Saturday, September 01, 2007

An Entertaining Exploration of Imaginary Excavation!

David Standish’s Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations and Marvelous Machines Beneath the Earth's Surface is an amazing book.

When I first saw the cover, I didn’t think I would be interested. Then I noticed the names that were thrown out with almost careless abandon. Jules Verne. Edgar Rice Burroughs. They weren’t the names of scientists, although scientists are frequently and fairly referenced throughout the book, but I recognized those names at once.

Verne and Burroughs, at one time or another, have been my favorite authors. I loved Verne’s far-fetched adventures. Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are the ones of his that I read the most.

Burroughs, though, taught me an idealistic love because his heroes – John Carter and Carson Napier and David Innes – all fell in love with the most beautiful woman in two worlds. Not only did those women look great (especially the way Frank Frazetta drew them), but they were the bravest and fiercest women you could ever hope to meet.

So Standish drew me in with one of my favorite “conspiracy” theories – that there is another world inside the one we live on as well as promising new dissertations about two of my one-time favorite authors. In fact, the hollow earth theory is still so popular there are a number of websites on the Internet devoted to it. I find it particularly amusing that Adolf Hitler believed in the hollow earth idea so much that he sent troops and expeditionary forces to uncover the entrances. Most speculation was that the openings to the hollow world were at the north and south poles. That’s what drove most of the exploration in those areas.

The book is one part scientific history, one part science fiction history, and one part sheer love of the whole hollow earth theory. Standish does an admirable job of keeping all these elements balanced. If the book and merely been a scientific history, I think I would’ve been put off. But he kept mixing it up with fact and fun. More than that, some of the theories the early signs is came up with about how the world worked are to die for.

I sat down with the book with the intention of reading a chapter or two the first time. Instead, I blazed through over 80 pages of it without stopping. Standish has a really good sense of how much pure information to dump on a reader before reaching critical mass. He changes up from presentation of facts to speculation on his part so smoothly that you don’t notice the transition. Before you know it, you’re thinking right along with him and totally understanding where he’s headed.

Although the chapters are long, with all the illustrations and pictures involved they read quite quickly. I loved learning about the Royal Society’s arguments over how the earth is constructed in the early days. And it was even more fascinating to see how many of the historically important people that we remember for other things also weighed in on the issue of whether or not the earth was hollow.

While reading the book, I was fascinated on a multitude of levels. I couldn’t believe all the scientific conjecture that had gone into such a thing. But I grew up knowing (at least by current belief) that the earth is solid and that the center is a liquid mass of molten iron and nickel. However, another theory that’s lately in the news suggests that there are more cave systems throughout the earth than had been previously believed.

Standish’s book leans heavily on science and the early thoughts of the earth’s composition, from core to exosphere – see, I’m learning, at the beginning of the book. Near to the end, he switches gears and relies heavily on science fiction thinking by popular authors. I found I knew more about the science fiction and the things that I did the early science part. I don’t think I learned anything really new in the last part of the book, but I definitely enjoyed the first part and seeing how it all live in the science fiction novels the loved while I was growing up.

The book is handsomely packaged in hardcover and oversized trade softcover, so you can have either edition for your home library. Scientists and science fiction fans would probably both agree this is a must have for the serious “hollow earth” bibliophile. Even for someone who is neither, Standish’s book is such a pleasure to read that it should be read.

Discovery Channel or the History Channel should take this book up, use it for resource material, and make one of those specials that they do so well. Or potentially even a series. The subject matter is a hoot and Standish reveals so much of the science and history behind the search for the hollow earth that it wouldn’t be hard to put such a project together.

His writing is so good that I’m tempted to pick up book, The Art of Money just to see what he did with that. That’s the sign of the a good author.

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