Monday, November 23, 2015

The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Get to the dinosaurs already
The Land That Time Forgot, a science-fiction novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was originally serialized in Blue Book Magazine in 1918 and first published as a book in 1924. The story opens with a narrator, presumably Burroughs himself, describing how on a fishing trip off the coast of Greenland he discovered a manuscript in a bottle which serves as the text of this novel. The narrative is written in the first person by Bowen J. Tyler, the heir to a shipbuilding firm in Santa Monica, California. After enlisting for military service in World War I, he finds himself on a passenger ship out of England, bound for the battlefields of France. He sees action sooner than expected, however, when his ride is sunk by a German U-boat. Tyler and his spunky dog manage to end up alone on a lifeboat with a beautiful woman. Eventually, through a series of convolutions best left unrevealed, he ends up capturing the U-boat. Luckily, it just so happens that his father’s company built the craft, and Tyler himself conveniently helped design it, so he takes command of the ship and attempts to pilot it to a safe port.

The naval action goes on for four chapters (out of ten) before we finally get to what the title promises. After losing their way in the South Pacific, Tyler and his shipmates discover the lost continent of Caprona. I don’t think I’m giving too much away by revealing that they meet dinosaurs there. In fact, the wildlife in Caprona is not a frozen slice of the Mesozoic Era, but rather a spectrum of creatures from all stages of evolution, including various species of primitive man. Tyler later learns that the local name for Caprona is Caspak. While he and his crew were hoping for a short stop to replenish their supplies, through unforeseen circumstances they end up stranded in this strange and dangerous land.

I’m an enthusiast of vintage adventure fiction, so I’m receptive to what Burroughs has to offer, but I’ve never been fully satisfied by the few works of his that I’ve read. The original Tarzan novel struck me as hacky and foolish. The Land That Time Forgot fares better, but not much. It’s not hacky, but it isn’t great either. In Caspak, Burroughs has created a fantasy world with the potential to be fascinating, but he doesn’t do anything interesting with it. Too much time is spent on the U-boat, and not enough time among the prehistoric wildlife. The plot is often driven by miraculous coincidences rather than heroic ingenuity. The prehistoric creatures are too easily killed to engender much suspense. Later in the book Tyler informs us that he has discovered “the miraculous, the gigantic truth” of Caspak, but he doesn’t let us in on the secret. This book is incomplete in and of itself and essentially acts as a prologue to another novel. Like The Empire Strikes Back, its purpose is merely to set up the next installment in the series. That would be The People That Time Forgot, the second book in a Caspak trilogy.

One can’t help but compare this book to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World. Each is flawed in its own way. Doyle’s novel is laden with racism and genocide while Burroughs manages to work in an anti-Bolshevik message sympathetic to the German Empire. In the political correctness department, I’ll give Burroughs the edge, but I still like The Lost World better for its sense of humor and interesting characters. As a hero, Tyler is as dull as dishwater, and his romance with the requisite damsel in distress Lys is insipid and cloying. Perhaps the entire Caspak trilogy adds up to a good novel, but The Land That Time Forgot by itself is a disappointment. Even so, I might just find myself reading the second book, in hopes that it will live up to the potential that this volume squanders.
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