The University of Nebraska has launched a series of classic science fiction novels under its Bison Frontiers of Imagination imprint. I was an avid reader of Edgar Rice Burroughs during my formative years, and was pleased to be invited to write an introduction for one of my early favorites, Pellucidar. It's the sequel to At the Earth's Core, which is already available.
Other Burroughs books in the series include Beyond Thirty, The Land That Time Forgot, The Moon Maid, and The Pirates of Venus. Pellucidar, I believe, will be published in September, 2002. Interested readers can choose from titles by Jack London, H.G. Wells, and others.
Introduction to Pellucidar
The first novel I can recall reading in my entire life was A Princess of Mars. Not the first SF novel, but the first novel of any size or shape. Whether it was actually the first one or not is of no significance. It's the first one I remember. It lives with me still, a tale of abandoned cities following the retreat of the oceans, duels by six-limbed savages in moonlit temples, lighter-than-air warships whose captains surrendered by throwing themselves out at ten thousand feet. Talk about providing motivation to fight to the last man.
I needed no motivation to go looking for more Burroughs.
I knew that he'd written the Tarzan novels, but Barsoom had given me a taste for exotic landscapes, and I was at that time under the misapprehension that Tarzan had a problem with the English language, and that he mostly wrestled leopards and hung out in a fairly routine jungle loaded with guys chasing illicit ivory. More about that later.
It didn't take me long to find At the Earth's Core. I'm not sure what I expected when David Innes and I set out in his digging machine. Probably just a series of caves. But the moment came when we blasted clear of the rock and found ourselves in an upside-down landscape, a world distributed on the inner side of the crust, where the horizons curved up.
I watched Hector say farewell to Andromache and I was there when the killers went after Caesar. I've ridden the white whale with Ahab, and I've chased the hound through the moor with Watson and Holmes. They've all provided their unique moment. And so has Burroughs. We broke through the crust and looked up at that horizon. And it is with me still.
It's a land where the sun is always up, and it is always noon, no matter where you might be. As a bonus, there are dinosaurs, and savage nonhuman races. And beautiful women.
Welcome to Pellucidar.
It was fortunate, as Innes realizes, that he didn't come up under one of the oceans. Knowing how probable that eventuality is, a cautious man would never have made a second voyage. But David Innes is a Burroughs hero. When, at the conclusion of At the Earth's Core, he finds himself unwillingly thrust topside again, there could be no doubt that a return was inevitable.
The return takes place in Pellucidar, the book you hold in your hand.
Pellucidar is big. It's a fully realized world, complete with oceans and continents and distant lands. It's important to grasp its scope because it's hard not to perceive the novel as taking place inside a cave. Everything is enclosed. We're accustomed to thinking of the dimensions of enclosures as being necessarily limited. But not this one. At least not in any ordinary sense.
Burroughs establishes the thickness of the Earth's crust at 500 miles, which gives a total surface area for Pellucidar of approximately 150 million square miles. It's considerably larger than Barsoom. Even the curious moon that hangs over the Land of Awful Shadow has forests and seems to be still another complete world.
If Innes had owned a decent telescope, he could have looked up into the noonday sky and seen far-off lands hanging overhead, rather as if we could saunter up to Mt. Wilson and watch what was going on in India. To my fourteen-year-old mind, it was the most fascinating locale imaginable. And if one argues that Jules Verne was there first, I'd reply that Burroughs brought the furniture. And the sandwiches.
We share a passion for space vehicles and submarines, because they take us to destinations that, in the ordinary course of events, are hopelessly beyond reach. David Innes's subterranean prospector, the vehicle which gives him access to the inner regions, struck me as the ultimate means of transport. If fiction is really an effort to abandon the mundane streets in which we live for imaginary settings, no one has cleared out with the sheer audacity of Burroughs. I can recall thinking that Barsoom was a good many stops down the subway line from my South Philadelphia home. If that were so, Pellucidar is way out past the Main Line somewhere.
I spent an entire summer in Pellucidar, and then moved out to Carson Napier's Venus, which was interesting, but somehow not quite up to the place in which David Innes (and eventually Tarzan) had been trekking about.
Finally, reluctantly, I tried the Tarzan novels, and was delighted to discover that no jungle remotely like his ever existed on the planet. There were lost cities, lost races, dinosaurs, deserts no one had ever crossed, valleys populated by lunatics, and the looming presence of Atlantis out there somewhere.
Now, looking back, I have the impression I spent more time in Burroughs' extraordinary locales than I did on Myrtlewood Street. My mother was a decent pianist and among her favorite renditions was Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, which I cannot hear to this day without recalling David Innes and the savage world at the center of the Earth.
Burroughs's forté was good, old-fashioned sense-of-wonder science fiction. It was a species of the genre that converted a lot of us permanently because it provided such a dazzling escape from the routines of daily life. When Henry David Thoreau made his celebrated comment about people leading lives of quiet desperation, he wasn't thinking about a lack of money, food, or shelter. And I doubt he was referring to traffic jams or a failure to secure the corner office down at the plant. It is not the farmer who owns the land, he says, but the land that owns the farmer. It is the soul that is in danger because it has no place to soar.
I think it's fair to say that a lot of us soared with Edgar Rice Burroughs.
I could never get enough of Pellucidar, that curious wrap-around world at the Earth's core. I was with Innes at the beginning, and I stayed through all six volumes, hoping for more. Burroughs was still alive at the time, and still writing, so one could hope. But it didn't happen.
Edgar Rice Burroughs will never be remembered as a great stylist, or as a particularly acute observer of human behavior. Nor will his physics stand up well to close scrutiny. His notion, for example, that time somehow proceeds from the movement of celestial bodies is an intriguing and romantic concept, but not one to be taken seriously.
For these and other reasons, he leaves himself open to a substantial amount of criticism. He is not above allowing characters to gabble on, providing critical information at a critical time. Coincidence occurs when needed to advance the action. His heroes are brave and noble and never waver. The ear that selected 'Tarzan' as the name of his jungle orphan sometimes fails, as when we encounter 'Gr-gr-gr' or 'Ja.' But it's all right. For Burroughs, we seem more than willing to overlook an occasional misstep.
We need to ask why that is.
His books continue to attract readers a half-century after his death, suggesting that he may rank among the immortals. We won't find him in academic reading lists, or under serious discussion by the guardians of great literature. Like Conan Doyle, he is missing in action.
Yet his creations live on. Who does not know of John Carter and Tarzan?
Books survive because they touch some deep wellspring in the soul. They answer a need that is close to the bone. Maybe we're still hunters at heart. Climbing on board a makeshift craft and heading out after Hooja still makes the heart race. Still answers a primal call that is written somewhere in our genes.
One would suspect from reading Burroughs that he disapproved of civilization. Tarzan is of course the ultimate noble savage, but the less feral heroes, John Carter and David Innes and Carson Napier, were presumably reared under circumstances not that far removed from the rest of us. But they too seem truly happy only when they've left the crowded cities behind, and have made their way by subterranean prospector or space ship or astral projection, to a place where the complexities of routine existence are stripped away, and the stakes become nothing less than life and death.
None of them holds a very high opinion of civilized men. Burroughs tells us by implication, and occasionally flat out, that drawing rooms and nine-to-five jobs and, indeed, peace, destroy the adventurous spirit, weaken the virtues requisite to manhood, and lead ultimately to decadence. But he doesn't really mean it. The problem with civilization is not that it undermines us, but that it gets in the way of high adventure, of the exotic, of the unknown. Civilization is, after all, the victory of the routine. It is the invention that provides the leisure for a Burroughs to create and for the rest of us to enjoy. We wouldn't have it any other way.
One cannot achieve nobility easily when life is ordered, pleasant, agreeable. After all, a man is never more noble than when he is riding through dangerous country to the rescue of a beautiful woman in distress. Is it true? Sure it is. And if there are other, equally noble causes, that's okay, but none of them is quite as much sheer fun as recovering Dian the Beautiful from the assorted bandits and would-be tyrants who pursue her. (And Dian has her own brand of nobility. Try to take her honor and she will take your life. One doesn't mess lightly with a Burroughs heroine.)
I suspect his objection to civilization was purely professional. I'm sure he would have been just as happy as the rest of us sitting in the cool flow of an air conditioner with a mint julep. But his kind of hero, the self-abnegating all-out loner standing tall in the struggle against evil, needed a stage at once stark, romantic, different. Something that wouldn't block the light.
We are inclined to think of fiction simply as the telling of a story. Ask for a definition at any writers' workshop and you will hear that a good novelist sets up an interesting situation and keeps the action flowing. I once heard a speaker comment that if a person can deliver a punch line, he can probably write a novel. He was stretching the point a bit, but he seemed to be quite serious.
In fact there are legions of people around who can tell a good story, and deliver a punch line, but relatively few who can induce customers to pay up front for their work. And fewer yet who can continue to sell novels fifty years after they've ridden into the sunset. What then is the secret?
It is this: A truly successful writer, a Burroughs, does far more than simply tell a story. He creates an experience. When it rains in a novel, the reader gets wet. When the giant pterodon closes in on our heroine, it is not only David Innes whose heart begins to pump, but the reader feels the adrenaline flow as well. That's what fiction is really about, or at least adventure fiction, pulp fiction, the stuff that cheered our souls before we got tangled up with endless parables about adultery in the suburbs.
We live through his tales. We set off in that odd boat with David Innes, on the breast of a strange sea, headed God-knows-where, but we're with him because we can smell the salt air and hear the rumble of the surf as we pull away from shore. And we know that trouble lies ahead.
I suspect Burroughs' popularity will be on the rise again. He wrote for a less cynical world than the one we inhabited before September 11. That may all be changed now. Thanks to the police officers, the firemen, the medical people, the troops, the people in the Pennsylvania plane, and probably some others we don't know about, heroes are in. I had expected, when I sat down to reread Pellucidar, to discover that David Innes would not be as I remembered him, that he would be too heroic to be believable, too noble to be taken seriously.
In recent years, we have been inclined to perceive selfless action, especially when it is undertaken despite considerable risk, as being not quite believable. The anti-hero has been in vogue for a long time now, and characters were expected to look out for themselves first and take care of others later. It may be no coincidence that one of the more memorable creations of the last couple of decades is George MacDonald Fraser's brilliant Harry Flashman (originally the bully from Tom Brown's Schooldays), a dedicated scamp who could not be more at odds with a Burroughs ideal.
Almost certainly, the pendulum is swinging back.
I suggested earlier that Burroughs needs a wide stage for his epic tales. But I'm not entirely certain that the reverse is not the actual case. It may be that he was enchanted with his exotic locales, with the giant redwoods of Carson Napier's Venus, with those Martian sea-bottoms, with the inside-out world at the Earth's core. It doesn't take much of a stretch to imagine him thinking, yes, here's this great setting, oceans hanging in the sky, dinosaurs running everywhere, pterodactyls coming in like dive-bombers. Now what can I do with it?
It is this instinctive inclination to break away from the routine world, and to make his outrageous landscapes credible, that is his genius. While we are there, we believe in Pellucidar. His narratives thunder along, carrying us with them. Once onboard his subterranean prospector, we cannot turn back. No use trying. But that's okay. Because we are busy enjoying the ride and looking out the window.
University of Nebraska Press