Monday, June 2, 2008


To inaugurate these reviews of books for young guys, I thought I’d start with my favorite book from when I was a young guy, re-released in a new edition last year.

I admit it, though: I saw the movie first.

It was 1975, and I was twelve, living in a tiny burg in Tennessee. The Land That Time Forgot was playing in nearby Humboldt and I desperately wanted to see it. The TV commercials convinced me it had everything I could ever want from a movie: action, a hint of romance, submarines, evil Germans, and most importantly, dinosaurs. I begged my dad to take me, and he did, falling back on the old "I'm resting my eyes" ploy when I caught him sleeping through it.

The movie was...okay. But it led me to the book, written by Tarzan's creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, and I discovered that the book really did have everything. In addition to the movie’s assets, it had an audacious science-fiction imagination, and prose that only a twelve-year-old boy could take seriously (this was also probably true when Burroughs originally wrote it in 1918). The movie, it turns out, told only one-third of the story: The Land That Time Forgot is actually a trilogy, and by the end reaches such a crescendo of absurd completeness that only Shakespeare, in his plays where either everyone dies or gets married, stands as a rival.

The first book, The Land That Time Forgot, begins in 1914 with a manuscript in a bottle, as thrilling an idea as a boy can encounter. This message is from Bowen Tyler, one of two survivors of a passenger ship sunk by the evil Germans. The other, as luck would have it, is a beautiful girl:

I had never looked upon such perfect features, such a divine molding, which was at the same time human—intensely human. It was a face filled with character and strength and femininity—the face of one who was created to love and be loved.

Tyler, however, is far from being a ladies man. When she saves his life after he mistakenly believes her a traitor, he says:

I could have gone on my knees to her and begged her forgiveness—or at least I could have, had I not been Anglo-Saxon.

When the submarine is finally captured by Tyler and the crew of a British tugboat, more luck (or absurd, magnificent coincidence) comes into play: not only was the submarine originally built in (gasp!) Bowen Tyler's family shipyard, but the girl (double gasp!) is actually the fiancé of the German captain!

Stuck aboard an enemy vessel with a saboteur, Tyler tries to take the submarine to a neutral port, but ends up instead running up on the coast of Caprona, a mysterious unknown continent. They find a way inside, and discover a primeval landscape teeming with dinosaurs and cavemen. And this is where Burroughs really pulls out all the stops: Caprona, or "Caspak" as the natives call it, is more than just a lost world: by following the central river upstream, the submarine travels through evolutionary time. It's like Heart of Darkness, in a sense, only instead of Mr. Kurtz waiting at the head of the river, they find the ultimate source of life in Caspak.

Whew. And that's only the first book.

The People That Time Forgot sees the Tyler manuscript spawning a rescue mission, led by Tyler's old college roommate Tom Billings. With the situation and locale already established, Burroughs jumps right into the action (in every sense: Billings almost immediately meets Ajor, a native girl he describes this way:

…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 dirt couldn’t hide that fact: she was beautiful beyond compare.).

The third part, Out of Time's Abyss, is a sort of alternate storyline that follows the adventures of tugboat first mate Bradley as, separated from the rest and believed dead, he stumbles into his own troubles, including, inevitably, a girl:

Her figure, but partially concealed by the soft deerskin, was all curves of symmetry and youthful grace, while her features might easily have been the envy of the most feted of Continental beauties.

Unlike the first two sections it is written in third person, and as such shows its age more than the others. It’s also the most totally out-there, with winged humanoids called Weiroos as the villains. But as part of the overall piece, it conveys a (admittedly whacked) sense of depth and substance, not to mention rewarding the plucky mate for his courage by giving him the native princess as a lovely parting gift.

Make no mistake, this is old-fashioned stuff. Heck, it was old-fashioned when I first read it in '75, too. But its utter guilelessness is its greatest strength. In these days of ironic detachment, when heroes don't count unless they follow blood-drenched mayhem with a witty bon mot, Burroughs' Tyler, Billings and Bradley seem positively revolutionary. For boys with an interest in a) alternate-world concepts, b) submarines, c) dinosaurs, d) reasonably non-icky romance and e) loopy action, this book will transcend its century, I suspect, and connect with that primal part of all guys eternally fascinated by these things. It was my favorite book as a boy, and I intend to share it with my boys as soon as they’re old enough.

Although, in deference to their media-saturated era, I may start with the movie. It worked for me.

--Alex Bledsoe

by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Paperback: 264 pages
Publisher: Leonaur Ltd (April 13, 2007)
ISBN-10: 1846772206

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slayground said...

What a way to kick off GLW!

david elzey said...

Yeah, I saw the movie first, too. And I've had to rethink the "read the book before you see the movie" stance in our house with my kids more than once. Sometimes you need to have a movie to serve as a sort of extended book trailer.

Way to start a new blog!

Kelly Fineman said...

Great post, Alex. Good to see classic sci-fi can still hold its own!