November 2006

Sarah Statz

nonfiction

Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface by David Standish

There’s just something appealing about authors who can write entire books on subjects that would make other people ask, “You’re writing a whole book on what?”

And that is just the type of author David Standish is. His Hollow Earth, a 300-page exploration of the idea, held by various explorers, writers, and believers in utopias, that there are wild and lush civilizations to be found living inside our earth. You get the feeling, reading it, that Standish has been devoting way too much time to this idea for many years now.

But that’s exactly what makes it fun. Standish ranges freely back and forth between portrayals of the hollow earth in literature, particularly fantastic and science fiction literature, and historical sketches of individuals and groups who were firm believers in the idea that eventually intrepid explorers would discover a way inside the globe. He opens his narrative with one of the most famous scientists to ever espouse this belief: Edmond Halley, known primarily for his correct speculation regarding the motion of the comet named after him, and who also believed that three concentric spheres (each of which were themselves capable of supporting life) lay beneath the surface of the earth.

In further chapters Standish successfully marries scientific conjecture, such as John Cleves Symmes’s idea that polar holes existed which would provide entrance to the inner earth, with literary output, most specifically that of such authors as Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne (whose Ms. Found in a Bottle and Journey to the Center of the Earth, respectively, are two of the most well-known stories in this genre). Part history, part literary criticism, Standish provides in his narrative both biographical details regarding the scientists and authors he describes, as well as lengthy passages from their numerous “hollow earth” narratives. 

His portraits of scientists and writers are serious enough, but his tone sometimes betrays the levity behind his fascination, as when he quotes from the dinosaur battle scene in Journey to the Center of the Earth, and concludes with his own: “Thus ends the very first dinosaur battle in literature. The source of Steven Spielberg’s fortune!”

The book is not really science, and it’s not really history. Nor does it, mercifully, really conform to the demands of typical literary criticism. Yet it might appeal to anyone with an interest in any of those fields, as well as any hardcore science fiction readers, particularly traditionalists and fans of such writers as Poe and Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s also a beautifully produced little book, complete with slick pages contributing to its comforting heft and numerous illustrations and photographs to break up the text. This is also not the first time Standish has gotten comfortable with an offbeat topic; in his previous book, The Art of Money: The History and Design of Paper Currency from Around the World he examined how “countries project their self-image through their money.” 

Just as a journey to the center of the earth, according to Jules Verne, would be a wild time, so is perusing Standish’s book. And that is entirely appropriate, given that, as Standish himself says in his introduction, it is a book that “trace the cultural history of an idea that was wrong and changed nothing­but which has nevertheless had an ongoing appeal.”

Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface by David Standish
Da Capo Press
ISBN: 0306813734
303 pages