Friday, February 20, 2015

Hidden World by Stanton A. Coblentz

I read that I guaranteed to take Loa, the daughter of Professor Tan Torm, as my one and only legal wife; that I agreed to obey the Population Laws and produce as many sons as possible for the benefit of the Motherland; and that I promised to rear my children and conduct my married life according to the best accepted principles of Thoughtlessness.

When I spotted the Airmont paperback of Hidden World in an Iowa antique mall I fell in love with the cover by Ed Emshwiller.  Tanks the size of sky scrapers crashing into each other?  Infantry men with ray guns charging beneath their proud war banner?  Is this Warhammer 40,000?  Now here was a book I had to have!

Poor Stan didn't get his name on the cover
Hidden World first appeared in 1935, under the title In Caverns Below, as a three-part serial in Hugo Gernsback's Wonder Stories.  It has been reprinted numerous times; I think mine is a 1976 printing.  (I'm not sure if this version was revised, an unspecific reference to the Second World War may have been added later, or may be Coblentz simply predicting such a war.) I had never read any Coblentz before, and so when I started the book I had no idea if the story could live up to the terrific cover.

Phillip Clay and Frank Comstock are engineers, and have been hired to inspect a deep mine in Nevada.  An earthquake traps them underground, but also opens the way to a vast network of caverns, where resides a high-tech civilization.  Clay and Comstock's introduction to this civilization is witnessing a terrific battle between land-battleships.

Comstock, our first-person narrator, is captured by the pale-skinned people of this bellicose society, and is soon taken into the custody of a scholar who teaches him the language of the subterranean people.  This is when it becomes evident that Hidden World is not really the Burroughs-style adventure story I was hoping for, but a broad farce and a facile satire of current events.  (Coblentz makes his project clear with a reference to Voltaire; a minor character in Hidden World is General Bing, no doubt named after John Byng.)

Comstock has been captured by the people of Wu, a classbound people who are perennially at war with the people of Zu.  The two nations of ethnically indistinguishable pale white people (Comstock calls them "chalk-faces") fight their endless stalemated war for honor and to keep the economy, which is based on manufacturing arms and subsidizing families with many children (and taxing families with fewer than seven children), running.  The rulers of Wu are a tiny aristocracy so inbred as to be hideously deformed and so lazy their limbs have atrophied to uselessness.  Comstock witnesses government workers destroying food and clothing in order to maintain high prices.  Wu has a secret police force that stifles any unpatriotic expression, and on the walls are signs listing the "Brass Rules."  The third Brass Rule is "Thoughtlessness is next to godliness."

Stan is on the cover this time, but that
illustration must be for some other story
The novel is full of weak "Bizarro World" jokes that might constitute some kind of mockery of early 20th century society.  The people of Wu have bad eyesight at short range, and so have to read a book from twenty yards away with a pair of binoculars.  They drive little cars at reckless speeds.  Men wear skirts and women trousers.  The men consider wrinkled faces and obese bodies attractive, so all the young women spread on their faces wrinkle-inducing cream and powder their bodies with "producing powder" guaranteed to make them fat.  The scholar's fat wrinkly daughter wants to marry Comstock, and gives him a wedding bracelet; this is followed by a visit from the government eugenicist, who rates Comstock 99 and 44/100%.

These absurd jokes are not funny, and diminish any excitement or suspense the adventure elements of the story might generate.  It is possible that Coblentz meant Hidden World to be a parody of Burroughs' John Carter stories: whereas Carter is able to outfight Martians because Earth's heavier gravity gave him superior strength, Comstock is able to defeat the people of Wu in hand-to-hand combat because of their horrible eyesight; Carter is a fine swordsman because of his military service on Earth, while Comstock credits his time on the college track team with his ability to run away from danger, and his lack of military service also exempts him from marrying the obese wrinkly woman who pursues him (Carter, of course, is pursued by striking beauties); Burroughs glorifies aristocracy and warfare, Coblentz portrays both as disgusting.

(Hidden World also shares similarities with Fritz Leiber's "Lords of Quarmall," which wasn't published until 1964 but was apparently drafted much earlier.)

A 2009 reprint featuring lamentable typography
After escaping marriage, Comstock, by helping to break a strike by the workers who keep the air of Wu fresh, achieves fame and a good job.  When he gets sick of life in Wu he comes up with a scheme to escape.  Like the protagonists of so many of these old SF books, Comstock uses his engineering ability to resolve his problems and employs audacious trickery to outmaneuver his foes and manipulate the masses.  Comstock becomes ruler of Wu and tries to launch a societal revolution, but the people of Wu resist all his reforms (e.g., speed limits and traffic lights are denounced by the multitudes as interference in "the rights of private property.")  At the end of the book Comstock discovers that his friend, Clay, has become dictator of Zu, and the two of them try to make peace between the two nations.  But, exhibiting the contempt SF writers so often demonstrate for the common man, the subterranean people--aristocracy, bourgeoisie and proletariat--are all committed to the wasteful war, and Comstock and Clay are overthrown and must flee to the surface.    

Hidden World is not the fun adventure story I was expecting, and the jokes are too broad for my taste.  On the other hand, it is competently written, and all the references to 1930s political and economic issues make it an interesting historical document.  (I wonder if Jesse would consider this pulp to be "ideologically empty.")  So I guess I will give it a marginal thumbs up.

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