Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: The People That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1918)
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 32.)
Last week, I covered The Outlaws Of Mars, a novel by professional Edgar Rice Burroughs imitator Otis Adelbert Kline. I didn't care for it all that much, and having not read Burroughs, I was not looking forward to this week's entry. Furthermore, this week's book is the second book in a trilogy begun with The Land That Time Forgot and completed with Out Of Time's Abyss. I thought I'd be lost in a sea of overwrought prose and abstruse plotting. Fortunately, my dread was misplaced. The People That Time Forgot proved both an enjoyable read and a brisk one. Where Kline would attempt to end his chapters with little cliffhangers, Burroughs actually made me care what happened next. And though there's no great psychological depth here, the book's hero, Tom Billings, does do some growing up over the course of the book by overcoming his prejudice against his "little barbarian" companion and accepting that he's fallen in love with one of the natives of the novel's lost world, a place populated by fantastical creatures, primitive humans, and an evolutionary process that plays by different rules.
We'll get back to the love plot. First, the lost world. As established in The Land That Time Forgot, the island of Caspak is in the tradition of lost worlds whose inspiration comes from indirectly from Homer, Gulliver's Travels, and Utopia, and directly from H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, the 1885 bestseller that suggested there might be pockets of the earth fantastically different from the world we know. By 1918, lost-world stories were almost a genre unto themselves, and Burroughs' Caspak would seem to have been inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. A staple of movie serials in the '30s and '40s, the genre mostly gave way to science fiction in the 1950s. With the coming of the space age, the frontier shifted off-world. It's little wonder that when Peter Jackson remade King Kong a couple of years ago, he set it in the 1930s rather than updating the setting à la the 1976 remake. It's pretty much the last moment before technology lifted the veil on the whole planet.
Having received a message in a bottle from his friend Bowen Tyler, the adventurer lost in Caspak at the conclusion of The Land That Time Forgot, People hero Tom Billings decides to bring his buddy back alive. Following Tyler's directions, he leads an expedition to the mysterious island, and through complicated circumstances related to its rock exterior, ends up piloting a plane to it solo. There, he fights dinosaurs and frightens locals with his gun. Most of them are simple and easily impressed. But not Ajor, a young woman he rescues from a monstrous cat. A beautiful young woman, you ask? You betcha!
Her face and limbs and garment were streaked with mud and perspiration, and yet even so, I felt that I had never looked upon so perfect and beautiful a creature as she. Her figure beggars description, and equally so, her face. Were I one of these writer-fellows, I should probably say that her features were Grecian, but being neither a writer nor a poet I can do her greater justice by saying that she combined all of the finest lines that one sees in the typical American girl's face rather than the pronounced sheeplike physiognomy of the Greek goddess. No, even the dirt couldn't hide that fact; she was beautiful beyond compare.
Clearly our Tom is smitten from the start, but much of the novel concerns him trying to tamp those feelings down. "She looked up and smiled at me, showing those perfect teeth, and dimpling with evident happiness–the most adorable picture that I had ever seen," he says later. "I recall that it was then I first regretted that she was only a little untutored savage and so far beneath me in the scale of evolution." He'll grow even more explicit in his denial of his feelings as they grow stronger, determining that he can't be in love with a "squaw" shortly before [SPOILER?] surrendering to his love for her in the final pages. It's weirdly affecting and almost–almost–progressive in its thinking. Yet the word "evolution" serves as a reminder that we're very much in the age of Darwinian shorthand. As Alus reveals to Billings, Caspak is a place where human development is a ladder with clearly marked rungs. The Galus are on top of Bo-lus (club men), Sto-lus (hatchet men), and Kro-lus (archers). Sometimes humans evolved almost spontaneously to get to the next level.
I'm not sure I fully understood this point. I suspect it gets developed further in the next novel. And I might just read that one and the one before when this whole project is over. There's at least one more Burroughs book in the box, and I look forward to reaching it.
Burroughs was neither the first to explore lost worlds, nor the last. But I think he understood the appeal of the fantasy as well as anyone. I don't think it's a coincidence that fictional lost worlds started to multiply as the industrial age kicked into high gear. It's easy to see the appeal of casting off technology and civilization in favor of the fantasy of a life free of restrictions. All those leftover Victorian morals could go out the window, which no doubt had its appeal, especially when there were Ajors about. But life on Caspak would also mean getting off the conveyer belt of slaughter facilitated by scientific progress. "I am glad," one of Tom's new friends tells him, "that I do not dwell in your country among such savage peoples." Continuing:
Here, in Caspak, men fight with men when they meet–men of different races–but their weapons are first for the slaying of beasts in the chase and in defense. We do not fashion weapons solely for the killing of man as do your peoples. Your country must indeed be a savage country, from which you are fortunate to have escaped to the peace and security of Caspak.
"Here was a new and refreshing viewpoint," Tom thinks. "Nor could I take exception to it after what I had told Al-tan of the great war which had been raging in Europe for over two years before I left home."
A further note before we move on. This book ties in with the 1977 movie The People That Time Forgot. The middle of the book contains stills from the film, but this being the 21st century and all, let's just take a moment to look at the trailer:
This looks to be a loose adaptation at best. That's singer-actress Dana Gillespie as Ajor, a friend to Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie (who produced one of her albums and had her sing backup on one of Ziggy Stardust's tracks).
Next: The "original Buck Rogers novel," Armageddon 2419 A.D., by Philip Francis Nowlan
Then: Dr. No. by Ian Fleming