For my second Vintage Sci Fi read, I went back to the world at the Earth’s core, with Pellucidar by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This picks up where the first book left off, following the further adventures of David Innes in the world within the Earth.
There’s not much to be said about the plot–after all, it’s Burroughs, and that tells you most of it. David makes it back to Pellucidar where he sets off through a hostile landscape to search for old friends, encounter new and old enemies, and of course to rescue (repeatedly) his poor beleagured true love, Dian, who is captured on at least three occasions.
It’s all good fun and good adventure, with strange landscapes, a never-ending parade of action, and quite a lot of death but nothing gruesome. Like the first book, Pellucidar is striking me as a kind of Barsoom-lite. The same basic shape, still very entertaining, but somehow not quite as striking as John Carter’s adventures on Mars–and this may have more to do with which order I read the books in than the books themselves.
Rather than dwell on the plot and the characters, I want to talk about some of the themes. Lately it’s been uncanny how books I’ve picked up have unexpectedly fit into the larger discussion going on. First it was Star Trek: The Abode of Life and the examination of transporter technology. Now Pellucidar hits on a number of points that have come up recently.
First, The Abode of Life and Pellucidar both present a man from a more technologically-advanced society choosing what effect he will have on a new world he’s encountering. Kirk went to great lengths to not be a conquistador (his words) for Mercan. David plunges into precisely that role with abandon, becoming David I, Emperor of Pellucidar, and using advanced weaponry to conquer all the natives.
I realized long ago that I can’t look too closely at Burroughs’ philosophy, if I want to continue enjoying his books. Still, I don’t feel like I can just pass right over the last twenty pages of Pellucidar, which are especially, um, troubling. David simply takes it for granted that as the civilized man, he has both the right and the knowledge to assume a leadership role and impose an entirely new form of civilization on the natives. His attempts to eradicate the Mahars, the dominant, lizard-like race, are particularly disturbing. Though the Mahars do treat humans badly, they mostly seem to be condemned for the crime of not being human. The emphasis is much more on their lizardness than on their actions.
It’s also a bit interesting that David doesn’t introduce money (calling it “the root of all evil”), but doesn’t mind introducing guns and cannons. He does insist that his real interest is to spread education and trade and the Industrial Revolution…after obtaining peace by conquering everyone.
While I look askance at all of this, at the same time, I know Burroughs is a product of his time–Pellucidar was written while “the sun never set on the British Empire,” and decades before Kirk got his Prime Directive in the 1960s. For the Dragonflight group-read, we discussed extensively how classic books carry into the modern day, and Burroughs definitely requires acknowledging that this was a different time. In a way, it may help him that he’s so obvious about it–it makes it easier to draw a line around the objectionable bits, and move on.
That’s something I have to do most of the time with Burroughs’ heroines too. The portrayal of the genders was a fascinating discussion with Dragonflight, and it was interesting to still have some of that in mind reading Pellucidar. Burroughs heroes never treat women badly, or with the disdain that the dragonriders show–they generally worship the ground their heroines walk upon. And yet, at the end of the day…the heroine is pretty much a beautiful face who plays the role of a prize to be won.
I noticed here that Dian is more than once referred to as very fierce and brave–but she never actually does anything. She brandishes a javelin now and then, but is completely ineffectual at actually accomplishing anything (including using the javelin to fend off a kidnapper). As comparison, Lessa is frequently marginalized and often treated (and depicted) as childish…but she does things!
To be fair, Dian may be a bit two-dimensional…but so is David, so it’s not entirely a gender thing.
And to be fair on another point, I don’t read Burroughs for his brilliant political insight, or his explorations of the human character. I read him because he tells an exciting adventure story–and he’s never yet failed me at that!
Author’s Site: http://www.edgarriceburroughs.ca/
I couldn’t find others! Anyone else?
Buy it here: Pellucidar