Interview: S. M. Stirling

How did you first come to discover the Barsoom books by Edgar Rice Burroughs?

I’d already read a couple of the Tarzan books (this was when I was about 9) so I decided to search out anything else Burroughs had written.

What do you find appealing about the characters and milieu?

The milieu is a gorgeous adventure setting, with what we’d consider fantasy and SFnal tropes combined; swords and flying ships, giant cities with subways (Helium really has such a system) and automated restaurants (ditto) on the one hand, and wilderness full of savages and monsters on the other.

The characters are vivid and intensely human. It’s not written with Modernist attitudes towards character psychology, but all the better for that.

What sort of an influence do you think the Barsoom books have had on the development of fantasy & science fiction?

Oh, immense. I hardly know a writer who didn’t read them. Even ones you wouldn’t immediately suspect, like Michael Moorcock.

Who is your favorite character in the Barsoom canon? (And why?)

Llana of Gathol, I think. She’s really resourceful, and I have a thing for girls who control banths.

The following questions are separated by a slash; the first question on each line is for the authors / the second question is for the illustrators.

Tell us a bit about your story in the anthology. What’s it about?

It’s about one of John Carter’s descendants. I was intrigued by the possibilities of Martian longevity; Barsoomians live a thousand years and are young almost to the end (if something doesn’t kill them). That means you’re physically the contemporary of your great-grandchildren! Yet surely the Warlord of all Barsoom is going to find it difficult to go off on solitary adventures the way he used to; all the tricks he used to conceal his identity are part of his stories, and they’ll be widely known. So his great-grandson in a sense stands in for him.

I was also interested by the way Carter’s opponents might view him — a Zodangan patriot, for example, after Carter turned the city over for a sack by his Green Martian allies.

And then there were the interesting interconnections between Burroughs’ various series. There’s internal evidence that Tarzan, Barsoom, Pellucidar and the lesser-known “Moon Maid” books are all part of a shared universe. And what a universe! The earth and moon are hollow (and the interiors are inhabited), just for starters! So I wanted to bring in the interplanetary communications which are part of the canon.

And then there’s a few things Burroughs never mentioned. John Carter is super-strong on Barsoom because the gravity is only 1/3 that of Earth… but a Barsoomian would be equally -weak- on Earth; how would they get around that? Fortunately the Master-Mind of Mars, Ras Thavas, has a solution!

What’s was the genesis of the story–where did the initial seed for the story come from?

There’s a mail-order house in upstate New York that sends me ideas… No, seriously, it just came to me. I reread some of the Barsoom books, and the thought of a great-grandson of Carter setting out to thwart Zodangan terrorists, with super-biologial science and an interplanetary journey thrown in just sprang into my mind.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

The challenging part was to capture the essence of the Barsoomian stories — the wonders, the headlong sense of adventure and possibility, the daft but noble code of honor — without doing outright pastiche. And to figure out some of the implications; why wouldn’t Vad Varo/Ulysses Paxton introduce the hamburger to Barsoom? He’s an early-20th century American, after all!

What kind of research–other than, perhaps, rereading the Barsoom novels–did you have to do for the story? 

I did some thinking on the basic tropes of the Barsoom stories. The pair of unlikely companions, for instance, which is a constant theme. Unfortunately the kidnapped maiden wasn’t practical, given the length constraints.

Any new work of yours just out or forthcoming you’d like to mention, or anything else you’d like to add?

The next book in my Change series, LORD OF MOUNTAINS, will be out in September of 2011.