Essay - "It's Always the Story that Counts"
"John Carter defending Dejah Thoris in the Zodangan throne room" - Robert Abbett - January 1963, the
front cover for the Ballantine Books paperback release of
A Princess of Mars.  I found this wonderful
novel on a spin rack at a drug store where I stopped in to buy a fountain coke after school.  I not only
was willing to suspend belief, I almost raced home to do it.

Luckily it was a Friday night and I could stay up late, because putting it down would have been
impossible.  I finished that night.  My brother Dan read it the next day.  While he was reading it I went
back to the drug store and asked if they could get me
The Gods of Mars.  The druggist took the time to
explain what a magazine/paperback distribution house was, and that yes, if they had it in stock, he
could get it for me.  It took about a week.  My druggist and the distributor came through.  I'll always be
grateful to both of them.
An essay by Charlie Madison
An earlier version of this essay first appeared in, Volume
No one of the modern age seriously believes, as most people, including
Edgar Rice Burroughs, once did, that Venus is a swampy sauna, defined
by its rain forests and vast wetlands.  Today, we know that if there is a
real analog to biblical Hell, Venus is probably it—800°F, air pressures 92
times Earth normal, and a runaway greenhouse effect.

However, when you read a Burroughs Venus-series adventure, none of
that matters, because Burroughs knew what all good authors know—the
story is everything.  If the story is well done the reader will enter a state
of belief-suspension that for a while allows him or her to put aside known
fact to accept the fictional “reality” described.

This phenomenon was first described by Samuel Taylor Coleridge who
wrote of a “willing suspension of disbelief” in his 1817 book of essays,
Biographia iteraria or biographical sketches of my literary life and opinions.   
Coleridge was writing about the romantic and supernatural elements in
his work
Lyrical Ballads.  Essentially, he wrote that the poet/writer
depends on a reader’s internal desire to escape from an everyday world
that lacked freshness and originality.   According to Coleridge this desire
pushes the reader to drop his critical faculties for a short period,
allowing the reader to transfer from his skeptical “inward nature a human
interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows
of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment.”  

This willing suspension of disbelief isn’t free to the writer.  If the fiction
isn’t well designed to be consistent, from beginning to end, within a set
of clearly defined rules established by the writer for the “universe”
described, then every author of fiction knows that any reader will
disagree with Coleridge.  The setting or genre of the fiction doesn’t
matter if an author breaks the consistency rule, then the reader’s
willingness to disbelieve checks out.  For example, if Gatsby had been a
hillbilly con man clad in denim overalls, then Fitzgerald’s
The Great
would never have become the Jazz-Age classic that it is.  Hillbilly-
Gatsby simply would not have been consistent with a novel set among
the idol rich of Long Island in 1922.   

In another example, When "John Carter and the Giant of Mars" was
published by Amazing stories in January 1941, few readers suspended
disbelief for this new Burroughs Mars story, because so much in
was inconsistent with the previous stories in the Barsoomian universe
devised by Burroughs in 1912 and consistently built upon in all eight of
the preceding novels.  Parachute Corps of air-assault soldiers; atom
guns instead of radium pistols and rifles; three-legged rats where before
all the Barsoomian rats had had six, giant rats suddenly more intelligent
and ruled by a king-rat, rat dancing rituals; white apes mounted on flying
reptiles and dropping bombs . . . all this and more where casually
dropped into Burroughs’ Martian mythos that heretofore had included
none of these elements.  Any one of which  would have broken the
willing suspension of disbelief in any reader familiar with Burroughs’
earlier Martian stories.  And it did.  According to Henry Hardy Heins,
Richard Lupoff and many others, the Amazing reader‘s letter columns lit
up with complaints about the latest Martian yarn, and anyone reading the
story today knows, it’s just wrong and for good reason—the Barsoom
presented in
Giant isn‘t consistent with that of any preceding novel in
the Martian series.  (NOTE: Readers in 1941 could not have known what
the problem was.  However, ERB fans and scholars have known since
1963 that
Giant was actually written by Burroughs’ son John Coleman
Burroughs for a childrens’ story published as a Better Little Book in 1940.)

In 1912, when Burroughs wrote
A Princess of Mars, the Schiaparelli/Lowell
theories of Martian life ruled scientific and popular ideas about the red
planet. Therefore, setting an adventure story there wasn't all that far-
fetched.  The background of Mars presented in this novel, as a desert
planet crisscrossed by giant canals built by an ancient civilization to
bring water from the polar ice caps, is a common scenario in science
fiction novels of the early 20th century, and was actually put forward as a
plausible theory by some astronomers around the turn of the century.  
These theories stem from early telescope observations of Mars by 19th
century astronomers who, beginning with Italian Giovanni Schiaparelli in
1877, believed they saw straight lines on the planet.  Schiaparelli called
them canali (Italian for natural grooves or channels); a term popularly
mistranslated into English as "canals," which if the translation had been
correct would indicate that they were of intelligent origin.  The problem,
of course, is that many did take it that way.  American astronomer Percival
Lowell was particularly obsessed with this mistaken idea of Martian
intelligence, publishing his extrapolations in three books:
Mars (1895),
Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908). With these
writings, Lowell more than anyone else popularized the long-held belief
that these markings showed that Mars sustained intelligent life forms.

In 1912, setting an adventure novel on Lowell’s Mars must have seemed
very scientific.  However, by the time Burroughs wrote later Martian
novels, theoretical science had discarded any notions of ancient Martian
civilizations.  Burroughs may have been aware that Lowell’s theories
were no longer accepted, but he probably didn't care, because his
writing showed no sign of it.  To our benefit, he went right on writing
novels set in the universe established in
A Princess of Mars.  And readers
to this day will be happy to affirm that they wouldn’t have it any other way,
because in the Martian series every storytelling element of character,
setting, and plot work in harness in some of the best loved works in
science fiction publishing.

When setting, plot, and character work together in a great story, to the
reader, “fact” just doesn’t matter.  No less a writer than Robert Heinlein
depended on the reader‘s “willing suspension of disbelief.”  When
writing his classic
Red Planet, Heinlein knew full well that Mars was not
the place described by astronomers Schiaparelli and Lowell with their
defunct notions of Martian Canals.  By 1915, most astronomers had
rejected Lowell's theories.  When Heinlein wrote
Red Planet in 1949,
fewer still, if any, took these ideas seriously.  However, Heinlein set his
novel in an environment that he knew to be fantasy, because it was
appropriate to his themes.  The incredibly erudite Heinlein knew the
science of his day, but knew also that reality wouldn’t serve his tale of
survival and interspecies cooperation nearly as well as the
Schiaparelli/Lowell fantasy in which this very popular novel is set.  Since
Scribner’s first published
Red Planet in 1949, millions of readers know he
was right.

Coleridge, Burroughs and Heinlein knew, as did and do so many other
countless readers and writers, that it’s the story that has always mattered
most.  Burroughs' stories are most often set in impossible worlds—lost
cities scattered around the globe, the Mars of princesses and canals, a
swampy Venus.  Readers know these things are impossible, Yet
worldwide they have made Burroughs one of the best-selling and most
beloved authors in history.  They don’t care that Venus isn’t steamy
jungles, or the real Africa isn’t the place about which they read in the
Tarzan stories, or that Barsoom could never have existed.  To them,
Carson Napier and Duare are still seeking a home on a wet, lush Amtor;  
Tarzan is alive and living on his estate somewhere on the dark continent;
and John Carter is still fighting for honor, friendship, and the love of an
incomparable woman in a Mars real only because we as readers are
willing to put to put aside our logical faculties and, for the duration of the
story, “suspend disbelief.”  

Charles A. Madison
June, 2012
Revised, October, 2012

American astonomer Percival Lowell published
his views in three books:
Mars (1895), Mars and
Its Canals
(1906), and Mars As the Abode of Life
(1908). With these writings, Lowell more than
anyone else popularized the long-held belief that
these markings showed that Mars sustained
intelligent life forms.

By 1915, most astronomers rejected Lowell's
theories.  When Heinlein wrote
Red Planet in
1949, few, if any, took these ideas seriously.  
However, Heinlein set his novel in Lowell's
fantasy, because it served the novel's themes
better than the real Mars.