Edgar Rice Burroughs

The life of Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) was marked by numerous false starts and failures—at the time he started writing, aged 36, he was a pencil-sharpener salesman—but it would seem that the impulse to create psychically charged Science-Fantasy environments was deep-set and powerful, for he began with a great rush of energy, and within two years had initiated three of his four most important series.

The first of his published works, A Princess of Mars, opens the long Barsoom sequence of novels set on Mars (AKA Barsoom), and established that planet as a venue for several dream-like Planetary Romance sagas in which sf and fantasy protocols mix indiscriminately. The standard of storytelling and invention is high in the Barsoom books, Chessmen and Swords being particularly fine. While it is debatable that Burroughs’ work is classifiable as sf per se, it is clear that his immense popularity has nothing to do with conventional sf virtues, for it depends on storylines and venues as malleable as dreams, exotic and dangerous and unending.

The Tarzan saga is just as much sf (or non-sf) as the Barsoom series. Though clearly influenced by H Rider Haggard, Burroughs did not imitate one of that writer’s prime virtues: his sense of reality. Tarzan’s Africa must accepted as being no more governed by the reality principle than Barsoom. Tarzan of the Apes, the story of an English aristocrat’s son raised in the jungle by “great apes” (of a nonexistent species) as a kind of feral child, was immensely popular from the beginning, and Burroughs continued producing sequels to the end of his career. In most of them Tarzan has unashamedly fantastic adventures, some of which—discovering lost cities and live Dinosaurs, being reduced to 18 in (46 cm) in height, visiting the Earth’s core—evoke the adventure tropes of pulp sf. Tarzan is a remarkable creation, and possibly the best-known fictional character of the century. Part of Tarzan’s fame is due to the many Tarzan film adaptations, particularly those of the 1930s starring Johnny Weissmuller; almost none of these are very faithful to the books.

Burroughs’s third major series, the Pellucidar novels based on the Hollow-Earth theory of John Cleves Symmes, introduces perhaps the best of Burroughs’s locales—a world without time where dinosaurs and beast-men roam circularly forever—and is a perfect setting for bloodthirsty romantic adventure. The first of the series was filmed as At the Earth’s Core (1976).

A fourth series, created much later in Burroughs’s career, concerns the exploits of spaceman Carson Napier on Venus. They are of particular sf interest because they are his only tales with an interstellar setting.

Of Burroughs’s non-series tales, perhaps the finest is The Land that Time Forgot, set in the lost world of Caspak near the South Pole, and cunningly presenting in literal form—for animals here metamorphose through evolutionary stages—the dictum that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. The book was loosely adapted into two films, The Land that Time Forgot (1975) and The People that Time Forgot (1977). Also of interest is The Moon Maid, which describes a civilization in the hollow interior of the Moon and a future invasion of the Earth.

Among Burroughs’s other books, those which can be claimed as sf include: The Eternal Lover, a prehistoric adventure involving Time Travel; The Monster Men, a reworking of the Frankenstein theme; The Cave Girl, another prehistoric romance; Jungle Girl, about a lost civilization in Cambodia; and Beyond Thirty, a story set in the twenty-second century after the collapse of European civilization.

Because Burroughs’ lack of realistic referents frees his stories from time, because their efficient narrative style helps to compensate for their prudery and racism, and because Burroughs had a genius for highly-energized literalizations of dream-worlds, they have endured. Tarzan is a figure with the iconic density of Sherlock Holmes or Dracula. Burroughs has probably had more imitators than any other sf writer. There have been no “official” continuations of his series, however, with the exception of Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966) by Fritz Leiber and Tarzan, King of the Apes (1983) by Joan D Vinge, the latter being more accurately described as a rewriting. Serious sf writers who owe a debt to Burroughs include Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock (as Edward P Bradbury) and, above all, Philip José Farmer, whose Lord Grandrith and Ancient Opar novels are among the most enjoyable of latter-day Burroughs-inflected romances. Burroughs was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2003.

(Edited from Burroughs’ entry at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Click the link for the original, comprehensive article.)

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