Thursday, September 20, 2018

At the Earth’s Core, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)

Burroughs is best known for his creation of the popular Tarzan stories. This character would later appear in a number of media, including radio and film, and Burroughs found fame and fortune in his lifetime as a result. But Burroughs wrote a great deal more. His Mars series, for example, the first of which Disney made into an impressive but commercially unsuccessful film in 2012 called John Carter (based on Burroughs’ first book in that series), was originally serialized in the magazine All-Story Weekly in 1912 and eventually novelized in 1917.

Oddly enough, apart from Disney’s John Carter film and whatever Tarzan rendition played throughout my boyhood periphery, At the Earth’s Core is my first foray into Burroughs’ stuff. It’s from a long running science fiction series known as the Pellucidar stories. Being a late bloomer, I didn’t start reading seriously before the age of 20. When I finally got round to reading, my interests centered on serious subjects such as philosophy, psychology, and science. So I didn’t get to Burroughs’ stuff for another 30 plus years.

Along with Doyle, H.G Wells, and Robert Louis Stevenson, Burroughs’ stuff could best be described as Young Adult fiction long before the subcategory of YA fiction was officially established. This isn’t to take away from the importance of these writers or their contributions. However, these authors tend to write shorter novels with less emphasis on substance and more focus on the fantastical.

Arguably, since their works were introduced as serials in magazines where brevity and action were paramount, the science was often soft and the action was nearly non-stop. As a result, these installments rarely conformed to the laws of physics as we know them. Nor were these stories given time to breath. Nor was much time devoted to development. Again, not a slight against them, but the focus was different from, say, the works of Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Kafka, Joyce, or Salinger. 

While I enjoyed this short novel, it could be said that things happen a bit too quickly. For example, rather than providing a scene or summary earlier in the story that establishes a character’s proficiency at, say, archery, we are first introduced to his prowess only as he confronts an oncoming foe.

Prior to this, Burroughs summarizes the protagonist’s flight from several foes yet fails to mention the degree to which he escapes their deadly jaws or bests them. Now, confronted with several assailants rushing him in a narrow ravine, he draws a bow we’ve never seen him wield, sets an arrow to his bowstring, and only then informs us that he’d used the weapon repeatedly to forage and defend himself against several adversaries.

Because of this, the protagonist’s deadly aim seems more like one of those deus ex machina contrivances, whereas providing a brief scene some time before this moment (known in the writing trade as either an anchor or a foreshadowing) would lend more credence to said proficiency and would render his spectacular aim far more credible.

Still. A fun literary romp, with more than ample action to keep the reader turning the pages. Recommended to those who enjoy YA fiction or lean prose from a practiced wordsmith. Four out of five stars. Rated PG

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