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The Atmosphere Factory of Barsoom

An ERBList Dialogue between
David Bruce Bozarth
Richard Roelofs


Fourth planet from the Sun. A dying world bereft of oceans, populated by hordes of alien green monsters; millions of red, black, white and yellow humans in various stages of decline or abundance; lost sciences and new sciences competing with utter barbarism, fantastic plants and animals, all sharing a desert world we know as Mars. Burroughs first wrote about Barsoom in 1911 in a novel serialized as Under the Moons of Mars, later retitled as A Princess of Mars. Barsoom's atmosphere is so tenuous that all the inhabitants, as well as the flora and fauna, survive only because the ancient atmosphere factory remains in operation. Heavily fortified, the access to this giant facility is known to only a few who keep the factory in operation. This article attempts to determine which civilization built this monster atmosphere refinery.

A little background...

ERBList is Tangor's Edgar Rice Burroughs' Listserver, a privately-owned public forum for discussing the life and works of this American author most famous for creating Tarzan of the Apes. ERBList enjoys many discussions, scholarly research, and sometimes disagreements--and as a result of this open exchange valuable research information is presented to the members, as well as new insights into the author's creations.

While discussing another aspect of Barsoom, the world created by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) for 11 thrilling adventure romances on the planet Mars (1911-1948), I made the following comment.


The Orovars built the atmosphere plant. No red race knows how it works, though perhaps late in the novels the blended race might be learning the mechanisms of this prodigous machine. The creation of this extraordinary device by the declining Orovars indicates they were a more enlightened and technologically advanced civilization than any Carter encountered among the red scientists.


John Carter says otherwise:

"Every red Martian is taught during earliest childhood the principles of the manufacture of atmosphere..." (PRINCESS Ch. XX).

And adrift over strange regions, after rescuing Tara from Bantoom, Gahan of Gathol tells Ghek:

"Had it not been for the red men of Barsoom even the kaldanes had perished from the planet, for while you may live without air the things upon which you depend for existence cannot, and there had been no air in sufficient quantities upon Barsoom these many ages had not a red man planned and built the great atmosphere plant which gave new life to a dying world" (CHESSMEN Ch.IX)

How to resolve this conflict? Some possibilities:

1. John Carter has no first hand knowledge of early childhood education on Barsoom; he's repeating what he's been told, but he's badly misinformed.

2. Gahan is repeating what he learned in history class, but it was a piece of ethnocentric propaganda designed to build red pride.

3. Most (if not all) of what ERB says about the Orovars is a crock, and provides no useful information about Barsoom.

For my part, I rather incline toward (3).


The entire quote from the novel is more illuminative than the several paragraphs preceeding it which detail the chemical properties of the ninth ray, the twenty huge radium pumps, the five atmosphere centers into which the refined ninth ray is delivered...

Every red Martian is taught during earliest childhood the principles of the manufacture of atmosphere, but only two at one time ever hold the secret of ingress to the great building, which, built as it is with walls a hundred and fifty feet thick, is absolutely unassailable, even the roof being guarded from assault by air craft by a glass covering five feet thick.

Though the red man commonly takes credit for the atmosphere plant's operation it is not so readily apparent that the red man BUILT the atmosphere plant.

In reply to the points above:

As to the basic principles of atmosphere creation John Carter appears well-educated. As for the history of the atmosphere plant, which during Carter's initial arrival on Barsoom is a strictly protected place, he is later educated, and educated directly from the source, so to speak, when Ho Ran Kim, jeddak of ancient Horz gives Carter an Orovar history lesson (from Llana of Gathol:

"The inhabitants of Horz are, as far as we know, the sole remaining remnant of the once dominant race of Barsoom, the Orovars. A million years ago our ships ranged the five great oceans, which we ruled. The city of Horz was not only the capital of a great empire, it was the seat of learning and culture of the most glorious race of human beings a world has ever known. Our empire spread from pole to pole. There were other races on Barsoom, but they were few in numbers and negligible in importance. We looked upon them as inferior creatures. The Orovars owned Barsoom, which was divided among a score of powerful jeddaks. They were a happy, prosperous, contented people, the various nations seldom warring upon one another. Horz had enjoyed a thousand years of peace.

"They had reached the ultimate pinnacle of civilization and perfection when the first shadow of impending fate darkened their horizon - the seas began to recede, the atmosphere to grow more tenuous. What science had long predicted was coming to pass - a world was dying.

"For ages our cities followed the receding waters. Straits and bays, canals and lakes dried up. Prosperous seaports became deserted inland cities. Famine came. Hungry hordes made war upon the more fortunate. The growing hordes of wild green men overran what had once been fertile farm land, preying upon all.

Edgar Rice Burroughs has been routinely bashed for painting in broad strokes for the sake of the action side of telling a tale. His "science" is just enough to spark imagination but does not quite measure up to ernest analysis. In reality the loss of atmosphere would have taken place over centuries of time, the inroads of "violence" agains the Orovars was even more centuries... The flaws are obvious if one picks away, but if that's the case, the story wasn't for you in the first place!

"The atmosphere became so tenuous that it was difficult to breathe. Scientists were working upon an atmosphere plant, but before it was completed and in successful operation all but a few of the inhabitants of Barsoom had died. Only the hardiest survived - the green men, the red men, and a few Orovars; then life became merely a battle for the survival of the fittest."

Ho Ran Kim' history lesson on the origins—and antiquity!—of the atmosphere plant, the monk-like masters of the great machine—red men—and the vital necessity of protecting the plant from attack or control by hostiles was Burroughs' attempt to address naysayers of his Barsoom series. I find nearly all of the information regarding the Orovars in Llana of Gathol to be ERB's attempt to tie up loose ends and explain away inconsistencies in earlier texts, and to be entertaining.