Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hollow Earth by David Standish

One to file in the 'I Can't Believe Somebody Actually Wrote This' category (alongside that study of the films of Steven Segal, Segalogy perhaps). Standish's book claims to be 'for anyone interested in the history of curious notions that just won't go away.' In his case, the notion he is referring to is the idea that the Earth is hollow, and that the inside of it is filled with lost continents and advanced civilizations.

It's an idea with some pedigree, as this book demonstrates- famous names such as Edmund Halley, Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe and Edgar Rice Burroughs all took up the Hollow Earth cause- some more seriously than others. If this book accomplishes nothing else, it ties together a number of disparate but fascinating characters, uniting them under the common banner of the Hollow Earth. Through this single idea, Standish gets to treat 19th century geology, age-of-exploration literature, early science fiction, crackpot science and early 20th century pulp fiction. All of which I have a serious penchant for.

The idea started because of this- in the early days of science, lots of unusual theories were floating around, because all of them were difficult to prove or disprove. If one believed that the earth was birthed from a cloud of cosmic gas that formed a hardened shell around an inner sun, well, that was probably no more outlandish than the next guy's theory. And if you claimed that the entrances to this inner world were located at the poles, nobody could disprove you. Yet. It was certainly an interesting time, during which science and religion were curiously intermingled. Edmund Halley proposed an inner world, and Isaac Newton wrote numerous volumes on alchemy (from the Arabic al keme, meaning 'of Egypt', according to some).

Then, throughout the 19th century, the idea of the Hollow Earth served as a useful location for writers, scientists and dreamers to locate their fictional utopias. Many of these utopian novels were American, and Standish covers them in some depth- a section of the book I found especially interesting. The dream of a vast, unspoiled paradise ready to be utilized by man began to appear consistantly in literature at exactly the same time as America was turning out to be anything but. This is essentially Standish' thesis here, and I found it very convincing. Of course, not everyone believed their utopias were fictional. The survival of the hollow earth idea is due largely to an American called Symme who spent his life trying to fund an expedition to the hole he believed was found at the North Pole.

Once the idea became popular, it was used for good and for ill by writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs (damn his eyes) in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Standish elaborates at length on these, which is ok by me, as their high-adventure fantasies are probably about as important to the world as any crackpot scientist ever was.

Then, in the mid-twentieth century, the cause was again taken up by those who believed. A man with the improbable name of William Sharpe-Shaver began to publish stories in Amazing magazine claiming that he was under the control of creatures that dwell beneath the Earth's crust. This now being the age of UFO's and conspiracy theories, the high-adventure was replaced with sinister plots and overwhelming paranoia. Standish's overall point is how this one strange idea was recycled many times, on each occasion being used to fulfill certain time-specific longings. (For those interested in this story, click here to read Sinnott's Last Scam from Black Lagoon Comix, my fictionalization of this story, featuring a totally unrelated character called William Sharp-Shearer).

Throughout, Standish maintains a rather sarcastic attitude towards his cast of deluded dreamers. His standard technique is to allow his subjects to talk at length (via the use of very extended quotes), and then use their own words, however ridiculous, against them in a kind of deadpan sarcasm. It certainly catches the readers' attention, and can be quite funny in a dry way. But if a good book, as Holden Caulfield says, ought to make you want to meet the author and have a good chat with them over a cold beer, then I don't know if I want to meet David Standish. Granted, he is fascinated enough by the same things as I to write a book about them (and a more thorough and complete book about the Hollow Earth I challenge you to find), but I find his attitude throughout somewhat negative. He often seems to be condescending rather than affectionate towards Symme and those who followed him.

Overall, Hollow Earth covers in admirable depth many fascinating tales from history and fiction, but is undone somewhat by the author's occasionally snide tone.

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