cross between an elephant and a rhinoceros. The thoats can be domesticated and used for land transportation and combat, prized for their size, strength and endurance, able to go great distances between the scarce water sources of the planet. And then there are the Tharks, a race of 9-foot-tall, four-armed aliens who are the great ravaging hordes of Mars, engaging in no commerce except that of raiding enemy tribes and looting their camps and cities. Although they are not as technologically advanced as the human races, who have developed aircraft ranging from heavily-armed battleships to one-man fighters and scouts, the Tharks’ sheer numbers, physical strength and ferocity make them the scourge of Barsoom. The movie does a good job of bringing the Tharks of the book to the screen:
Early in the first book, Carter is captured by the Tharks, but his amazing fighting abilities earn him his freedom and their respect, and he befriends their leader, Tars Tarkas. With his help, Carter rescues Dejah Thoris from the clutches of another Thark tribe. That earns the Earthman the undying gratitude and respect of Helium, and it’s off we go, with one crisis after another barely allowing Carter time to sleep, much less relax and enjoy the pleasure of his wife’s company.
Although the film bombed at the box office, it’s developed a cult following since then, with occasional calls for sequels. Originally, two were planned, closely following the events of the second and third books in the series, ending with Warlord of Mars, where Carter, Dejah Thoris and their son finally conquer the Therns and unite all of Barsoom under Carter’s leadership. But the film’s failure to recoup its very expensive cost doomed any sequels. The biggest reason for its failure, critics said, was not the quality of the film itself but its calamitous marketing campaign. Removing the word “Mars” from the title was cited as a key factor. Plus, recent films like Dune and Avatar, which themselves had been inspired by the Burroughs books, played a role in the failure to generate much excitement about the movie. The marketers didn’t emphasize the adventure and excitement of the film and viewers were left with the task of trying to figure out just what the movie was supposed to be about. Word-of-mouth about the film was good, but not enough to overcome its disastrous start.
If it’s action you want, here comes The Man.
Modern-day writers of action books are always faced with the challenge of how vulnerable their hero should be. Whether you’re writing about Superman or John Carter or even a guy like Maverick in the Top Gun films, the author will have to decide just what kind of challenges does he want his hero to face. How many times will he get knocked down and get back up before his final victory? And indeed, will there be a final victory for him?
Modern thriller writers trace their heritage back to Burroughs, Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells and earlier adventure writers like James Fenimore Cooper. But when you read A Princess of Mars, for example, you know that you’re not reading a modern story. Besides the aforementioned aversion to explicit (or even implied) sex and violence, the protagonist is not only ultimately triumphant, he’s hardly even slowed down along the way. At least, that’s how it appears when you first read about John Carter and his adventures on Mars, but when you slow down long enough to consider what he’s really going through, it’s pretty clear Carter is indeed challenged. The difference between Burroughs and modern writers is that Burroughs doesn’t make a big deal about it.
Carter has a lot of big challenges in these books. He has to come to grips with what’s happened to him when he is first transported to Mars, and as one might expect, that’s not easy for him to wrap his brain around. He must learn to harness his new “powers” of enhanced physical strength and stamina, especially since he faces death on almost a daily basis from the hostile Martians and the equally-fierce animal species he encounters. When he meets Dejah Thoris and falls in love, he has to convince her skeptical people that he is indeed worthy of their trust and not just some stranger who might very well be a spy for a rival nation.
As I wrote The Man in the Arena, which debuts September 3 at a show in Cable, Wis., I had to consider what I was going to throw at my protagonist, Scott Armstrong. Forced into retirement after 25 years in the Air Force, Scott returns home to Crawford County in southwest Wisconsin, where he grew up along the Mississippi River (as I did, in Grant County, just to the south of Crawford). The circumstances of his ouster from the service didn’t give him time to prepare himself for the vast changes that civilian life now presents him with. Where will he live? What will he do?
Of course, I give him a place to live, and he quickly finds that there is indeed something he can do. He meets a woman and begins a romance, rescues a stray dog, and he also learns that something is going on in Crawford County, something that is poisoning the populace with drugs. A suspicious county sheriff warns him not to interfere, but desperate businessmen are looking for someone to come in and clean things up. Scott is inclined to go along with the sheriff, but when his lady friend’s daughter becomes a target, Scott must make a choice. And, of course he chooses to get involved. He must once again become the Man in the Arena his late grandfather always wanted him to be.
Despite his years of training as an Intelligence and then Special Tactics officer, Scott isn’t Superman. The gang that’s been corrupting the county for years quickly identifies him as a threat, and they have a couple of special weapons of their own that they’re ready to deploy to deal with Scott, ones that should be more than a match for a middle-aged ex-commando.
I had a lot of fun writing the book, especially when it came to researching the area by spending a couple days wandering around Crawford County and enjoying the beauty of the coulees, the ridges, and the majestic Mississippi itself. I enjoy living on a lake up here in northwest Wisconsin, but as far as I’m concerned, you can’t beat life on the river down in the southwest.
The Man in the Arena is available for pre-order now as an e-book on Amazon. To get the link, just go to my website: http://davidtindellauthor.com. Print copies will be available as of September 3, when I premiere the book at Redbery Books in Cable, a nice little town in southern Bayfield County. I’ll also be appearing at Dairy Days in Platteville, right in the middle of Grant County, on September 10, and at Fall Fest up in Hayward on September 24. There’ll be an autographed copy waiting for you!