Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Journey to the Underground World by Lin Carter

A fun homage to Burroughs, Verne, and Conan Doyle
Science fiction and fantasy author Lin Carter’s 1979 novel Journey to the Underground World is the first book in his five-volume Zanthodon series. The story is narrated by Eric Carstairs, a modern-day swashbuckling adventurer in the mold of Han Solo or a precursor to Indiana Jones. In Egypt, Carstairs meets Professor Percival Potter, the sort of all-purpose Renaissance-man scientist one often encounters in these lost-world novels. Potter relates to Carstairs some legends he has turned up in his archaeological research that tell of an ancient, secret, underground world named Zanthodon. The professor hires Carstairs, a helicopter pilot, to fly him into the crater of a volcano in search of this mysterious lost world. Together, in one of the most bizarre helicopter flights ever, the two descend hundreds of miles beneath the surface of the earth to discover that the legends of Zanthodon are a reality. Beneath the Earth’s crust they find a hidden land populated by creatures long extinct in the surface world.

Carter was not the first to come up with the idea of a subsurface realm within a hollow Earth. Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, published in 1864, also depicted an underground world inhabited by prehistoric flora and fauna. That book is not Verne’s best work, and Carter’s is actually more exciting and enjoyable. Edgar Rice Burroughs also published seven novels on this premise, comprising the Pellucidar series, which I have not read. I can say, however, that Journey to the Underground World clearly pays homage to Burroughs’s Caspak series, consisting of The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot, and Out of Time’s Abyss. To a lesser extent, it is also reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Carter doesn’t make any attempt to hide these associations but embraces them and blatantly pays tribute to his predecessors. In several instances in the narration, Carstairs emphasizes the fantastic nature of his adventure, describing Zanthodon with such phrases as “It was like something out of Edgar Rice Burroughs.” For anyone who enjoys this genre of classic adventure fiction, Carter’s respectful tribute is very entertaining. He updates the thrills to suit the modern reader’s attention span, but never loses the pulp-fiction essence of the prior works he’s celebrating.

Conditions in Zanthodon are such that creatures of all time periods are allowed to mix and mingle in the ecosystem, so, for example, you might find a triceratops battling a woolly mammoth. As is usually the case in lost-world novels such as these, primitive humans are also prevalent. This allows Carter to satisfy the mandatory requirement for a scantily clad cavewoman, who delivers a cheesecake factor equivalent to Raquel Welch in the movie One Million Years B.C. At times Carter lays the naked-lady stuff on a little thick, making the reader wonder if he’s reading a book that was intended for 14-year-old boys to get off on. More often than not, however, the author skillfully handles the pulpy excesses of the genre to create a fun and entertaining read.

The book’s biggest fault is its ending, or rather, its lack thereof. Some very surprising developments take place in the final chapter, and then, like The Empire Strikes Back, it just ends with a cliffhanger. Burroughs’s Caspak novels did the same thing, so there is precedence for this decision on Carter’s part, but still it’s a let-down for the reader. As much as I enjoyed this book, I’m not sure I want to read five Zanthodon novels just to come to a resolution. On the bright side, they’re all available in one expensive ebook from Wildside Press, The Zanthodon Megapack.
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