I’m exploring Sci Fi worlds in January, and my first review for the Sci Fi Experience and the Vintage Science Fiction month is At the Earth’s Core by Edgar Rice Burroughs. First published in hardback in 1922, it’s definitely vintage–and it’s also quintessential Burroughs.
I usually try to avoid spoilers in plot summaries, but…for people who know Burroughs, you really can’t give spoilers. At the Earth’s Core is about an unusually strong, gray-eyed Earthman who unexpectedly finds himself in a strange other world, where he meets bizarre creatures and multiple intelligent races. He also meets mostly naked yet noble savages and of course a beautiful princess, who has been captured by a monster race. He falls in love with the princess, but they’re separated–first because he accidentally offends her, and second by circumstances. He fights his way through the landscape, succeeds to a place of high esteem in society and wins the princess, only to wind up at the end of the book back on Earth–and all we know at the end is that he may, or may not, have successfully returned to the other world.
Sound kind of familiar? That’s because this is a faithful description in every particular of BOTH At the Earth’s Core and A Princess of Mars. I love Burroughs–I always enjoy his books–but with very few exceptions, the man only had one story. That’s okay, though. You don’t read Burroughs in breathless suspense about whether the hero will win the girl. You read it for the strange landscapes, the bizarre creatures and the beautiful prose. I do, anyway.
This first book in the Pellucidar series follows David Innes on an adventure into the depths of the Earth, where hundreds of miles down his mole-like vehicle breaks out into a strange landscape. The premise is that the entire inside of the Earth is hollow, presenting a vast expanse of land functioning with reverse gravity to what we know on the outside. Rather than the horizon dipping down in the distance, it curves up forever. Pellucidar is lit by a miniature sun at the very center of the planet, so that the world exists in perpetual noon. All in all, it’s a great example of Burroughs’ wild and intriguing landscapes, be they on the moon, Mars, or the center of the planet.
David meets two different semi-intelligent species that resemble apes, as well as the required race of noble savages, primitive but immensely good-looking. This race is treated as cattle by the most interesting race, the Mahar. This is a race of lizard-like people who communicate by a kind of telepathy (but not quite) and have no concept of sound. The Mahar, I am sorry to say, are at the center of what is probably the most disturbing scene I’ve ever encountered in Burroughs. Remember I said the human-like race is treated as cattle? There’s a pretty horrible incident relating to that, unusually horrible for Burroughs.
Besides the intelligent species, David encounters a wide variety of monsters. He comes to the Earth’s core along with a helpful amateur paleontologist, who frequently recognizes species–although I suspect Burroughs made most of them up.
The positives of the book are definitely the weird landscape and creatures, along with plenty of action. This book doesn’t share the problem of most of Burroughs’ other first-books-in-a-series, of starting slowly. We get straight into the adventure. This one also has an interesting concept about time not existing in a world with no celestial bodies and no clocks. It frankly doesn’t make a bit of sense, but it’s interesting to think about.
On the negative side, there is a slightly disquieting element here of the noble white man bringing civilization to the savages–though to be fair, there’s no clear ethnicity among the savages, and the truth is that they aren’t fending all that well for themselves. Still, David throws himself into changing a world that he really knows very little about. And I’m not sure teaching weaponry is really the way to advance a people.
I can’t put my finger on why, but David didn’t appeal to me as much as his obvious counterpart, John Carter. It sounds silly to say, when typical Burroughs heroes are nearly interchangable…but there was still something different. David is upstanding and brave, as all Burroughs heroes are, but he maybe wasn’t quite as noble, or quite as capable. Or he just didn’t come with that fascinating opening paragraph, about always being a young man, always a fighting man. While I wouldn’t have said that Burroughs heroes were distinctive, David still didn’t have as strong a voice.
That may about sum up the book. I liked it. I enjoyed it. It is, as all Burroughs novels are, a grand adventure in the finest tradition of pulp science fiction. At the same time, it didn’t grab me quite the way other Burroughs books have. I don’t know if that’s a flaw of the book, or if that’s just me–if maybe after forty-odd books, the usual Burroughs story is finally starting to feel old.
I’ll be going on to read the rest of the Pellucidar series…and perhaps it’ll grow on me! Even if it doesn’t get any better than the first one, I still expect to have a perfectly rollicking time with it.
Author’s Site: http://www.edgarriceburroughs.ca/