A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Archive for the tag “Literary Criticism”

Echoes: Literary and Historical Mars in the New Narrative

“We could cast our imaginations wider, to those who have tried to speak for all of Mars. To the astronomers looking at it with their telescopes, measuring all the qualities of light reflected from its surface, seeing seasons and imagining civilizations. Or to the writers inspired by those astronomical visions: H.G. Wells and Stanley Weinbaum, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Alexander Bogdanov and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Their imaginations took a point of light and turned it into a world of experience.” Oliver Morton, Mapping Mars, p. 3.

Despite the possibility of alien civilisations on Mars ground underfoot in the relentless stream of new information about the planet, the literary and exploratory history of Mars still influences contemporary authors writing under the new paradigm. The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury are the most prominently featured old literature about Mars, and the tropes of Martian life and survival in a hostile environment are still influencing plotlines. Life is the ultimate litmus test of planetary exploration in the minds of both scientists and authors. Not one of these novels (or most others published in the last two decades) skips the discovery of some form of life or fossilised evidence of its past presence. These older literary ideas are tied into historical retrospectives about Percival Lowell’s observations and NASA’s Mariner, Viking, and (later on) Pathfinder missions. In other words, there is ‘Nostalgia for an imagined Martian past and speculation about an imagined future,’ as a ‘dialectal responses to the ambiguities that Mars represents after 1972.’[1] This Martian mega-text (to borrow from Damien Broderick’s view of science fiction’s ‘interlocking web of fictive worlds’[2]) is built upon years of speculative fiction and science constantly being reinterpreted and updated, old tropes being assimilated by newer ones. Gregory Benford has noted that hard SF writers ‘hold in common the internationalist idealism of scientific bodies, and in their free trading of ideas often behave like scientists.’[3] This helps to understand the prevalent use not just of classical works, but the commonly shared sources of information, as these proposed soon-to-be-histories are written with a common historical/ literary background. Zubrin’s historian cum astronaut character is blatant in articulating the conflict between past, present, and envisioned future:

Edgar Rice Burroughs already told us about this place. Once there were canals here, and cities, capitals of mighty empires that had names like Helium, Ptarth, and Manator. […]

Ah, Barsoom, you were destroyed by the Mariner probes, which banished you into mere fiction. But now we are here to make amends. Once again, there are people on Mars[4]

It is a rather ridiculous statement to makes; Burroughs knew next to nothing about Mars (only what was gleaned from Lowell’s fuzzy observations), he merely gave it the foundations of a fictive state to exist in. But the sentiment is meant to appeal to those who are familiar with Barsoom’s influence on literary Mars. In adapting to changing perceptions of the planet, these authors are attempting to make Mars interesting again, not with fantasy, but with the facts as they are known by presenting the visage of an adventurous, dangerous new world to explore. The past literary and scientific elements are called upon to invoke a popular nostalgia, and be reconciled with the new Mars, ‘to make amends’ for the years between Viking and the mid-1980s when authors finally began to write about the Red Planet again. They also revel in the early scientific speculation and unmanned expeditions to Mars, reiterating the great efforts leading up to this point in history and the significance Mars has held in the human imagination. These novels are about modifying the mega-text of Martian literature, turning what had become fantasy into the viable, realistic mode of prediction science fiction is often perceived to be, ignoring the extent to which it comments on the present.[5] In order to reshape Martian iconography, these narratives must be woven into the scientific and literary past. Just as latter revelations in both religion and science must take prevalence over those edicts and theories which preceded them, the more recent novels of Mars establish their authority over Burroughs and Bradbury by reminding readers of the fallacious bygone, while presenting the latest NASA findings. This also requires authors to take a planet redefined in less terrestrial terms, and humanise it again with more subtle metaphors; a vision of the Grand Canyon National Park rather than a medieval palace. It is acceptable to be inspired by past literature and scientific deeds, but the ‘new’ must be embraced, or as Gwyneth Jones put it, ‘In the hierarchy of sf plausibility, technophile extrapolation from the here-and-now takes precedence.’[6] This creates a cyclical relationship between the scientists making discoveries, the SF authors incorporating these discoveries into the plots, adding their own speculation, and providing stories of inspiration for a new generation.

Many authors and scientists were influenced by these tales of Mars, and ‘No matter how whimsical the Mars of Bradbury, or Lowell, or Burroughs, the scientists who now study the planet grew up under the influence of these visionaries. Some modern scientists, like Carl Sagan, have freely admitted their debt; others function in a culture conditioned by them.’[7] They were provided with the wonderland of a living Mars. In acknowledging the influences of these works, authors are demonstrating a hope that their own stories will inspire the future. Discovering life on Mars is fictionalised wish fulfilment, whether to merely alleviate the feeling of being alone in the universe, or to prove Mars a worthwhile destination deserving of further development. The dream of colonising Mars with shining domed-cities is not (completely) dead, but has been replaced with the more realistic near-future structures of buried brick vaults and domes of rip-stop Kevlar and Plexiglas.[8] Now there is simply more science to influence the settlement plan and those writing the narratives. ‘Good science fiction works […] Largely by retaining some contact with the real world,’[9] thus, by the authors maintaining parity with the known past while incorporating newer work, it helps to maintain the verisimilitude, allowing readers to relate more fully to the idea that this is the very near future.

The historical science references, from Lowell to Pathfinder, are meant to keep the reader in the present and aware that this is not intended to be an alternative universe with an alternate history (excluding Stephen Baxter’s Voyage in 1997 which deals with an alternate history and a Mars expedition in the 1980s). Bova makes reference to the first geologist on the moon since Apollo 17 and the use of Mir 5 space station,[10] establishing a continuation of known space programmes. However, as can happen when writing in the near future, the latter element is now a dated assumption considering the destruction of the original Mir and its substitution with the International Space Station (which Landis makes use of in his novel for training the astronauts, along with the fictional Mirusha, ‘“little Mir’- a tribute to the earlier Mir space station’[11]). But it is the Viking missions of 1976 which are more frequently brought up, the first American craft to touch down on the planet and conduct basic experiments, which revealed ‘that there was unusual chemical activity in the Martian soil’ raising the question ‘Could life exist in that soil, if there was liquid water available?’[12] The scientific history raises possibilities for the authors to explore and answer, and it offers a chance for the authors to pay homage to old scientists and explores who helped to shape the new Mars. In the novel, an excursion is made out to the Viking 1 Lander (renamed the Mutch Memorial station after the death of Thomas A. Mutch in 1980) to place a plaque in honour of the geologist who headed up the team which examined the Viking photographs.


The plaque was unveiled by NASA in 1981, and is still waiting for a team of explorers to go to Mars and place it with the Mutch Memorial Station.[14] Bova is fulfilling the desire of many NASA scientists, if only in fiction, and adding another thread of reality to the inter-textual web.

A significant source of history that contributes to the plot later on in Return to Mars was the historic Pathfinder mission of 1997, when NASA finally succeeded in returning to Mars after Viking. Bova’s questionably enterprising character Dexter Thumball is determined to scavenge the Sojourner rover from the Sagan site in Ares Vallis to auction off on Earth. Upon retrieval ‘they photographed the area for comparison with the catalogue imagery from the Pathfinder itself three decades earlier.’[15] Instead of a simulacrum stand-in as SF so often must do for their plots, Bova is free to utilise these real artefacts of history as part of the action. Thumball the elder later decided to trek to Mars to check on his investments, citing that ‘older men than I have gone into space, starting with Senator Glenn nearly forty years ago’[16] in reference to Senator John Glenn of Ohio setting the record for oldest astronaut in space.[17] Statements such as this are superfluous to the plot action, but contribute to the verisimilitude of a potential near-future expedition.  NASA is a civilian branch of the US government, and in a (theoretically) transparent democracy, their activities are therefore part of the public domain, and free to be assimilated into the iconography of Mars. An invented NASA mission (for that matter, a fictitious space agency) would be a distraction for readers versed in space travel history, and so it is easier for Bova, and others, to appease the informed and inform the uninitiated.

Gregory Benford utilises more scientific history than perhaps any other author during this decade, planting his work firmly in the realm of near-future. The Martian Race brings up the 1989 proposal by NASA for a $450 billion budget to reach Mars[18] and the subsequent development of the Mars Direct scenario as a more economic proposal. The history of self-contained environments, from Mir to Skylab to the International Space Station and the Biosphere II experiment (including why it failed) are all brought up, and how self-contained environments still have not been perfected.[19] One of the Viking experiments is recreated, and the scientist confirms that ‘Viking and all the other probes had fund only chemistry after all, no evidence of life.’[20] The 1997 Sojourner rover is reflected upon by one of the astronauts as ‘its plucky nosing around had got Julia started on her Mars fixation’[21] – a statement that may prove true for future scientists. Benford is keeping his narrative firmly rooted in this world, as it were, allowing space exploration history to provide a large part of the context. Besides utilising the inspirations of The Case for Mars, Zubrin himself became a background figure assisting the private enterprise as the ‘Mars guru’, and is joined at a wedding by several more real life individuals[22] (all the scientists who assisted Benford in his research, many of them former member of the Mars Underground) and the base that the astronauts establish on Gusev crater is also named after him. This is a fascinating surreality of art imitating life, as Benford attempts to make his novel as realistic as possible. Zubrin’s work and personality have become part of the new Mars mega-text.

Robert Zubrin’s First Landing is a form of self- contained mega-text as it is self-referential of the author’s professional work; its a story centred on Zubrin’s own previously published theoretical approach to Mars, and Zubrin’s characters cite The Case for Mars and the Mars Society within the narrative. As discussed in the previous chapter, Zubrin is writing with specific agenda of proselytising and recruitment. NASA is the organisation behind the expedition, and the Viking missions’ experiments mentioned (pages 33 and 43). Even Michael Carr’s book The Surface of Mars is quoted (page 184) on a trip to Valles Marineris, as is Percival Lowell’s view on the Martian need to find water (page 111). Nearly a century apart in publication, yet both considered relevant to Mars today. It appears that the Mars Society, The Surface of Mars and The Case for Mars have joined with their predecessors to become part of the mega-text about Martian exploration, as ‘most science-fiction novelists in the 1990s have jumped on the Mars Direct Bandwagon […] and a detailed secondary literature has begun to be developed’,[23] such as Expedition Mars (2004) and Marswalk One: First Step on a New Planet (2005) both of which detail the science and engineering of landing on Mars. This is significant because it means an expanding range of resources for SF writers to draw from, a growth of the secondary mega-text to Mars literature. It means, though, that writers referencing these works will continue to structure their narratives under a set of pre-determined scientific parameters. Science must invariably dictate at least a portion of the plot, which could be argued as true for all so-called hard SF.

Two novels that do not spend many words on the scientific history of Mars are Beachhead and Mars Crossing. The former merited only mentioning the Viking Landers (p. 71) and Mariner 9 probe (p. 113) one time each. While it is indeed the author’s prerogative to ignore a literary and scientific history when writing SF, Williamson (and/or his editor) misdate Asaph Hall’s discovery of the moons of Mars, marking it as 1977[24] instead of 1877. This contributes to the sense of Beachhead as being rather disconnected from the present world. NASA is not even mentioned, but instead an imagined multi-national ‘Mars Authority’ coordinates the mission. Landis at least acknowledges NASA as a force behind Mars exploration (in addition to setting some of the training on the International Space Station) and dedicates three pages of part six to looking around the Pathfinder’s landing site of Ares Vallis, one astronaut recalling that ‘As a kid, he’d spent whole days downloading the pictures of this place from the internet; it was when he’d first become interested in Mars.’[25] However, that is the extent of Landis’s reflections up actual history. He references Lowell only once, when an instructor on Earth claims to be ‘a heretic, an old-fashioned Percival Lowell who just refuses to see the evidence’[26] when he claims there has to have been life on Mars once. It is difficult to decide whether Lowell should even be categorised with the scientific or literary history of Mars, simply because his ideas were a fiction based upon blurry observations, and his greatest contribution was perhaps to the inspiration of science fiction writers for the next half century. Old literary Mars is difficult for these authors to detach themselves from, and continues to influence modern narratives.

Bova’s characters may not reflect so much upon the literary history in Mars, but the author himself acknowledges his thanks to Burroughs, Weinbaum and Bradbury; ‘The different versions of Mars that they wrote about exist only in the imagination – but that is more than enough.’[27] Bova dwells the least upon literary Mars when compared to his contemporaries, as if trying to distance himself and his more serious work from whimsical Barsoom. Lowell, though, is given a little more credit in Return to Mars when the astronauts are discussing microbes living within water-bearing boulders, which are slowly drying out: ‘It’s just like Lowell said – this planet is dying.’ Lowell having been largely discredited for his canal theory, the character qualifies this hypothesis a few sentences later: ‘Lowell’s canals were mostly eyestrain and optical illusion. But his basic idea was that Mars was losing its air and water, the whole planet was dying’.[28] To say that a planet is dying is indicative of the belief that Mars was once alive, an assumption still unverified at this point in history. Lowell’s pseudo-scientific theories have remained fixed within the Mars mega-text because his ideas were so prevalent in the founding texts, and he has not been proved entirely wrong in his ideas thus far.

Williamson utilised very little in the way of literary references. His main character comments that when he was young he read ‘Heinlein[…]. A story about the red planet. I wanted to go there’[29] which provides a realistic motivator, and upon finally reaching the planet, he greets it ‘Hello Barsoom!’[30] (With no explanation for this comment, this indicates an assumption by Williamson that his readers would already be familiar with the works of Burroughs.) But there is no further reflection upon the literary Mars, and John Clute comments that although Beachhead ‘describes an expedition to a Mars according to contemporary knowledge, […] the plot itself is redolent of a much earlier era.’[31] This is an interesting observation, because it indicates an assumption that new tales of Mars must have a narrative updated from more classical tropes, and yet the older fictions continue to shape some of the narrative despite the new scientific data. Beachhead fits less securely into the mega-text of new Mars exploration than any of the other novels from this period, because it is entirely too mired in the Barsoom-ish vision of a great Mars with ‘crystal city domes shining in the dark.’[32] Writer who followed Williamson employed less poetically imperial visages in an attempt to maintain the scientific verisimilitude, but the literature still plays an influential intertextual role.

Ray Bradbury’s work is not commonly mentioned among these texts, but in The Martian Race the astronauts ‘talked about Ray Bradbury’s sand ships, tried to imagine skimming over the undulating landscape.’[33] They even watch the film version of The Martian Chronicles, along with several other Hollywood productions such as Mars Attacks! And Mission to Mars, described as ‘good for laughs’,[34] which keeps readers aware of the more sordid film history of Mars. Later there is a fear of Martian microbes reaching Earth, spurring a less-than logical response; ‘They cited Ray Bradbury, whose fictional Martians died from earthly diseases. That it was fiction was a fine point they didn’t appreciate.’[35] (This is followed by references to ‘The Andromeda strain, the Triffids, various evolved Martians, and lots of squishy aliens’.[36]) Reflecting an interesting dichotomy, they reference inspirational science fiction, to reinforce the ambitions of newer science fiction to push for an expedition to Mars, while at the same time using a derisive tone when SF is employed to argue against the expansion of scientific exploration. To borrow from another science fiction author, as there is no more succinct term, this is an interesting case of ‘double-think.’

Burroughs is quoted most often in First Landing, as if Zubrin is single-handedly trying to resurrect the Barsoom series, and credits Lowell with spawning the field of Mars literature and exploration. Copies of the Barsoom books are brought along, and two of the characters address each other as ‘My princess’ and ‘My chieftain’[37] in direct reference to Burroughs’s novels. The historian cum astronaut (rather banally) testifies

A century ago one dreamer who led us to Mars was Percival Lowell, a scientist who thought he saw canals spanning this planet, brining water from its poles to a thirsty civilization.
Perhaps in the future some John Carter from Earth will come here to find love in the eyes of a Dejah Thoris, his beautiful Martian princess. […]
Thank you Lowell, and Burroughs, for bringing us here; thanks to all the dreamers. Humanity owes its new world to you.[38]

It is not a soliloquy that will go down in the annals of literary memory, but it drives home the belief that current (and future) Mars narratives and exploration are derivative of the contributions from Lowell and Burroughs. This novel, and the others, is not intended as a pastiche of Burroughs’s work, but the constant referencing creates an obvious simulacrum of characters and situations, attempting to balance the fiction with the overwhelming science. Instead of gradually moving away from the unscientific portrayals of Mars, from Bova to Zubrin there is a marked increase of invocation of historical texts.

The echo of Lowell and Burroughs which resonates most profoundly in all of these novels is the ‘discovery’ of life on Mars. Every novel uncovers life from the microbial to the arboreal, and evidence from fossils to abandoned ancient cities. The perception is a consensus that life simply has to have evolved on Mars at some point in the last four billion years; even historically ‘As the canal builders retreated into science fiction, the idea of “primitive” life on Mars persisted’.[39] In the simple terms of Zubrin’s biologist upon discovering coccoid bacteria fossils, ‘There was life here once! […] That’s all that counts.’[40] This sentiment is echoed by the other authors/ narratives; in Mars, when the comment is made that the scientists who discover a simple lichen will win the Nobel prize, one responds ‘But what does that matter? Nothing matters now. We have found what we came for! Whatever happens from now on, it does not matter.’[41] The authors cannot conceive of a mission to Mars that does not include the discovery of some evidence of life, as if a Mars devoid of life cannot be interesting or worthwhile in itself. Life is the ultimate justification for reaching out to another planet, and as these authors are pursing an agenda not just to entertain, but to inform and perhaps even influence, they must pass this litmus test in their own fiction.

Though the appearance of Mars in fiction over the last century may have changed from crystal palaces to arid volcano peaks, from egg-laying princesses to coccoid bacteria, the sentiment remains; Mars is the closest planet to Earth that may harbour life. In concocting new narratives of this place, there is a common web of scientific history and information that invariably shapes the environmental setting and even the plot itself is not free from textual history. Authors will read the work of both their forbearers and their contemporaries, and though they reference their common literary past, they do not reference each other’s work, as if it would tarnish their own literary/scientific/political goals. They are all writing alternative (supposedly viable) futures of Mars exploration for the opening decades of the Twenty-first century, crafted by the mega-text of previous scientific and literary aspirations. Time will determine their successful integration into and influence upon the Mars mega-text.


[1] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 270.

[2] Damien Broderick, Reading by Starlight, p. 48.

[3] Gregory Benford, ‘Real Science, Imaginary Worlds’, in The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF, ed. by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (London: Orbit, 1994), p. 15.

[4] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 24.

[5] For evidence of this, just look at such titles as Robert Bly’s The Science in Science Fiction: 83 SF Predictions That Became Scientific Reality; this notes the speculation that formaldehyde detected in Mars’s atmosphere is evidence of methane producing bacteria, thus, proof of life on Mars.

[6] Gwyneth Jones, ‘The icons of science fiction’, in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 169.

[7] Bergreen, The Quest for Mars, pp. 185-6.

[8] Zubrin, The Case for Mars, pp.175-8.

[9] Lambourne, et. al., Close Encounters, p. 113.

[10] Bova, Mars, p.47

[11] Landis, Mars Crossing, p.144.

[12] Bova, Mars, p. 125.

[13] Bova, Mars, p. 287.

[14] Malin Space Science System website. Mars Global Surveyor – Mutch Crater. <http://www.msss.com/mars_images/moc/2006/08/27/&gt;. Accessed 29 June 2008.

[15] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 355.

[16] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 504.

[17] Senator Glenn was 77 years old, aboard the space shuttle Discovery, mission STS-95 (October 29 – November 7, 1998).

[18] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 20.

[19] Benford, The Martian Race, pp. 181-2.

[20] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 259-60.

[21] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 17.

[22] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 54.

[23] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 349.

[24] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 121.

[25] Landis, Mars Crossing, p. 287.

[26] Landis, Mars Crossing, p. 77.

[27] Bova, Mars, p. i.

[28] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 159.

[29] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 24.

[30] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 134.

[31] Clute and Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p. 1330.

[32] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 181.

[33] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 30-1.

[34] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 325.

[35] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 109.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 222.

[38] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 38.

[39] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 150.

[40] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 64.

[41] Bova, Mars, p. 429.

Scholars of the Terra Cava

In the nineteenth century, one would be hard pressed to find a scholarly article on the hollow earth, such things left to the amateur natural philosopher, spiritualist, and dreamer; the twentieth century – benefiting from the perspective of a known world distinctly lacking access to the terra cava – gave rise to the literary and historical scholar writing about the products of hollow earth theory. Different scholars have differing ideas about the meaning of the underground in literature. The historian Rosalind Williams proposes that ‘narratives about underground worlds have provided a prophetic view into our environmental future. Subterranean surroundings, whether real or imaginary, furnish a model of an artificial environment from which nature has been effectively banished.’[1] Few individuals have attempted to analyse the hollow earth, and many of the works are either incredibly broad or non-academic: Walter Kafton-Minkel did one of the first surveys in 1989 with Subterranean Worlds: 100,000 Years of Dragons, Dwarfs, the Dead, Lost Races & UFOs from Inside the Earth; Everett F. Bleiler’s science fiction catalogue, Science Fiction: The Early Years (1990), provides a more extensive summary of the known terra cava fictions and includes a few words about his thoughts on the story; Peter Fitting published an anthology with excerpts from several works, Subterranean Worlds: A Critical Anthology (2004); and David Standish wrote the decidedly non-academic survey, Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastic Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface in 2006, only briefly summarising a few of the many terra cava narratives from the fin de siècle. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2011) in its latest edition (available only online) also provides some information about hollow earth novels, but not extensive analysis, and some entries are incomplete or erroneous; such as ‘Orcutt, Emma Louise’, which identifies the inhabitants as all living underground in ‘Susepnded Animation’; the underground portions of the world are petrified remains of the dead, and the surface population very much alive.[2] The enrty for ‘Moore, M. Louise’ identifies the land visitied in Al-Modad as Al-Modad, which is actually the name of the protragonist.[3] In 2012 an edited collection of essays about the hollow earth, Between Science and Fiction: The Hollow Earth as Concept and Conceit, was published in Berlin, but this focuses almost entirely on European terra cava narratives, less in number compared to their American counterparts. No one has conducted a thorough examination of the dozens of hollow earth writings published in the United States in the nineteenth century and what they reveal about American culture, religion, and politics at that time.

Consider the following, from a newspaper ninety years after Symmes’s announcement, from a society formed to prove the earth is hollow:

‘It is time for action – not a time for mere talking. But the earth is hollow and our investigations will soon prove it. The poles so long sought are but phantoms. There are openings at the northern and southern extremities. In the interior of the earth are vast continents, oceans, mountains and rivers. Vegetables and animal life is evident in this new world, and it is possibly peopled by races yet unknown to the dwellers upon the earth’s exterior.’[4]

Though there are no scientific papers supporting Symmes’s theory, this newspaper article is an example of popular science in the United States influencing public thought and cultural products. Support for Symmes’s model of the earth isn’t to be found in searches of scientific journals, but in newspapers, independently published tracts by non-scientists, and fictional narratives.

Symzona, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, The Goddess of Atvatabar and more, when they appear in an academic analysis, are often referred to in terms that remove the story from realist connotations and examine them in satiric terms. While many of them employ some form of social commentary or political view meant to reflect back on the reader, that does not automatically make them parodies. Parodies tend to emerge later in a genre’s existence, after its tropes have been established. The pre-nineteenth century terra cava narratives were immersed in social satire, and this is where so many literary theorists misstep in their assessment of nineteenth century terra cava; just because the most well-known hollow earth books before this period were written in the vein of Swift and Voltaire does not mean that those which came later were intended to be interpreted in the same way; American authors tended to take a different narrative approach. Because the idea of a hollow or porous world being inhabited appears to be a ridiculous premise in the twenty-first century, it is easier to paint these novels with the wide brush of parody rather than to enter into the mind-set of contemporary writers and readers who viewed portions of the world as still unknown, and holding the possibility of rich surprises.

[1] Rosalind Williams, Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), p. 4.

[2] John Clute, ‘Orcutt, Emma Louise’, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction <http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/orcutt_emma_louise&gt; Accessed 10/11/2014.

[3] John Clute, ‘Moore, M Louise’, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction <http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/moore_m_louise>  Accessed 10/11/2014.

[4] Anon., ‘Going to Look for a Big Hole at the Top of the World’, Marion Daily Mirror, Vol. XVI, No. 229 (25 April 1908), p. 9.

After ‘Symzonia’: Critical Reception of a New Idea

The critical reaction to the publication of Symzonia was tepid: ‘It is, upon the whole, dull and uninteresting. A great deal might have been made out of the subject, for there is at least as much to satirize as in the age of Swift. The author is, however, very good natured, and if there is nothing brilliant in his observations, there is nothing to offend.’[1] The novel is treated with the same tongue-in-cheek attitude that Symmes himself was, referring to his ‘concentric’ theory as ‘the excentric theories’ that inspired the novel.[2] Duane Griffin claims that ridicule of Symmes’s theory increased because Symzonia was a satirical novel,[3] but most readers would probably interpret it as an earnest effort, not one of satire, even if there are several parallels with Gulliver’s Travels. The deficiencies of American society and politics are shown contra the perfection of Symzonia; Gulliver, unlike Seaborn, does not admit to these issues. Peter Fitting states ‘I read this novel – as have most of my colleagues in the fields of science fiction and utopia – as a satirical utopia which includes a defense of Symmes’s theory.’[4] Another contemporary reviewer of the novel actually barely references Symzonia at all, choosing instead to review Symmes’s theory and make reference to the ‘internal’ as infernals, and that moving to the inside of the earth would be financially sound, ‘for if ordinary bottom lands are notoriously fertile, what must those be, which are not only at the bottom, but on the other side.’[5]  There is also strong anti-imperial sentiment when the anonymous reviewer claims that if ‘the Internals refuse to eat, drink and smoke, as we direct, there then will doubtless be found ways to compel them’,[6] emphasising (and disparaging) the rules of colonial trade that the U.S. had within the last two generations thrown off. Hester Blum finds Symzonia to be ‘parodic…but not of the outlandishness of Symmes’s theories themselves’ and is instead ‘a critique of US and British imperialism…a jape at the genre of writing produced by imperial ventures.’[7] From the contemporary reviews, Blum may be right about how the themes of exploration and imperialism are being treated, but unlike the others, does not believe that Symmes himself is an object of derision, especially if Symmes is the one doing the writing. There is some reason to doubt some of the insincerity towards nationalistic expansion, though, because the U.S. had only recently, with the Louisiana Purchase, doubled its size. Nor could Americans have been unaware of the ever-expanding British influence across the globe.

Setting aside the satire about American society and politics, at face value Symzonia does appear to urge readers to support American exploration and expansion (as well as American ideas and American literature). The novel itself seems to stand in contrast to what some historian’s viewed as Symmes’s distinctly anti-imperial language in his known writings: ‘For Symmes, the polar entrances to the interior belong to “the world” and to the mind rather than to the factional economic and political actors that—in his age and ours—continually conquer new territory in search of wealth.’[8] While Symmes did put his theories to the rest of the world, he was looking for economic and scientific support. The petitions that went before Congress certainly emphasised the need for America to get there first, as do many later novels. Only after failing with his own people did Symmes try to join a Russian expedition to the Arctic.

It is difficult to read into the intentions of Symmes (if it was indeed Symmes, though it seems unlikely to be any other) in the publication of this story, as he never wrote any other fictional narratives, and spend the bulk of his life after this point travelling the US and proselytising his theory, in which this tale might have been a tool. Besides Symmes as the author, a case has been made for one of contemporaries, Nathaniel Ames, but few have taken up that call. There is also the interesting bit of evidence that Elmore Symmes provides in his trio of essays about his father in which he provides a copy of a hand-drawn map by Symmes, and ‘the word “Symmsesonia” is the name he desired given to a continent when one was discovered’;[9] a slightly different spelling, but the same sentiment, put on paper in 1822. The novel is the epitome of early science fiction, blending scientific fact and theory at a time when these things were in a constant state of fluctuation, for an audience that was ready to receive an exciting travel narrative not unlike those of actual accounts. Most significantly, though, Symzonia would help to lay the foundation for dozens of hollow earth stories to follow over the next hundred years.

Imaged from Elmore Symmes's article 'The Theorist, John Cleves Symmes'.

Imaged from Elmore Symmes’s article ‘The Theorist, John Cleves Symmes’.

[1] Anon., ‘Review of Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery’ in The Literary Gazette; or, Journal of Criticism, Science and the Arts. 6 January 1821 (Vol. 1, No. 1), p.8.

[2] Anon., ‘Review of Symzonia’, The Literary Gazette, p. 6.

[3] Duane Griffin, “Hollow and Habitable Within”. P. 390.

[4] Peter Fitting. Subterranean Worlds. P. 106.

[5] Anon., ‘Art. VI – A voyage to the internal world’ – The North American Review (Vol. 13, Issue 32, 1821), pp. 135-6.

[6] Anon., ‘A voyage’, The North American Review, p. 140.

[7] Hester Blum, ‘John Cleves Symmes and the Planetary Reach of Polar Exploration’, American Literature (Vol. 84, No. 2, June 2012), p. 261.

[8] M. Allewaert and Michael Ziser, ‘Preface: Under Water’ in American Literature (Vol. 84, No. 2, June 2012) p. 236.

[9] Elmore Symmes, ‘John Cleves Symmes, The Theorist’, Southern Bivouac: A Monthly Literary and Historical Magazine (Vol. 2, 1887), p. 628.

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