Friday, June 29, 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tanar of Pellucidar

You can keep William S. Burroughs: I'll choose Edgar Rice Burroughs every time, and wish that David Cronenberg would adapt some of Edgar's work, not just William's. I've been reading Burroughs a fair bit lately (here and here), and that's going to continue for the near future because his Pellucidar series is way too entertaining for me to give it up now.

A caveat, though: I will never ever be quite one of these people. Taking a suitcase of Tarzan books to Africa, and leaving single copies hidden in different places, would be kind of a neat ironic postcolonial performance art project, but....

Anyhoo, Tanar of Pellucidar is the third novel in Burroughs' Pellucidar sequence, though "sequence" might be too strong a word for these related texts. The first four of them occur basically in sequence, but a couple of them are harder to connect to the rest. In the case of this novel, Tanar of Pellucidar is the third book of the four-novel series opening with At the Earth's Core and closing with -- I'm so excited I can barely type the words, since I just bought a copy today at Russell Books -- Tarzan at the Earth's Core.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Pellucidar

Pellucidar: the fertile imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs found room inside the Earth's core, on the other side of a shell consisting of just 500 miles of crust, for an entire world carpeting the inside of our planetary sphere. I haven't had any luck yet finding an Ace SF Classic edition of the first volume of the series (#156, At the Earth's Core), but I think I've got all the other volumes now.

Pellucidar, the series' second book, opens in classic adventure-story mode: a prologue meant to blur the boundaries between the representation and the real. In brief, we open with Edgar Rice Burroughs receiving a letter from a man who'd read At the Earth's Core as fiction, and yet who in Africa just a few years later found what appeared to him incontrovertible evidence that it was in fact a True History. Burroughs hastens to his side, in a very civilized gentlemen's club in Algiers, and in consequence the entire volume of Pellucidar is the transcription of a hair-raising tale transmitted via telegraph from inside the Earth's core.

In brief, David Innes seems to have escaped / departed Pellucidar at the end of the first novel, but Hooja the Sly One (his arch-nemesis) managed to kidnap Innes' mate Dian the Beautiful, who he'd planned to take with him to the Earth's surface. Innes had thought Dian the Beautiful had been in his escape vehicle, but too late he discovered that Hooja the Sly One had managed to replace her with a Mahar he'd expected would kill Innes. Innes survives, he returns to Pellucidar with the Mahar, and he roams throughout Pellucidar -- surviving many a dramatic incident -- in search of Dian, in pursuit of Hooja, and in dreams of reinstating his once-mighty but now-fallen First Empire of Pellucidar.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson, Sixty Days and Counting

Trilogy complete: a few days ago, I closed the final pages of Kim Stanley Robinson's Sixty Days and Counting, the third volume in his Science in the Capital series, satisfied with the reading experience and delighted to see a novelist trying in a sustained way to engage artistically AND technically with the actual science of climate change. They're entertaining novels, with rich characters and complex relationships and all that, in a conventional sense (if it's possible to use that term as a compliment!), but they're also valuably rigorous in their treatment of scientific bureaucracy, development, and deployment. Such a great project to undertake, and very much worth your time, especially if you're a regular enough reader that a trilogy doesn't intimidate you over-much!

(I've commented already about the previous two volumes, Forty Signs of Rain and Fifty Degrees Below. As with those posts, I'm trying to keep spoilers out of this one, but in the next few days I'll post something more sustained that deals with the three books together and is stuffed with spoilers, just in case you want -- Alain de Botton-style -- to be able to talk about the books without reading them. I'm just saying.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

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!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson, Fifty Degrees Below

When last we left Frank Vanderwal and the other characters who make up the community inside Kim Stanley Robinson's climate change trilogy, in Forty Signs of Rain, Washington DC had just survived a massive storm that had changed everything: not just the landscape, but the political landscape as well. With climate change no longer a theoretical event possibly affecting other people in other places, but a material and palpable reality in people's lives, Fifty Degrees Below moves to the more urgent question of how action happens. (And yes, just as the first title's promise of rain is fulfilled, so too is this title's promise of severe cold. This should be obvious enough not to count as a spoiler, and I've tried to avoid those in this post just as I did in posting about Forty Signs of Rain.)

Let's deal with the recommendation issue early. Valuable and troubling and fun, is how I'd characterize the first two novels of this trilogy.

If you don't want to go back to the review of Forty Signs of Rain, and I didn't make the point as strongly there as I might have anyway, I thought that the trilogy's first novel was powerful, useful, and inventive; I'd say much the same about Fifty Degrees Below. The only thing making me anxious about the first one was Robinson's use of evolutionary psychology, which has been used by other writers for dangerously misogynistic, racist, and homophobic ends. In Fifty Degrees Below, Robinson mostly calms me down even about this detail, because evolutionary psychology (or sociobiology, depending on the character) is used not by the author but by individual characters thoughtful about its implications and its fit in modernity (a thoughtfulness excruciatingly absent in much popular writing about these ideas, I should say, and much academic writing as well). With that concern out of the way, I was free to get obsessed with the events and characters, and obsessed I cheerfully got!