Saturday, August 25, 2007

At the Earth's Core by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)

Note: This is a review of the e-text version of At the Earth’s Core, so I don’t have a cover blurb. The book cover is from the Wikipedia entry about the novel.

What’s long and hard and full of Victorians? Why a giant drilling machine, of course.

OK, I’m really sorry for the corny joke, but At the Earth’s Core is a pretty corny novel. It was first published in 1914 and kicked off what was to be a lengthy seven-part series set on the inner shell of a hollow earth inhabited by prehistoric creatures and primitive tribes of humans and ape men. The author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, is best known as the creator of Tarzan, a character who would visit the hollow world in the crossover novel Tarzan at the Earth’s Core.

Pellucidar, the name Rice gave to his world, hasn’t enjoyed as much fame as Tarzan, but it has had a surprising amount of influence on pop culture over the years, more because of the unique setting than any merits of the novel.

At the Earth’s Core starts when the unnamed author stumbles across one David Innes in the middle of Sahara Desert. Innes is delighted to finally see another “white man” and relates to the author his strange story: He is the son of a wealthy mine owner who had funded the creation of a giant drilling machine invented by Dr. Abner Perry. Innes and Perry take the machine for a test drive, but soon learn that it’s kind of hard to make a U-turn through solid rock. The machine keeps drilling deeper and deeper, and the two men expect to die, but instead of hitting a molten core, the machine instead breaks through to open air. It turns out the Earth isn’t solid but rather a hollow sphere, with a prehistoric ecosystem thriving on the inner surface of the sphere in defiance of gravity. A tiny sun in the sky provides constant daylight and the horizon curves up instead of down.

Well, things happen, and Innes and Perry soon become prisoners of a race of intelligent pterodactyls called the Mahars. It will be up to Innes to lead the humans of Pellucidar in a revolt against their reptilian masters, and save the girl at the same time.

Had I read At the Earth’s Core when I was 10 rather than the older, cynical man I am now, I might have enjoyed it more. And yes, there are things to like about it. The setting is fun, and the novel is the first work of fiction to feature intelligent creatures evolved from prehistoric reptiles, paving the way for the Silurians, the Yilane, and the Quintaglio. I don’t fault Burroughs’ imagination, but his writing leaves much to be desired. His books are just badly written, with virtually no characterization, horrendous prose and giant leaps of logic in the plot. His heroes are so flawlessly good they can never make mistakes, and there is no situation they can’t fight their way out of, no matter how overwhelming the odds against them. His books get very boring very quickly.

There also is the blatant racism, although Burroughs is hardly the only early 20th century pulp writer guilty of that sin. Still, with few other redeeming values in the work, it sticks out like a sore thumb here.

I know many people have fond feelings for Burroughs, but that has more to do with nostalgia than anything else. My love of paleo-fiction only goes so far, so I won’t be reviewing any other the books in this series. I could barely make it through one – I can’t imagine trying to get through all seven.

All the books in the Pellucidar series are in the public domain. Update: Scratch that. It appears that only the first two novels are freely available. Below are all seven titles, with the Project Gutenberg links to the first two.


  • As I’ve already stated, the Pellucidar series has had a substantial influence on pop culture. The hollow world setting has been used in games, comics, other novels and even a handful of cartoons.
  • There are a couple fun web sites about Pellucidar and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The first is, which probably is the most comprehensive site about the pulp author. The other is von Horst's Pellucidar, which has more information about the setting.



Anonymous said...

... full of Victorians ...

Burroughs was more of an Edwardian. Didn't he write Princess of Mars the year Queen Victoria died?

I agree. The Pellucidar books are definitely lesser Burroughs. Even Homer nods.

Eccentric Cowboy said...

Before I comment on the book review itself here, I want to say how thrilled I was to find this blog! You'd think I'd stumbled upon a nest of gold nuggets and look forward to combing through this spot!

Anyway, I'm one of the biggest ERB fans of my generation I think. I've certainly never met anyone else who's read as much of him as I have. That said, I fully admit that Burroughs had many limitations. His writing style was often only adequate and his characters were often stale. Usually his protagonists were at least cool, such as Tarzan, John Carter and Billy Byrne, but sadly he dropped the ball when it came to David Innes.

Personally, Pellucidar is my favorite of his series, as it comes the closest to being the prehistoric savage delight that beckons to me. I've actually gotten through five of the seven books in the series, heh. Even so, the one I'm currently on is dragging like it has an anchor hitched to its ankle. Part of the problem there comes from the fact that it is basically a bunch of short stories published in magazines and spliced together.

I don't begrudge anyone not having as much fun with the series as me, as you do need a strong constitution for some of his styles. I however am a sucker for his stuff and am usually able to tough it out when it gets bogged down.

I hope that I wouldn't be amiss in commenting on your other reviews! I'd be delighted to engage in some intelligent discourse on this fantastic subject. :)