Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Gaia as a Great Old One

Not every story containing tentacled horrors has its origins in Cthulhu or the pantheon he inhabits.  However, when a pulp fiction author in the early 1930s combines tentacles, the North Pole, an all-powerful pre-human entity and graphic cosmicism, it is likely that H.P. Lovecraft’s famous cephalopod monster was the inspiration.  Edmond Hamilton’s 1932 novella The Earth-Brain is markedly different from his usual fare, an interesting transformation of Lovecraft’s mythos of Great Old Ones into the vernacular of a pulp science fiction story.  (Lovecraft enthusiasts will recall that The Call of Cthulhu appeared in 1928.) 

Edmond Hamilton was a younger contemporary of Lovecraft’s, best known for his world-wrecking space operas, his Captain Future serial, and his prodigious output of pulp fiction.  He is credited with developing such familiar science fiction notions as cloud-high cities, extraterrestrials in metallic bodies, matter transmitters, and accelerated evolution, among other concepts.  Several of his space operas contain motifs that are recognizable in such later entertainments as Star Trek and Star Wars, decades later.

In The Earth-Brain, adventurer Clark Landon has become a human epicenter for unusual earthquakes and seismic activity wherever he travels in the world.  He avoids the interiors of tall buildings and keeps far away from mountains to avoid avalanches.  Cities in Newfoundland, Norway, Russia, Egypt, Italy and other places are ruined as he travels through them, and thousands die amidst the rubble.  He is wracked by guilt and terror—cursed for an act of sacrilege committed a couple of years before.  Mercifully he has enough wealth to travel unceasingly.  If he ever ran out of funds, an entire continent might go under.

While stopping briefly in New York City he encounters an old friend who happens to be the narrator of the story.  He tells his friend all about an ill-fated journey to the North Pole, a couple of years earlier.  Landon and his two partners, with the aid of two increasingly anxious natives, go on an expedition to find a mysterious mountain, notorious in Eskimo lore, “the forbidden mountain at the Earth’s top…”  Because part of the story is set in the Canadian Arctic, the “Eskimos” Hamilton describes are probably representatives of Inuit society.
After an arduous journey across an icy wilderness, the men finally discover a huge peak that seems to have one or more tunnels in its side.  Naturally Landon and his partners ignore the warnings of the two Eskimo guides, as well as the agitated behavior of their dogs, and begin to climb the mountain in order to enter one of the caves.

Impressed by the Eskimos’ terror of the locale, Landon and his team imagine the earth as a kind of gigantic organism, indifferent to the life forms that infest its surface and wonder “…whether we who consider ourselves masters of all are not but a race of microscopic parasites…”  Inside the mountain Landon encounters the awesome mind of the sentient planet Earth, a titanic multicolored ovoid with tentacles of light energy and cable-like projections that burrow into the rock beneath it.  There is a horrific struggle with the Earth Brain and Landon alone barely escapes—but only for a while.

Hamilton offers the interesting idea that Earth is one of many sentient planets travelling in various trajectories across space, each with its own brain, and each in communication with the others.  Insofar as life exists on these planets, it does so only superficially and inconsequentially.  The cosmic image unites what is essentially a monster-in-a-cave story with a cosmicist vision more congenial to the author of numerous space operas. 

Hamilton’s explanation of the nature of the Earth Brain will remind New Age enthusiasts of the concept of Gaia.  This was originally the name of a primal mother goddess from Greek mythology, but later became elaborated as a figure in Neo-pagan worship.  Gaia was also the name for an ecological insight popular in the 1980s and 1990s, that the Earth can be viewed as an organism that regulates itself as other life forms do, (i.e. the “Gaia hypothesis”).  This is very close to Hamilton’s conception of the Earth-Brain—which he developed in the early 1930s. 

Unlike much of Hamilton’s work, The Earth-Brain does not end happily, and the hero is not saved by pluck, technical know-how or unbelievably good luck.  In fact, because of his reckless presumption and for his violence against the Earth-Brain, Landon has rendered himself beyond redemption, a damned soul.  “All Earth will be wroth against you!” prophesizes one of the Eskimo guides. 

It is here where Hamilton parts ways with Lovecraft and with Cthulhu.  The latter would destroy all of humanity without any desire to single out particular individuals for abuse—nothing personal here.  True, the depredations of the Earth-Brain are a bit heavy-handed at times, and thousands die in various seismic events.  But the author seems uncomfortable with a strictly cosmicist approach.  His weird vengeful deity singles out Landon for doom, pursues him, takes a close personal interest in him, and does not rest until she finds him.  The Earth-Brain is a kind of wrathful Old Testament god reconfigured as a spiteful Gaia.    

The Earth-Brain was originally published in the April 1932 issue of Weird Tales.  It shared that issue with H.P. Lovecraft’s In the Vault, Henry S. Whitehead’s Mrs. Lorriquer, and Clark Ashton Smith’s The Gorgon.  A number of Hamilton’s stories have been reviewed in previous posts; here are several earlier discussions that show both his scope and development as a genre writer.  For example, compare an early work like Crashing Suns (1928) with a more nuanced late career story like What’s It Like Out There (1952).  One of the fascinations of reading this literature in depth is observing how an author’s work changes over time.

3. Almost But Not Quite Eden (The Seeds From Outside)
A “World-Wrecker’s” First Publication (The Monster-God of Mamurth)  
Our Cerebral Future (The Man Who Evolved)
Mars and P.T.S.D. (What's It Like Out There)

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