Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Hollow Earth

Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface
David Standish
Cambridge (MA): Da Capo Press, 2006. 304 pages.
Reviewed by
Ken Feder
Though I am certain that I saw every one of the 104 episodes of the Superman series that ran on television between 1951 and 1957 (and that were relentlessly rebroadcast on a local New York station throughout my childhood in the early 1960s), few of them have stayed with me as much as the two-parter about the Mole Men. Disturbed by the excavation of the world's deepest oil well, these oddly appealing creatures — looking a bit like nightmarish teletubbies — are drawn to the surface world. Naïve waifs, they are almost killed by terrified denizens of that surface only to be saved by Superman, whereupon they return to their home, deep in the core of an apparently hollow earth.

I remember being transfixed by the notion of a world beneath our own and, it turns out, I have not been the only one so intrigued. In Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface, David Standish has written a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining, and hugely informative book on the history of speculation about a world within the world. As the book's dust jacket trumpets, "Hollow Earth is for anyone interested in the history of strange ideas that just won't go away." As such, it is a wonderful case study for those interested in other "strange ideas that just won't go away," like the biblical account of the origin of the universe, the earth, life on earth, and of the human species.

To be sure, much of the book is a compendium of crackpots — some rather charming, and some not quite so — but the list of those involved in spreading the hollow earth gospel includes some of the brightest scientific luminaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As Standish points out, Edmond Halley was an early proponent, suggesting that no fewer than three hollow, concentric spheres float independently beneath the surface on which we live, going so far as to suggest that these three spheres might actually be self-contained worlds, each with its own source of heat and light and each, perhaps, filled with living creatures. The independently rotating spheres within were viewed as providing a scientific explanation for the earth's wandering magnetic poles, but there was something just as important for Halley and those who followed. In their view, God would not have wasted all that valuable interior real estate by making the earth solid; a hollow planet provided ever so much more room for God's living creations.

When it comes to hollow earth proselytizers, however, none match the outright loopiness of John Cleves Symmes as detailed in an entire chapter of Hollow Earth. Symmes appears to have been a man of no particular distinction when, in 1818, he began distributing a circular in and around St Louis, declaring his belief in a hollow earth and pledging his life to the pursuit of its exploration. The interior of the earth was accessible, Symmes believed, through enormous openings at both poles, openings that were to be called, much to his delight, "Symmes holes". Symmes doggedly pursued support and funding for an expedition to these vast entryways to the worlds beneath.

You have to credit his chutzpah at least. Symmes (using a pseudonym) was the likely author of a novel that Standish characterizes as a detailed accounting of what Symmes believed he would actually find at the center of the earth. Though the characters in the novel are fictional, the real Symmes is an offstage member of the cast and the novel is consistently self-referential and self-reverential. The new lands found in the hollow earth are called (don't laugh) Symzonia, and Symmes the author repeatedly has characters in the novel refer to Symmes (the guy in the real world) as a brilliant scientist and philosopher, one of the great thinkers of the modern world (remember this is Symmes writing about, well, Symmes). As Standish points out, along with being a polemic in support of exploration that would lead to the entrance to the hollow earth, the book, Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery is the first example of American utopian fiction. Symzonia is a wonderful place, far superior to the surface world. Standish's hilarious discussion of Symmes is, by itself, worth the price of admission to Hollow Earth.

Standish devotes several chapters not so much to the actual belief in a hollow earth, but to the exploitation of that concept by fiction writers, including the usual gang of suspects: Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, L Frank Baum, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Almost certainly, none of these authors believed in the validity of Symmes Holes, rotating hollow spheres, or mole people, yet all used the mysterious, unexplored frontier inside the earth as a setting, the curious stage on which their fictional dramas unfolded. In locating their lost worlds in the interior of the earth, these and myriad other authors were part of a longstanding tradition of situating invented, mysterious realms in places unattainable as a result of location and distance. Writers and movie producers have long done exactly this, from Plato who placed Atlantis in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and in a time far removed from his own to George Lucas who positions his Star Wars action "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." For the above-mentioned late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century authors, the notion of a hollow earth was not a fixation but merely a convenient fiction, an expedient place to locate their utopias — and dystopias.

If I have one criticism of Standish's book, it would be that he devotes too much of the book (three and a half chapters out of eight) to this literary exploitation of the hollow earth concept. I would have preferred a far more extensive discussion of late twentieth- and early twenty-first–century claims concerning the reality of a hollow earth, an issue that Standish only touches upon in his final chapter.

But these are minor complaints. For the wealth of information provided and a wonderfully readable, smart-alecky writing style, David Standish's Hollow Earth belongs on the bookshelf of every scientist, historian, and fan of speculative fiction, especially those who are interested in "strange ideas that just won't go away."

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.