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John C. Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Development of Science Fiction
Frederik Pohl

    (Editor's Note: Frederik Pohl is the author of more than thirty novels and short fiction collections, including the Hugo and Nebula award-winning GATEWAY and CHERNOBUL. He is the only person to have won the Hugo Award as both author and editor. He published the first series of anthologies of original stories in STAR SCIENCE FICTION and edited two leading science fiction magazines: GALAXY and IF. A noted teacher and lecturer, he has also received the American Book Award, the annual award of the Popular Culture Association, and the United Nations Society of Writers Award. We are much indebted to Stan Galloway of Lawrence, Kansas for this interview with Mr. Pohl for THE BURROUGHS BULLETIN.) 

* * *

    I met a lot of the major writers of the early period of science fiction, but never Burroughs ... a man named by Brian Aldiss as "a dinosaur of science fiction." In 1919, TARZAN THE UNTAMED ran in THE RED BOOK, McClurg brought out THE WARLORD OF MARS, and I was born. I grew up in Burroughs' heyday and began my own writing as Burroughs himself left the scene.

    I was introduced to Burroughs in the way of countless other fans ... through his stories. I read the Mars and Pellucidar and various other odds and ends, partly because Bur-roughs was about the only American science fiction writer available at the public library.

    While today's readers of science fiction deal largely, though not exclusively, with paperbacks, in the past the pulp magazines had a much more important impact on the field. My personal introduction to science fiction came about as follows: When I was maybe ten, someone left an issue of SCIENCE WONDER STORIES at our house and I read it because I read everything I could get my hands on. I don't remember the story but the cover showed a monster from another planet knocking the tops off illuminating gas tanks ... big ones ... and I read it and loved it.

    A little later, a schoolmate showed me a copy of ASTOUNDING which had just appeared. this had come out early in 1930 and it led me to realize there must be others, so I began haunting the second-hand magazine stores and buying all the science fiction I could.

    I read everything I could get, but for about five years there, I tried hard to get all the science fiction there was. And whenever I found some, I read it avidly. At that time, there were only three magazines: AMAZING STORIES, WON-DER STORIES and ASTOUNDING. I read them all. At one time, I had a complete file of all the science fiction magazines that ever existed up to about 1938 or '39, but I think sometime during the war they disappeared.

    My reading habits were more than placid, and science fiction was my weakness. Of course I was uncritical; as long as it was science fiction I read it. I did understand that some of it was better than others, but it was like heroin. If I needed a fix, I was going to get a fix, and I didn't really dicker too much on the quality.

    In addition to the science fiction pulps, some science fiction was still published in the general magazines. I read these as well, finding such writers as R. F. Starzl and A. Merritt, along with Burroughs, contributing science fiction to ARGOSY ... alongside the Westerns and adventure stories. I think ARGOSY always had four serials running every week, one ending and another one beginning every week. One of them was generally science fiction. One of them was a Western (I never read those). One of them was some sort of a mystery, and one was just a sort of general adventure. Borden Chase wrote novels about ... what do they call them? ... "sandhogs," the people who drill tunnels under rivers and things like that, and similar industrial adventures all over the world. And they'd have a historical novel by F. V. W. Mason or someone like that.

    But the general interest magazines would only carry a limited amount of science fiction. Those times made placing a science-fiction manuscript difficult. I recall the story of Doc Smith's, THE SKYLARK OF SPACE. He originally wrote it in 1917, and there wasn't any place to publish it. It kept being rejected. He pulled it out of his desk drawer around 1927 or '28 when he saw the first issue of AMAZING that came to his notice. The first year or two of AMAZING was devoted largely to reprints because there weren't any new stories being written. People saw the magazine and read it and decided to write stories for it similar to the ones they found in the magazine. I think without AMAZING STORIES there would not be the quantity of science fiction that appeared in the thirties and forties.

    What Hugo Gernsback accomplished for science fiction in AMAZING was phenomenal. He gave it a home and an identity. Although this had the disadvantage of ghetto-izing it, I think the advantages outweighed them. The development of science fiction would undoubtedly have been slower without Gernsback's influence.

    Gernsback's and Burroughs' stars crossed in the only issue of AMAZING STORIES ANNUAL in 1927. Richard Lupoff relates the story: "To lure Burroughs into the specialty market, Gernsback not only offered the top rates of pay that his publication could afford, but gave Burroughs a terrific play in the magazine itself." I'm skeptical that such an arrangement was so advantageous for Burroughs. Why Burroughs would have obliged him, I don't know, because Gernsback's money was not enough to tempt anybody, even if you were able to collect it, which was not guaranteed.

    The casual reader often forgets that nearly every story Burroughs wrote appeared in the pulps before it attained hard-cover treatment. And Burroughs was among the few science fiction authors who achieved regular hard-cover publication.

    While I read the pulps voraciously, I found books equally satisfying. In the public library, I found Burroughs, Wells, Verne, W. Olaf Stapledon, and that was it ... except for occasional stories by people like Kipling. But of the authors I particularly liked, Burroughs was the one who published regularly in book form. He was writing the sort of story that I could relate to better than most of the others. Wells is a much finer writer. And some of the English writers like S. Fowler Wright and Stapledon had much more profound thoughts than Burroughs ever allowed to appear in his novels. But Burroughs had the imagination and the color and the adventure and the excitement.

    I think I read every one of the Barsoom books at least ten times, and most of the others as well. Some I didn't like; I didn't like the Pellucidar series nearly as well. And I didn't like the Moon book because, if I remember correctly, it had some strange mystic elements that I couldn't quite follow; something about Indians ... it wasn't the same kind of novel. I didn't know what Burroughs was trying to do. I haven't read it in probably 30 or 40 years, and I don't have any mature judgments on it, but at the time I wished he'd written another John Carter book.

    Burroughs had a lot of non-science fiction that I remember only vaguely but which I did read: THE OUTLAW OF TORN and something about strange semi-human beings on an island somewhere. However, I just never turned on to Tarzan. I read a couple, but they all seemed to be pretty much the same fabric, different swatches from the same piece of cloth. And that piece of cloth did not interest me as much as Barsoom. I read a couple ... enough to get the idea. It's not that I hated them, just that my priorities were for other kinds of writing when I could find it.

    Those priorities led most often to Barsoom, the Burroughsian world which colored my own writing the most. I think what I learned from Burroughs, among other things, was that science fiction was a hell of a fine vehicle for criticizing what I saw as wrong with the world I was living in. Some of his satirical elements like the religion of Barsoom and some of his comments about the difference between Barsoomian dress and human earthly dress, or Barsoomian parties and earthly parties, influenced my own thought. The Barsoomians are always more dignified and more stately, and so on. You can see such satire surfacing in my own work, such as THE SPACE MERCHANTS or in the gentle mockery of THE AGE OF THE PUSSYFOOT

    I always thought of the Barsoom novels as being one long novel that was broken up in installments. But of the Barsoom novels which I think were his best (at least the ones I enjoyed most), I think maybe THE MASTER MIND OF MARS was the one I have read most often and remember best. A PRINCESS OF MARS comes close, but the others seem to blend together: GODS OF MARS, WARLORD OF MARS, THUVIA, MAID OF MARS ... I don't remember how many others there were. I never thought of them as separate books. They were just what Burroughs had to say about Barsoom. But I liked them all. In fact, I never read one I didn't like. I remember the magazine cover very well for MASTER MIND. It had Ras Thavas with his telescopic glasses bending over a pretty Barsoomian maiden, ready to cut her head open.

    Some of the concepts that Burroughs threw off, although they were scientifically pre-pos-ter-ous, have stayed with me as images ever since. There's one in THE MASTER MIND OF MARS, I think ... it's one of the Mars books ... in which he describes Barsoomian street lighting. And he says that rather than waste the light, they would have it leave the lamp, go around in a circle, illuminate everything in its path, and then return to the light. So this conserved. You can't do that, but the image still stays with me.

    A PRINCESS OF MARS shows the effects of all the adventure novels, starting with the way the book begins in a cave with the Apaches howling outside. I think PRINCESS is probably a trans-planted western as much as anything. But I don't think the Barsoom books stayed that way. I think, in spite of what Dick Lupoff says, he became more "science-fictiony" as he went though the series. You can't really believe in his eighth ray and ninth ray, but at least he was thinking about something which was original and "sciency."

    In my own writing, I tip my hat to the foundation of science fiction that Burroughs helped develop. My story, "The Day After the Day the Martians Came," includes a screenwriter who learns that Martians have actually been discovered and some of them are being brought back to the earth, and he gets the hot idea of selling A PRINCESS OF MARS to a producer and describes how they should make it, which I think is kind of funny. The story has been printed in THE DAY THE MARTIANS CAME and in DANGEROUS VISIONS.

    Burroughs had a lot of good ideas. In addition to his social satire and general scientific speculation, I specifically recall the symbiotic relationship of the Kaldanes and rykors in THE CHESSMEN OF MARS, where there is this race of Barsoomians whose heads are independent of their bodies. I thought that was a keen idea.

    I've always maintained that he is unjustly accused of being unscientific. Because, with the exception of things like the Martians whose heads come off and maybe some of the other beings he invented, astronomically he was describing Mars the way a lot of astronomers described it at the time. It wasn't that he was wrong; he was right and the authorities were wrong. Actually, his picture of a dying Mars with the ochre dead sea beds and the atmosphere factories was pretty plausible, if you assume the Percival Lowell view of Mars is correct.

    Aside from ERB's literary influence, I, like many fans, learned how to play Jetan. Without apology, I built myself a Jetan board and made some pieces and, with some other fans, played the game. Not a bad game, actually. It's close enough to chess so that I could relate to it and learn it quickly, but it's different enough to be interesting on its own.

    Some hard-core fans of science fiction might deny that Burroughs' adventure oriented stories had much to do with the development of the genre. One must admit, after all, that the science in Burroughs' books is nearly always subordinate to the adventure itself. However, I do not balk at including Burroughs as one of the founding fathers.

    I'm fairly catholic in my attitude toward science fiction. If it takes place on another planet or is set in the future or has some interesting and scientific element in it, and especially if it's called "science fiction," I accept it as science fiction. There's good science fiction and bad, but I don't exclude stories mostly on the basis of theme.

    For one thing, I think science fiction is more a state of mind than a particular category of literature. There was an English writer named John Phillifent who wrote under the name of John Rackham. I published some of his stories and in the early sixties we had a cor-re-spon-dence, and he wrote me one day and said: "I have discovered what it is that defines science fiction. It's not what it's about; it's the method by which it's written." He said there is a science fiction method, analogous to the scientific method, and all science fiction is written in accordance with this science fiction method. Unfortunately, he died before he ever said what the method was!

    But I think he's right. Because I think that science fiction is written by looking at the real world and changing it; changing some things about it and then seeing what things would be like if those changes had actually occurred. I think, consciously or not, every science fiction writer does that. And really, as far as subject matter is concerned, there are no subjects that can't be or even haven't been written about in science fiction: this planet, other planets, the future, the past, whatever.

    And Burroughs wrote about them all. Whether it's the Chicago of Billy Byrne, the Helium of John Carter, the 22nd Century of BEYOND THIRTY, a thirteenth century of Normans and Saxons, or the quasi-time-dilated Africa of THE ETERNAL LOVER, Burroughs start-ed first with the real world, then changed it ac-cording to his own speculation. While not every-thing Burroughs wrote uses science as a part of it (THE DEPUTY SHERIFF OF COMANCHE COUNTY, for example), the attitude I describe certainly identifies the approach that Burroughs took.

    Other writers, too, have looked to Burroughs for inspiration and, at times, material. The inspiration I applaud; the borrowing of direct material I frown upon. Burroughs was the pioneer, the one who gained my respect. But I see a vast difference between following a pioneer and riding one. There's a lot or derivation going on in science fiction. And I don't object to anybody reading it, but I think it's not a good thing for a writer to do. Philip Farmer's a good writer, and he's got interesting ideas of his own; I think his own ideas are more interesting than the ones he borrows from Kurt Vonnegut or Edgar Rice Burroughs. I like his own stories better than those. I'm always aware of the fact that it's somebody retreading somebody else's material. I don't think the pastiches invent anything ... at least anything I want. Phil Farmer has Tarzan saving Jane or somebody, and then, when she wont go to bed with him, masturbating. That sort of took away the image of Tarzan. It's perfectly plausible, given what is supposed to be given for Tarzan, but I didn't want to think of Tarzan in that way. I think Burroughs would have had apoplexy.

    While the importance of theme, style, and subject are comfortable issues with me, I admit that one area of the science fiction field has remained beyond my understanding. As a magazine editor for many years, I never could figure out what a cover had to do with the sale of an issue or a reader's appreciation of the story. Every time I thought I knew something and acted accordingly, I turned out to be wrong. I do like a good cover on a magazine or a dust jacket. Two artists I like a lot are Kelly Freas and Boris Vallejo ... who did the cover for GATEWAY, among others. And Michael Whelan's very good. His cover for THE SINGERS OF TIME is very nice. I'm glad I'm not an artist. I'd have a lot of trouble trying to figure out what to draw for most of the stories that I like. As an editor, from time to time I had to get an artist to draw something. Sometimes I knew what I wanted on the cover. When I published Bob Heinlein's THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS (IF, December, 1965), I knew exactly what I wanted on the cover. I wanted the hero holding a banner that said "Tanstaafl," because that was the motto of the lunar colony: "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch ... Tanstaafl." And I think that made a good cover. But generally speaking, it's hard for me to know what relation the covers have with the stories they allegedly represent.

    Richard Powers paints some beautiful pictures. He was doing many of my covers at Ballantine Books in the sixties. I once had a collection which contained a story called "The Celebrated No-Hit Inning," which was a sort of a futuristic baseball story. When I told Betty Ballantine about it, she said, "What a wonderful idea for a cover!" And then, some months later, after the book came out she said, "What did you think of your baseball cover?" And this was the first time I had realized that it was a baseball cover. It didn't look that way to me.

    Burroughs' influence remains, or did until recently. Thinking of covers reminded me of some of the works that Jack Williamson and I wrote. I think Jack was quite influenced by Burroughs, and I think that in working with him I picked up some of the coloration. In THE REEFS OF SPACE, for example, there's a lot of Burroughs color and strangeness in the things we were writing about. I guess that's more Burroughs' influence than anybody else. It's not typical of Wells, and certainly not of Jules Verne. It's not really typical of any of the other major writers of the twenties or thirties. Well, Jack's older than I am, and therefore he re-members the twenties better than I do. He can tell you more about how Burroughs struck him, in the absence of any real competition, because there wasn't that much other science fiction around.

    Yet Burroughs stories are still around, and I see no danger in them being left behind in the wake of high-tech developments or changing tastes because the stories are still fine. The Barsoom stories survived the changes in literary criticism, or the changes of the critical attitudes of the readers. They survived the fact that now we know what Mars is like, and it isn't that way at all because they're such damned good stories. And they are! There's a whole literature of adventure stories, science fiction and others from the twenties and thirties which still make good stories to read. Unfortunately, most of this literature is forgotten.

    Though I did not come to science fiction solely because of a love for Burroughs' writing, I acknowledge that he was important in shaping what science fiction means today.

    To meet Burroughs in person was not necessary for me to be able to acknowledge him as a sod-breaker in the science fiction field. Today's science fiction writers work under a collective influence of Burroughs, Doc Smith, Wells, and maybe ten or twelve other major writers in the area from the twenties and thirties.

    I think here is a residue from all this that has shaped science fiction. I can't think of what specifically was Burroughs rather than, say Doc Smith or John Campbell, but there's no doubt that they defined what science fiction was all about. Ever since then, people have been either ringing changes on the theme or expanding the definition. They're the ones who provided the canon ... not always to its advantage, either. Some of the early masters of the field, Burroughs and Doc Smith included, were fairly graceless in their use of language. They painted beautiful pictures but they never quite seemed to catch the rhythm of the English language. There's not much poetry in what they wrote. But then, they didn't have to; they were breaking new ground.

    ... Frederik Pohl 

    (EDITOR'S NOTE: There is a great deal of poetry and rhythm in the language of Bur-roughs, much of it gleaned from Greek and Latin models. An excellent source of reference is Dr. Erling B. Holtsmark's TARZAN AND TRADITION, published by Greenwood Press, 1981.)