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Did Edgar Rice Burroughs Write Science Fiction?

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.

It’s bizarre.



13 responses to “Did Edgar Rice Burroughs Write Science Fiction?

  1. John Boyle December 20, 2017 at 4:45 am

    They hate him. I think that part of it is SJW standard policy (he’s an old white guy so he must be racist, colonialist, sexist, irrelevant and so on), part of it is envy but a big part is that he created HEROES, men of courage who do what needs to be done, who are true friends and who mate for life and build families.

    We can’t have that now, can we?

    • morganwestridge December 22, 2017 at 2:39 am

      Well, when you create a former Confederate soldier who then goes on to show the natives he’s the alpha male, or create the prototype white hero in Africa who is the real “lord of the jungle” you can’t help but hit some triggers to modern sensibilities….

      Adding to that, most critics of Burroughs are academic or literary types, and Burroughs is the very definition of straight forward pulp. He was a commercial writer through and through, and he knew it: his goal was selling stories people liked to read to make money. There’s a quote which I’m not sure is accurate but is widely attributed to him that he wrote Tarzan to see how bad a book he could write and still sell. That he still managed to succeed so spectacularly in creating a character who was that successful is a tribute to genius and hard work.

      So yeah, it’s cheap not to acknowledge his influence, but at the same time, I think it’s a bit easy to say that Burroughs is disliked because he stood for All That is Good . He wrote fast junk-food fiction using the tropes of his day, and wrote it with with verve and imagination and originality that captured the imagination of a generation. Hell, half the interest in “going to Mars” despite it being a worthless hell hole probably owes to the SF authors who were inspired by him (like Heinlein and Bradbury) and who in turn inspired scientists and engineers and the public.

      • John Boyle December 27, 2017 at 3:42 am

        Haggard’s great white hunter Quatermain and Kipling’s Mowgli were precursors to Burroughs “Lord of the Jungle”, but Tarzan grabbed the American public’s imagination in a way that they did not. That quote about writing Tarzan to see how bad a book he could write and still sell is actually from Kipling, published posthumously. Kipling got it wrong; Burroughs was the survivor of multiple failed attempts at business and was on the edge of poverty when the first John Carter and Tarzan books were written.

        He said later that when he saw what other writers were being paid for that he could write something at least as good and probably a lot better if they would pay him for it. He wasn’t trying to get away with anything; he was trying to put food on the table for his family and pay the bills.

        Burroughs never thought of himself as anything but an entertainer, but I think he deliberately put the themes of Courage, Friendship, Love and Marriage into his work because he was something that many authors were and are NOT: a parent. He had two young children and a third on the way when his stories started to sell, and I believe he was trying to reinforce principles that he taught as a father. He succeeded to a surprising degree; while the oldest war correspondent in the Pacific Theater in WWII, a number of servicemen told him that he had helped to teach them what a man was and is. He started inspiring people long before Heinlein and Bradbury ever saw print.

        But it wasn’t just modern sensibilities he triggered. Sometime in the 20’s, there was a Roundtable of big authors put up by one or more of the big publishers (I think Dick Lupoff talks about this in his book Edgar Rice Burroughs, Master of Adventure) with authors like Upton Sinclair present. A lot of big names, a lot of big egos who disagreed about everything with one exception: That Edgar Rice Burroughs was a talentless hack and all of his books were worthless tripe.

        ERB: driving leftists nuts for ninety years and counting.

  2. Rick Stump December 20, 2017 at 6:11 am

    Hold it! ERB wrote a lot of books! What about Beyond the Farthest Star? At The Earth’s Core? *Beyond Thirty*?!?!
    Ok, calling Princess ‘science fantasy’? Why not?
    But that’s not all he wrote.

    • Spencer E Hart December 20, 2017 at 11:11 am

      The Land That Time Forgot is clearly based on an early interpretation of evolution.
      The Master Mind of Mars is all about brain transplants.

      The mysterious “rays/ radiations” in all of the Barsoom books are at least as scientific as ideas as concepts like gravity manipulation or fusion power.

      • morganwestridge December 22, 2017 at 2:21 am

        Gravity manipulation, anyway. Fusion power may be economically and practically difficult, but there are those lights in the sky that are burning for some reason…

        I’m leery of saying that just because something is ridiculously hard from an engineering standpoint (fusion power) and likely to be economically unfeasible in the next century or so, it’s in the same category as something no one credible has any idea how it would work from a scientific basis at all (Burroughs rays, gravity manipulation, etc.). It kind of smacks of assuming that all of future history will be the next 100 years or so. If humanity or its successors continues to maintain civilization for a thousand years, I still wouldn’t bet on gravity control, but in 3000 AD I’d be willing to have a more than even shot at fusion power being something that might exist…

  3. Cambias December 20, 2017 at 8:16 am

    I’m aware that Burroughs is identified as a science fiction writer by others, but I don’t know if that’s how he thought of his Barsoom works.

    I’m not just trying to nitpick. Science Fiction is more than just a marketing category. It’s an approach, a technique. Not everything with “science fiction” on the Amazon category listing is actually science fiction, and you can call me a Campbellian screwdriver-bearer all you wish but it remains true.

    Setting a story on Mars doesn’t make it science fiction, if Mars looks a lot more like the Theosophist afterlife than anything Lowell was describing at the turn of the century. Eddison’s novel _The Worm Ouroborous supposedly takes place on Mercury, but would you call its saga of the war between the King of Witchland and the Lords of Demonland a science fiction story?

    I love the Burroughs Mars stories, and I’m very excited by the success of Jeffro’s efforts to rediscover and reclaim the classics of pulp adventure. But I don’t understand why you’re so attached to the idea that what was called “science fiction” in 1930 has to define what we call it today. Why not use Hugo Gernsback’s definition of “a charming romance interwoven with scientific fact and prophetic vision” instead? Or use Jules Verne’s definition instead?

    It’s especially odd to see this weird recoil from the use of “Fantasy” to describe works which are pretty obviously fantasies, especially when from a marketing standpoint, Fantasy vastly outsells Science Fiction today.

    I don’t know why these definitions are so important, either to you or to me, but obviously they are, and I’ll defend my position to my last radium bullet!

    • Nathan December 20, 2017 at 7:36 pm

      “But I don’t understand why you’re so attached to the idea that what was called “science fiction” in 1930 has to define what we call it today.”

      If anything, the 1930s definition is a better fit today, with the rise of some real genre benders world-wide. Computer-assisted magical battle academies, espers fighting magicians and Heinleineqsue mobile armor, cyberpunk sword and planet among classical space navies. Like many a flower, science fiction breeds a little too readily with other ideas. The Resnick/Malzburg Dialogues (#11) show just how fragile the “science fiction as Gold and Campbell and Knight and Sturgeon and Kornbluth and the other Futurians loved and built it” really is.

      But the nice thing about the current age is there’s an audience for all approaches.

    • morganwestridge December 22, 2017 at 2:55 am

      “Setting a story on Mars doesn’t make it science fiction, if Mars looks a lot more like the Theosophist afterlife than anything Lowell was describing at the turn of the century. Eddison’s novel _The Worm Ouroborous supposedly takes place on Mercury, but would you call its saga of the war between the King of Witchland and the Lords of Demonland a science fiction story?”

      Agree with you about the Worm. But let’s reverse the question!

      If you simply made a one-word change if the name “Mercury” to something else (“Middle Earth” or “Westeros” or whatever) there would no debate that The Worm is fantasy. Only its more florid then usual language would separate it from the fantasy novels gaining steam in the 1950s.

      However, A Princess of Mars features numerous “scientific” elements not so easily excised, including a wholly-original bestiary of creatures with no earthly mythological equivalents, the crude elements of an ecology, some alternate science defined as science (ray guns, flying machines, etc) a “rational” explanation of the hero’s super abilities (the different gravity), and so on and on.

      Numerous novels in the modern science fiction tradition can be said to be “science fiction versions of a (another genre story)” whether it’s a detective story (Gil the Arm, Caves of Steel) or a police procedural or a cosy mystery (Ann Leckie’s Provenance), a war story (starship troopers, forever war), etc.

      Since we easily accept these cross-genre elements, there’s no reason not, in my mind, to say that A Princess of Mars is “science fiction version of an adventure story” (specifically the lost world genre, or if you prefer, the white savior colonial romance)…. It’s literary roots are obvious, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t science fiction.

  4. Paul December 20, 2017 at 9:38 am

    At the time he was writing, A Princess of Mars would have been called scientific romance.

    • morganwestridge December 22, 2017 at 2:12 am

      Yep. Earliest limited use of the term “Science fiction” dates to around 1921, nine years after A Princess of Mars. “Scientifiction” was in limited use from 1916, about four years after A Princess of Mars.

      A Princess of Mars is of course a very early text in science fiction, one that helps define the boundaries of the genre. But I think it’s recognizably SF, in the same way that a Wright Flyer and a Boeing 747 are both fixed wing airplanes.

      You could reasonably argue that the science fiction genre as we largely know it is largely the result of a combination of the influence of Burroughs-like (planetary adventure) and Wells (gadgets and social ideas).

      Fred Pohl has a nice essay on the influence of Burroughs on science fiction:

      And the influence of Burroughs on authors like Heinlein or Zelazny or whatever is undeniable.

      -David Pulver

      • Paul December 22, 2017 at 12:20 pm

        That’s a very interesting article by Pohl. Thanks for pointing it out. Yes, ERB was definitely the grandfather of adventure driven SF.

  5. Pingback: Sensor Sweep: Conan pastiches, Crashing Suns, and lots of Star Wars –

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