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Hollow Earth

Entry updated 9 May 2022. Tagged: Theme.

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The concept of the Earth as a hollow, spherical shell with a habitable, internal concave surface accessible through polar openings or caves, or by mechanical bores, has long been a significant motif in sf. The idea's dual origins, from Religion and Pseudoscience, are still potent. Traditionally Hell was sited inside the Earth, a notion that persisted at least until the eighteenth century, when a theologian proposed that Earth's rotation was caused by the damned scrambling to escape from Hell. In pseudoscience the astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1742), to account for magnetic phenomena, suggested in a paper published by the Royal Society in 1692 that Earth (and the other planets) consisted of concentric, nested spheres surrounding a small central sun, with, possibly, openings at the poles.

The first important use of Halley's concept came in Ludvig Holberg's Nicolaii Klimii iter subterraneum (1741 in Latin; exp 1745; trans anon as A Journey to the World Under-Ground. By Nicolas Klimius 1742; vt The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground 1960; vt A Journey to the World Underground 1974), in which a young Norwegian falls through the Earth's crust to the hollow interior, where he has adventures on an inner planet and on the concave shell among nonhuman intelligent beings. It was soon followed by the first significant example of the form in English, the anonymous A Voyage to the Centre of the Earth (1755) [see discussion under Anonymous], which describes a socially and economically equitable Utopia inside our world. Derivative from Holberg's work is Giacomo Casanova's Icosameron (1788; cut trans Rachel Zurer as Casanova's "Icosameron" 1986), which is concerned, inter alia, with Alien lifeforms inside the Earth.

The largest impetus to modern hollow-Earth fiction came from a persuasive US soldier, John Cleves Symmes, who revitalized and publicized Halley's theory of concentric spheres and polar openings. Symzonia (1820) by Adam Seaborn (an unidentified author's pseudonym), a pleasant early Imaginary Voyage, satirizes Symmes's ideas; it also comments, à clef, on the political structures of Europe and the USA. It has been suggested that Edgar Allan Poe's "MS Found in a Bottle" (1833) and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838; vt Arthur Gordon Pym; or, Shipwreck, Mutiny and Famine 1841; vt The Wonderful Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym 1861) are indebted to Symmes and Symzonia, but it is more probable that Poe had in mind the caves and water engine involved in the traditional Abyss of Waters. A routine subterranean Lost World film that explicitly invokes Symmes's theories is The Mole People (1956); the theme also features in Unknown World (1951; vt Night without Stars) and in Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), which unlike its Jules Verne original implies more of a true hollow Earth than mere vast cave-systems (see below).

Much the best known hollow-Earth stories are Edgar Rice Burroughs's Pellucidar novels: At the Earth's Core (4-25 April 1914 All-Story Weekly; 1922) – filmed as At the Earth's Core (1976) – Pellucidar (8-29 May 1915 All-Story Cavalier Weekly and All-Story Weekly 1923) and several sequels. Based loosely on Symmes, these stories develop Burroughs's usual themes: Gibson-girl romance, frustrated sexual assaults and dominance (here empire-building among naive natives) against a background of palaeontological survivals, notably Dinosaurs. While the earlier stories are rational in their assumptions, later ones slip into supernaturalism involving Reincarnation and Hell. For Burroughs the Moon, too, is hollow, as in The Moon Maid (stories May 1923-September 1925 Argosy All-Story Weekly; cut fixup 1926).

The concept of the hollow Earth has otherwise been used for the most varied fictional purposes. In a Dystopian attack on Feminism, Pantaletta: A Romance of Sheheland (1882) by "Mrs J. Wood" (who was in fact a man), the world within is run by arrogant dominant women who have changed even personal pronouns to avoid sexism. Mary E Bradley Lane's Mizora (November 1880-February 1881 Cincinnati Commercial; 1890) as by Princess Vera Zarovitch, on the other hand, posits a feminist, socialist Utopia, where males are no longer biologically necessary. In Nequa (1900) by Jack Adams the themes are sexual equality, Altruism and socialism. The "single tax" proposed by the US economist Henry George (1839-1897) offers the leitmotif for S Byron Welcome's From Earth's Centre (1894), and an odd mixture of occultism, anarchism and Fourierist socialism supports the story thread of M Louise Moore's Al Modad (1892). John Uri Lloyd's Etidorhpa (1895) describes occult advancement as the narrator progresses to the centre; Geo W Bell's Mr Oseba's Last Discovery (1904 New Zealand) promotes New Zealand real estate by comparing that country to the edenic interior; and "My Bride from Another World" (June 1904 Physical Culture) by the Rev E C Atkins plugs Bernarr Macfadden's system of hygienics – nudism, vegetarianism and a general movement "back to Nature". Plutoniia (1915; 1924; trans as Plutonia 1957) by the great Russian geologist Vladimir Afanasevich Obruchev is frankly written as a simple introduction to palaeontology. Obruchev adds a new supposition: the Earth solidified in hollow form, after which a Comet knocked a hole in the shell, permitting access.

Fantastic adventure with less message characterizes Charles Willing Beale's The Secret of the Earth (1899), William R Bradshaw's occult The Goddess of Atvatabar (1892), Frank Powell's lurid boys' thriller The Wolf-Men (1905), Roy Rockwood's boys' book Five Thousand Miles Underground (1908), William J Shaw's Under the Auroras (1888), Fred Thorpe's serialized Dime Novel Through the Earth; Or, Jack Nelson's Invention (5 June-7 August 1897 Golden Hours as "In the World Below; Or, Three Boys in the Center of the Earth"; 1909) and Park Winthrop's "The Land of the Central Sun" (July 1902-January 1903 Argosy).

A religious note is not uncommon. In the later stories of the paranoid Shaver mystery (see Richard S Shaver) the inner world is a Hell; however, edenic stories, in which creation took place inside the Earth, like Casanova's Icosameron, are more frequent. There is an internal city called Eden in Willis George Emerson's The Smoky God or, A Voyage to the Inner World (1908). In William Amos Miller's The Sovereign Guide (1898) Eden still exists, though overgrown, as does the tomb of Adam and Eve. Seaborn's Symzonia and Beale's The Secret of the Earth both consider surface humans as descendants of exiles from the interior.

The peculiarities of Gravity within a hollow Earth (there is in fact no gravity in the space within an empty spherical shell, however thick) were seldom utilized in early sf. Exceptions are Clement Fezandié's "A Journey to the Center of the Earth" (June-September 1925 Science and Invention) and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's "Dreams of Earth and Sky" (1895; trans in The Call of the Cosmos coll 1963).

In most cases the writers cited do not take the hollow-Earth concept seriously. On the whole, the hollow Earth is simply a convenient alien place for odd adventures or panaceas, but it would be easy enough to work out a psychoanalytic or other metaphoric interpretation of the motif; see also Underground.

Hollow-Earth stories still show up occasionally in the modern period. Among the more interesting are Bruce Carter's surreally orthodox The Perilous Descent into a Strange Lost World (1952), "Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole" (in New Dimensions 7, anth 1977, ed Robert Silverberg) by Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley, Richard A Lupoff's Circumpolar! (1984) and Rudy Rucker's The Hollow Earth (1990) – the latter featuring Edgar Allan Poe. Nothing is ever crystal clear in a novel by James P Blaylock, but The Digging Leviathan (1984) appears also to be marginally a hollow-Earth story – though it ends just as the titular machine begins its downward journey. Allan Gross's "Bride of the Beast Man" (in Titanic Tales, anth 1998, ed Mark Wheatley) takes an ape-reared Tarzan-like hero to romance at the earth's core. It is interesting that all these tales are couched as nostalgic pastiche (and often close to Magic Realism), as if merely to mention a hollow Earth today were to evoke a wondrous past time. Richard Calder's Malignos (2000) imagines a similarly fabulous hollow Earth of the Far Future, where (amid other marvels) demon-like products of warped human Evolution have engineered our world's interior to create an inner Macrostructure. The fourth volume of Mick Farren's Renquist/Time of Feasting Vampire sequence, Underland (2002), posits a Nazi cult plotting its comeback from a hollow earth accessed via Antarctica.

True hollow-Earth stories should not be confused with stories set in deep cave-systems, another very common theme which is dealt with in the entry for Underground. A bizarre alternative was proposed in the later nineteenth century by Cyrus Reed Teed (1839-1908), whose supposedly science-based creed of "Koreshianity" insists that the Earth is hollow and that we live on the inside, held to the ground not by Gravity but by centrifugal force as in a rotating Space Station. (The Sun is supposed to be artificial and internal, with apparent Stars being mere refractions of its light.) This cosmology is reflected in Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser fantasies, whose characters believe – though the author does not explicitly endorse this belief – that their world of Nehwon is a bubble of air in an infinite sea, whose lands float on the inner surface. Barrington J Bayley playfully imagines our own world as a similar bubble amid an infinity of rock in "Me and My Antronoscope" (in New Worlds Quarterly 5, anth 1973, ed Michael Moorcock); the same author's "The Radius Riders" (July 1962 Science Fiction Adventures) as by P F Woods posits a Relativity-like spatial distortion which makes Earth's interior effectively infinite in extent: it is mathematically impossible to attain the centre.

Hollow worlds outside our solar system, or set in a transformed future solar system, have very different resonances. For example, Ross Rocklynne's "At the Center of Gravity" (June 1936 Astounding) – though getting its physics wrong – deals with Gravity within a planet consisting of a hollow shell. Brian Stableford's Asgard trilogy, beginning with Journey to the Center (1982; rev 1989), explores the many-levelled hollow "macroworld" of Asgard. A large number of such intricate worlds, scattered across the galaxy, are posited as artificial constructs in Matter (2008) by Iain M Banks. For further discussion, see the entries on Dyson Spheres and Macrostructures.

A Game using the hollow-earth setting is Hollow Earth Expedition (2006). [EFB/DRL]

see also: Bermuda Triangle.

further reading


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