Thursday, January 06, 2011
Edgar Rice Burroughs - The Caspak Trilogy
If I am going to be honest, all of these novels read like spoof 1920s adventure tales. Of course this isn't high literature, this is pulp fiction and that's a particularly generous description. That's not to say that mass market novels don't have any merit, even when they are swamped in the prejudices of their time - see for instance this review of a Jules Verne novel I did recently.
However these three novels are in a class of their own. If you've seen the film that carries the same title as volume one, you'll know the rough plot line. Heroic, square-jawed types get captured by cowardly Germans in a submarine and get taken to a uncharted island that turns out to be populated by prehistoric people and animals. Lots of shooting of ancient dinosaurs occurs and there is some love interest. Frankly if you've seen the film and not the book, leave it at that.
The book is truely awful. Even at the time of printing, people must have read it and though, "he's taking the piss isn't he? He's trying to see how awful a book he can get away with?" Let me give you an example of what I mean, by exploring the use of coincidence in the first couple of chapters of book one.
One of our American heroes is on a transatlantic liner (a neutral one) for this is the early days of World War One. His ship is torpedoed by a submarine which, being a submarine designer he both recognises as one he built and also knows how to control. Finding an empty rowing boat in the ocean following the ship's sinking, he rescues a young woman on her way to Germany to get married to a German Naval officer. Hero is in turn rescued (along with his dog) by a English tug, which then is attacked several days later by the same U-boot. The heroic English captain tries to ram the U-boot, which our heros manage to capture and because they have the knowledge to pilot now, they can take to England. One board the U-boot is a nasty, evil German officer. Guess what? Yes, he is the person that beautiful maiden intended to marry.
Frankly it doesn't get better than that and we haven't even met the dinosaurs. I jest.
Oddly enough, Burroughs doesn't simply have prejudices, he is also a downright nasty rightwinger. One of the traitors who does over our heroes is, guess what? Not a German spy, but a member of the IWW who "hates America". Shades of Mcarthy there.
The only other fascinating bit here, apart from the endless shooting of dinosaurs, traitors, wild men and Germans, is the evolution that the prehistoric island of Caspak has. Burroughs realised that he couldn't have a snapshot of time, otherwise Tyrannosaurus Rex couldn't chase Cro Magnon. Rather oddly he invents a new evolutionary method - everyone and everything passes through every stage of their evoution on the island, from small tadpole to primitive then older creature. It's fascinating for a while, then you spot the plot holes.
Anyway. Read this if you are a sucker for really bad novels or like dinosaurs being shot. But avoid it if you really want to try and read Dickens.