Saturday, March 15, 2014

Beyond Thirty by Edgar Rice Burroughs

My father, who lives a thousand miles away, recently told me he was reading a free version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Lost Continent on his new Ipad.  I love Burroughs, but this was one of his many books I had not read.  I decided to read it before our next phone conversation, so we could talk about it free of spoiler fear.

Lost Continent is the title given to Burroughs' short novel entitled Beyond Thirty when it first appeared as a mass market paperback in 1963.  Beyond Thirty was written in 1915 and appeared in magazine form in 1916, and is a response to the First World War.  I read a library copy of the 2001 edition, part of Bison Book's Frontiers of the Imagination line.  This edition has additional material by David Brin, Phillip Burger and Richard Lupoff.  (The University of Nebraska Press's Bison Frontiers of Imagination series is something all classic SF fans should know about.)

Beyond Thirty takes place in the year 2137.  In order to seal itself off from the cataclysmic violence taking place in Europe and the European empires, the governments of the New World have forbidden any trade or even communication to cross the 30th and 175th meridians for 200 years.  No living person in the Americas has seen Europe, Africa or Asia, or talked to a European, African or Asian, and the government has even tried to keep books about the Old World out of people's hands, so most people in the New World have a total ignorance of the Old World.

To keep anybody from crossing the 30 or 175, the Americas have a powerful navy that patrols both meridians.  This short novel (just about 100 pages) is about Lieutenant Turck, our narrator, a naval officer who, due to mechanical failure, inclement weather, and treachery among his crew, is abandoned on a boat with three regular sailors, and ends up shipwrecked in England.  He finds that the Great War has totally obliterated British civilization, that Great Britain is a wilderness inhabited by wild beasts and people with a stone age technology and social structure.

As you would expect in a Burroughs novel, Turck fights beasts, gets captured by jerkoffs, escapes from said jerkoffs, rescues a beautiful princess, falls in love with said princess, and so forth. What’s a little different in Beyond Thirty is the anti-war theme. Writing with the World War, which the U. S. is not yet involved in, in mind, Burroughs again and again reminds us how great a city London is, and how fine a people the English are (Burroughs comes off as a serious Anglophile here), and warns of how foolish and wasteful it would be for that great civilization to be lost to war. Burroughs not only points out again and again how war has destroyed so many buildings and killed so many people, but even presents examples of the ruinous effect of war on human psychology and morality: the barbarian English of 2137, even the beautiful princess, consider that life is cheap and murder is normal.

Recognizing the enthusiasm for war felt by some virile young men (and reflected in so much of Burroughs’ own fiction) Burroughs has his protagonist admit that he and others of his class have often fantasized, longed, for war, but when Turck sees the ruin that war has led to, his view changes.

In the last quarter or so of the novel Turck goes to the Continent where he encounters more barbaric whites and is captured by civilized blacks. While the Europeans are illiterate spear-carrying hunters, these Africans have guns, swords, domesticated horses, and books – many, even among the privates, are voracious readers. The blacks are conquering Europe and enslaving all the whites who come into their hands. Making his anti-imperialist point directly, Burroughs has Turck say that the blacks have obviously been better off with black rulers than they were when whites ruled Africa in the days before the Great War.

Burroughs is broadly sympathetic to the blacks, but he still says things which wouldn’t pass muster today, like pointing out an ethnic hierarchy in the African army; the officers have Semitic features while the privates have thick lips and wide noses.

With the Europeans broken and reduced to barbarism, the civilized empires of the Africans and the Asians are fighting for dominance of Europe. Our American protagonist, enslaved and serving as an African cavalry officer’s body servant, accompanies a mighty black army to the African city that has been built on the ruins of Berlin.  The army of the Chinese Emperor takes this city, and Turck is captured.  Fortunately the Chinese believe his story of being from the Americas, and in the last few pages of the novel Turck becomes a sort of ambassador, meets the Chinese emperor, and is the trigger for renewed friendly relations between Asia and the Americas.  Perhaps undercutting the book's anti-war and anti-imperialist themes, Turck triumphantly predicts that the Chinese are going to throw the blacks out of Europe and then the Americans are going to civilize the barbaric Europeans.

The introduction by David Brin and the two essays, one by Phillip Burger and one by Richard Lupoff, are all worth reading.  Burger's interpretation of the book is very different than mine; whereas I thought the book a denunciation of war, Burger argues that what Burroughs is doing in Beyond Thirty is lampooning American isolationism, showing that Europe fell into barbarism because the U.S. failed to aid the Allies in their war with the Central Powers.  When Turck says again and again that London was the greatest city on Earth and now it is gone, I thought Burroughs wants you to think, "Damn, we have to make sure we don't have any more of these horrible wars," while Burger believes Burroughs intent was to make you think, "We'd better go help the English before Fritz eradicates their beautiful civilization," or, "Those Europeans can't seem to do anything right, we'd better get over there and sort them out."  According to Burger the anti-imperialism themes I see are anti-European imperialism; Burroughs thinks the Euros are selfish exploitative imperialists, but that the U. S. or some other power (like the Chinese in the story) could be helpful enlightened imperialists.       

Beyond Thirty is probably one of Burroughs’ lesser works, but its anti-war and/or anti-isolationism slant, and the insights it may provide into American thinking during the early part of the First World War, add a layer of interest. Fans of Burroughs should check it out if they haven’t read it, as should those interested in anti-war or anti-imperialist SF, or in portrayals of blacks in SF.   


  1. Its outline, for which I want to thank you here, looks so wildly improbable that calling it science fiction seems useless. It is, instead, another Burroughs action-adventure story, with a slant to future prediction, and the only merit it seems to have now is of having (possibly) inspired Robert A. Heinlein's novel FARNHAM'S FREEHOLD, a story set in a post-war America where the blacks have risen to absolute power and enslave, not to say eat, the poor whites. Does any of the commentators you name make mention of such a relationship? Thanks again.

  2. Brin, Burger and Lupoff don't make any reference to any influence Beyond Thirty might have had on any authors; in fact, a theme of their essays is that Beyond Thirty is a minor work of Burroughs' which was read by few people. It was first published in a relatively minor magazine (not a big famous magazine like Argosy) and didn't appear in book form for 40 years.

    I haven't read Farnham's Freehold myself, but I probably will someday. I will keep Beyond Thirty in mind when I read it; Heinlein was a Burroughs fan, after all.

    I wonder if Michael Moorcock, another Burroughs fan, read Beyond Thirty. Ages ago I read two of Moorcock's Oswald Bastable novels; one was about an African king who built up a super army with a huge tank and conquered the white world, and the other was about an Asian revolutionary who built a super air force and defeated the Western imperialists.

    Beyond Thirty is primarily an adventure tale, and I don't think Burroughs was trying to really predict anything, just using the fantastic setting to make points about war, foreign policy, racism and imperialism. I like a good adventure story, and I'm interested in military and political history, so I thought it was a worthwhile read.