The Week 7 reading assignments for my online class on Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World were Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland.
Both books are ostensibly about discovering mythical civilizations, although Burroughs’ is a straight-up tale of action while Gilman’s uses the trappings of the genre and gentle irony to develop what reads more as a philosophical manifesto with a light sprinkling of adventure. I am not a fan of Burroughs’ writing style, which I find pompous and awkward (though to be fair, this was his first published fiction), and Gilman’s book was too long with too much exposition. All in all, not a great reading week.
Here is my 300-word essay.
Burroughs’ Barsoom and Gilman’s Herland use similar trappings to imagine the effects of limited natural resources and resulting population pressures on societal structures – reaching very different conclusions.
On Barsoom, the gradual loss of water and atmosphere has decreased the planet’s capacity to support life. Meanwhile, evolution and a tradition of medical knowledge granted the Green Martians high fertility and a 1000-year-long natural lifespan. As a result, Green Martians have come to place low value on physical risk and individual survival. Offspring are deliberately exposed to hardship so that only the strongest will survive, and the death rate will balance births.
In Herland the physical size of the country itself, nested in the mountains, limits what population it can accomodate. In response, Herlanders improved sustainability and resource efficiency as far as they could, and developed rules to limit their own birth rate to what the land can support. The society is nurturing and tries to maximize not only the survival rate of offspring, but how productive and well-adapted their young will be.
Burroughs, who opposed socialism, tells us that the Green Martian society’s way of keeping most possessions in common and sharing in the education of the young has essentially caused devolution: they have abandoned capacity for empathy, adhering to a kill-or-be-killed ethos. The Red Martians, who value long lineage and nobility, are described as more civilised.
Gilman, who favoured socialism, praises a society that promotes the common good of the group and maximizes total happiness. Thus, the communal management of resources and the extension of responsibility for education to all members of the community are seen as marks of success.
Finally, Burroughs-as-Carter praises the reliance on tradition rather than law… without noting that on a planet experiencing a catastrophic change in climate, tradition would not be a trustworthy guide. Herlanders, by contrast, rely on law rather than tradition; they update their laws regularly and systematically, based on reason.