Tag Archives: H.G. Wells

Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Martian canals

Martian canals

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s vision of Mars in A Princess of Mars [1] owes a debt to Percival Lowell’s astronomical observations, but itself propagated a specific image of the planet in the public consciousness.

In 1895, Percival Lowell published Mars [2], a summary of his observations of the planet. His descriptions of Martian ‘canals’ were influenced by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s references to ‘canali’ [3 – see image], more properly translated as ‘channels’ or ‘gullies’. The concept of Martian canals, in this and Lowell’s later works [4], fuelled many people’s belief that Mars was an inhabited, ruined world.

Burroughs, who was aware of Lowell’s theories, included ‘the famous Martian waterways, or canals, so-called by our earthly astronomers’ in his vision of Mars. The canals have primary importance in the novel, controlled by the red Martians and the source of conflict between the races of the planet. Extrapolating from Lowell’s vision of a ruined world, Burroughs introduced Atmosphere Plants, combating the environmental threat of extinction of life. In his descriptions of ‘arid and semi-arid land’, ‘ruined edifices of the ancient city’ and ‘partially ruined towers of ancient Thark’, Burroughs aligned John Carter’s observations to Lowell’s popularly-believed findings.

While Lowell did influence other writers at the time of the publication of his work, including H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds [5], it was Burrough’s Barsoom series that proved the greater catalyst for the public perception of Mars. The concept of Martian canals remains popular today, as well as being a staple in literary depictions of the planet. Canals appear in The Martian Chronicles [6] by Ray Bradbury, who ‘admired Burrough’s Martian tales because they were romantic and moved the blood as much as the mind’ [7]. Many writers who later became prominent science-fiction authors were similarly influenced at an early age by Burroughs’s vision of Mars.

[1] Edgar Rice Burroughs – A Princess of Mars (1917)
[2] Percival Lowell – Mars (1895)
[3] Historical map of planet Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli (1888)
[4] Percival Lowell – Mars and Its Canals (1906)
[5] H.G. Wells – The War of the Worlds (1898)
[6] Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles (1950)
[7] Aaron Parrett, Introduction: Edgar Rice Burroughs – The Martian Tales Trilogy, Barnes and Noble edition (2006)

Submitted to Coursera as essay 07 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2.5

Religion in H.G. Wells’s stories

Country of the BlindDoctor MoreauH.G. Wells’s story, The Country of the Blind, and novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, offer a critique of the function of religion in society.

In The Country of the Blind, Nunez encounters an isolated community whose inhabitants are blind. His descriptions of the sense of sight, and objects he sees around him, are dismissed by the inhabitants. Their proof – that they believe to be incontrovertible – is a religious explanation. The religious origin story is centred around touch, including the belief that above them is a ‘cavern roof […] exquisitely smooth to the touch’.

Nunez’s facility of sight allows him to dispute the beliefs, but he is unable to convince the population of their error. Their conviction, and his love for Medina-saroté, almost leads him to agree to be blinded. The story ends with Nunez high in the mountains, looking at ‘the illimitable vastness of the sky’. His own understanding of the truth is preferable to accepting a false religious doctrine.

In The Island of Doctor Moreau, the creatures have adopted Moreau’s initial prohibitions as doctrine. ‘The Law’ is a series of rules, some humanist (‘Not to chase other Men’) and some for Moreau’s own purposes (‘Not to eat fish’ is arguably morally arbitrary, but Moreau wishes to avoid them becoming carnivorous).

Once again, our narrator, Prendick, is in a position to witness the folly of a new religious code. His outsider status allows him to see that the Law, and the deification of Moreau as creator (‘His is the Hand that makes’), is a method for the creatures to rationalise the world and their own existence.

In both tales, Wells suggests that organised religion can arise in any closed community to explain the world and humanity’s function within it. Furthermore, the narratives illustrate that these deeply-held convictions can be misleading and potentially dangerous without being balanced by reason and open-minded observation.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 06 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2