Sunday, 16 February 2014

At the Earth's Core review

I haven’t read a lot of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but the two that I have read I enjoyed. His works have aged quite nicely. They feel like classic pulps and it’s because that’s exactly what they are. I mentioned in my review of A Princess of Mars, that I’m a sucker for first person narration adventure stories. That is not to say that all books that follow that model are gold, but when written well, it can be immensely enjoyable. I like adventure stories best when they contain elements that are fantastic or derived from advanced science. Not to the point where the book because a story of that genre, but as an addition to the adventure story. I like the combination of a personal story (the narration) and a strange or impossible voyage (the adventure with a strange element). Lucky for me that’s exactly the kind of book Burroughs has written with At the Earth’s Core.

Burroughs has a knack for taking a simple idea and examining it in a unique way. With At the Earth’s Core, the story begins with and experiment gone wrong. David Innes, the heir of a mining company, and Abner Perry an old engineer are testing a new drilling machine. The experiment goes awry and the men drill straight down for several hours until they emerge, upright, into a prehistoric land. The rest of the book is about David exploring the lost land of Pellucidar.

The plot doesn’t get more complicated than that. David and Perry quickly start getting chanced by a giant sloth-bear then captured into slavery, make a few friends, explore some more. Events lead into one another with the only intent to bring David to another part of the subterranean world. Burroughs seems to want to focus on showing off his world. It’s like a travelogue in an unknown land. It’s an interesting book to read despite not having a breakneck pace. Burroughs peppers the book with really neat ideas. Most of the ideas are simple like Pellucidar having opposing landmass and oceans than the surface. The result is that Pellucidar has significantly more landmass than the surface, effectively making it “a larger world within a smaller one”.

Most of Burroughs ideas are interesting but they’re not all well executed. I found the whole aspect of lack of time to be frustrating and silly. Pellucidar’s “sun” is in a constant position of high noon because of its location in the centre of the sky, the centre of the hollow earth. Pellucidar is a world of constant sunlight and there are no ways for the inhabitants to tell time. Not only do the characters not know what time of day it is, they do not even know when the day ends and a new one begins. Burroughs pushes the idea too far. In one scene David and Perry are reunited after what feels like a month of absence for David and but a few hours for Perry. David’s been travelling, sleeping and eating several times, and Perry has been reading books in a library. How is it possible for them to have such different ideas of how much time has passed since their last encounter? More ridiculous is that their first trip to Pellucidar is supposed to have lasted ten years. Am I really supposed to believe that David and Perry stayed in Pellucidar for ten years? Wouldn’t they have some sort of physical indicator of the time that passed? Beards at least?

I also found it very difficult to believe that David could beat Jubal the Ugly One in single combat. I understand that he worked in his father’s mines for several years and he was regularly active but he’s not a fight whereas Jubal is a barbarian warrior! At least John Carter had the advantage of lower gravity, super strength and military training.

This is only the second book written by Burroughs that I read but there is an interesting comparison to be made between both heroes. David Innes and John Carter are both transported to otherworldly locations but their experiences there, despite some similarities, are very different. They’re different because of the world building, Pellucidar and Mars have substantial differences but Innes and Carter have similar characteristics. They’re both very boastful when it comes to their personal, specifically physical, prowess. They’re pretty arrogant. I think you would have to be cocksure and arrogant to survive in the situations they end up in but I also think you would have equal opportunity to survive by other means.

I noticed it a bit while reading A Princess of Mars, Burroughs isn't very good when writing female characters. Part if it has to do with when the book was published and I'm not sure there is much more to it than that. Still, it is noticeable than the female characters are treated differently in the human societies of Pellucidar. Dian, similarly to the princess of Mars, seems to be characterized simply on her appearances, her stubbornness and strong will. It seems only beautiful women are strong willed, the comely ones are impressionable. It's also interesting that the villains, the Mahars, are a unisex species, they're all female. A reptilian people, their eggs are fertilized chemically and do not require male Mahars. Overtime they have been bred out. It’s difficult to make any conclusions regarding his treatment of woman based solely on those two examples but I will be paying attention to the female characters in any other Burroughs novels I read.

Even though I enjoyed At the Earth’s Core, I’m also a disappointed with the scale of the story. It’s a good book if I only consider the world Burroughs introduces and the neat ideas he weaves into the story. As for characters and the plot, they’ve both as hollow as the planet in which David burrows. The whole thing feels like a setup, particularly the end, in which David returns to the surface of Earth and decides to make a return trip to Pellucidar this time armed with advanced technology. It’s a nice hook and it makes me want to read the second book. I just hope there’s more substance to it than there was in the first novel.

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