Saturday, May 17, 2014

4. Saved by Natural Gas

Marooned Under the Sea (1930) is an entertaining science fiction adventure that originally appeared in Astounding Stories.   It is another “lost race” story, but much brighter in tone and outcome than the hidden societies envisioned by Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Abraham Merritt, and others.  Work by these authors has been discussed in earlier posts; the reader may find it interesting to compare the undersea society created by Paul Ernst to the weird communities depicted in the following stories:

People of the Dark (1932), by Robert E. Howard, (see A Subterranean Déjà vu )

The Mound (written in 1930), by H.P. Lovecraft, with Zealia Bishop, (see 1. H.P. Lovecraft, Ethnographer of Doom and 2. But Zamacona Does the Heavy Lifting )

The People of the Pit (1918), by Abraham Merritt, (see Death by a Thousand Figures of Speech )

Paul Ernst’s novella contains many of the endearing traits of pulp fiction adventure stories: stock characters, stilted dialogue, beautiful women, gadgetry, exotic names that begin with letters near the end of the alphabet, and exuberant speculation about other worlds and technologies.  The undersea world he creates in Marooned Under the Sea could easily have belonged on another planet—one of his characters actually makes this comparison.  The story has an episodic structure, with passages of narrative that periodically end with a question or hint at impending disaster.   This technique builds in a rhythm of suspense that keeps the story moving and sustains readers’ interest.

Marooned Under the Sea begins with an expedition to the bottom of the Penguin Deep, which according to the author is a depression in the Kermadec Trough that runs north-northeast of New Zealand.  A zoologist named Professor George Berry has invented a 1930s era version of a bathysphere, essentially an enormous glass bubble, in which to explore the ocean bottom along with two others.  It seems likely that Ernst got the idea for the story from the spectacular investigations of naturalist William Beebe, who used a bathysphere designed in the late 1920s for studying deep sea creatures off the coast of Bermuda.  In 1934, Beebe was able to set a record for the deepest ocean dive: 3028 feet beneath the surface.  (Ernst has his fictional explorers reach the bottom at 5,150 feet.)

Joining Professor Berry is Stanley Brown, a big game hunter and owner of the glass factory that manufactured the bathysphere.  It is required that “lost race” stories include among their chief characters a professor who can explain everything, and a man of action who can do most of the fighting and womanizing.  The third member of the party is Martin Grey, a young man with red hair.  This detail is a critical part of the plot later on:  the Zyobite royal family requires its princesses to marry red-haired gentleman in order to continue the dynastic line.  Martin is also the narrator of the story.  Given the likely gender and age range of the targeted readership, the author intends for the events and characters of the story to be seen and experienced through Martin’s eyes.

Not long at after immersion into the dark depths, the trio encounters all kinds of wonders and hazards.  Enormous, bizarre and predatory life forms swim by, and the searchlight reveals an eerie undersea terrain.  The professor cannot reload his camera fast enough to record all the unusual species that drift just outside the protective glass.  But disaster strikes:  a storm far above destroys the yacht and severs the only connection to the surface world.  The bathysphere plummets to the bottom, breathable air soon dwindles, and it looks as though the professor, Stanley, and Martin are doomed.  Martin blacks out at the conclusion of the episode.

Fortunately, they are rescued by the aquatic minions of Queen Aga of Zyobar, and taken to a fabulous undersea city that thrives inside an enormous air filled, undersea cavern.  The Zyobites are human, and have developed a highly advanced culture and technology by exploiting the resources of their undersea world.  

A strength of Ernst’s writing is his vivid, detailed description, which allows the reader to clearly visualize the more fantastic elements of his stories.  In Zyobar lighting and heat are provided by an inexhaustible supply of natural gas, and there are other interesting technologies that parallel that of human societies on the surface of the planet.  At one point, Ernst has the professor comment on Zyobite rock drilling equipment:  “Another proof that practically every basic, badly needed tool had been invented again and again, in all lands and times, as the necessity for it arose.”

The three men are gradually acculturated to this world, learn the language, and form relationships with the people, who are intelligent, friendly and compassionate.  The Zyobites are the good guys.

Unlike the evil Quabo, a race of humanoid fish creatures that must breath water to survive.  A powerful oceanic earthquake has destroyed their protective city and exposed them to the hazards of moving about in the open water.  Interestingly, the author acknowledges that the Quabo are in a desperate situation, and understandably must take drastic action in order to survive in a hostile environment.  But Ernst ensures that readers are not confused by moral and cultural relativism; he emphasizes the diabolical character of the Quabo by frequent reference to their physical, (i.e. racial), differences.  This approach to the depiction of an enemy, fictional or otherwise, would see intensification with the approach of World War II.  Incidentally, the Quabo resemble Cthulhu in appearance.

The Quabo intend to drill holes through the rock and flood the cavern.  They want to inundate the beautiful city of Zyobar, drown all its citizens, and seize the territory for their own refugee masses.  Queen Aga tells Martin all this not long after the two fall in love.

Luckily there is a professor around, who can come up with a strategy to defend the Zyobites and vanquish the evil Quabo.  An initial attack is fended off, but the Quabo regroup and make use of one of their own technological innovations:  unable to breathe air, the Quobar don helmets and suits that are filled with circulating sea water.  Instead of bubbles, rivulets of water drain out as the creatures breathe.  There are other interesting reversals of technology.  In a final battle with the cephalopod attackers, the Zyobites pump natural gas through hoses that are ignited at one end, delivering flames instead of water to the incendiary struggle.

The professor, Stanley and Martin are heroes at the end of the story, but can never return to the surface.  An attempt is made to send a record of their adventures to the surface—the story begins and ends with reference to a water logged parchment found at sea near the Fiji Islands. Yet there are some compensations.  Professor Berry becomes “the official wise man of the city”, able to spend the rest of his life studying the fabulous biology of the deep seas.  Stanley marries the gorgeous Mayis, and Martin is crowned king of the Zyobites.

Paul Ernst’s work is difficult to find outside of old anthologies or collections of the original publications.  However, a number of his stories can be found at the Gutenberg Project, and these are listed below.

Marooned Under the Sea (1930)
The Planetoid of Peril (1931)
The Red Hell of Jupiter (1931)
The World Behind the Moon (1931)
The Radiant Shell (1932)
The Raid on the Termites (1932)
Mask of Death (1936)


No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your interest in The R'lyeh Tribune! Comments and suggestions are always welcome.