A dying world with bizarre life forms, advanced technologies, and people eking out a living as savage tribes.
Into this crazy vision of Mars steps one John Carter; Virginian, Fortune Seeker, Civil War Veteran. After things go bad in Arizona, the method by which he arrives on Mars is vague, but once there, he learns that coming from Earth's higher gravity gives him greater physical strength and agility, putting him on even footing with the native giant Tharks. Earning an uneasy place among the tribe of four-armed giant Green Martians, he soon meets Dejah Thoris, the headstrong princess of Helium, strongest city-state of the dominant Red Martians.
What follows is a love story that conquers worlds.
Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote this in 1912 (under the pen name “Norman Bean”) and first serialized it as Under the Moons of Mars in The All-Story (one of Argosy's many name changes over its lifetime). It was an immediate success and that same year he wrote the first Tarzan story. In 1917, the story was published in hardcover as A Princess of Mars.
That this is a debut novel/story is staggering. While the prose may be frequently utilitarian and more than a few plot moments happen because Carter is in the right place at the right time (and the means by which he travels to Mars is flimsy as hell), Burroughs' world building is some of the best I've ever read. Barsoom is lovingly described as a beautiful and deadly world. Every chapter has some kind of action or tension or discovery. Martian blood flows freely, whether its Carter beating a white ape to death with a rock or one Green Warhoon gutting another with his tusks.
And yet despite all this savagery, Carter is able to bring the best out of people by helping them and holding true to his own personal code of honor. Thanks to the compassionate Sola and the noble Tars Tarkas, he teaches the Tharks the value of friendship. He throws an arena fight to help a Red Martian named Kantos Kan earn his freedom, who repays that kindness later on. Even Woola, a big ugly dog-like calot, becomes his first and most loyal companion. Yes, I suppose if you step back a bit it seems a little silly, but its so earnest and heartfelt that you can't help but root for Carter to succeed.
Because John Carter is a Hero, and wherever he goes, he makes the world a better place, because that's what Heroes do.
Reading it now, I can't help but notice that this is essentially ground zero for 20th Century Science Fiction/Fantasy. 26 years before Superman, John Carter was jumping over tall buildings. D&D's Dark Sun setting is a love letter to Barsoom, right down to every living thing being telepathic at some level. Robert E. Howard's tough heroes with rigid codes of honor and loyalty have kinship with Burroughs. A. Merrit's epic love stories and wild world building seek the same lofty heights. Even Carl Sagan loved the series so much growing up that he apparently had a map of Barsoom hanging outside his office at Cornell.
This is a book of wild imagination, larger-than-life heroism, and unbridled adventure.
This isn't simply recommended reading for understanding the history of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It is essential, and a damn fun read.