Vintage SF Month: A Fighting Man of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Goodreads used to give you nifty little pie charts divvying up your books read in a year by genre or however you categorized your books in shelving them.  Google (as Google does) discontinued the tool they used to generate the pie charts, though, and Goodreads never bothered to replace them.  I didn’t get around to counting up my books by category[1] until after I published my year-in-review.  When I finally did get around to it, I was shocked to learn that I only read one(!) vintage speculative fiction book in 2021.[2]  That simply will not do.  At least I have a book resolution for 2022 now.  I kicked things off with A Fighting Man of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seventh Barsoom novel.

(January, of course, is an ideal month to read vintage speculative fiction, because it is Vintage SF Month.)

Seven books in, and Edgar Rice Burroughs has still got it.  A Fighting Man of Mars clocks in as my third favorite Barsoom book.  Its plot doesn’t crackle with the same energy as The Gods of Mars, and it isn’t as wildly (and effectively) inventive as The Chessmen of Mars, but both plot and worldbuilding is superlative, with an immense amount of each squeezed into just 200 pages.

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A Fighting Man of Mars introduces yet another main character.  This time it is Tan Hadron, a native-Martian.  Tan pines for the beautiful daughter of a very wealthy family, but, although he comes from a proud family, he is only a low-level officer in the Helium military.  When the object of his affection, Sanoma, is kidnapped, he takes advantage of a tip from a slave to race ahead of the Helium navy to Jahar.  When he discovers they possess weaponry that would threaten Helium’s entire navy, more than just one girl’s freedom is at stake as he races against the clock.

Burroughs’ brings back old favorites like Green Martians and White Apes, starts the tale in Helium, and John Carter makes a cameo appearance, but he also introduces new societies and a dizzying array of new tech.  There are disintegrated rays and invisibility paint and guided missiles.

Beyond just dazzling storytelling and worldbuilding, A Fighting Man of Mars has a couple things going for it.  The first is how it approaches its female characters.  Like romantic interests in previous books, Sanoma Tora is breathtakingly beautiful and, effectively, a princess.  Unlike other romantic interests, she is haughty early in the book and treacherous later on.  She stands in sharp contrast with Tavia, a slave girl Tan rescues early on the book.  She is passing as a man when he first encounters her, and credibly so, and she proves handy with a blade throughout.  Tan views their relationship as entirely platonic for quite a while, ruminating frequently on what a good friend she is.  I won’t spoil the resolution here, but, well, you can guess where Burroughs is going with things.  As in The Master Mind of Mars, Burroughs has a point to make about which traits are to be esteemed in a woman.

(The fact that Tavia can get away with passing as a man while in Martian harness should definitively answer the question of whether Martians are actually naked in the Barsoom books.)

The other thing about A Fighting Man of Mars that jumps out at me is Burroughs’ unease with the mechanization of war, a new theme for the series.  Burroughs started writing A Fighting Man of Mars in 1929 and first published it in 1930.  A Princess of Mars, in contrast, had been first published in 1912.  Burroughs’ had briefly served in the US Cavalry in Arizona in the 1890s shortly after the closing of the American frontier.  He walked away from his service with a respect for Native Americans that is apparent in the early Barsoom books.  Burroughs wrote A Fighting Man of Mars, in contrast with his first few Barsoom books, against the backdrop of World War I and a military tech race during the interwar period.  The new tech in the book is not only terrifying, to Tan Hadron (and presumably Burroughs) it lacks the honor of fighting with pistol and sword.

Another fun fact: Gary Gygax lists Burroughs and, specifically, the Barsoom series in Appendix N, his list of books that inspired him to create Dungeons & Dragons.  What is now the “Fighter” class was originally the “Fighting Man.”

The chief weakness to A Fighting Man of Mars, in addition to not-quite-perfect execution, is a perhaps overabundance of characters that leads to secondary characters rotating out of the story for sometimes awkward stretches of the book. Along with, of course, Burroughs’ usual very heavy reliance on coincidence.

The seven ERB books I’ve read, ranked:

  1. The Chessmen of Mars
  2. The Gods of Mars
  3. A Fighting Man of Mars
  4. The Mastermind of Mars
  5. A Princess of Mars
  6. At the Earth’s Core
  7. Pirates of Venus
  8. Thuvia, Maid of Mars
  9. The Warlords of Mars

Vintage Science Fiction Month comes every year, right after Santa.  The gist is simple: read speculative fiction written before 1980 (or the year you were born) and write about it in January.  Vintage Science Fiction Month is the brainchild of Andrea at The Little Red Reviewer.


[1] The categories I use are: Country noir, Modern SF, Non-fiction, Non-spec-fic, Professional, and Vintage SF.

[2] The full breakdown:

              Country noir – 7

              Modern SF – 15

              Non-fiction – 22

              Non-spec-fic – 5

              Professional – 8

              Vintage SF – 1

About H.P.

Blogs on books at Every Day Should Be Tuesday (speculative fiction) and Hillbilly Highways (country noir and nonfiction). https://everydayshouldbetuesday.wordpress.com/ https://hillbillyhighways.wordpress.com/
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Fantasy, Throwback SF and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Vintage SF Month: A Fighting Man of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

  1. PCBushi says:

    I need to get back to this series. I really enjoyed the first three, but when I saw there was going to be a new protag, I kind of lost interest. I’m especially curious to get to Chessmen, though; you’re not the first person I’ve seen to rank it so highly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • H.P. says:

      John Carter is a great protagonist, but pulling in new protagonists does help ERB keep things fresh. I’ve been impressed with how strong the series still is seven books in.

      Like

  2. Bookstooge says:

    Glad you are enjoying these so much. I couldn’t stand them (hence why I got rid of them) but it gives me a good view to see someone else review them who DOES enjoy them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Marianna says:

    I read the first three John Carter books when I was a teen. Perhaps one day I will read the series again.

    Liked by 1 person

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