Did Edgar Rice Burroughs write science fiction…?
It’s an interesting question. My favorite thing about it is the extent to which team “no” is willing to contort themselves in order to keep the man out of the clubhouse. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is fairly representative in this regard:
The standard of storytelling and invention is high in the Barsoom books, Chessmen and Swords being particularly fine; but it has always been difficult for some critics to accept the Planetary Romance as being, in any cognitive sense, good sf. Although Carter’s adventures take place on another planet, he incontrovertibly travels there by magical means, and Barsoom itself is inconsistent and scientifically implausible. It is clear, however, that Burroughs’s immense popularity has nothing to do with conventional sf virtues, for it depends on storylines and venues as malleable as dreams, exotic and dangerous and unending.
That’s quite an endorsement, really. But even these nudniks have to hedge their bets because the Barsoom stories are undoubtedly science fiction. They’re just not good science fiction– at least according to some critics, anyway. Oh, and hey… they don’t follow the sort conventions that only became dominant decades after the series’s inception. Astonishing!
Encyclopedia Britannica manages to be somewhat more evenhanded as they cast him as a major figure in the development of the field:
Edgar Rice Burroughs, with his serialized story Under the Moons of Mars (1912; novelized as A Princess of Mars, 1917; adapted for film as John Carter, 2012), transformed European-style “literary” science fiction into a distinctly American genre directed at a juvenile audience. Combining European elements of fantasy and horror with the naive expansionist style of early American westerns, Burroughs had his hero John Carter outwit various inferior green, yellow, and black Martians. He also marries a red Martian and has a child by her, despite the fact that she reproduces by laying eggs. Burroughs’s hero remained an SF archetype, especially for “space operas,” through the 1950s.
But note how many places they drop the ball right there in that brief passage. Burroughs garners demerits for mixing elements of multiple genres within the same novel… at a time when the dividing lines between fantasy, science fiction, and horror were considerably more blurry than we are used to today. (Keep in mind that before John W. Campbell’s tenure at Astounding Stories, the magazine featured multiple stories by H. P. Lovecraft!) Meanwhile, Argosy magazine which featured many of Burrough’s novels was not a magazine that targeted a juvenile audience by any stretch. Finally, Burrough’s hero was synonymous with fantasy and science fiction all the way through the seventies when the movie poster depictions of Luke Skywalker were specifically crafted to evoke Frank Frazetta’s renditions of John Carter of Mars. Meanwhile, Superman– the character that set the template for superhero comics for all time– was patterned after two Burrough’s most enduring creations, John Carter and Tarzan.
When it comes to science fiction and culture in general, you really can’t underestimate the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But critics and historians alike can’t seem to allow themselves to give the man a fair shake.