Category Archives: science fiction

“John Carter of Mars”

Or, A Hero, Literally, of the Past

Disney’s remake of the Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure story A Princess of Mars flopped at the box office, losing about $200 million, reported as perhaps the largest all-time loss on a single movie.  See Michael White’s article at:

The article also cites one analyst who attributes the flop to the film being over-budget and “poorly marketed.”  I’m not sure what “poorly marketed” means, exactly, in this context; maybe it was.  Let’s be sure we understand something: for a film to flop as badly as did “John Carter of Mars,” then there’s probably something more to it than just poor marketing.  So perhaps poor marketing was a factor in the film’s failure, but a contributory rather than a decisive one.

Other than the marketing, then, what other causes might one find for the film to flop?

I’d like to share with you what I saw unfold on the screen, but be aware that I’m not a screenwriter nor in any way connected to Hollywood.  I can only write this as someone who enjoys a movie.

“John Carter of Mars” has a lot of things in its favor.

The cast was excellent – of course, I’m a big fan of Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy – Lynn Collins, cast as Princess Dejah Thoris, was creditable and delectable – and if I don’t name anyone else it’s just because those three are the standouts.  So I don’t believe that lack of acting talent was at fault.

Whatever else it might be I found the film a stunning visual spectacle, at least as far as the recreation of Barsoom goes.  The six-limbed green Martian fighting men, the Tharks, were superbly conceived and the CGI behind them was awesome.  In short, Tars Tarkas lived and breathed on the silver screen, and so did all his green-skinned brethren.  Likewise, the sets and miniatures were seamlessly believable and beautifully constructed.  I was particularly impressed with the way features like mesas (from the Arizona desert, perhaps?) were skillfully reworked into the ruins of Martian cities.  That was well enough done that it actually made me wonder if some of those mesas were the remnants of long-lost civilizations.

In general, the artistic quality of creatures, sets, models, costumes, weapons, artifacts, were all well-thought-out and first rate, Academy Award quality, in my humble and admittedly flyover-country opinion.  Given the reported production cost of $250 million, however, it shouldn’t be surprising that the film has fantastic production values.  Nonetheless, I think they captured the spirit of Burroughs’ vision quite well.  In fact, I rather think Burroughs would have thought that in some regards, the various artists involved in this film had read his mind.

With that deliberate reference we segue to the remaining element of the film: screenplay, or story.

Before I get to the screenplay maybe we should look at the story in A Princess of Mars, as written by Burroughs.  I’m not going to recap the plot.  If you want to know, read it for yourself.

Consider this: it may not be possible to get away with things as a writer in 2012 that one could take for granted as a writer in 1912.  I’d never read the Mars stories, but I thought I’d read them before watching the movie.  One of the things that struck me the most about Princess was the positive lushness of Burroughs’ description of Mars, its cities, people, creatures and terrain.  In some respects the book is more of a travelogue than a story, more Gulliver’s Travels than Lord of the Rings.  Of course, everyone on Mars goes naked – quite a stimulating thought for readers in 1912, before Hollywood really took off, before television was available, even before commercial radio.  I’m sure imagining the lissome Dejah Thoris, clad only in jewels that glittered in the reflected light of the hurtling moons of Barsoom, was quite a pleasant task for the male readers of 1912!  I didn’t find it unduly burdensome, either, a hundred years later.

Consider also that in 1912 the only mass market entertainment was the pulp fiction serial – the format in which A Princess of Mars was first published.  In fact, that’s how the book reads, like a serial, going from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and even ending on a cliffhanger – i.e., will John Carter make it back to Barsoom and his beloved Dejah Thoris and their unhatched son?

As for us here on Earth, though, that hundred years between 1912 and the present carries a lot more baggage than the rise of mass media.  Let’s not forget the effect that two horrendous world wars, innumerable “brush wars” and “police actions” and “wars against terror” and “Cold Wars” have had on our psychological and cultural perceptions of the heroic as well, not to mention such non-romantic things as “shell shock,” “combat fatigue” and “PTSD.”

Then too, John Carter survives his adventures because, in essence, he has super powers on Mars, as a result of which he not only whips up on the bad guys but wins the hand of the Princess of Helium.  If all you have to do to solve most of your problems is lay about you with your trusty sword in a fashion that even Conan the Barbarian might envy, then where’s the conflict for the protagonist?

That, however, may be the problem.  I wouldn’t say that the audience of 2012 is necessarily more sophisticated than that of 1912, but the point is that by the present day any one of us over the age of twenty has seen this idea – on the screen, at least – I don’t know how many times, but certainly a lot.

In this respect think of the various incarnations and variations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that have appeared over those same years, both in film and in print.  I’ve often wondered what it might have been like to sit in the audience in a theater in 1931 when the film version with Bela Lugosi first came out, back when the horror film genre hadn’t been done to death – or undeath, all things considered.

A hint of what that might have been like came to me a few years ago while I was watching Toho’s “Godzilla” (1956).  As the monster moves through downtown Tokyo, smashing buildings and setting the city on fire with his gamma-ray breath, it occurred to me to think about the Tokyo audience that would have sat in a theater in 1956 to watch this film.  I mean, it’s fairly obvious that “Godzilla” is just a guy in a rubber suit smashing up model houses and buildings on a stage miniature set.  How is this even remotely scary?  Here’s where understanding historical context comes in handy:  I suddenly realized that not one person in that audience less than twelve or thirteen years old could fail to be aware, from personal experience, that the city of Tokyo, like many Japanese cities, had been leveled in fire-storms (just like the one being produced on screen) caused by American bombing raids, with enormous suffering and loss of life and property.  In fact, more people were killed in the Tokyo raid of March 6, 1945, than were killed by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  So imagine, if you will, what a Japanese survivor of the Tokyo fire raids in 1945 might have felt, watching the monster Godzilla march across the screen.

But historical context also requires us to ask this question: would an American audience of 1956 feel the same thing that the Japanese audience felt?

For either country, by now, Tokyo has been destroyed by so many monsters on screen over the years that one has to wonder what’s left of that frisson of fear I imagine swept over the Japanese audience of 1956.

Were the screenwriters aware of this problem?  That question, for now, is rhetorical.  It would be interesting to learn what was said in the writer’s conferences as the script took shape, though.  Deducing anything from the script by comparing it to the events of the books is a process unlikely to produce valid results, and runs the risk of being wise after the fact, but let’s look briefly at what was done.

The screenwriters altered the beginning of the story a little, but not materially.  Instead of being a simple prospector with a partner killed by the Apaches, John Carter is wanted by the US government for some unspecified service, evidently because he’s a “Virginia cavalryman.”  Being from the South, knowing a little about the War Between the States, and having lived in Virginia where those cavalry regiments were raised, I understand the reference, but how many people in a modern audience will?  Could we say that this part of the script is intended to promote a certain understanding of John Carter as a war hero who just wants to be left alone to look for his cave of gold?  Then, when John Carter is beaten and thrown in jail by the US Cavalry troopers, perhaps the intention is to cast John Carter as something of an underdog, promoting sympathy for his character?  While he is in jail, the script produces a flashback of a domestic scene which was nowhere part of the original books; John Carter’s only wife was Dejah Thoris.  So, John Carter now has a certain mystery, a past hinted at but no more than that; a past, perhaps, that drives him.  Then the writers threw in an element that Burroughs introduces in the second novel, The Gods of Mars, i.e., the infiltration of Barsoomian society by the evil, secretive Therns – in the movie, the Therns are depicted as near-immortal super-scientists (lacking only the overgrown, bulging foreheads) who reminded me almost irresistibly of an Oriental society preserving ancient secrets, so beloved of pulp fictioneers back in the 1920s and 1930s.  I don’t remember if Sax Rohmer’s character, Fu Manchu, was one, but that character is archetypical of the sort of menace I’m describing.  The point would seem to be to create a menace whose super-powers, so to speak, are sufficient to counter-balance those of John Carter.

So in the screenplay one finds an attempt to create a past for John Carter much different from the one in the book, presumably in an effort to create depth for the character.  In the long run, though, the story isn’t about what happened to John Carter in the past, nor even how that past might affect his actions on Barsoom.  The story is about John Carter saving Helium – this time.

I see the real problem is something a little more fundamental, and I think it is that, in both the screen and print versions of the story, the characters of John Carter and Dejah Thoris come across as two-dimensional.  In a male-dominated society, or an audience dominated by men, a beautiful naked woman to be desired and possessed might not need much depth, at least in 1912.  She is what she is; how much depth does Helen of Troy have, or need, in the Iliad?  But the story in the book, and to a lesser but still significant degree, in the film, is told from the point of view of John Carter.  He has to be more than tall, dark, handsome, and handy with a sword.

Is it fair of me to say this?  That’s it’s as simple as poor characterization?  Maybe not, but that’s my impression; it’s what I got from watching the movie.  Perhaps the question might be this: did anyone else, watching the movie, have that same lack of engagement with the main characters?

If we don’t really care about the two main characters, how can we care about the story?  One can’t help but wonder how a different script might have changed things.  The problem is that I have no idea how I would make a character like John Carter come to life, much less a woman like Dejah Thoris.  I think the screenwriters were largely faithful to Burroughs’ vision, and that may be the problem, since I see that same lack of characterization as a flaw in the original stories.

If you don’t see that, ask yourself this.  If you were going to write your own story involving the characters of King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, how would you give them life in words?  When so much has been written about them over the years?  To me, the problem is largely the same.

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Writing “Tech”: Science Fiction

Science fiction is my first love.  The very first book I ever bought for myself was Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift and his Ultrasonic Cycloplane.  The first “serious” hardback I ever bought – in 5th grade – was Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit – Will Travel.  If I needed any other impetus to begin the affair, I don’t remember it.

A few days before writing this I got the notion to reread Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer.  I was sure I had a copy around the house – certain I’d bought one recently at a used book sale – alas, no go.  Ended up borrowing a copy from the local library, and read it overnight.  It’s probably been thirty years, at least, since I read it last.

When I finished, I looked at the original publication date: 1956.

If you’ve never read The Door Into Summer it’s well worth it, even if it’s a little dated in some ways.  The funny thing is that in others, we still haven’t quite got there.  The action of the story takes place in 1970 and 1971 – years I remember all too well – and 2000 and 2001, years also stored in my memory.   The protagonist, Daniel B. Davis, is a mechanical engineer and inventor who decides it’s his mission in life to create true labor-saving gadgets for the automated house.

I’m sure at least some of you have seen the “Roomba,” a robotic vacuum-cleaner.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the website:

Interesting that they call it “irobot,” eh?  You don’t get the reference, other than the movie with Will Smith?  So google “Isaac Asimov.”

I remember the first time I saw a Roomba the first thing that popped into my mind was “Wow!  Hired Girl!”  That was the name of the floor-cleaning robot that was Dan Davis’ first invention in The Door Into Summer.

Some of you may remember when computers took up whole rooms and were called “mainframes”; you may even remember that a lot of their commands and programming were stored on magnetic tape.  Heinlein, in designing his “future tech” mentions “tapes” and something he calls a “Thorssen memory tube.”  A “tape” in this context refers to what we, today, would call “software” and a “Thorssen memory tube” is pretty obviously a hard drive – or even a thumb drive.  For the rest of Hired Girl, Heinlein uses “off the shelf components”: “…a floor polisher used in army hospitals, a soft-drink dispenser, and those ‘hands’ they use in atomics plants to handle anything ‘hot.’”  Otherwise, “the whole thing could be built with standard parts ordered out of Sweet’s Catalogue…”

I googled “Sweet’s Catalogue.”  There really is such a thing, which began in 1906 with architectural materials and expanded to 38 volumes, including parts for mechanical and electrical engineering.

I mention this simply to show Heinlein’s intriguing attention to detail.  Yet the point is less the detail of existing “engineering art” but how Heinlein artfully weaves together “what is” to show “what may be” in just a few more steps.

There are several other ideas for inventions mentioned in The Door Into Summer that are noteworthy: Drafting Dan; dictation software; and the “hydraulic bed.”

We would call Drafting Dan by the name of AutoCAD and it wouldn’t be a typewriter-like machine as Heinlein describes it, but software you load onto your computer.  Nonetheless, the idea of automated design is the same.  It would be interesting to know if the software engineers who wrote the original code for AutoCAD were inspired by Drafting Dan, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they were not.  Inspiration for that idea would be as simple as noticing that it’s pretty easy to make a straight line, or a series of straight lines, appear on a screen; now, hmm, let’s see, what if you could make a perpendicular to the line, and, ah, yeah, maybe some curves?  That’s really all there is to the basic idea, the 1% inspiration that Thomas Edison spoke about, and all those endless hours of writing and refining code belong to the 99% perspiration part.

Dictation software is alluded to by Heinlein, a “secretary” machine, so to speak.  I’ve used several versions of software of this sort and read or heard reviews by others.  Maybe it’s my Southern accent, y’all, or maybe they’s a few bugs to be worked out.  Nonetheless, the basic idea is there, and is more or less practical, even if to me the execution still leaves something to be worked out.

The idea of the “hydraulic bed” is mentioned briefly in The Door Into Summer and somewhat more extensively in what is arguably Heinlein’s most famous work, Stranger In a Strange Land.  This might be one of those urban legends, but I heard that Heinlein held the patent for a hydraulic bed – we know them as “water beds.”

One point I must make before continuing.  I don’t want to leave the impression that accurate prediction is a requisite of hard science fiction.  What we think of as “hard science” today may or may not still be around in another hundred years – or it may be considered as laughably antiquated as the notion that the world is flat and borne through the Cosmos on the back of a giant turtle.  My favorite hope and cherished dream in this direction is that contemporary science will be proven wrong about the possibility of superluminal travel, despite the almost-universal chorus of “IMPOSSIBLE” from the last three generations of physicists.

Accurate prediction could be considered in a different sense, however.  What if one interprets the phrase as meaning accurate in the sense that it can be used to predict social behavior in some sense or another, in response to some fictional invention or discovery?

In another Heinlein book, Space Cadet, Heinlein goes to considerable lengths to describe Hohmann orbits, their uses in space travel, and some of the various methods to achieve them.  Accurate, yes, but what’s the point?  Isn’t this a little much?

Maybe.  Here’s a question for you: do you know why they’re called “Hohmann” orbits?  As one might guess, a mathematician named Walther Hohmann described them in his book titled The Accessibility of Celestial Bodies – which was written in 1925.  The technical definition of a Hohmann orbit is, according to Wikipedia (see “Hohmann Transfer Orbit”), “an elliptical orbit used to transfer between two circular orbits of different altitudes in the same plane.”  In effect, it’s the most fuel-efficient means for a reaction-driven space vessel to travel from one planet’s orbit to another.  Therefore reaction driven space vessels are likely to use them – have done so, in fact.

Heinlein wrote that, for a passage in Space Cadets, he spent two weeks with his wife Virginia, reputedly a much better mathematician than the Master himself, working calculations and graphs to be sure that the astrogation particulars he described would actually work in real life.  Well, at least, would if such vessels existed.

Now of course we know that such vessels exist; the Apollo Program put astronauts on the Moon and NASA, along with other space agencies, has sent dozens of probes to Mars and the outer planets, using either Hohmann orbits or other astrogational techniques pioneered by Hohmann.

Note again the date of Hohmann’s work: 1925.

It’s worth noting here that the Russian space pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, began his pioneering work in astronautics – including the need for and descriptions of such esoteric as space suits and air locks – prior to 1900.

The important point to grasp is that Heinlein is describing human behavior – i.e., how space ship crews will get from one planet to another – using scientific discoveries that were, at the time he wrote, about thirty years old.  The only “fictional” aspect of his work was the space ship itself.

But maybe the real piece de resistance of accurate technical detail – as accurate as it may be possible to get in fiction — is an obscure story by the great Dr. Werner von Braun, titled Project Mars: A Technical Tale.  This book is half science-fiction story and half technical manual and anyone who knows anything about the early history of the Apollo program and what Dr. von Braun tried to do – establish a permanent manned space station in orbit to serve as a way station not only for the Lunar flight but as a stepping stone to the other planets – will see at once that it was first outlined in this book.  Essentially, the technology of Dr. von Braun’s book, in a form only slightly more developed, took us to the Moon and back.

Here’s the kicker: Project Mars: A Technical Tale was not published when it was originally written, but the Author’s Preface was written sometime in 1950.

I remember people reacting to the entire notion of space flight and astronauts as if it were something new, something part of the post-World-War-II Jet Age – but the basic ideas of space flight were in development a full half-century before the first Moon landing, and science fiction writers like Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were exploring them in fiction and making them real to a generation of new dreamers, who went on to be the engineers and scientists who put men on the moon and built the Space Shuttle and sent Pioneer, Voyager and Viking, among others, on their way.

This leads me to my point: “hard” science fiction in the sense of “technically accurate” is not merely the stuff that dreams are made of, but brings one to the very edge of the reality of dreams.  That question demands a corollary inquiry: if the fiction were not technically accurate, would it be as effective?

Here we may intrude upon matters of taste.  In purely historical fiction my answer to that question would be “No” and I believe I could defend it pretty well.  In fact I’m working on a post to that effect.

But science fiction might, arguably, be different.  The reason for that might be contained in Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that science, sufficiently advanced with respect to the percipient, is indistinguishable from magic.  I would argue that “sufficiently advanced” doesn’t necessarily mean the difference between 1900 and 2000.  In the 1930s my grandfather was an electrician for Georgia Power Company.  He told me that one of his favorite things was to string a power line from the main feeder up some little hollow to a farm house where they still used horses to draw plows.  When he installed electricity and a light fixture the last thing he’d do would be to turn on the light, and leave the farm family staring at the brilliant bulb as darkness fell outside.  Just a simple little thing like that, something we today take as a given of our existence, and yet so short a time ago it was, if not magic, then magical.

But that illustrates the principle upon which Clarke’s maxim works, and some of its subtlety.  If my grandfather, an electrician, appeared at the very least as a sorcerer’s apprentice to these families, then how might a contemporary, say the quantum physicist Neils Bohr – or the mathematician Walter Hohmann – appear to my grandfather?

Ray Bradbury is arguably one of the great science fiction story tellers, and it was enough for him that rockets existed, that you could fly through space in them, and go to strange places like the Mars of his The Martian Chronicles.  He could probably have cared less about the technical details.

It could be, then, that art, sufficiently advanced, like science, can appear magical.  Since there’s evidently a place for each let’s leave it at that.

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