Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Autumn/Winter 2003-2004

                                               One of the best SF writers working, as well as one of our foremost Chall pals, holds forth on one of fantasy/adventure fiction's forefathers ...


Gregory Benford

Illo by Randy Cleary

About ten years ago I began to reread certain writers in a systematic way. It began with Heinlein and Zelazny and Terry Carr, because they were writers whom I could hear in my mental ear as I read them--a way to spend time with those departed.

I intended to in a sense keep these writers alive by keeping their work current, still playing a role in our culture. I could experience Heinlein's flat, Midwestern voice leaping among ideas; hear Zelazny's modest tones taking me through Doorways in the Sand; Terry's wit blossoming in his fanzine satire, The BNF of Oz. As a way of revisiting dead friends it has its charms.

Alas, the decade has added so many names I find it hard to keep up. I began rereading Citizen of the Galaxy and then included Asimov, when I wrote a novel set in his Foundation series. I read a Raymond Chandler novel every year because I love the voice -- I heard a recording of Chandler just once and somehow it stuck with me. But no more than one Chandler a year, because Chandler only wrote seven novels. I could all too easily memorize them, make them go opaque to me.

Last year saw the passing of my wife, Joan, my father, plus Charles Sheffield and Robert Forward. So now I read the letters of my relatives and the books of friends. I added Kingsley Amis a few years back, hearing his lofty laughter throughout his comic novels. And Hal Clement (Harfrfy Stubbs) just this week…the list grows steadily.

Then the University of Nebraska Press asked me to write an introduction to Burroughs' At the Earth's Core . I had last read him at age 14. When Mike Resnick and others held the Dum Dum dinners at worldcons, I didn't go. Burroughs seemed much less interesting than the New Wave and the return of hard sf, the hot issues of those days.

But then I read At the Earth's Core and the past came swarming up in my nostrils. The 14-year-old was still there.

I tried to figure out why the book still appealed to me, even though I could see straight through its devices and props. The notion that a strange though Earth-like world might lurk beneath our feet appeals to our sense of adventure. Even better, I saw then, if it comes freighted in the language and imagery of dreams: a place where lands slide beneath the heel, monsters rise and fall in gory excess, and you are at the center of the action.

Indeed, you are the secret savior in the story, a man (always a man) bound for otherworldly glory.

There is no surer sign that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote directly out of his own Technicolor subconscious than a central feature of the story: time flows nonlinearly in the subworld of Pellucidar. Mere moments pass for one character while months or years groan by for another. Burroughs explains this phenomenon as arising from the inner sun, which never sets, so the biosphere of Pellucidar makes no demands of scheduling upon the life that evolves within it.

The reader can grant a generous nod in the direction of plausibility forthis explanation, but of course we know that even subterranean life follows a waking-and-sleeping rhythm, although not keyed to a twenty-four-hour period. (Indeed, people kept from a regular daylight cycle find that their wakeful period slowly lengthens, but their sense of the timing of events does not become confused.)

Consider also the physics of Pellucidar, which Burroughs discusses in some detail. Somehow the Earth allowed a "small sun" to form at its core, leaving an open space, so that five hundred miles down from the surface an "innerworld" thrives. The Freudian implications of this construction lie beyond my competence, but plainly in Pellucidar things are, well, more pellucid. It is a playground of the subconscious, lacking only the overt sexual energy whose expression the early twentieth century constrained in literature.

Lurid events come thick and fast to the manly narrator, each carrying meaning. He suffers injury and strives mightily, but he does not lose.

"The fascination of speculation was strong upon me," our narrator says, and indeed Burroughs plays with Pellucidar with an engaging, naive energy. Since Newton we have known that a spherical shell of matter has no net gravitational acceleration within it because the effect of each portion of the shell is canceled by its opposite. Thus there is no gravity on Pellucidar, except that provided by the "small sun" (which is apparently just a hot mass and not a true star). In reality that would be disastrous because the sun would draw everything toward itself. The folk of Pellucidar, would drift inward and be burned. The whole Earth would eventually implode into the center.

No, the physics doesn't work, right down to the strange little moon that orbits the "sun" in exactly one day. Geologists knew quite well that this hollow earth could not exist, for Pellucidar would have been detected by the refraction of , seismic waves around the hollow.

Pellucidar is most definitely a dreamland, and its literary invention must be evaluated by that fact. The scholarly Perry, the inventor of the craft that bores into the inner world,

finds in the writings of the dominant species that they "take no account of such a thing as time. I find in all their literary works but a single tense, the present." So the language has that essential aspect of dreams, always present and immediate.

The reader of the 1914 All-Story Weekly magazine, in which this yam first appeared, was also treated to some mordant moralizing as spice to the bloodthirsty romantic adventure:

"We may be snuffed out without an instant's warning, and for a brief day our friends speak of us with subdued voices. The following morning, while the first worm is busily engaged in testing the construction of our coffin, they are teeing up for the first hole to suffer more acute sorrow over a sliced ball than they did over our, to us, untimely demise."

Though the reader roams through a dream - with much emphasis on travel-innumerable descriptions of valleys, mountain chains, routes, and frustrated geography- there are these value-setting asides, particularly to shore up certain social cliches. Reflecting on the perfidy of ordinary Earth women, we learn of one: "She had been head over heels in love with a chum of mine - a clean, manly chap - but she had married a broken-down, disreputable old debauchee because he was a count in some dinky little European principality that was not even accorded a distinctive color by Rand McNally." All this outrage is in contrast to the narrator's feelings for the far more desirable, and moral, Dian of Pellucidar. The girl of our proper dreams, yes.

This world beneath the surface of the Earth is perhaps Burroughs's most appealing, for it comes from his greatest strength: leaving behind realistic referents, which liberates our desires from time and space so they find expression free of social constraint. His more famous Tarzan series took us to the jungle, where a noble, novelized hero could always best the worst elements of both that raw world and the intruders from civilization who sought to pollute it. Similarly, his Barroom sequence, set on Mars, portrays a stage for dreamlike epics mixing science-fictional and fantasy elements.

A fourth series taking place on Venus, created later in his career, lacked the energy of the earlier creations but nevertheless transported readers beyond their limits.

It is easy to read Burroughs's burst of literary invention from 1912 to around 1930 as liberation from a frustrated life, through creativity. When he finally turned to writing at age 36, he was a pencil-sharpener salesman. Quickly he produced Pellucidar, Tarzan, and Barsoom, writing furiously. His immense popularity, with 40 million books in print (including translations), arose from sheer storytelling drive and invention. Many films have been made from his novels, most of them fairly dreadful, and he had myriad paperback imitators. In the 1960s he had a large revival until the 1980s. Now that his best work is going out of copyright, small presses like the University of Nebraska's can publish him readily, with little up-front cost. I suspect his next revival is about to begin.

Purists point, as I have here, to the implausibility of his backgrounds. Pellucidar abounds in animals from all eras of evolution, without bothering to wonder how they could possibly fit together. Occasionally there are good details, as when Burroughs opens with an earth-boring machine whose description drew upon his experience helping at a gold dredge on the Snake River. But in other series his John Carter reaches Mars by magic wishing, and his planets, Venus and Mars, are far from what astronomers knew about them even in the early twentieth century.

No, Burroughs is purely fun and not remotely realistic. He knew that the science didn't have to be good, it just had to sound good. His pulp melodrama came before modern sf, but it is not inferior to the later work. Just different.

The twenty-first century is a good time to reassess his importance, as the innocence and verve of his visions recede into the distant glow of the 20th century. The early century, particularly after the First World War, knew more grim realism than romance. No wonder readers found themselves drawn to the sheer gaudy energy of this furiously productive storyteller. He lives well, in rereading.

copyright 2003 by Gregory Benford


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