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Before Jurassic Park there were Burroughs's jungles; before
Princess Leia there was Jana, the Red Flower of Zoram; before
the Dyson sphere there was Pellucidar; and before the
Terminator there was Tarzan.
I was very young when I first discovered that people could
encounter dinosaurs. My family had come to Australia with very
little money, but when my electrician brother built me my own
three-valve radio, I was able to migrate away from the family
radio and television and listen to whatever I wished. This included
serials like Superman, Space Patrol, and Tarzan. In one
episode of Tarzan, an earthquake shatters the side of a mountain,
and to everyone's surprise some of the huge shapes that
had at first been taken to be boulders start to walk. Dinosaurs
were again alive and on the move. For weeks after that episode
I dreamed of seeing live dinosaurs-from a safe distance, anyway.
A couple of years later I discovered that dinosaurs might actually
be living beneath our feet. The movie of Jules Verne's
Journey to the Center of the Earth introduced me to the idea
of subterranean worlds. It was about then that I realized that
you do not have to be a slave to radio and televisionprogramming,
or to movie distributors: the public library allowed me to
read whatever I liked, whenever I liked. There I discovered the
novels of Tarzan's adventures, including his trip to the earth's
On one level, Tarzan at the Earth's Core is a fast-moving adventure
story, but it was the concepts behind the setting that really
made me sit up. Here was a world without time. The "star"
that provides light at the core of the earth never dims, moves,
or sets. Thus, time is ill defined for those who live in Pellucidar
and is measured only by the period it takes to become hungry
or tired. The inhabitants are patient because no one can
think their time is being wasted when there is no time to waste.
Here is, effectively, a scaled-down Dyson sphere, even though
Dyson spheres would not be proposed by Freeman Dyson until
1960. The wildlife ranges from alarming to nightmarish, which
made me wonder how anything living there could survive
long enough to grow as large as the author claimed. Dinosaurs
populate the story, which pleased me immensely, but some of
them had evolved intelligence. My initial reaction to this was,
"Steady on, chaps; that's not playing fair." The reptilian Horibs
were as intelligent as humans but were also faster and stronger.
Just how were human beings meant to be superior if not through
their intelligence? Are people superior only when served up
with mint sauce and a nice dry red? When the spear-carrying
Horibs are shot down by humans with rifles in chapter 15, I felt
no sympathy for those particular Pellucidar locals. My sense of
fair play did not extend to anything that might look at me and
think "dinner," no matter how superior it may be.
When I grew a bit older and went to high school, I discovered
that Pellucidar had some rather serious theoretical problems.
For starters, gravity does not work the way Burroughs
describes it. Every man, woman, dinosaur, and saber-toothed
cat would fall straight off the surface and plunge into the tiny
sun at the earth's core as far as Sir Isaac Newton was concerned.
Further, evidence from the seismic monitoring of earthquakes
suggests that the interior of the earth is definitely not hollow.
Generally speaking, high school was a time of disillusion for
me. The Mariner 2 spacecraft discovered that Venus is not a
steamy tropical paradise but is hot enough at ground level to
melt lead, has way too much atmosphere, and has no Venusians.
Next came the news from Mariner 4 that Mars has too little
atmosphere, way too many craters, no canals, and no Martians.
Thus it was that I lost interest in Mars, Venus, and dinosaurs at
the center of the earth and joined a schoolboy rock band.
Being in a band meant girls were more likely to take me seriously,
which might lead to dating. Thinking about dating raised
another problem with the world of Earth's interior. In Tarzan at
the Earth's Core Jana had always struck me as quite a handful,
and even the fantasy of asking someone like her for a date was
beyond contemplation. She was physically superior to me in
every way and was, at best, liable to treat a spotty teenage rock
singer with complete disdain. Worse, most of her peers would
be inclined to regard someone like me as dinner rather than a
dinner date. So as sources of adventure, romance, speculative
ideas, and even erotic fantasies, the settings of my childhood
dreamworlds were being replaced by guitars, dances, coffee
lounges, and even the occasional girlfriend.
When I returned to science fiction and fantasy a decade or so
later, I became interested in its history. My research brought a
few shocks. For a start, I learned that the hollow Earth concept
was more deeply rooted in folklore than I had suspected. Hell,
Hades, and the Underworld had long been places where those
who had led less than blameless lives were sent after they died,
and those places tended to be located under the earth's surface.
Characterization of subterranean worlds reached the pinnacle
of sophistication in William Reed's The Phantom of the Poles
(1906), in which he claimed that the earth was not only hollow
but that where the North and South Poles ought to be there
were instead a couple of huge holes. The northern and southern
auroras were reflections of the escaped light that lit up the inner
world, and some exploration ships were said to have inadvertently
sailed into the place without realizing it.
My problems with the physics of the scenario were not adequately
explained, so Reed's theory was of little interest to me
as speculative science. On the other hand, his hollow Earth was
not only like Pellucidar, it was Pellucidar. When the first of the
Pellucidar novels appeared in All-Story Weekly in 1914, eight
years had already passed since The Phantom of the Poles had
been published. Tarzan at the Earth's Core (which ultimately
came about midway in the Tarzan series of novels) appeared
in 1930, nearly a quarter of a century after The Phantom of the
Poles was published. I have never been able to determine if
Verne inspired Reed or Reed inspired Burroughs, but certainly
what had once been a fantastically original world and concept
for me wasn't at all. The idea had been well established before
Tarzan at the Earth's Core was written.
What, then, is it like to return to this book in the twenty-first
century? The language is florid, the attitudes are blatantly
politically incorrect, and the antagonistic approach to nature in
general and animals in particular comes as quite a shock. On the
other hand, as entertainment the novel is surprisingly modern in
structure. The plot moves quickly and is evenly spaced with exciting
incidents and suspense. Tarzan approaches the Pellucidar
of 1930 rather like the first Terminator approaches Los Angeles
in 1984. Both sweep aside the rules of behavior and perform
impressive feats of strength in their various conflicts with the
locals. Both Tarzan and the Terminator bring out a guilty pleasure
in many people living in civilized societies because while
one's society can be a great source of security, it can also be restrictive
to the point of frustration and even injustice. I suspect
that much of the popularity of both Tarzan and the Terminator
comes from their ability to do whatever they like and to brush
aside the authorities.
Excerpted from Tarzan at the Earth's Core
by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted November 12, 2012