DeFlip Side #63: Barsoom and Beyond

DS63.mp3

Welcome everyone, I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

I have once again figured out a way to bring my proclivity for obsolescence into the 21st century. A few months back, I told you about my devotion to the oldest mass electronic medium, radio, and how I use my newfangled Sirius satellite radio mainly to listen to old time radio shows.

Well, I’ve discovered a new passion that predates even the era of vacuum tubes: the fantastic fiction or Edgar Rice Burroughs. And the most ironic part about the whole thing is that I never would have discovered this pulp treasure trove without the Internet. As in many a Burroughs tale, the past and present have collided in a quite unforeseen and interesting way.

In full candor, this digital love affair has old-fashioned paper and glue roots. I found Burroughs’ book The Land That Time Forgot in the cafeteria at work, and started to read it during my lunch hour. But as I mainly wind up eating lunch in my office, I did a quick online search and behold; every Burroughs book you could ever want is available online at many different sites.

ERBZine is far and away the best one. Check it out at ERBZine.com.  It not only contains full editions, including prologues and afterwords missing from the other online venues, but it also features enough Burroughs history and scholarship to keep you happily browsing for years, if you’re so inclined. Needless to say, I stick mainly to the fiction.

For most people, if they recognize the name Edgar Rice Burroughs at all, it is synonymous with Tarzan, his most enduring fictional creation. But what got me hooked are his Mars books, which follow the exploits of Earthman John Carter, a frontiersman who is mysteriously transported to the red planet where he finds adventure at every turn.

If ever there was a fictional embodiment of the mythical American archetype at the turn of the last century, John Carter is it. He’s brave, adventurous, honorable, strong, loyal, dauntless and always ready for a scrap. Granted, John Carter is more caricature than character, but that doesn’t make his adventures any less enjoyable. In fact, I think it adds to their appeal. They’re refreshing, even if unfashionable by today’s standards.

And now that I’m familiar with his work, I see Burroughs’ influence everywhere, most especially in the creations of George Lucas. Anakin’s flier in The Phantom Menace and the arena scene at the end of Attack of the Clones are straight out of the Mars stories. Burroughs even uses the word sith, only on his version of Mars it’s a kind of giant Martian wasp. And let’s not forget Indiana Jones; he may as well be John Carter reincarnated.

But let’s forget the homages. The broad appeal, durability and non-stop action of Burroughs’ Martian universe make his books prime candidates for adaptation as movie blockbusters, easily as big and spectacular as The Lord of the Rings. Regardless of how you feel about Peter Jackson’s take on Tolkien, his films prove that it is now possible to render Burroughs’ sprawling, creature-filled Martian landscape down to the last detail.

The biggest obstacle to a truly faithful adaptation is the fact the everyone on Mars is running around naked. Burroughs makes it a point to have one of the characters say that only on the planet Earth do the inhabitants cover themselves with strange cloths. So now you know the real reason why all those young boys were such big fans, beside those Frazetta covers; it probably lured them to read his Venus stories as well.

This monster popularity notwithstanding, book editors back then were as collectively idiotic as they are today. Burroughs sold his first Tarzan story to All Story magazine in 1912, but book publishers thought Tarzan was too fantastic and controversial, and wouldn’t catch on. Burroughs finally managed to get it serialized in a newspaper, and the rest, as they say, is history. Makes you wonder what other potential American literary and cultural icons we’ve been deprived of because of the perennial stupidity and timidity of the publishing industry.

But Burroughs gives us more than enough to make up for it. He never met a sequel he didn’t like. Aside from writing or contributing to more than 20 Tarzan books, he wrote 11 Mars books, five books that take place on Venus, two sequels to The Land That Time Forgot, a Moon trilogy, seven books set at the Earth’s core, a series of westerns and more that 20 stand-alone novels.

By the time he died in 1950, he’d penned close to 70 books. To think that I’m only in the middle of reading my fourth. And since I’m fairly scrupulous about limiting myself to a chapter per lunch break (when I have the opportunity to read at all), I figure I’ll be retired before I’m able to get through the entire online catalog. By that time, the Internet itself will probably have gone the way of the vacuum tube and be as vintage as the pulps, therefore enabling me to further fuel my passion for obsolete media.

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