Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2005-6

How about a change of scene from New Orleans? How
about … Mars?

by Gustavus Pope (1894)

Richard Dengrove

Who was Gustavus Pope? A physician in Washington, D.C. who wrote a book about Shakespeare. He had an even greater achievement however. I am willing to bet his Journey to Mars inspired Edgar Rice Burroughs' serial "Under the Moons of Mars" (1911) and the novel adapted from it, The Princess of Mars (1917), which was the first in his Barsoom series.

Burroughs never said, so we can never know; but I am willing to bet. Burroughs was nineteen at the time Journey to Mars was published. He could easily have read the book.

The evidence is that many rather unique plot elements appear in both Pope and Burroughs.

Consider these.

  1. In both, Mars' is ruled by nobility and kings.
  2. In both, a princess takes a fancy to the Earthling hero. In Pope, it is Princess Suhlamia and, in Burroughs, it is Deja Thoris.
  3. In both there are different colored races that inhabit Mars.
  4. In both, life on Mars is threatened with destruction at some point.
  5. In both, there is a lot of swordplay.
  6. In both, the Earthling heroes are American military officers.
  7. In both, the occult enters in.

About the heroes being military officers, in Pope, there is no question: Lieutenant Frederick Hamilton is an officer in the U.S. Navy. In Burroughs, it is a slight bit more farfetched. John Carter had been a captain in the Confederate Army, and the war had ended for many years. Still, everyone referred to him as captain.

In addition to similarities I have included, there are similarities I have not included. For instance, that the villainous king tries to force the princess heroine to marry him, even to the extent of waging war against her country. In Pope, it is Prince Diavojahr. In Burroughs, it is Sab Than .

Also, I have not mentioned that, in both works, the officer hero saves this royal heroine.

The reason I have not included these is that the villain forcing the heroine to marry him was a staple of Victorian melodramas. The same is true of the hero saving heroine.

While both Pope and Burroughs are similar in this way, they have written very different novels. Pope is trying to be fashionable while Burroughs is providing the reader with an escape.

Pope would be the equivalent of a jet setter these days. He was a firm believer that people should respect their betters, which he regarded himself as. Among the traits of the jet setter he had wit and a talent for making interesting observations. These traits kept me turning the pages of his novel.

Pope had an even more important jet setter trait, however: he was as fashionable as you could get for the 1890s. He was a vegetarian and had, at least, a feminist attitude. In other ways being fashionable then differs greatly from being fashionable today. For instance, he was up on his classics and erudition.

Pope was less fashionable in his science even though he claimed his novel was to promote science. His scientific views were behind the times even then. It is true the principles behind the Martian spacecraft, the Ethervolt, were in accord with the science of his time. However, his views on the evolution of planets and life were not. He does not even seem to have heard about the Theory of Evolution and Lord Kelvin's Controversy. In addition, he is less fashionable when it comes to literature. Especially near the end, the tale becomes an action/adventure and a Victorian melodrama. I am sure the literary sophisticates of his time would have laughed him out of court.

For Burroughs’ part, he does not care about being upper upper and fashionable; he wants to eat. To do this, he provides his readers with an escape. While he inserts social commentary into his novels, he does not hit you over the head with it. Nor does he take himself seriously.

You can even see the differences between Pope's and Burroughs' novels in their similarities.



1) In both, Mars is ruled by nobility and kings. As I said, Pope likes the idea of people being ruled by their betters. He saw the European monarchies and aristocracies as better, preserves of good breeding and virtue.

Many Americans held these views in the 1890s. They extolled the virtue of monarchies and aristocracies of Europe over the corruption of the U.S. government. Monarchies and aristocracy even seem to have been considered progressive by many; albeit, it was a rather authoritarian type of progressivism.

This is the opposite of how Europeans viewed monarchies and aristocracies; there they were considered conservative not progressive.

On Pope's Mars, good rulers insured that their subjects had not only decent homes, food and health; but a combination of videophone and television.

On the other hand, Pope thinks for himself enough to see that there might be a problem with kings and nobles. Kings and nobles actually had to be worthy people for theirs to be a better form of government. I suspect he got the idea of unworthy rulers from the Classics, from Cato or some later writer.

Unworthy rulers, like Prince Diavojahr and his entourage, who were lazy, greedy and vengeful ­ “who brought high taxes and war” ­ could make life dreadful. In fact, they could bring down the wrath of God.

Burroughs, by contrast, had a completely different take on the monarchies and aristocracies that rule Mars. They were not the preserves of good breeding they were for Pope. They were the preserve of war and violence, like Pope's Prince Diavojahr. They resemble more closely barbarian and oriental despotism, where it is survival of the slyest and strongest.

That makes it a better setting for action adventure. Nations and people are always fighting one another for supremacy.

3) Another similarity between the two novels is race. In both novels, there are different colored races that inhabit Mars. In Pope, there are red, yellow and blue races. However, even the blue races look like Earth humans.

It is no wonder Pope does this. The belief in 1894 was that evolution on all planets would converge in humans, who were the highest beings possible.

Also, there is an odd-man-out race, the descendants of refugees. Its planet had been destroyed 6,000 years before. These are giants, maybe 10 feet tall, with golden skin and purple hair. I have a vague feeling they were supposed to resemble the way Ancient Greek and Roman statues looked before the paint peeled off.

By the way, Pope calls that planet Pluto; a name only later taken by the farthest planet from our Sun.

Burroughs has three races too, but they are those on Earth: White, Black and Yellow. They resemble Earth humans too. There was somewhat less justification in 1911 except to ape the popularity of earlier Mars novels.

The similarity does not stop there. Burroughs also has an odd man out race. A green race, which is very tall and has tusks and two sets of arms. They are exotic indeed.

Despite these similarities, both Pope and Burroughs still differ in their attitude toward their races. Modern critics have complained that Pope is racist. By our standards, yes. I suspect, in the 1890s, he would have been considered fashionably enlightened on the subject of race.

It is very true he makes no bones about some races being superior and some being inferior. The Yellow are superior on Mars and the Whites on Earth. It is also true he considers the great sin of Mars as race mixing, between the Plutonian race and the other races.

What attenuates this is that, for Pope, all races have their strengths and weaknesses. The telepathist Ascopion is blue. The race most appropriate for taming the giant Venusian leviathans are pure blood Plutonians.

Another reason Pope has been considered racist is his portrayal of the Maori sailor, John. Fate has taken him to Mars with Lieutenant Hamilton. I think critics have been too quick to make that judgment. The basis for it is that John's English verges on Pidgin. Also, he does a lot of clowning.

Otherwise, however, Pope goes out of his way to portray John as a superior man. He even has Lieutenant Hamilton characterize him as intelligent. Also, the clowning may not show John in that bad a light. When John clowns, it is with self-deprecating humor to put people at ease. At one point, he claims he is a head hunter and makes funny comments about people's heads. Everyone is amused.

At another point, John even saves the day. Early on, using common sense, he saves the life of the Lieutenant and everyone on an ethervolt, a space vehicle, when they are incapacitated by Pope's idea of zero gravity.

While Pope can be seen as enlightened for his age, Burroughs, as far as we can tell, is enlightened even for our age. He does it in such a way his view promotes the action and the adventure.

The hierarchy was not even as clear as it was with Pope, especially in the all important area of fighting. For instance, the green men are considered primitive herdsmen but they have rifles with radium bullets which make them the equal of more civilized city races.

This again has an action adventure function. When the races fight, you do not necessarily know who is going to win. It increases the suspense. Is there satire in back of this and strongly held views? Given that Burroughs hides his views, we can never know.

4) In both novels, life on Mars is nearly destroyed at some point. Pope believes in a variation of the Nebula Hypothesis. Meteors and planetoids come together to form planets. Ultimately, these planets are broken up by meteors, comets, or planetoids.

As I said, Pope's forte is the classics. His science seems to have been behind the times. His catastrophism seems a relic from earlier in the Century. Later in the novel, a comet reeks havoc. It is driving the Moons of Mars closer, and they will ultimately crash into it. This will render Mars unlivable. We never learn whether that in fact happens.

In addition to having a scientific explanation for the destruction of planets, Pope also has a moral/religious explanation. In Pope's view, Planets are threatened with destruction because of the decadence of their inhabitants, like the Prince Diavojahr and his entourage in the empire of Sundora-Luzion. While it was fashionable to attribute the rise and fall of nations to decadence, I do not know about the rise and fall of planets.

Still, the idea of the decadence and destruction of planets comes too close to being Biblical. Could religion ever be chi chi? I think, for many in this era, it was. For others, like Mark Twain, irreligion and sin were.

By contrast, Burroughs does not go out of his way to advocate a cosmology and he only occasionally hints at one. When he does, it differs from Pope's. Mars is an old planet that is getting colder and drier. It needs canals. In this, Burroughs, strangely for a fantasy, is more in accord with the scientific thinking of his time than Pope.

Also, old Mars has a problem with producing its own oxygen. This lays the groundwork for its near destruction. The mad scientist who makes the oxygen dies and his plant stops manufacturing it. The Martians are having a harder and harder time breathing.

Rather than using the near destruction of Martian life to preach about moral consequences, like Pope, Burroughs just used it to provide more fodder for John Carter's derring do. Again, what is fashionable in Pope is action adventure in Burroughs. In fact, Burroughs was more interested in titillation than morality. Despite Mars' apparent cold climate, he has the Martians go around naked. While others had been talking about universal nudity at the time, it still would have been a crowd pleaser.

5) In both novels, there is swordplay. In Pope, there is not that much, and probably no more than would have taken place among the nobility of 1894. In fact, it is associated with his love of monarchy and aristocracy, who dueled to defend their honor. Military men like Lieutenant Hamilton did too.

In the novel, he has a sword fight with the evil Prince Diavojahr. However, the evil Prince cheats with a hidden metal vest and an electrified sword. The blackguard! Nonetheless, Hamilton wins.

Burroughs' sword play is different from Pope's. He seems to have sword fights at least once a chapter. They promote the action. Although there are plenty of more advanced weapons on Mars, there is nothing like a sword for making fighting personal.

Of course, swordfighting in Burroughs is very different from Pope: his barbarian, oriental, exotic Martians are not gentlemen and are bound by no rules.

This does not mean the Martians are bound by no rules at all. A promise is written in stone. Sab Than, prince of the city of Zodanga, forces the princess Deja Thoris to promise to marry him. When John Carter arrives, she says, having given her promise, she cannot go back on it.

However, there is a barbarian, exotic solution to this. Carter kills Sab Than. I bet Lieutenant Hamilton would have abhorred that violence.

7) In both novels, the occult plays a part. As I said, Pope claims to be spreading the gospel of science among the public. However, his science is out of date. His occult, on the other hand, is up to the minute. Pope says the Martians practice mind over matter and invoke spirits. Both doctrines were fashionable at the time.

The first was fashionable under the names New Thought and Christian Science. Also, there were several groups which had been promoting the invocation of spirits since earlier in the Century. The most famous was flourishing at this time, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

While Pope approves of invoking spirits, he does not seem to know much about it. However, he brings it into the plot. He has a magician of Sundora-Luzion, unimaginatively named Thaumatour, invoke them. Among other things, the spirits allow Thaumatour to predict Lieutenant Hamilton's future.

By contrast, Burroughs believes his readers are not that fashionable. They would not go in for outright occult philosophies. However, they would go in for the occult that sounds scientific, i.e., parapsychological. He has John Carter transport himself from an Arizona cave to Mars by teleportation, a paranormal talent.

Burroughs only brings the occult into his novel indirectly. He has the Martians get their power from different colored rays. For instance, one powers Martian aircraft. To me, it is credible that a different approach to science could have developed on Mars.

However, it is hard for me to believe Burroughs did not borrow the concept from the occult system of Theosophy. That was a very popular movement of the era. According to it, there are seven rays of different colors that permeate the universe. Of course, while the Martians' rays have very material powers, the rays of Theosophy are very spiritual, representing abstract concepts like will, love, intelligence and beauty.

I have to admit, with telepathy, the two authors are not that much different. In both novels, mind reading plays a part. This is easily explained because telepathy has sounded both scientific and occult. In Pope, Lieutenant Hamilton and the Maori John learn Martian telepathically through Ascopion, a member of the blue race. Thus, Pope allowed them to skip the time learning Martian and could get on with the plot.

In Burroughs, telepathy appears a lot more often. John Carter finds he can read Martian minds, but only when it is a deus ex machina, when the action demands it to save the hero. Other times, he is clueless when the action demands that he fall pray to his enemies. I think the seven similarities show that Burroughs borrowed elements from Pope. Of course while Pope was more interested in being fashionable, Burroughs was more interested in giving his readers an escape. Ironically, while escapes usually are ephemeral, I am willing to bet that, in Burroughs case, because his escapes hit so many chords, his novels are still around.


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