Friday, July 17, 2020

Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery by Captain Adam Seaborn

Hollow-Earth Utopia
These days we still have to contend with a few Flat Earthers, but if you were around two hundred years ago it’s likely you would have encountered some Hollow Earthers. Prior to any scientific exploration of the Earth’s polar regions, the Hollow Earth theory proposed that the planet is a hollow spherical shell, and that the interior surface of that shell may have oceans and land masses just like the exterior surface upon which we live. In addition, this spherical shell may be just one of a number of concentric spheres nestled within the Earth’s outer crust. The way to reach these inner worlds, the theory proposes, is through the Earth’s poles, which are actually large holes, the Earth being pierced through its axis like a giant bead.

Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery, published in 1820, is a utopian novel founded upon this Hollow Earth theory. The book derives its title from the name of John Cleves Symmes Jr., who first proposed this modern take on the age-old idea. Symzonia was published under the pseudonym of Captain Adam Seaborn, who is actually the fictional narrator of the story. The real author of the book is unknown. It may have been Symmes himself or one of his followers. Some scholars speculate that Symzonia may actually be a parody or satire of Symmes’s theories, and the novel’s mixture of earnestness and silliness often makes it difficult to tell. For the most part, however, Symzonia reads as if it were penned by a true believer. Like many of the pseudoscientific theories that persist today, the Symmes theory had its fair share of converts, and the concept of the Hollow Earth left its mark on American literature. Willis George Emerson’s 1908 novel The Smoky God, for example, is faithfully based upon the Hollow Earth theory. Other authors just used the theory as an imaginative premise for science fiction, such as in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth or the Pellucidar series of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Captain Adam Seaborn assembles a sealing expedition to the islands of the far Southern seas. Unbeknownst to his crew, however, his real intention is to sail farther south than anyone has ever gone before, in hopes of finding an entrance into the interior of the Earth. After too much typical sailing narrative, stops on run-of-the-mill islands, and countless astronomical observations (there is a very complex geometry by which the interior world gets its sunlight), the ship finally reaches its destination. Seaborn discovers a continent on the interior of the Earth’s shell, one that it is inhabited by a race of beings with a civilization more technologically and morally advanced than our own. These “internals” (we are the externals) welcome Seaborn into their world and educate him in the ways of their society.

There is an element of racism to the story. The perfect beings of the internal world possess the pale skin of alabaster, while the degraded races of the outer world bear various levels of swarthiness. It is proposed that the Eskimo and Inuit peoples encountered in the Arctic are actually emigrants from the interior world, but they are outcasts, the descendants of sinful internals who were ejected from the Symzonian garden of Eden. The farther they were removed from paradise, the darker their skin and the less civilized their habits became. Surprisingly, however, the narrator makes one comment advocating the abolition of slavery.

If you like nineteenth century science fiction, Symzonia is worth a read, but don’t expect a masterpiece or even a fun kitschy treat. It can be quite boring at times. The utopian stuff is interesting, but it takes a while to get there, and the book has a very long and unnecessary epilogue.

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