Subterranean Worlds: A Critical Anthology
Peter Fitting, Director of the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Toronto regards this book as "somewhere between a hobby and an obsession," drawing, as it does, on his interest in literary utopias and science fiction. In it he traces the theme of a subterranean world through some fifteen novels, from the anonymous Relation d'un voyage du Pôle Arctique au Pôle Antarctique (1721) to Edgar Rice Burroughs's At the Earth's Core (1914). Each chapter offers a brief introduction, including a synopsis of the narrative, followed by extracts from the novel, chosen to indicate how the adventurer-narrator arrived there, a description of the subterranean world, how it is illuminated and, where appropriate, the society that exists there.
These extracts suggest a repetition or recycling of a few basic ideas and it would have been helpful to have these discussed within their contemporary context, prior to their appearance in the fiction; yet there is little outline or discussion of the various "scientific" theories on which the fiction is based. For example, the cultural origins of the subterranean world idea mesh closely with notions of death and burial and writers have continued to explore that connection in dystopian fiction epitomised in H.G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895) with its unforgettable picture of the Morlocks' world (an extraordinary omission from this anthology) and in fictional treatments of a post-nuclear holocaust, such as that depicted in Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" (1967). Fitting, however, is not interested in such ancestry but, rather, in would-be scientific theories of the Earth's internal structure, beginning with the seventeenth-century treatise Mundus subterraneus (1665) of the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kirchner. Having visited Mt Etna in 1637 Kirchner devised a model in which chambers and channels of fire extended through the body of the Earth, along with a parallel system of internal rivers and seas. When the water and fire interacted earthquakes, volcanoes, springs and storms resulted. Kirchner's view of Earth's interior was thus one of violent convulsions – certainly no place for habitation. It had a clear appeal, however, for living-at-the-edge adventures, exemplified in Verne's Voyage au centre de la terre (1864). An alternative structure was proposed by the astronomer Edmund Halley in 1672 to account for the magnetic variations observed by mariners. By analogy with the planet Saturn surrounded by its rings, Halley proposed that the Earth consisted of an inner nucleus suspended in a fluid medium within the outer sphere of our experience and went on to deal at length with potential objections to his theory. In its time, and for more than a century afterwards, this hollow Earth theory was regarded as a serious scientific attempt to explain observed phenomena such as variations in magnetism. However, fiction writers like de Plancy reversed the process and used magnetic fluctuations to justify an alleged hollow Earth. An amusing remnant of this association with magnetism survives in Verne's novel.
Alternative justifications for a hollow Earth populated by parallel animal and vegetable kingdoms included a theological one: the Creator is never wasteful and would therefore not have left the vast interior of the Earth lifeless. This concept, broached obliquely by Halley ("I have shewed a Possibility of a much more ample Creation, than has hitherto been imagin'd") resurfaces not only in Cotton Mather's The Christian [End Page 418] Philosopher (1721) but more surprisingly in Casanova's L'Icosameron (1788), in the novel Symzonia (1820) that drew on the fanatical beliefs of John Cleves Symmes Jr. and in Bulwer Lytton's The Coming Race (1871). In these fictions, not only is the Earth populated within its crust, but even more amazingly, given the long ancestry of a dystopian underworld, the Garden of Eden is located within a paradisal hollow Earth: the peoples we observe on the Earth's surface have been evicted from Eden for infringing the requirements of the subterranean utopia. This view was still being advanced in 1908 by Willis Emerson in Smoky God or A Voyage to the Inner World.
Fitting's anthology provides fascinating glimpses of such bizarre and ingenious theories, the mechanisms whereby writers transported their characters to and from these subterranean worlds, and the utopian or dystopian societies that inhabit them. Yet this reviewer found it strangely disappointing insofar as there is no sustained discussion of the various recurrent theories, and little or no indication of the reason why individual writers might have employed them (because they actually believed them? because they were simply a device for inserting a series of picaresque adventures? because they were a means to provide a satirical exposé of contemporary society? or because they offered a venue for utopia?).
Any anthology is bound to puzzle some readers as to why particular examples were included or omitted. Many of these works will be new and highly interesting to most readers but there are several of which Fitting declares that the underworld setting is of little importance, or not strictly set within a hollow Earth, whereas The Time Machine is unaccountably omitted. Given the editor's background in Cinema Studies, it would also have been interesting to have some reference to the creation of subterranean worlds in film.
My review copy was disfigured by unsightly black marks down the margins of several pages and marred by a significant number of printing errors.