Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Smoky God, or A Voyage to the Inner World by Willis George Emerson

Half-baked hollow-Earth adventure
The Smoky God, or A Voyage to the Inner World, published in 1908, is a science fiction novel by American author Willis George Emerson. The book opens with an extensive preface that details how the author was contacted by 95-year-old Olaf Jansen, a Norseman (half Norwegian, half Swedish) who is dying in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Before he passes, he has a story he wants to get off his chest, one so astonishing that for decades he has been afraid to tell it for fear of being thrown into an insane asylum. He then proceeds to relate how as a teenager he accompanied his father, a fisherman, on an extended fishing voyage northward into the Arctic Ocean. At a certain point both men are both surprised to find that the climate is becoming milder and warmer despite their far northern latitude. The father tells Olaf that he has heard legends of a paradise at the top of the world. Olaf enthusiastically proposes that they search for this mysterious land, and so the two Norsemen, worshippers of Odin and Thor, set off to find the lost polar Eden.

The Smoky God is one of many sci-fi novels in the Hollow Earth subgenre, which includes such works as Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Mary E. Bradley Lane’s Mizora (1881), and the Pellucidar series (1914-1963) by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The Hollow Earth theory proposes that the crust of the Earth is like an eggshell with land, water, and life on both its inner and outer surfaces. At the North Pole, Olaf and his father find a portal into this Inner Earth where they discover a veritable Garden of Eden with a utopian civilization much more advanced than the surface world, inhabited by beings who, in godly fashion, are superior to us surface dwellers in every way. Serving as the sun in this subterranean world is a molten, luminous core that is in some way surrounded by nebulous electrical clouds that simulate night and day. The inhabitants of the Inner World worship this central sun as their “Smoky God.”

For centuries many intelligent people considered the Hollow Earth theory a viable hypothesis, but by the early twentieth century it was mostly relegated to the realm of pseudoscience. Unlike Verne and Burroughs who use the Hollow Earth device merely as an entertaining launching point for farfetched fiction, Emerson actually seems to believe the theory. He proposes that the North and South Poles are the entry points to this inner realm, and he supports his speculations with footnotes referring to the accounts of actual polar explorers such as Charles Francis Hall, Fridtjof Nansen, and Robert Peary. Emerson also quotes from the Bible to support his Garden of Eden theories, which are largely derived from William Fairfield Warren’s 1885 nonfiction book Paradise Found: The Cradle of the Human Race at the North Pole.

I enjoyed the deathbed memoir format of the work, with Olaf Jansen as narrator, and even the footnotes add to the fun. The problem is, Olaf and his dad barely spend any time in the Inner World (two years for them, but only a chapter and a half for the reader), so Emerson really doesn’t have a whole lot to say about what’s going on in there. Most of the book focuses on the getting there and the getting back, which is mostly just about a ship navigating through icebergs. Fans of early science fiction might enjoy the campiness of this work, but it never really lives up to its ambitious premise. Whereas Verne or H. G. Wells could have developed the idea into a full-fledged narrative with engaging characters, Emerson’s story never really takes off.

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