Beyond Thirty by Burroughs, Edgar Rice, 1916

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It's getting to be late 2009, and although lots of time has passed and we all have other big problems, I am just now realizing that I have not purged all the anger that I have for George Bush II and all the damage that he has done to our country. Even after the election of a man who still has the reputation of a savior and a genius, despite giving billions of dollars to idiot CEOs, rescuing a few companies that probably did not deserve to be rescued, and even taking on health care in the U.S., you would think that I would have better things to worry about. I guess when I think about it though, it's not Bushie so much that bothers me as the war in Iraq that he got us into. News just broke this week about Bush trying to convince Chirac that the war was about stopping Gog and Magog in Mesopotamia, and even after reading that stupid article and acknowledging that there was absolutely no proof in it, I'm mad all over again. I think that is why I have been reading so many anti-war SF stories lately. I just read and reviewed the greatest one ever written a few weeks ago, Heinlein's Starship Troopers, but I've also recently read Card's Ender's Game and Haldeman's The Forever War, as well as a ton of short stories out of various anthologies I have in my collection.

This week's selection, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Beyond Thirty is an anti-war piece that was a reaction to WWI. It was Burroughs' cry against the barbarism and savagery that had gripped the European continent in the years before its original date of publication in All Around magazine in 1916. At its heart it is about the policy of isolationism in the face of a catastrophic foreign war. Therein however lay the prime question I still have, even after my second reading of this book. Was Burroughs trying to say something about the wages of or the virtue inherent in isolationism. It is definitely not Burroughs' best work - though I personally do not think much of his work, others would say that his interplanetary and hollow-Earth tales were his best, but it did have its high points and was an interesting adventure overall. It is also pretty dated, both in tone and in attitude: Burroughs takes an attitude about blacks enslaving whites that by modern standards is pretty tasteless. Rather than excoriating the practice of slavery, Burroughs' main character Turck, a white man, was more bothered by being the slave of a black Ethiopian. Although Bison Books now lists this book as out-of-print (as a matter of fact they list all of their books as OOP, which makes me wonder if they are printing SF any longer), it will be an excellent addition for any of Burroughs' enthusiasts.

Beyond Thirty is the story of a shipwreck. In it the radio, engines and anti-gravity devices of the Coldwater, a decrepit, run-down aero-submarine of the Pan-American empire, all fail at once, probably the result of sabotage. The Coldwater was assigned to guard the easternmost boundary of the Pan American empire, 30 west, or the longitude line that runs from pole to pole through Iceland and the Azores. Set in the year 2137, it had been illegal to cross east of 30W or west of 175W for over two hundred and thirty years. Centuries before the governments of the western hemisphere decided to leave the east to its own devices. War had destroyed much of the nations of Asia, Africa, and particularly Europe. To stop the spread of belligerence it was made a crime punishable by death to voyage to the Old World, and by 2137 there had been no contact with the east for almost 200 years. While patrolling the boundary the Coldwater plunged into the ocean and was washed far to the east. Resigned to a long repair (and to either living in shame or suffering the death penalty upon his eventual return to New York City), Turck had taken to fishing with a few men in a dinghy daily. One afternoon while he was out on the water his third in command, Johnson, stole the Coldwater, now repaired, and left Turck and three other men, Taylor, Delacorte and Snider, floating in the Atlantic. Knowing that they had been abandoned on prupose Turck directed his men to pilot towards England. Turck was an amature historian and knew legends about Europe that were not commonly known. Fortunately, and slightly unbelievably, Turck's dinghy was fully outfitted with supplies, rifles, pistols and even a saber and some old maps of Europe.

Several adventures followed in a hardly recognizable Europe. After Turck and his men found out that towns and ports at Devonport and Cornwall were completely obliterated and the land was inundated with tigers they moved onto the Isle of Wight where they found some men who had no knowledge of WWI or even of Great Britain. After moving on to London they found antelope, elephants and lions, and savage men. The party ventured across England, which was filled with beasts whose ancestors had hundreds of years before had escaped from zoos (I've often wondered if this was the first occurrence of this particular conceit), then onto the continent of Europe, where they were caught in the middle of a war between the powerful and ruthless African Abyssinian Empire and the enlightened Empire of the Chinese.

Fortunately Burroughs took the time to explain some of the harder to swallow elements of his story. For example, all over England and the Isle of Wight Turck and his party encountered primitive tribes of men who had absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of the existence of the Americas (save for some vague rumor of devils coming from somewhere to the west), the devastating war that their ancestors had fought (except for a rumor of "smoke monsters that belched lightning" rolling over the land, killing everyone in its path), or even of the nation that preceded them, Great Britain, though they did call their land Grubritin. About the complete loss of society, even the myths of the past, Turck had this to say:

I could only account for it on the hypothesis that the country had been entirely depopulated except for a few scattered and forgotten children, who, in some marvelous manner, had been preserved by Providence to repopulate the land. These children had, doubtless, been too young to retain in their memories to transmit to their children any but the vaguest suggestion of the cataclysm which had overwhelmed their parents.

Professor Cortoran, since my return to Pan America, has suggested another theory which is not entirely without claim to serious consideration. He points out that it is quite beyond the pale of human instinct to desert little children as my theory suggests the ancient English must have done. He is more inclined to believe that the expulsion of the foe from England was synchronous with widespread victories by the allies upon the continent, and that the people of England merely emigrated from their ruined cities and their devastated, blood-drenched fields to the mainland, in the hope of finding in the domain of the conquered enemy cities and farms which should replace those they had lost.

The learned professor assumes that while a long-continued war had strengthened rather than weakened the instincts of paternal devotion, it had also dulled other humanitarian instincts, and raised to the first magnitude the law of the survival of the fittest, with the result that when the exodus took place the strong, the intelligent, and the cunning together with their offspring, crossed the waters of the Channel or the North Sea to the continent, leaving in unhappy England only the helpless inmates of asylums for the feeble minded and the insane.

Interesting theories all, and I appreciated their inclusion. I only wish that Turck had considered the fact that the language that the natives spoke on the completely isolated Isle of Wight and then again on the island of Great Britain was almost identical to his own, suggesting that adults were involved in the rearing of any children that might have been left behind.

About the fact that Pan-America saw the need for a mighty fleet of navy ships and deeply ingrained military lifestyle, even in the reality of peaceful coexistence and complete unity of the Americas, Turck had this to say as he recounted the story of the first tiger attack on his party:

Not a backward step had the noble Delararte taken. Two hundred years of peace had not sapped the red blood from his courageous line. He went down beneath that avalanche of bestial savagery still working his gun and with his face toward his antagonist. Even in the instant that I thought him dead I could not help but feel a thrill of pride that he was one of my men - one of my class, a Pan-American gentleman of birth, and that he had demonstrated one of the principle contentions of the army-and-navy adherents - that military training was necessary for the salvation of personal courage in the Pan-American race which for generations had had to face no dangers more grave than those incident to ordinary life in a highly civilized community, safeguarded by every means at the disposal of a perfectly organized and all-powerful government utilizing the best that advanced science could suggest.

One can easily see why the captain and crew of the Coldwater were secretly delighted when that ship was blown beyond the thirtieth parallel.

Beyond Thirty! Romance, adventure, strange peoples, fearsome beasts - all the excitement and scurry of the lives of the twentieth century ancients that had been denied us in these dulldays of peace and prosaic prosperity - all, all lay beyond thirty, the invisible barrier between the stupid, commercial present and the carefree, barbarous past.

I hope that it's also easy now for you to see what the critical dispute was all about. If you are like me you will be drawn into an internal debate about the author's true feelings about isolationism, slavery, militarism and warfare. You will probably also wonder why Burroughs stopped writing just as he was really getting into a good groove. I think that Burroughs greatly overestimates the destructive power of the technology of the day. The likes of mustard gas and aerial poisons must have seemed very frightening to Burroughs, but these are not weapons of mass destruction we are talking about here. He also greatly underestimated the importance of land to human kind. I cannot believe for a minute that anybody would ever abandon good land and viable ports, even in a situation where all infrastructure was destroyed. There just is a lot in this book that does not add up, though I have to give Burroughs some credit for thinking his ideas through a bit better than many of his contemporaries did. As usual for a work written this early, read it for its historical value or for a different window onto the modern genre, or if your are a Burroughs or pulp fan. Don't bother if you are looking for a good, realistic story, because it just ain't that.

Copyright 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 2.5 star(s)


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