Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his Caspak Trilogy, starting with The Land That Time Forgot, in 1918. It became an instant classic of the Lost World genre of adventure fiction. It also happens to be one of the strangest of all Lost World tales.

These days the word trilogy has taken on an ominous quality. We imagine immense volumes the size and weight of house bricks. The whole of the Caspak Trilogy however amounts to no more than a relatively short novel. It comprises three very short novels, The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot and Out of Time’s Abyss. Each of these three novels recounts a different series of adventures, with different protagonists, on the mysterious island of Caspak. The three separate narratives are drawn together at the end of the final volume.

The Land That Time Forgot takes place in 1916. A steamship is torpedoed by a German U-boat. The only survivors are a young woman named Lys and a man named Bowen Tyler who, in one of life’s little ironies, is an American engineer who designs submarines for various navies including the Imperial German Navy. These two survivors are picked up by an ocean-going tug that later encounters the very same U-boat, and through a mixture of luck and daring the crew of the tug ends up capturing the U-boat and its crew. Their attempts to sail the submarine to England are thwarted by the efforts of a communist agitator and they end up hopelessly lost.

It seems their troubles might be over when they make a landfall, but the large island they have found is a very bizarre island indeed. It was originally discovered by an obscure 18th century Italian explorer. There is only one means of reaching the interior of the island, by navigating the U-boat through an underground river. The island is in the polar regions but the interior is warm and covered in lush vegetation. It’s also inhabited by long-extinct animals including dinosaurs, and a variety of creatures that are either human-like apes or ape-like humans.

So far it’s your standard lost world scenario, but as our heroes progress northwards through the island they find the animals, while still long extinct elsewhere, are increasingly modern. And the man-like creatures are closer and closer to modern humans both anatomically and culturally.

The explanation for this odd evolutionary continuum, and for the the absence of any children, is a tour de force of imaginative weirdness which I don’t intend to spoil for you.

The first book gives us Tyler’s story. The other two books follow the adventures of a rescue party sent to find Tyler, and of another party separated from the original band who arrived on the submarine.

The whole trilogy is a fun pulpy tale of encounters with terrifying creatures, of improbable escapes and dashing heroism, and of three unexpected love stories. It’s the truly strange nature of Caspak itself though that is most disturbing and most memorable. If you like your weird fiction with extra weirdness then this certainly qualifies.

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