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A Princess of Mars

September 29, 2010

A Princess of MarsI came away from reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, thinking how great it must have been to write in an age when you could just make stuff up. The novel, as the title suggests, is largely set on the planet Mars. The landscape and life on the planet seem to have sprung entirely from Burroughs’ imagination, which is refreshing to read if a bit preposterous.  He wrote it nearly a century ago when the idea of Martians was still very much in the public imagination and at least one prominent astronomer claimed to see canals on the surface of Mars which he cited as evidence of advanced Martian civilization.

Today’s writers are expected to research their subject extensively. The science-fiction writer who does not underpin his/her speculative fiction with solid a scientific basis invites a mailbox overflowing with pedantic missives or even outright dismissal by readers. Even the slightest minutiae are trotted out as errata and subject to criticism and ridicule on the internet.  

Not long after reading A Princess of Mars I watched Darren Aronofsky’s film The Fountain, which I found highly inventive, awe-inspiring, and thought-provoking. I loved it and so I did a search to find out more. Much of what I came up with concerned nitpicky quibbles such as how the image used to depict the Xibalba Nebula is actually the Orion Nebula which differs in colour and many of the other properties described in the film, or that one of the Mayan sites is referred to by a name that was not adopted until a later period in history.

The Fountain

The Fountain

What kind of reception would A Princess of Mars receive if it were released today? It probably would be a laughingstock, which would be a shame given that, regardless of its faults and overall pulp fiction schlockiness, it fired imaginations at the time and went on to inspire the likes of Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clark, Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, and Robert Heinlein.

I wonder if society is losing its ability to be inspired.  Are our imaginations being supplanted by the urge to rate, criticize and deconstruct? Is it more fun to scrutinize and find fault in something great than to allow oneself  to be outlandish or aspire to greatness? Does the current culture of armchair criticism and emphasis on factuality put a chill on imagination in fiction?

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