Edgar Rice Burroughs, Back to the Stone Age

I'm thinking about quitting my job, so I can have more time to read the pulp SF stylings of Edgar Rice Burroughs (though most of it doesn't count as science fiction). Here are the fabulous opening paragraphs to his Back to the Stone Age, with the cover captioned "A Castaway in Pellucidar":
The eternal noonday sun of Pellucidar looked down upon such a scene as the outer crust of earth may not have witnessed for countless ages past, such a scene as only the inner world at the earth's core may produce today.
Hundreds of saber-toothed tigers were driving countless herbivorous animals into a clearing in a giant forest; and two white men from the outer crust were there to see, two white men and a handful of black warriors from far distant Africa.
The men had come in a giant dirigible with others of their kind through the north polar opening at the top of the world at the urgent behest of Jason Gridley, but that is a story that has been once told.
This is the story of the one who was lost.
I mean, what's not to love here? Apart from the racist privileging of the "two white men" over the "handful of black warriors" (not worth counting, and appearing as an appendix to the oddly repeated phrase "two white men"). And the strange need to describe the warriors' home as "far distant Africa," as if it were any further from Pellucidar than any other continent. And the absence of women, which you'd be right in assuming presages the novel's largely decorative use of female characters, rarely rising even to the level of plot devices.

But, you know, otherwise: dirigibles! prehistoric animals! a second sun inside the Earth that never sets!

Yes, not only did the sun never set on the British empire, but it never sets in Pellucidar, a totally inexplicable region on the underneath side of the Earth's crust. Burroughs' fictive reality is that the Earth is in fact hollow, with a sun floating (also inexplicably) at the centre of the hollow space, so the motive force that explains gravity is somehow located inside the crust. Five hundred miles beneath your feet, dear reader, though upside-down from your vantage-point, and 'neath the implacable eye of a second sun you and I shall never see, saber-toothed tigers are at this moment stalking mammoths and giant sloths.

Really, there's no way to express the mad genius of Back to the Stone Age. Along with the rest of awesomeness there are, naturally, cavemen and dinosaurs and cannibals and gladiators, so by count we're missing only zombies and vampires to let it strike fire with every single genre niche. It's SO worth your time this summer! I even went out and bought me three other books from the series, the only ones that Russell Books had in stock. (From the Ace Science Fiction Classics series, obviously. As if there was any question about it. Duh.)

More seriously, though, by which I really mean, "Danger! Academic digression upcoming!", there's a fascinating mammoth in this novel. To make sense of this, you need to know something about the novel's naming conventions, and about the representation of humour. Bear with me. (Or, alternatively, quit reading now, because most of the rest of this post is academicish. Don't say you weren't warned.)

Naming first: remember the opening paragraphs' mention of "black warriors"? The warriors turn out to be from the Waziri "tribe," and their leader turns out to have a first name, Muviro, though we never see them again after the first chapter, but none of the rest of them get names. Our hero is known in the book as Von, but that's only because Pellucidarians (who actually belong to a dizzying number of races and/or tribal groups) only understand the concept of first names, with the occasional epithet like "Dian the Beautiful." The narrative, though, refers to him as von Horst, and his full name is in fact "Friedrich Wilhelm Eric von Mendeldorf und von Horst" (p.53).

I'll pause to let you reflect on the full wonder of our hero's name, and on the obvious valuation implied in the novel's naming conventions.

Ready? Okay, the mammoth is known as "Ah Ara, Ma Rahna" (p.122), italicized to indicate these are almost the only Pellucidarian words used in the novel, and they translate to "Old White, the Killer." He's a huge, fairly old mammoth who has long evaded the efforts of the mammoth-men to capture him for training, and his double-epithet remarks on the streak of white fur on his cheek and on his propensity for killing Pellucidarians. Old White (as Von refers to him) is capable both of learning and of planning several steps in advance, which is something Pellucidarians are often depicted as being incapable of. More than that, Old White plays practical jokes on Von, something we learn through exposition rather than narrative, so the jokes are core behaviours rather than useful for the plot:
there were occasions when von Horst could have sworn that the mammoth grinned in appreciation of his own jokes, one of which was to seize the man by an ankle from behind and swing him into the air; but he never dropped him nor ever hurt him, always lowering him to the ground gently. Again, if he thought von Horst had slept too long, he would place a foot upon his body and pretend to trample him, holding him down. (p.174)
Humans of the inner crust just don't have a sense of humour, particularly La-Ja, the predictably dazzlingly attractive young woman with whom Von becomes predictably infatuated. She persistently misunderstands Von's ironic, often self-deprecating humour, describing him as "sick in the head" (p.83). She explains at one point, "I never know when you are serious and when you are laughing with words [the term they use for his irony].... If you will tell me when the things you say are supposed to be funny, perhaps I can laugh at them." He replies, presumably infuriating her further, "You win, La-Ja.... [Y]ou have a sense of humour, even though you don't know it" (p.95).

So not only does the mammoth have a four-term name, when most humanoid Pellucidarians have only one, but he has a sense of humour, and not even our hero's love interest has that.

Anyone surprised that the mammoth is described as both white and old?

Academicish summary:
  • animal-studies folks, there's something interesting going on in the Pellucidar series about the representation of intellect and humour among members of multiple species, and that's before considering the reptilian Mahars and gorilla-like Sagoths in the other Pellucidar novels. (The Mahars, according to Tanar of Pellucidar, have a "sixth-sense, fourth-dimension language" that the Sagoths can also use. More awesomeness, obviously.)
  • gender-studies folks, these novels are mostly going to make you angry, but in a teaching context, they'd be so very useful for illustrating structural biases related to gender and sexuality.
  • ecocriticism folks, just about every water-course has a "bosom" and comes from a mountain range that "gives birth" to it, generally a "virgin" wilderness. I'm just saying.
Run, don't walk. You have GOT to read these!

And while you're off looking for them, I'll go see if I can force some changes to my employment contract....


Fraze said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fraze said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
richard said…
In reply to the peekaboo comments of Fraze: no, my whole post was NOT ironic! I really enjoyed this book, I really did buy three more from the same series, and I really do think other people would enjoy them. t read.

And I can do all that while also thinking that the book is a really good entry point for all kinds of interesting contemporary theoretical questions. Back to the Stone Age would be very useful to think with.

And I'm not AT ALL saying that any period's pulp SF is inferior to the same period's academic study (eugenics, anyone? or physiognomy?). I'm not even saying that this novel is somehow unevolved compared to Folks These Days.

Honestly, my first line was seriously meant. If I could find a way to spend more time reading books like this, I would totally do that. There's some awesomeness in this book that's available in just about every pulp title from the 30s (or 20s, or 40s). I wish I could make more time for it.
Fraze said…
Hi folks, me again. This time I'm not going to delete my comment.

I love Science Fiction and I have a warm affection for pulp. (Possibly "love" in the family sense.) The assertion I was groping towards in my previous posts, with marked lack of success, was essentially this:

If you are able to maintain critical distance from pulp fiction; if you are able to analyze, then you're not experiencing it in its central modality.

It demands immersion, and acceptance, without reservation, of the precepts of the universe. We are willing to accept without scientific complaint the inversion of gravity, and we are willing to accept, without social or cultural reservations, the homogeneity of all Africans, and the possibility that a giant mammoth has more sense of humour than a local woman.

Is this an argument from faith? Maybe. But maybe there's something. Turn off your targeting computer, and trust the Force.
richard said…
But ... I did say I loved the book, and said it had "awesomeness" and "mad genius."

One point: I didn't complain about the inversion of gravity, or even the floating sun inside the earth. I noted them as unusual, but Burroughs would have felt the same way, no?

I'm puzzled. You seem to be saying that a person can't read one book in two different ways, but I can't make this idea make sense.

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