After looking at the zany joy of Garth Ennis’s Punisher MAX, I think it’s time to take a different direction — namely a guided tour of some of the great Lost Worlds in fiction. After all, my latest book, Dinosaur Dust, is set in such a Lost World and I’d like to go back and look at some of the fiction predecessors that inspired my own dinosaur-packed wonderland of Acheron Island. If you’re curious about Acheron Island, you can snag Dinosaur Dust for Kindle right here:
Before we start — I guess it’s important to explain what exactly a Lost World is — but I’m not that interested in finding a detailed definition. I’ll just say that it’s an isolated place filled with prehistoric creatures. There’s plenty more details to look at if you’re interested. In the mean time, head to your tramp steamer, adjust your fedora and let’s begin our journey.
The first stop on our Lost World World Tour is an old classic: Pellucidar, created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1914’s At the Earth’s Core.
Want to visit Pellucidar? All you need is a shovel. This series is part of the Hollow Earth subset of Lost World tales, where the prehistoric beasts lay just beneath our feet. The protagonist of the first couple stories, David Innes, has a professor friend who makes a digging machine which provides their transport. Pellucidar is set up in a weird sort of concave with a big, burning sun hovering right in the middle. In the past, tons of prehistoric beasts fell down and made it their home, along with assorted human cultures. Highlights include lots of Stone Age cavemen, Lizard men who ride around on dinosaurs (a very awesome touch), and a bunch of swaggering pirates descended from Barbary Corsairs. Time is fairly weird in Pellucidar, with a sun that never sets. That makes it sort of fitting for Burroughs’ stories, which feature side-tracked protagonists getting distracted from their tasks by various on-the-way adventures.
I’ve read a few Pellucidar stories and the stand-out — and probably the one most enjoyable for its sheer wackiness is the 1929 crossover Tarzan at the Earth’s Corps. The set-up is a little complex. Basically, David Innes, the protagonist of the original Pellucidar stories gets himself trapped by the aforementioned pirates and one of Burroughs’ friends, a spirited youngster named Jason Gridley (remember, Burroughs pretended that all his stories were real and he was merely relaying them to the public) decides to go and rescue him — and to recruit Tarzan for the job. He buys himself a cool zeppelin, swings by Africa and asks if Tarzan is up to go into the Hollow Earth. Naturally, Tarzan agrees and they head off. However, once they get to Pellucidar, the narrative’s forward momentum kind of droops as Tarzan and Gridley get kidnapped, side-tracked and have their own adventures. Tarzan’s perfectly at home in Pellucidar. In the excellent fictional biography, Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystroke, Phillip Jose Farmer refers to Pellucidar as Tarzan’s Happy Hunting Grounds — a place where he enjoy jungles, prehistoric cultures and beating the crap out of dinosaurs and saber-toothed tigers forever. It’s quite a fitting resting place for the Lord of the Jungle.
The novel is very dated — even more so than some of Burrough’s other efforts. The comic relief is a wretchedly racist Negro crook caricature. Also a little odd is Gridley falling in love with a caveman girl and then ruminating about how the women of 1920s America just can’t compare with the dames of the Stone Age. Some of the other dated elements are a little charming, though. A stegosaur attacks and thanks to Burroughs’ shaky knowledge of dinosaurs, uses its little fins to fly with its spiked tail spinning around like a propeller. The thought of a portly stegosaur zooming around a prehistoric jungle like an oversized bumblebee is — unlike the racism — pretty entertaining. Burroughs can be forgiven for that stegosaur, as absurd as it is. However, the racist and imperialist nature of his books will be something that forever holds him back for modern readers.
Here’s the thing about a lot of Burroughs stories — their core idea is a dated, imperialist one. I’m not really sure if Burroughs is to blame for this or if his guilt can be chalked up to the awful ideas of the time. Robert E. Howard has a lot of the same problems for instance, though often to a far worse degree. But either way, a simple look at the work reveals the nasty, racist truth. Burroughs’ stories, from Tarzan to John Carter to Pellucidar, feature a white male protagonist traveling to a savage, more primitive land and dominating it. In Burroughs’ world, the white man is tougher, smarter, more badass and cooler than the natives. He kicks a lot of ass, takes over and, in the case of Pellucidar, starts remaking the world for the better. That’s an inherently imperialist and racist idea and pretty much indefensible.
There are some wrinkles to the concept in the Pellucidar stories. One part that struck me as odd was that Innes insists on creating a modern society in Pellucidar, bringing the natives railroads, guns, better technology and agriculture — but leaving money completely out of it. That’s an interesting idea and shows that maybe Innes doesn’t think that the surface world is better than the cavemen of Pellucidar, even if he is more badass than any of them. Also, the protagonist from one of the latter stories is Tanar, who is a Stone Age native himself, and it deals with the adventures completely from his perspective. So there, are flashes of an intriguing break from the usual dated sentiments, but the overall theme is still pretty awful.
If Burroughs did one thing right with Pellucidar, it’s that he created a true fantasy world using prehistoric ingredients. With giant, mind-controlling pterodactyls, Lizard Men and the aforementioned flying stegosaurs, Pellucidar is like Middle Earth but with cavemen and dinosaurs instead of elves or dragons. That kind of willingness to be playful is a major part of doing a Lost World in today’s, science-packed atmosphere.