To go with my online class Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, I started a series of posts listing companion materials in pop culture, preferably ones that are a little forgotten, have not received the attention I think they deserve, or take an unusual angle. All the better if they are available online, double-plus for free.
These are the ones I propose to accompany Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland.
A Princess of Mars
You’ve heard of the 2012 Disney movie, John Carter. You may have even heard that it was a stinker; it wasn’t. For apparently fiscal reasons, Disney decided to write this movie off before it even came out. I was rather reminded of the way Fox Entertainment treated a number of good television shows, most notably Firefly. The truth is, John Carter was actually quite well done, pretty faithful to the feel and excitement of the original material while managing to tone down a lot of its racism and sexism. On the down side, it did meld the elements from several of Burroughs books rather than following a single one. Most importantly for the genre, it was entertaining. I liked it better than the Star Wars prequels, the Star Trek reboot, or Avatar, if only because it was unpretentious.
Then there is the role-playing game from Adamant Entertainment, Mars, published in two versions for both the Savage Worlds and d20 systems. Although they had to file off the serial numbers to accommodate the heirs of Burroughs copyrights, the inspiration is acknowledged and very clear. I enjoyed the game in its SW version.
The theme of “planetary romance”, also known as “sword and planet” and especially as exemplified by Burroughs, has inspired other role-playing games including Douglas Easterly’s Savage Swords of Athanor, also using the Savage Worlds system and available as a free PDF. The author offers a lot of interesting musings on his blog on running this type of game.
In comic books and graphic novels, Burroughs’ Martians make short but interesting appearances (along with H.G. Wells’ Martians) in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume II.
Unz.org gathered a nice collection of Gilman’s writings online.
Let’s face it, the expository section of Herland is not as exciting as Burroughs’ florid but action-laden prose, using gentle humour to make its point; but it managed to leave its mark in a few places.
For context, one needs to learn a bit about late 19th century and early 20th century social reform movements; I highly recommend Susan Jacoby’s book Freethinkers because it is concise, also provides the historical context before and since, and gives a wider picture of those inter-linked movements rather than looking only at one, for example feminism or racial equality.
The central theme of Herland is of course the feminist utopia concept, or as TV Tropes calls it, Lady Land. It is found in a lot of very academic works, but also on Wonder Woman’s island of Themyscira.
Speaking of which, a side look at Lillian S. Robinson’s Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes is interesting, short and punchy — as befits the topic. In only briefly mentions Herland but it does discuss the topic of feminist utopias.
Feminist utopias and dystopias: “The Women’s Millennium” by Charles Heber Clark, writing under the pseudonym of “John Quill”, 1867.
Gilman’s legacy directly or indirectly influenced other science fiction writers like Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Bradley Sheldon), and Doris Lessing.