Thursday, August 16, 2012

If you ever visit Pellucidar, DO NOT get fresh with the ladies!

Read/Watch ‘em in Order #22

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ last visit to Pellucidar suffered a long delay. Three out of four interlocking novellas were published in three successive issues of Amazing Stories in 1942. The concluding novella was found long after Burroughs’ death and saw print in 1963. All four stories were collected into the book Savage Pellucidar that same year.

Burroughs was juggling a lot of point-of-view characters this time around. David Innes gets captured by an unfriendly tribe. One of his subjects—Hodon the Swift One—rescues him and also meets O-aa, the daughter of a local king. Hodon and O-aa fall in love (of course), but end up getting separated. In the meantime, Dian the Beautiful goes up in a hot-air balloon invented by Abner Perry, but this breaks loose from its moorings and Dian is carried off to unknown lands.

Everyone looks for everyone else over both land and sea, with the point-of-view jumping erratically from one character to another.

This is the weak point of the book—and I’ll discuss this first so I can get it out of the way and move on to the good stuff (because the book is still good despite its flaws).  Usually, Burroughs had either one or two protagonists. In books such as A Princess of Mars or The Land That Time Forgot, the story is narrated by a hero who also carries most of the action—as a hero should. Sometimes, such as in the later Tarzan novels, the action is divided between two co-heroes. Burroughs used this device effectively, jumping from one point-of-view to another at tense cliffhanger moments.

But here we have David, Dian, Hodon, O-aa, a little bit of Abner Perry and a few scenes with several other characters. Though Burroughs expertise as a storyteller allowed him to keep everyone and everything straight, the constant jumping from one person to another got a little annoying after awhile. It makes the book as a whole feel a little disjointed.

And it forced Burroughs to often switch from one character to another at more-or-less random moments—at a point where the character we were just visiting is doing something relatively pedestrian rather than being involved in a life-or-death struggle.

But the book is still fun. Though there may be a few characters too many, each of them is individually likably. Especially fun is O-aa. Like all Burroughsian women, she’s drop dead gorgeous. But she’s also really funny, giving to bragging about her family to the point of… well, we don’t want to call her a liar. Let’s just say she exaggerates a bit. When she says she has eleven brothers who will track you down and kill you if you look at her the wrong way—what she really means is that’s she’s an only child. When she says the men of her tribe are nine feet tall and will attack and kill you if you look annoy her at all—what she means is that she’s hopelessly lost and doesn’t know where her fellow tribesmen are.  It’s also pretty much impossible to get her to shut up, whether she’s threatening your life or casually claiming to be the most beautiful woman in Pellucidar. Burroughs has a lot of fun with her

Burroughs also manages to get both her and Dian into bizarre parallel situations. Dian’s balloon lands between two walled cities that have Bronze Age technology. She’s captured by the people of one city and is assumed to be their goddess comes down from heaven.  But the rival city soon gets its own version of the goddess when O-aa is shipwrecked nearby.  (I’m not going to try to summarize how O-aa ended up at sea. It’s too convoluted.)

In self-defense, both women accept their roles as goddesses, but both tick off their relative priests by insisting on social reforms and lower taxes for the general populace. Burroughs uses all this to get in some biting commentary on corrupt institutionalized religion, as well as using it to generate a nice mixture of suspense and humor.  Pretty soon, both women have placed their cities on the brink of religion-fueled civil wars and both are forced to make daring escapes.

Amidst all this, O-aa and Dian both get a number of awesome moments throughout the book, acting intelligently in dangerous situations and generally looking after themselves quite effectively. And, by golly, don’t EVER get fresh with either of them. Both O-aa and Dian get opportunities to stab and kill would-be rapists. Both women do this without so much as batting an eyelash.

Another fun character is someone else from the surface world—a shipwrecked sailor who came through the Polar opening at some point during the Tyler administration. (That’s the early 1840s—though I’m sure most of you knew that.) Remember that it is eternally noon in Pellucidar. Because no one can note the passage of time, the aging process is considerably slowed. Though his skill as a sailor and shipbuilder is useful to the good guys, the old sailor’s acquired taste for human flesh tends to make him less than trustworthy at times.

This novel also proves that if you want a cool pet, you need to move to Pellucidar. In the second novel, David Innes befriended a hyaenodon. In Back to the Stone Age, von Horst makes friends with a mammoth. In Land of Terror, it’s David who soon has a pair of mammoths looking after him.

This time around, Dian at one point has three saber-toothed tigers fighting for her, while O-aa has also made a pet of a hyaenodon. Gee whiz, Tarzan had the Golden Lion and John Carter had Woola the calot, but I’m pretty sure that the denizons of the Earth’s core have ‘em all beat for cool pets.

So, despite a disjointed narrative flow, Savage Pellucidar is a respectable end to the series. The first two novels—which essentially form a single story—are probably the best, but the Pellucidar series as a whole makes for an exciting and occasionally awesome epic saga.

We are still in the midst of the RKO Dick Tracy movies for our Watch ‘em in Order entries, but it’s time to move on to something else for Read ‘em in Order. Eventually, we’re going to look at the Venus stories written by Otis Kline, but for now I think we should take a break from science fiction and move back to mystery and murder. We’ll examine the original Mr. Moto stories by John Marquand—tales about a pre-war Japanese agent who is sometimes the hero and sometimes the villain. Sometimes he’s both.  

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