Of Deserts and Dead Sea-Bottoms

I am one of those people who finds meaning in ritual. Not necessarily a spiritual or religious kind of ritual—though those can certainly have their merits—but the word at the root sense of its meaning: the repetition of meaningful action. I find these sorts of things, when purposefully done, to have a refreshing and grounding effect on the psyche. They help to clarify things that have become clouded, to clear out the cobwebs that slowly and surely accrete in the corners of our lives.

One of the great mental cleansing rituals to which I subscribe is the vacation, and within the context of vacation, if I am to be traveling, the passing of the long hours with audiobooks. It should come as no surprise, then, that when my husband and I set out this past week for the deserts of West Texas in what was part research trip, part escape from the drudgery of daily life, we passed the time in just that way. Nor should it come as any shock that, being the sort of person I am (and, thankfully, the sort of person he is) we filled those hours with the adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ first hero, the peerless John Carter of Mars.

That, too, is a bit of a ritual—at least for me. I tend to associate the deserts of the Southwest with Barsoom, and any time I point myself in that direction, I am inclined to touch base with the part of me that finds so much significance in those stories. But I am (of course) getting ahead of myself. As befits the subject, there’s a long story that will make sense of why and how and when all that began for me—and why it still matters today, especially as concerns my own writing life.

Most fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and of his Barsoom books in particular, seem to have had the good fortune of discovering them when young. I’ve been told of those fans who, like Carl Sagan, spent ardent night-time hours as youths imploring the night sky to whisk them away to that Mars that should have been, and whose childhoods and spirits were colored by the romanticism and heroics of the tales.

Me? I was not so lucky. There were no dedicated science fiction fans to speak of in my family before I blundered into the genre, and I did not discover Barsoom—or Burroughs at all, for that matter—until I was an adult. Yet I daresay that the discovery, late though it might have been, was nevertheless timely and profound. To it I attribute a great many things, not least of which is the fact that this very blog which you have so graciously deigned to read even exists at all.

Ten years ago, give or take some days, I had finally found my way to the end of my undergraduate degree at the University of Texas. The details thereof do not really bear belaboring here, but suffice it to say that at the end of four years I was no more sure of what I wanted of my life than when I began. I had some vague sense, but like many things the young do and think, it was mostly ill-informed and not well thought out by any stretch of the imagination.

This did not occur to me at the time, however, so as soon as I had wrapped up the pomp and stupidity of graduation, I packed my car with what would fit, dispensed with what would not, and headed out from Austin to the deserts of southwestern New Mexico, where I had family living at the time. The reasons for which I ended up in that part of the country were, as I said, not well considered. To make a very complicated story both short and (mostly) digestible, the whole thing was a magnificent failure, and the winter of 2003 found me at last broke, dejected, and utterly disillusioned with my life.

One thing of which I had an abundance at the time was time itself, and to fill those empty hours I often did what I had always been inclined to do: read. Into my hands thus chanced a copy of A Princess of Mars. The cover painting by Michael Whelan had intrigued me, and as the book was both short and cheap, I figured it could do me no harm. So it became mine, and I sat myself down at the breakfast table one morning with a cup of coffee to see whether it had been money well spent.

The world promptly receded.

By the time I shut the covers and returned to myself, the sun had swung across the sky and lodged in the western hills. My coffee was cold, my breakfast long since forgotten. But I did not care. There, in the roiling heart of my dejected, self-pitying misery I had found something truly wonderful, something which had swept away the blackness of my mood and restored a bright fire to my breast that had been missing for many months. I passed that evening in wistful adoration of the night sky, and when I retired, it was to dreams of deserts and of dead sea-bottoms where one without Terrestrial purpose might find something of meaning in spite of the ways of this world.

Thereafter I sought what other of Carter’s adventures I could find. Regarding audiobooks, it was on a long desert drive shortly thereafter that I discovered cassette copies of A Princess of Mars and The Gods of Mars languishing in a truck stop on the clearance shelf. Until the tapes themselves wore out, they were a considerable part of my driving experience in that part of the world.

In the end, I returned to Texas to try my hand at other things, and though there were dark times in plenty, and though nearly everything for that decade since I left the University of Texas has been a failure, a false start, or at least less than I had hoped for, I have always found a curious kind of balm in Barsoom and in the travails of John Carter.

My training as a scholar tells me I should regard the texts dubiously. At a century old, Princess is fraught with things to make many modern readers flinch—issues of race and class and sex, for instance, and hints of other attitudes that now seem as hopelessly anachronistic as the setting itself: a dying Mars crawling with canals and dotted with the crumbling ruins of a bygone age of splendor.

Yet I cannot bring myself to consign Carter or Burroughs or Barsoom to the trash heap of literary ignominy, though all the very expensive parchments on my wall may resound with the displeasure of those towered spaces where they were earned. No—there is more to such stories, at least for me, than any problems they might present a modern scholar reading them through the fractured kaleidoscope of a modern critical lens.

Simple nostalgia? Perhaps, for these stories even now certainly still possess the power to make me grin like the fool I was when I found them. Yet also perhaps not entirely nostalgia. Though I have the eyes to see problems where problems exist, and while I can acknowledge them when and where I find them, the good far outweighs the questionable even now. The stories remain meaningful for me, and I can still cheer for Carter afresh each time I read.

I have other favorite writers, too, let there be no doubt: I love the dark, barbaric splendor of Robert E. Howard, and I keep frequent company with my favorite of C.L. Moore’s dark visions and Leigh Brackett’s hard-bitten anti-heroes. I have even been known to read a story or two on rare occasion that contains not a single sword fight or exchange of blaster-fire.

It is Burroughs, though, whom I credit with keeping the home fires of heroism lit for me across the stormy decade since I found him. In Barsoom especially I still find reason to believe that there are, as a matter of fact, things worth fighting for, goals worth pursuing at all costs, people worth challenging a very world to find. Though the whole fabric of my universe can go (and often has gone) utterly to hell, I still find refuge in those dead sea-bottoms and what they promise.

They are a tonic for the soul.

So it is that when I find my spirit needs refreshing, it is to Barsoom I return. And so it was that when the husband and I packed the car and swung the compass to the west on this most recent trip, we took Barsoom with us. The effect, at least for me, was as I had hoped. As the miles of highway rolled beneath us and green gave way to red and brown and ocher, I felt that old heroic impulse stir.

I will never be a John Carter; that much is certain. It is also clear to me that I will never be an Edgar Rice Burroughs. Even if I should achieve any degree of success, I will stand merely as a supplicant in that long shadow for however long I may live and write. Yet because of both I can still find it in me to believe in what I might be—and to challenge the world to that end.

This much is enough for me.