Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hollow Earth by David Standish

I must admit I'm rather proud of this one. I had decided to read a non-fiction work, to add some variety to my typical fare. First I attempted The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. The premise was basically what would happen if people suddenly, for whatever reason, no longer existed on the earth? I suppose one could call it speculative non-fiction, but it was close enough for me. And it was pretty interesting, learning about nurdles, CO2 levels, native flora and fauna, and the order in which decay would bring down New York city, starting with it's subway system and up to its magnificent skyscrapers and bridges. Unfortunately, I lost interest as the level of detail and the similarity of the information began to pull away my weak attention span. Somewhere after 100 pages in, I realized that I had no more renewals at the library and needed to find something else.

In a bind, but still hoping to find an interesting non-fiction work to read, I thought of a topic which interests me but which I still felt pretty ignorant about: the hollow earth theory. You can blame my Scoutmaster, Sam Shemp, a lanky 6' 7" AC repairman and Sunday School teacher. I can't recall the first time he introduced the idea that the earth was hollow, whether it was on a campout somewhere or perhaps even during a class at church, but he was informed enough and passionate enough about the subject that I still don't know whether he was actually a believer in the theory or just pulling our legs a-la "snipe hunting."

Hollow Earth (subtitled The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface) seemed to be a pretty authoritative place to begin my investigations into the theory. Reviews pointed out its light-hearted tone and thorough coverage, so I gave it a shot.

What's to like: There's a lot of information, and the subject is pretty unique. The author presents the information pretty fairly, with just the right amount of tongue in cheek necessary with such a topic. While his humor wasn't really very funny, it kept the tone lighter than a textbook, which would have been horrible indeed. The information is presented chronologically, starting with Edmund Halley (yes, the comet guy), who believed the earth must have inner spheres which rotated independently of the surface, to explain the shifting of magnetic forces that made navigation difficult. The book follows the theory and its variations, focuses on key contributors to the theory over the years, and gives some back story to explain how such ideas fit with other events happening in the world. It is also sprinkled heartily with images that were illuminating and bizarre.

What's to meh: Two things stand out: the first is quoting the Internet - sites like the Uncyclopedia and some other online sources. While I realize that we'll be seeing more of this as time goes on, and that the Internet is a valid source when documented correctly, I just felt that getting information on things from 150+ years ago off the Internet made it feel like the validity was stretched a bit thin. Like hearing the data second- or third-hand, instead of from direct accounts. It probably shouldn't seem like that, but I guess I'm old-fashioned and haven't adjusted well enough. The other thing I wasn't sure about was the level of detail the author went into at times. I understood the importance of showing what else was going on in the world, to show how the theory fit with other things that were going on. It's probably just that I don't read much non-fiction and therefore don't know how much seemingly unimportant information is shared. Too little, and it would look poorly researched and whip by too quickly; too much and the author seems to be showing off and confusing the chronological flow. At times it felt like TMI (which I know I am guilty of, shame hypocrite Byron), and there are many things that have already slipped from my mind because I didn't have a notebook and there were too many things coming at me at once. Probably just a weakness in me, though, therefore I place it in the neither-good-nor-bad category.

What's to revile: Okay, not revile, but here are some of the lesser-liked details. I guess I was just disappointed that I didn't feel I learned what I was seeking to. I was less interested in the who's who behind the theory than the theory itself, and how it has fared over the years. In this book, the people seemed to be the main focus. Worse than that, and my least favorite, was the amount of time spend following the history of the theory in fiction literature. A lot of space was taken up detailing how Poe, Verne, and Bradbury (and many other authors) used the hollow earth theory in some of their stories. But what they did seems secondary, insignificant (they weren't altering it, at the most they were helping the idea tread water and to make it into the consciousness of more people).

What I was looking for is the experiments that have taken place, accounts and testimonies made, and being in the thick of the arguments for and against such a strange belief. And there, it appears to me that the book didn't have the depth I was hoping for. Either my Scoutmaster had taken it farther all on his own, or Mr. Standish didn't get to nearly enough of the arguments that people use to defend it. Where were the theories about 1. the Garden of Eden being within, 2. the longevity of OT prophets resulting from living inside, and during the flood washing out, and the sun causing our shorter lives, 3. the lost tribes (including the giant races) living within, to someday return from the north, 4. experiments involving mine shafts and unexpected results?

To be fair, it did cover many of the other things I had heard about the theory, things like aurora borealis being the light from within coming out of a polar opening, the earth's flattening at the poles, and the mass of the earth in relation to the moon. What I really wanted, though, was a good breakdown of the arguments, to show how they stack up under scrutiny and scientific investigation. Instead, there were few pros or cons offered. It was "just the facts, ma'am." Even though it seems a foregone conclusion, the reader is ultimately left to wonder why the rectilineator experiment showed a concave surface, or whether some animals are actually migrating north in the winter and why. I wanted the arguments, the proofs, and enough information to be able to debate either side, but instead I feel I've learned very little beyond the distance back in time which the theory can be traced and some of the key people involved in its development over the years.

Ultimately, what I've done is learned a little history, forgotten a lot of details, and found some other sources that I can use if I want to learn more about the hollow earth theory. The book was diverting and unique, and it delivered what it promised in the subtitle. Whether it should have been more, that's for others with more experience to say. I liked much of it, but was still unsated.

And yes, I realize that a non-fiction work about a fictional* subject matter is a stretch, a bit of cheating. But whatever, I did it, let the congratulations flow.

*I am willing to state that the theory is fictional (i.e. false, in this usage), based on common sense and what I've learned my entire life, despite Cyrus Teed's warning that "To know of the earth's concavity is to know God, while to believe in the earth's convexity is to deny Him and all His works." (quoted on p. 150) I am, however, still fascinated to know what has convinced others, and reserve the right to change my mind if compelling evidence were forthcoming. Mock all you want, that's what I'm here for.


Amanda said...

When I was a little kid, I used to believe that we lived on the inside of the earth. Inside the surface, not in the middle (I'm not sure where I thought the sky came from). I was really disappointed when I found out otherwise, and for years I entertained the idea that there really were people living just on the other side of the crust, upside down to us, and I used to try to dig holes through to them.

I applaud you on the nonfiction. i rarely read nonfiction unless it's in the form of memoire.

Jen said...

I remember you and I kind of bandying this idea around in high school. As I recall, there was some mocking even then, ahem. I'm impressed that there is actually a whole book on the subject. Now if there was only one on the individuality of Cool Whip.

hamilcar barca said...

the "hollow-earthers" seem to me to be a bit like the "flat-earthers". they meet, issue proclamations, and hope to get some press. but it is doubtful they take themselves seriously, with the possible exception of your scoutmaster.

the dearth of scientific testing is easily explained. those who promote the flat- or hollow-earth theories certainly aren't interested in empirical results messing up their eccentric views. and those who don't believe in such stuff aren't going to waste their time disproving it. if i demonstrate that the flat- or hollow-earth theory is poppycock, have i accomplished anything?

still, it sounds like this was a decent read. much more interesting than "Scientific Creationism" hogwash.

m said...

Cool! Definitely a book I'll consider picking up. I've been recently reading up all about the mythology of Hollow Earth, I even watched this silly 80s documentary with some crazy old guy doing silly voices and whatnot.

Anywho, if you all are into the whole Hollow Earth theory, something that might interest you is this movie called Chronicles of Hollow Earth: The Next Race, it's kind of in the same vein as Dune. It's about this race of people called Ghen who has enslaved mankind after a 300 year battle, and they rule them from Hollow Earth. Has anyone heard of it?

I got my dvd the other week, and I loved the storyline. Check it out! Just go on to http://www.thenextrace.com or http://www.youtube.com/thenextrace