Men are from Mars, Women are from Herland


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.  Continue reading “Men are from Mars, Women are from Herland”

Lost Worlds, Found Dangers

Cover, Amazing Stories, May 1949Since the readings themselves were not generating massive amounts of insight for me this week, I started musing about the sub-genre of Lost World tales.  Specifically, I was thinking on how it differs from and overlaps with other related sub-genres:

Since I’m a great big geek, I ended up making a chronological spreadsheet (Lost Worlds mini-bibliography) with landmark Lost World books and associated key terms.

To be fair, prolific authors like H. Ridder Haggard (who I actually quite like) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (whose writing I find pompous) would skew the results strongly if I let them, so I only used a couple of their best-known books each.  I found one correlation that interested me, especially in light of its subversion by Charlotte Perkins Gilman:

  • When the Lost World involves mostly primitive cultures (as perceived by these 1870-1920 Euro-centric authors and their narrators), there is usually very little space dedicated to female characters, and they fall primarily in the “evil old witch” and “innocent noble savage girl” categories.
  • When the Lost World involves  the Lost World involve ancient civilizations, there is almost always a princess, queen, or other woman of power who is both desirable and dangerous.  The inevitably white, male, brawny central protagonist is attracted to her but usually leaves her behind to return to his own world, with some wistfulness but much relief.

Also, the four stock locations for a Lost World are:

  • Legendary islands
  • Remote continental interior (South America, Central Asia, Africa or Antarctica)
  • The Hollow Earth
  • Other planets.

As we run out of unexplored places on Earth, Lost Worlds migrate through the Solar System, then out to other star systems.

Now if I could only fold this into a 320-words essay, and have space for some reflections…

Pop Culture Mars and Herland

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

The book is available in audio format from LibriVox, from Candlelight Stories, from The Fantastic Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and from The Audio Archive’s YouTube channel.

John Carter (Disney 2012)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.

Mars cover (Adamant Entertainment)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.


Here is the audiobook version of Herland from LibriVox; and two short radio episodes of Gilman’s writing, “California Colors” and “Matriatism” from the California Legacy Project.

In addition, here are the two other books in the Herland trilogy: Moving the Mountain, a sort of post-prequel; and the direct sequel, With Her in Ourland. 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.

Wonder Women coverThe 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.