Thursday, July 9, 2015

Beyond 30 (AKA The Lost Continent), by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1915)

During your correspondent’s misspent youth – back when dinosaurs ruled the earth – he spent most of his summer vacations reading the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950).

Yes … most of you have just lost what little respect for me that you may have had.  However, I believe you judge too harshly.  I say without shame and in complete candor that some of the people I met in my ramblings through ERB’s corpus are among the most important literary friendships that I have made.  Tarzan of the Apes, John Carter of Mars and the explorers of the subterranean world of Pellucidar, where intelligent reptiles live at the Earth’s core, are as real to me to this day as many actual human beings that I have met in later life.  And some of them even make better friends.

No one will argue for a moment that ERB is a prose stylist, or that his insight into human nature was a rare and subtle one.  More damming to his literary reputation are his sensibilities and taste for high adventure; most modern novels are simply slices of life that may better labeled why we are miserable now.  ERB has no patience for that type of thinking or that type of narrative.  ERB wrote adventure stories – set in some of the most exotic places on and off of the planet – and they were unabashedly plot-driven.  If you want know the plight of unhappy men in a midlife crisis, or women struggling for identity in a world redefined by feminism, look elsewhere.  Want to learn how a Civil War soldier miraculously transported to Mars, befriends four-armed green giants and battles rampaging, carnivorous white apes, and you’ve come to the right place.

Minds as brilliant and creative as Carl Sagan (1934-1996), Gore Vidal (1925-2012), Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), William Joyce (born 1957) and Jane Goodall (born 1934) have all credited him as an influence, and his contribution to global popular culture is incalculable.

Whatever the faults or strengths of his particular novels, what is most remarkable about his work is the experience of reading ERB.  The adventure novels of ERB has the remarkable quality of affecting the reader in ways unexpected and serendipitous.  Aside from (not so) simple narrative pleasures as a compelling storyline and absolutely unfettered imagination, it is impossible to read ERB without a sense of delight and of wonder.  In the world of ERB, all bets are off and most anything is possible.  There is a sense of energy, drive and, for want of a better word … pep.  ERB is a tonic; read him and grow young again.

And … ERB believed in adventure.  Much of the literary establishment has written off ERB not only for his prose, but also for his abundant output and for his choice of genre.  ERB was no hack, churning out novels at a penny a word.  Rather, ERB lived in an imaginative landscape that was a real to him as the workday world is real to us.  His Martian society, the (mostly invented) African jungle of Tarzan, and the land at the Earth’s Core all share a sense of … conviction.  In his way, ERB was a serious novelist--as his worlds mattered to him; there was a compelling urgency to his vision that is evident in his fiction.

Finally, ERB had a very definite sense of what life should be.  Unlike many contemporary writers, ERB let it be known that life was for living.  Or, as the hero in Beyond Thirty says when finding land:

"It is the nearest land," I replied. "I have always wanted to explore the forgotten lands of the Eastern Hemisphere. Here's our chance. To remain at sea is to perish. None of us ever will see home again. Let us make the best of it, and enjoy while we do live that which is forbidden the balance of our race—the adventure and the mystery which lie beyond thirty."

I was thinking about Burroughs recently when I luckily came across his book Beyond Thirty while rummaging through the invaluable  This is a resource of public domain books available for free download – and if you want to learn more about ERB, there is no better place to start.

At any rate, I cannot think of the summers of my past without thinking, too, of ERB.  I make it a point to at least revisit one of his novels every summer, or, if possible, read one I have not come across before.  Beyond Thirty (sometimes also called The Lost Continent), was first published in All Around Magazine, and did not appear in book form in ERB’s lifetime.  It was collected in book form first in 1955, and later in 1963 with a delightful cover by artist Frank Frazetta (1928-2010). 

The story takes place in 2137, when Pan-American’s Navy Lieutenant Jefferson Turck, commander of aero-submarine Coldwater, patrols the 30th meridian from Iceland to the Azores.  The ship’s anti-gravitation screens fail, and it drifts beyond the forbidden territory into Europe.

Europe had been off limits to Pan-America since the start of the Great War in the early 20th Century, and Turck and a handful of loyal men find themselves in a now savage landscape that was once the civilized world.  Ladies and gentlemen, Beyond Thirty is a corker.

Most science fiction is never really about the future – but, rather, serves as a distorted mirror to the present.  Written in 1915, the world was then plunging into the conflict of the Great War.  The vast majority of the American population (and their politicians) favored an isolationist approach.  What would the world be like, ERB seems to ask, if the New World withdrew from the world stage?  It would appear as if ERB anticipated the American Century before most of the world did – for his tale tells of a unified North, Central and South America that has achieved many marvels of super-science, while war-ravaged Europe perishes when left to its own devices.

Also interesting is what ERB posits happens to a Europe ravaged by global conflict without American intervention.  In short, England descends into barbarism, the countryside now ravaged by wild animals that were once kept in zoos.  Continental Europe is now largely enslaved by Moslems from Abyssinia – who are using slave labor and whatever military expertise they have to prepare for a definitive conflict with the sleeping giant that is China.  With a little tweaking, it would seem as if the foreign policy concerns of a century ago were as pressing today as they were then.

Beyond Thirty is a remarkable and satisfying romp by one of the masters of the form.  It is an extremely short novel, and as a free download, would serve as a terrific introduction to the imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

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