Hollow Earth

by Chelsea Bauch

Science fiction was once an underground phenomenon — literally

There's a curious interplay between science fiction and the recognition of scientific principles. Even in its early, satirical forms during the 16th and 17th centuries, the former has always required an astute imagination—as in the case of Sir Thomas Moore's Utopia or Voltaire's Micromegas. Unlike fantasy or, say, metaphysics, where otherwise baseless laws and entities of a given world can exist just for aesthetic sake, science fiction is limited to plausible reasons and a consistent explanation for its content. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for instance, was based on contemporaneous experiments with galvanism and corpses, making the premise of a reanimated, patchwork man — or "monster," as it were — conceivable, even if remotely, when it was published. [i]

One of sci-fi's first subgenres postulated a hollow Earth, based on a hypothesis initially suggested by the astronomer Edmund Halley. The premise worked its way into fiction to express both dystopic and utopian ideas, but ultimately exhausted its scientific and literary possibilities as later 19th century authors turned from the finite inner-Earth to the infinite reaches of outer space. This lifecycle of subterranean fiction illustrates the birth and death of the genre in fiction and in science. Where once the hollow Earth appealed to the genre's scientific, plausible, and internally consistent standards, it eventually wore out its creative and credible potential and has now been rendered culturally irrelevant — save for kitsch revivalists as well as a handful of New Age and conspiracy theorists.

Science has always been a discipline for ambitious dreamers. Historical breakthroughs have been the product of highly creative imaginations — plus a lot of trial and error — and often defy everyone else's realm of conceivability. Sir Isaac Newton, for one, was a genius mathematician and discovered the classic laws of motion and gravitation, but he also refuted mechanistic explanations of the world lest it undermine God's power and was involved in alchemy. The famed physicist wrote more than a million words worth of notes about his alchemy experiments — from standard lead-into-gold tinkering to far more complex formulas — illustrating the centrality of his ambitious dreaming. After reading Newton's notes on the latter, John Maynard Keynes famously remarked: "Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians."

Halley, Newton's friend and occasional rival, [ii] first developed a hollow Earth proposition in 1692 during a failed attempt to explain a disparity in compass readings. He proposed the idea of rotating spheres, each with distinct magnetic poles, inside the globe, and suggested that the Aurora Borealis was the result of gas escaping from these worlds within worlds. While the notion of a hollow Earth may seem absurd today, at the time it was on par with Newton's devotion to alchemy — a seemingly plausible concept that was only later proved as baseless. Apart from his subterranean fictions, Halley's credibility as an astronomer cannot otherwise be challenged — after all, this was the same man who famously calculated the orbit for what later become known as Halley's comet — but his imaginative hypothesis yielded an entire literary subgenre.

The belief in an underworld was not exactly new at the time. Gilgamesh, Orpheus, Aeneas, and Dante had each made the trip — albeit with varying degrees of risk and success — and of course there was also Plato's allegory of a subterranean cave. Many mythologies feature a corresponding parallel between the afterlife and our terrestrial basement (ranging from damning hellfire to ghost river boat trips), but Halley's theory dismissed classic philosophical parables and religious ideologies in favor of a more concrete underworld existence.

Within a half-century, the hollow Earth became a fertile genre for fiction writers. The setting was used in popular works as early as 1721, but the utopian novel Journey of NielsKlim to the Underground written by Ludvig ("the Molière of the North") Holberg in 1741 established the conventions of the nascent subgenre. The novel describes the adventures of a European explorer in a subterranean world, juxtaposing the conventional fish-out-of-water irony of the premise with an extended critique of several utopian frameworks. Klim variously encounters a society of happy and healthy yet painfully bored citizens, a perpetually war-torn "land of Liberty," as well as a kingdom of sentient, easily offended trees called Potu-ans (read the prefix backwards). The narrative is marked by a consistent tongue-in-cheek tone as Klim blunders through his encounters — at one point, he remarks how the ape-like Pyglossians "resembled much the human being, except in so far that they spoke with that part whereon we always sit." Though the novel bears more fantastical elements than scientific basis, it was an influential building block for the satirical subtext and deliberate conceptions that later defined science fiction.

The immediate popularity of Holberg's book inspired several subsequent decades of novels based on a hollow Earth setting. This foreign landscape was adopted for utopian discussions, dystopic meditations, and bizarre adventure genres (as in the case of Giacomo Casanova's L'Icosameron (1788), which featured a race of multicolored hermaphroditic dwarves). By the turn of the 18th century, however, the scientific underpinnings initially posited by Halley had been transformed to suit the theories of a group led by John Cleves Symmes Jr.

In 1818, the American-born Symmes sent copies of his "Circular No. 1" to every notable legislator, politician, ruler, and professor that he could get his hands on, stating:

To all the world! I declare the earth is hollow, and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentrick [sic] spheres, one within the other, and that it is open to the poles 12 or 16 degrees; I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking.

Symmes and his vocal followers became a feature of the cultural life of the 19th century. His beliefs generated widespread controversy and made him a successful speaker on the lecture circuit. The 1820 novel Symzonia was attributed to Captain Adam Seaborn, but some believe it to be the only book written by Symmes himself while still others counter that it was a parody of him. In either event, Jeremiah Reynolds, one of Symmes' most active followers, wrote Remarks on a Review of Symmes' Theory in 1827, promoting the advantages of a polar expedition based on his mentor's concepts. Reynolds later generated enough enthusiasm to convince the U.S. Congress to launch a naval scientific exploration around the world from 1838-1842. Though this expedition didn't discover evidence of a hollow Earth, it yielded more than 50,000 specimens, which became part of the newly founded Smithsonian Institute soon thereafter. Despite the voyage's actual scientific contribution, historian William Stanton noted that it all began with the "fervent foolishness" of Symmes' imagination — thanks in large part to the active agitation of his protégé.

The Pennsylvania-born Reynolds lectured extensively in Baltimore, a city he adopted as a central outpost for his proselytizing. It was there that his ideas for a hollow Earth reached the young Edgar Allen Poe. The budding fiction writer first alluded to subterranean concepts in his award-winning short story "MS. Found in a Bottle" (1833), in which an unnamed sailor recounts his harrowing encounters with a doomed black galleon, amid swirling whirlpools at the South Pole, and survival of a magical sand storm-typhoon-hurricane combo described as a Simoon. The story both satirizes sea tales of the day and references fantasies of the hollow Earth. Poe later favorably reviewed Reynolds' address to the House of Representatives in 1836. It's unclear if the two men ever actually met in person, but the latter's influence appears throughout the former's work — and even in Poe's deathbed exclamations "Reynolds! Reynolds!"

A decade before those last gasps, however, Poe had already immortalized Reynolds' creative constructs in his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). [iii] The book makes direct reference to hollow Earth theories through the adventures and misadventures of the titular hero, a stowaway aboard a whaling ship who finds his way to the South Pole after surviving mutiny, shipwreck, cannibalism, hostile natives, and a mysterious labyrinth of strangely marked passages. The unreliable narrative ends abruptly as the characters approach an enormous cataract, which inexplicably opens to allow their entrance. Poe's unabashed use of absorbing fact and implausible fantasy made Gordon Pym a seminal contribution to what became known as science fiction — so much so that one of the genre's popularizing figureheads, Jules Verne, published a tributary sequel, "The Antarctic Mystery," in 1898.

In the current consciousness, Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) is the essence of the hollow Earth genre. Though Verne was deeply moved by Gordon Pym and its progenitors, he based his fiction within a scientific landscape rather than dabbling in the fantastically far-fetched. And with evolutionary biologists like Charles Darwin exploring uncharted islands inhabited by anomalous, previously unknown animals and paleontologists like Richard Owen identifying long-extinct dinosaur remains, there were plenty of existing concepts to draw from. Verne chose to reflect geological time in Journey as his protagonist, the eager Professor Von Hardwigg, discovers increasingly older species — dinosaurs included — while descending deeper toward the Earth's core. But even as he raised the cultural relevance of subterranean fiction, Verne was also a pivotal figure for the emergence for a new subgenre in science fiction, which moved its focus from the interior of the Earth to outer space.

It's difficult to determine at what point imaginative adventurers — both satirical and serious — shifted their gaze upward toward the stars, but Verne's From the Earth to the Moon (1865) marks the beginning of outer space popularity in literature. Fiction from Cyrano de Bergerac's The Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (1657) to Poe's "The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaal" (1835) — in which Poe introduced elements of scientific realism to legitimize his fantastical premise of a moon travel adventure — had previously used this blank celestial canvas, but Verne's novel had a more immediate and lasting effect on pop culture.

The French-born Verne developed a new paradigm for science-based speculation in space and beyond. His stories mimicked Poe's conflation of facts and fiction to lend an appealing plausibility to each plot. In so doing, he was able to write convincingly about space, air, subterreanean, and underwater travel before any of its necessary machinery had been developed. It was this kind of forward-thinking optimism that laid the groundwork for science fiction's anticipatory fantasies, positing adventurous notions before the technology to do so was even invented. Though reliable aircrafts and submarines later made their way into widespread, practical use, the sky-facing space gun projectile featured in From the Earth to the Moon remains one the genre's most impressively accurate suggestions.

Outer space still remains the popular setting for science fiction, but the transition from intra-terrestrial to extraterrestrial was not so well delineated. George Sand's Laura, Voyage dans le Cristal (1884), William R. Bradshaw's The Goddess of Atvatabar (1892), and John Uri Lloyd's Etidorpha (1895) all used the hollow Earth premise as a means of philosophical and utopian analogy, even as the subgenre was rapidly appropriated for more pulpy purposes. Subterranean fiction remained present in popular culture through the early 20th century despite its rival setting's growing presence in the literary and film industries, before eventually dying out of mainstream consciousness.

By the turn of the century, the subgenre's high-minded criticism had given way to more straightforward entertainment. Willis George Ellison's The Smoky God (1908) was one such adventure-themed romp through the world below, featuring a hazy interior sun and a civilization said to dwell in the original Garden of Eden. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar novels (beginning with 1914's At the Earth's Core), meanwhile, took similarly superficial liberties with a subterranean setting — and even featured some adventures with his most popular hero, Tarzan. Other books and works described lizard people, Atlantis itself, and, in the aftermath of WWII, a host of Nazi hideout conspiracies. These later incarnations fit more snugly into the pulp and adventure zines of the last century, but to a certain degree subterranean stories still managed to engage the premise of otherworldly exploration and imagination — at least for a time. Scientific evidence that the Earth was not hollow ultimately undermined the sub-genre's landscape of possibilities, while outer space's unexplored, seemingly limitless vistas revealed a new horizon of possibilities. And as space travel became ever more attractive and conceivable, the public's interest in the discredited hollow Earth inevitably waned. The fantasy of outer space didn't kill the fantasy of the subterranean world — reality did.


[i]: John Polidori, a physician, introduced Shelley to the concept of galvanism during the rainy summer of 1816, which they spent at Lake Geneva with Shelley's soon to be husband Percy Shelley, her sister, and Polidori's employer, Lord Byron. Frankenstein is the famous byproduct of a ghost story contest proposed by Byron to pass the time, but Polidori's less well-known contribution, "The Vampyre," is considered the first coherent vampire story.

[ii]: Halley and Newton differed strongly on religion, which the former frequently criticized and the latter wrote about avidly — especially regarding the importance of prophecy. It has been reported that Newton snootily responded to Halley's disrespectful remarks with: "I have studied these things — you have not."

[iii]: Herman Melville drew stylistically from both "MS. Found in a Bottle" and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket as he we was writing Moby Dick. Coincidentally, the premise for this novel was inspired by the article "Mocha Dick, or the White Whale of the Pacific," which was written by none other than Jeremiah Reynolds for the May 1839 issue of Knickerbocker magazine.



Chelsea Bauch is a writer, editor, and part-time adventurer. She has written for The A.V. Club, Boldtype, Flavorpill, Time Out, PopMatters, Travelers’ Tales, and Geek Monthly, and is currently pursuing a master's degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.

Articles in this Issue

Introduction, by the Editors
The Bobcat, by George Getschow
Aileron, by Margaret Combs
Odd Birds, by Mark Kurlansky
Hollow Earth, by Chelsea Bauch
Snowbound, by Jonathan Shipley
Staking Claims, by Chantal Corcoran
The Seven Pound Lion, by David Helvarg
Yosemite's Twin, by Sam Kean
Diagnosis Alaska, by Charles Wohlforth