The entertainment media are abuzz today with reports that Disney is in final negotiations to create a new movie franchise — a la "Pirates of the Caribbean" — from the famous Edgar Rice Burroughs "John Carter of Mars" series of 11 novels. The muscular, steely-eyed Virginian was transported to Mars via astral projection. The planet, known as Barsoom to the locals, conveniently imparted heroic strength to Carter due to its weaker gravity.
When Disney finally runs out of gruesome ghost pirates and fantastical sea monsters, audiences will thrill to the exploits of Civil War veteran John Carter as he battles 4-armed giants and the savage green men of Thark in order to unite the warrior clans of the angry Red Planet. And, naturally, he gets the girl: Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium.
The late Carl Sagan was involved with the Mariner missions that helped erase Burroughs' heroic version of Mars from the collective imagination. Mariner 4 arrived in 1965 to reveal a seemingly barren, crater-pocked cemetery planet. And worse, the 21 images gathered by Mariner 4 were in dull black and white. On the other hand, even Sagan admitted that the John Carter novels helped to ignite his imagination for planetary science.
Earthlings are now in their fifth decade of Mars exploration. By now it is very clear that 1965 was much too soon to pronounce last rites on the Red Planet. Although not nearly as swashbuckling a place as John Carter's Barsoom, the real Mars grew more and more colorful with the decades. It is still an open question whether life exists or once existed on Mars — although certainly we shall not find any green men from Thark hiding in the shadows.
Mariner might have disappointed some, but the Viking landers brought back the awe. Those first, stunning panoramas of the first alien planet viewed by humans fired my imagination just as much or more than Burroughs' books. We can only speculate what wonders await us on Barsoom.