Thursday, February 9, 2012

At the Earth's Core

Read/Watch 'em in order #11

I recently read a fun essay by writer Mike Resnick (it was in the first issue of a pulp reprint magazine called Adventure Tales) that pointed out something interesting about Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Burroughs is one of the 20th Century’s finest storytellers because he had the good fortune to JUST HAPPEN to hear stories of various heroic characters. Heck, his uncle was John Carter, who was the fist human to get mysteriously teleported to Mars. (Something that happened to at least one other guy some years later.) So he was able to get the first-hand scoop of Carter’s adventures on the Red Planet.

Burroughs JUST HAPPENED to know a guy who knew a guy who knew Tarzan, so he was able to give us the Ape Man’s biography. It was Burroughs who JUST HAPPENED to find the manuscript inside a thermos bottle that Bowen Tyler tossed into the sea, so we thus learned about the hidden continent of Caspak.

Burroughs knew Jason Gridley, who invented radios that could contact both other planets and the subterranean world of Pellucidar, so he was able to pass on even more adventurous tales to us.

But Gridley’s radio wasn’t the first time Burroughs learned about Pellicidar. The writer was travelling in the Sahara Desert this one time, when he JUST HAPPENED to run into David Innes, who had just returned from the world at the Earth’s core.

 Gee whiz, Burroughs was a lucky guy.

Anyway, Pellicidor just might be his most unique creation among the many lost worlds to which he introduced us. Dig down about five hundred miles and you break though into a new world. There’s a sun, suspended by gravity in the exact center of our hollow earth, providing warmth and eternal noon-day sunlight.

As were many of Burroughs’ lost worlds, this one is stuffed to overflowing with prehistoric creatures, most of them both hungry and bad-tempered. But Pellicudar has an even more horrific threat—an intelligent race of pterodactyls called Mahars, who subjugate the primitive humans and, in fact, occasionally eat them. The Mahars use a race of ape men called Sagoths as slave raiders, enforcers and bodyguards.

There’s another nifty aspect of Pellicudar—time does not exist. With no day-and-night cycle, time becomes a completely subjective concept. At one point in the first novel in the series, the two main characters are separated for a time. One has a very active time encountering various dangers and assumes he’s been gone for weeks or even months. The other was reading and thinks only a few minutes had passed.

I’m not sure that actually makes sense, but it’s a cool idea and Burroughs runs with it throughout the series. It gives him an excuse for not aging his main characters. With no sense of time, they all become functionally immortal unless killed violently.

Also, there’s no horizon and (for anyone not a native) no sense of direction when trying to travel from one spot to another unless you’re very careful about landmarks. In many ways, Pellicudar is simply a cool place, rating a 9.4 on the Bogart/Karloff scale.

David Innes first discovers Pellicudar in At the Earth’s Core, which was serialized in All-Story Magazine in 1914. David was funding scientist Abner Perry’s new invention, a vehicle that would burrow into the Earth. But when David and Abner take the thing out for a test drive, they discover they can’t make it turn around once it started digging. So they keep going down until they pop “up” in Pellicudar.

Soon, they are captured by Sagoths and taken to the Mahar city. Burroughs uses a trick he repeats many, many times in other novels—the characters are given an opportunity (usually as prisoners) to learn the local language and gather some background information. Burroughs, a master of pacing, was always able to get this in without slowing down the story at all.

Anyway, David falls in love with the appropriately-named cave girl Dian the Beautiful. He also has to plan an escape from the Mahars, save Dian from an unwelcome suitor (appropriately named Jubal the Ugly One); form the various human tribes into an empire, introduce the concept of bows and arrow to them; and wipe out the Mahars.

It’s all great stuff and includes several of Burroughs’ best action set-pieces (including David’s hand-to-hand fight with Jubal). Abner Perry, an elderly scientist given to pontificating at length about new discoveries and theories, is a wonderful supporting character. (The goofy movie but still entertaining movie version from 1976 gets one thing exactly right when it casts Peter Cushing as Perry.)

David Innes is a good, solid hero, though the novel suffers a little because he’s neither as primal as Tarzan nor has the noble warrior vibe that John Carter gives off. But he acquits himself nicely all the same. Heck, not everyone can be Tarzan.

If I were going to complain about At the Earth’s Core, it would be that several scenes (most notably the scene in which hypnotically enthralled humans are eaten by Mahars) border on unpleasantly gruesome. Burroughs’ novels always have high body counts, but his violence is never described in graphic terms. That’s one of the reasons they’re so much fun. But that poor girl getting eaten by the Mahar queen while she stands in an unmoving trance—that’s kind of gross.

But, to be fair, that scene does have a purpose in the story. It’s a part of a chain of events that mark the Mahars as unrepentantly evil. Burroughs is giving us a straightforward adventure story, with clearly defined good guys and bad guys. And the Mahars are definitely the bad guys.

Anyway, the novel ends when David (now Emperor of a coalition of tribes) returns to the surface for books and tools needed to bring real civilization to the humans. He pops up in the Sahara Desert, where he runs into Edgar Rice Burroughs. But does David manage to successively return to Pellicidar? We’ll have to wait until Burroughs JUST HAPPENS to stumble across that story before we can find out.

1 comment:

  1. I did notice Burroughs saying he hadn't seen a minor character for some time in Son Of Tarzan.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...