09 February 2009

Caspak Triumphant: The Land That Time Forgot

First Edition CoverThe Land That Time Forgot (1924)
By Edgar Rice Burroughs

“You have read the opening paragraph, and if you are an imaginative idiot like myself, you will want to read the rest of it; so I shall give it to you here. . . .”

I often refer to Edgar Rice Burroughs as an “excuse” author. It seems readers or critics can’t discuss him without qualifiers to excuse reading him. A typical statement: “Edgar Rice Burroughs wasn’t a good writer but he had a vast imagination.”

I respectfully object to the assessment that Burroughs was a poor writer. In his best works, he pulls me along and engrosses me far more than most bestselling “thriller” authors published today. I can pick apart objective deficiencies in his style, criticize his dips into awkward phrasing, but this ultimately doesn’t matter in his overall style, which reads fast, involving, and exciting. His prose style matches the types and tones of the stories he wants to tell, fits them so well that I can’t imagine another style that would work with them. That, in my reader’s eyes, makes Edgar Rice Burroughs a great writer.

My principle criticism about Burroughs isn’t how he uses his words, but instead his tendency to repeat a chase-rescue-coincidence formula that turns wearisome in the later books when he seems to have grown tired of it himself, but trotted it out anyway because it had always served him before. (In a few of his final books, such as 1947’s Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion” and the posthumously published I Am a Barbarian, he shucked his standard plots with impressive results.) But this formula doesn’t concern me so much when considering what I think stands out today as Burroughs’s masterpiece, The Land That Time Forgot, a book filled with more imagination than you’ll discover in the entire careers of many lesser science-fiction and fantasy authors.

The Land That Time Forgot was originally serialized as three novellas in the popular general-interest pulp Blue Book for the second half of 1918: “The Land That Time Forgot” (August), “The People That Time Forgot” (October), and “Out of Time’s Abyss” (December). McClurg published the complete novel in hardcover in 1924 with illustrations by J. Allen St. John, the artist most associated with Burroughs during the author’s lifetime. The novel continued to appear intact until the 1960s and the ERB paperback boom. Ace Books split the complete novel into the three novellas of the original serialization, each with a new Ray Krenkel cover. On their own, the novellas look skimpy and read as unfinished. The three parts weave together in an integral way, and treating them as separate entities weakens the overall effect. It’s only in this whole that The Land That Time Forgot emerges as one of Burroughs’s most rewarding works. Thankfully, the book is currently published in single-volume editions as Burroughs intended.

Bison CoverAt first glance, The Land That Time Forgot looks like another take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, with adventurers trapped in a hidden primeval world of dinosaurs and other extinct fauna. But Burroughs hangs his kinetic lost world adventure on the peg of a brilliant science-fiction concept that raises The Land That Time Forgot to the top of the heap of its subgenre. As Mike Resnick writes in his introduction to the Commemorative Edition of The Land That Time Forgot, Burroughs “felt it wasn’t enough to run the hero up a tree and spend the rest of the story throwing rocks at him. He also gave the readers something to think about.”

And gave them plenty. Burroughs turns an action-adventure tale into an epic about the evolution of life. He crafts the lost land of Caspak into the Chartres Cathedral of evolution. Step through the main vestibule . . . it’s an astonishing place in here.

The complexity of Caspak’s biological workings appears in fragments throughout the novel, creating a wonderful aura of growing mystery among the lost-world escapades. The adventures follow most of the author’s standard tropes, but they still make enjoyable reading, and when they are tied into a fascinating and intricate setting, it’s easy to get over some of weaker and more repetitive chases-and-rescues that might have bogged down a Burroughs novel with less cerebral interests.

Part I, which has no official title in the complete edition, opens with a narrative device that Burroughs often used: a fictional version of himself comes across an incredible story, and then presents it to the reader. (“In two minutes, you will forget me.”) On a convalescence in Greenland, the pseudo-Burroughs discovers a thermos bottle in the tides that contains the incredible manuscript of American Bowen J. Tyler (from my town of Santa Monica, CA). Tyler, a shipbuilder and submarine expert, narrates his adventures in Caspak, a lost world within the Island of Caprona in the Antarctic Sea.

In 1916, a German U-boat sinks the ship carrying Tyler to England. Tyler survives in a lifeboat with a girl he recovered from the wreck, Lys, and his loyal Airedale Nobbler (or “Nobs”). A British tug picks them up, but the same U-boat sinks that ship as well. However, the crew of the tug manages to get aboard the U-boat and seize control. Tyler and the Brits pilot the U-33 for England, but they come under attack from their own side because they’re in an enemy sub. Tensions aboard the U-boat between the British crew and the captive Germans run understandably high. To add to the boiling kettle, the German commander, Baron von Schoenvorts, is Lys’s former fiancé. (Ah, a classic Edgar Rice Burroughs coincidence.) Sabotage aboard U-33 sends the sub far off course toward the south, and when suspicion falls on Lys, it creates a split between her and Tyler. (Ah, another classic Edgar Rice Burroughs convention.)

The Great War backdrop results in occasional ugliness. Burroughs isn’t reluctant to trot out the nasty term “boche” repeatedly to refer to the Germans; he wrote the novel when World War I still raged, and probably heard the word used every day. This does create a genuine tension within the novel, however. The author’s own feelings boil over and make the sub scenes gritty and a touch nasty. The movie version made in the mid-1970s handles this situation much differently.

With its water and food almost exhausted, U-33 comes upon the lost continent of Caprona in the south ocean. Yes, it got that off-course. Unable to scale the titan cliffs of the continent, the crew sends the U-boat through an underwater cavern to follow a trail of fresh water. They emerge in Caspak, the lost world of every imaginative child’s daydreams:
For several minutes no one spoke; I think they must have been as overcome by awe as was I. All about us was a flora and a fauna as strange and wonderful to us as might have been those upon a distant planet had we suddenly and miraculously transported through ether to an unknown world. Even the grass upon the nearer bank was unearthly—lush and high it grew, and each blade bore upon its tip a brilliant flower—violet or yellow or carmine or blue—making as gorgeous a sward as human imagination might conceive. And the life! It teemed. The tall, fernlike trees were alive with monkeys, snakes, and lizards. Huge insects hummed and buzzed hither and tither. Mighty forms could be seen moving upon the ground in the thick forest, while the bosom of the river wriggled with living things, and above flapped the wings of gigantic creatures such as we are taught have been extinct through countless ages.
(Is that a reference to A Princess of Mars in the second sentence? I wonder . . .)

The wilderness of Caspak teems not only with Mesozoic dinosaurs, but also a cornucopia of extinct mammals and birds—and primitive humans who live in a strata of development from semi-ape to advanced tool-users, yet seem to have no children or elderly.

The teeming life immediately swarms the submarine in an amazing piece of Burroughsian action; it inspired a great J. Allen St. John interior illustration. The crew eventually goes ashore and constructs a fort for protection, which they name “Fort Dinosaur” in a momentary lapse of imagination. The sub’s denizens resign themselves to never escaping Caspak . . . until von Schoenvorts discovers oil that might power the submarine if they can refine it. The the story shifts into a machine-gun pace of events until the close of Part I.

Much of this first part of the novel involves the adventures aboard the U-boat as the Germans and the English fight for control and sail deeper into peril. Caspak proper doesn’t appear until around the halfway mark. This is one of the reasons to approach The Land That Time Forgot in its entirety, instead of three separate short novels; the balance feels off if readers take Part I as an independent work—it stops just as it starts to get interesting. Von Schoenvorts has escaped with the submarine, an expedition under First Mate John Bradley has met an unknown fate, and Tyler and Lys huddle in a cliffside cave at the edge of Caspak. Most crucially, the mystery at the heart of this strange land has only started to emerge:
I know it now, and how far we were from guessing the wonderful, the miraculous, the gigantic truth which even yet I may only guess at—the thing that sets Caspak apart from all the rest of the world far more definitely than her isolated geographic position or her impregnable barrier of giant cliffs. If I could live to return to civilization, I should have meat for the clergy and the layman to chew upon for years—and for the evolutionists, too.
Lys tells Tyler in an important conversation of the diminishing effect that Caspak has on her: humanity shivering in the face of its unimportance in the biological scheme. Tyler returns fire with a sense of wonder about it—something readers will understand. Caspak is a wild and constantly dangerous place, but breathes with life, and furthermore, possibility, the ambition to rise along the evolutionary ladder. Ahm, a “Neanderthal” the Allies and Germans capture, speaks of an advanced people called the Galu, and that one day he will be one of them. This is the first indication that both readers and heroes receive of Burroughs’s brilliant concept for the way life flows in Caspak: a micro-evolution version of macro-evolution.

Amazing Stories CoverCaspak is an extraordinarily violent land, one of constant turmoil as if in a crucible. This idea starts to receive specific mention in Part II, but it’s apparent from almost the moment the twentieth-century explorers enter the lost land. The world is a microcosm of the struggle of life on our planet. Caspak appears as an evolutionary cauldron, and therein lies the consuming enigma inside the caldera of Caprona.

Part II, “The People That Time Forgot: The Adventures of Thomas Billings,” summons readers back to the pseudo-Burroughs who re-orients them for the new narrator. Pseudo-Burroughs returns to the U.S. to deliver Tyler’s manuscript to his family in Santa Monica. Unfortunately, Tyler’s father perishes before returning from sea, and it falls to his secretary, strapping hero Tom Billings, to lead the rescue party down to Caprona on a steamer. Billings flies an airplane over the great cliffs of the mysterious continent, and takes over the first-person narrator duties. The novel never explains where or how Billings recorded these events or left them for posterity, an unusual failing for Burroughs, who usually goes to great lengths to justify his first-person accounts.

Billings immediately runs into an exciting duel with pterodactyls, another one of Burroughs’s iconic sequences with a fine J. Allen St. John visual accompaniment. The airplane crash-lands, and Billings starts making his way north through Caspak in the company of a Galu girl, Ajor, whom he saves from a panther. (Ah, the native-girl lover, another ERB classic convention!)

The first segment of the action in Part II moves faster and with more variety than Part I, since it throws the hero into the thick of the action immediately and doesn’t burden him with too many extraneous characters or motivations. This section of the book has the most straight-forward Burroughsian adventure, and there are some corker scenes, such as Billings defending a cave entrance from a titanic bear. Eventually, Billings and Ajor join two primitive people known as the Band-lus, To-mar and his mate So-al, who have recently “risen” to become Kro-lus and are moving north to join one of their tribes. To-mar’s description of receiving the call to move up to the Kro-lu is one of the most interesting in the novel, and Burroughs uses a term associated with Christianity, “risen,” to describe an evolutionary process. Fascinating stuff, this book.

Eventually, the northern travel brings our heroes to the land of the Kro-lu, where a Galu traitor rallies the Kro-lu in a pre-emptive attack on their more advanced neighbors so they can “move up” the evolutionary hierarchy faster.

The mystery of Caspak continues to unfold, and when Billings isn’t fighting off the aggressive carnivora of the land, he develops a philosophical bent based on what he sees and what Ajor tells him in her limited vocabulary about the development of life on the island, how people “come up from the beginning.” An odd passage interrupts the story at one point, and it sounds like Billings and the actual Burroughs have melded into one voice for an improvisation:
I have no desire that the general public should ever have access to these pages; but it is possible that my friends may, and also certain savants who are interested; and to them, while I do not apologize for my philosophizing, I humbly explain that they are witnessing the gropings of a finite mind after the infinite, the search for explanations of the inexplicable.
The growing narrative of Caspakian evolution comprises the most interesting part of this middle segment. The central mystery comes to light: humans—and possibly all creatures—in Caspak go through every stage of evolution within one enormous lifetime, “coming up from the beginning” in the south of the land and moving gradually more north along the developmental steps. However, the secret of the origin of this life remains shrouded at the conclusion of Part II, as does the role of the winged humanoids called the Wieroo, of whom Ajor speaks but which never appear before Billings’s eyes.

The character arc of Part II is less involving than the adventure and biological discoveries, since it revolves around Billings learning that he loves Ajor despite condescending to her as a “filthy little barbarian” every chance he gets; this behavior won’t endear him to most modern readers. We know exactly what Billings is trying to deny to himself, but it seems to take him forever to get over his biological and cultural elitism toward Ajor. The second half of Part II falls into Caspakian politics and away from the evolutionary scheme, and the action turns too stereotypically Burroughs, although the climax is exciting and ties up many plot threads.

Part II closes stronger than Part I, but questions linger: Billings remains in Caspak, the U-33 hasn’t reappeared, and no one knows what happened to Bradley’s party that left Camp Dinosaur in Part I. No one except Bradley himself. . . .

Part III, “Out of Time’s Abyss: The Tale of Bradley,” switches to third-person narration. Burroughs did this occasionally, and because of the tripartite division of the novel, it isn’t obtrusive, and the change of perspective to a more broad one gives a fresh boost to the story.

Bradley’s groups runs into immediate trouble, and one of the party dies in a gruesome chomping from a Tyrannosaurus rex. The Wieroos now make their full appearance: winged humanoids in robes, drafted as mockeries of angels. The Cathedral of Caspak, again. One of the Wieroos carries Bradley off to their eyrie-city decorated with human skulls on the island of Oo-oh; not one of Burroughs’s better names, but a gorgeously described location. Now the author has added a “lost civilization” into his lost world. Another familiar trick appears when Bradley befriends a beautiful Galu girl, Co-tan. The Wieroo can only produce males, so they must continually kidnap Galu females like Co-tan to reproduce; they’ve come to the dead-end of a deviant branch of humanity.

From a decrepit captive Galu, Bradley and the readers at last learn the full cycle of life in Caspak, that starts from tadpoles deposited in warm pools that move through all stages of evolution within life until achieving the state of Galu—although few organisms will ever make it through their harsh world to make it that far. Only the Galu can produce cos-ata-lu, children that come from standard birth instead of the long evolutionary process of “coming up from the beginning,” or cor-sva-jo.
Few indeed were those that eventually developed into baboons and then apes, which was considered by Caspakians the real beginning of evolution. From the egg, then, the individual developed slowly into a higher form, just as the frog’s egg develop through various stages from a fish with gills to a frog with lungs. With that thought in mind Bradley discovered that it was not difficult to believe in the possibility of such a scheme—there was nothing new in it.
That last line is a telling one. Burroughs states “What you see here in Caspak may appear amazing. But something like it, in a larger and slower version, has happened and is happening all around you.”

The remainder of Part III follows Bradley and Co-tan’s escape from Oo-oh and the eventual resolution and reunion of all the plot strands; even the fate of the U-33, last seen steaming away at the end of Part I, is resolved.

The Land That Time Forgot doesn’t have a classic character to act as an anchor, such as a Tarzan, John Carter, or David Innes. That flaw puts takes the novel down a few notches in the eyes of some ERB fans. But I don’t think that Burroughs wrote a more intelligent novel in his life, and a hero who can single-handedly conquer a world has no place in Caspak, where life moves without consideration for the outsiders who have stumbled into it. “I feel of so little consequence—so small and helpless in the face of all these myriad manifestations of life stripped to the bone,” Lys bemoans. “As a rule you are of no moment whatsoever to anything but yourself. You are a comic little figure hoping from the cradle to the grave. Yes, that is our trouble—we take ourselves too seriously; but Caprona should be a cure for that.”

The human heroes of the story fight, struggle, and a few finally survive to the end . . . but only Caspak has the real victory: it remains wild, unconquered, and unstoppable as the forces of nature.

Although the story is a dream-project for film adaptation, a movie version didn’t appear until 1975. Because publishers at the time had divided the novel into three separate books, the British movie The Land That Time Forgot only covers Part I, with a few ideas from Part III put in. A 1977 sequel, The People That Time Forgot, uses some of Part II and Part III, but tends to chart its own course.

I have a lot to say about the films. And I’ll start saying them next week. Even I have to “come up from the beginning.”