Writers of middle-grade and young adult fiction get there first.
Who introduces the young reader to dystopia? To artificial intelligence? To generation ships and apocalypse and cloning and galactic empire?
It isn’t Orwell or Huxley or Shelly (or even Heinlein or Asimov, anymore). It’s some middle grade / YA writer from the most recent decade, maybe someone great, like Neil Gaimen, or maybe a hack who somehow got popular. They wrote the book in the school library that the kid picks up on a whim; because of a cover or a blurb, or maybe, simply because it was there.
In the late sixties, and to this day, Scholastic Publishing produces a flyer handed out in public schools; cover thumbnails, descriptions, and prices; an order form with little checkboxes, the books delivered to you in homeroom. As a kid I also had free books through the RIF, Reading is Fundamental program, a non profit still active forty years later; it’s mission is to get books into the hands of kids under eight; two thirds of low income americans own no books whatsoever, according to the RIF website.
Wow. I have a hard time wrapping my head around that.
So we got free books in Charles Andrews Elementary School, being in a mixed income, majority minority community. I don’t remember if I paid for my copy of Stranger from the Depths by Gerry Turner or not.
The cover price is 50 cents.
My copy has an unsigned RIF sticker in it… is it my original copy, or one I picked up twenty years ago, with far too many used books in one of the Cambridge’s many vanished used book stores? I had this book, the abridged edition, in third grade, which was 1970 or 1971. My current copy is a first printing, in 1970.
The book is about a few young men and one young woman and a kindly professor who revive a 60 million year old Lizard Man named Saa, who inhabited a crystalline city which sank beneath the Earth during what we now call the CT event, the iridium rich boundary layer which represents the end of the Cretaceous, the age of the dinosaurs; kids these days know the comet and subsequent nuclear winter is what did those wonderful animals in…
Back in the 60s, though, nobody knew. Turner guessed some sort of seismic event which made the atmosphere toxic, this inescapable thing. Stranger’s Lizard people manage to barely survive, though, in ways familiar to SF readers, then and now.
Here’s a list of stuff from Stranger that is now badly used furniture, which felt newer in 1969, and which worked for the third and forth grade me perfectly.
- Parallel evolution which produces a humanoid intelligent species which resemble us strongly enough that we can wear their clothing, and vice versa. Saa is a seven foot tall man with frog eyes, scales, webbed fingers and toes and needle sharp teeth. (He is also a vegetarian, which makes the teeth a, well, a mistake.)
- Learning an alien language in a quickly glossed over bloc of narrative summary which spans a few weeks or months.
- Ancient civilizations for which there are no fossil records; species without any fossil record or any evolutionary antecedents in the fossil record.
- A teaching/learning machine which directly implants knowledge into brains with tiny wires. (Human and Lizard people brains are so similar that the machine can be used on people without a single test or modification. It’s a Babel Fish machine.)
- Food pills. Food synthesizer machines which assemble meals from grids of buttons you press for different types of flavors and textures.
- An entire technological civilization which is confined to a single city of a few thousand individuals. (I guess Turner was trying to help explain the lack of fossil record, but he simply creates this more difficult problem of a technological civilization far too small to be technological.)
- A humanoid species without any identifiable culture to speak of. The city is full of barely described apartment and municipal buildings…. with no roofs, because they live under a dome with a giant sun thing handing from the apex like a chandelier. We see no art and hear no music. We never learn anything about Saas family structure… the alien minds we see all behave in ways easily understood by humans.
- The sterile city of the future as imagined by many a SF writer at the time; Asimov foresaw windowless houses perfectly illuminated artificially by flat colored panels, programmable auto-kitchens, cleaning robots, etc. Saa’s city of Haad has all these things.
- A mole machine which can bore through solid rock and travel through the earth’s metallic core, protected from heat and pressure by, well, forcefields and stuff. It is moved by… forcefields. It also has antigravity. Which is never really used anywhere else in the city.
- Energy from the earth’s core; not simply heat driving turbines to make electricity, but some sort of degenerate matter created by heat and pressure which can be used as fuel in reactors. Turner may have been thinking about stellar degenerate matter here; at any rate, it gives the lizard people something to do with their mole, which is to go deep into the earth and hunt for this stuff.
- The Evil Retrograde culture. Surviving members of a terrorist lizard people breakaway culture live in a another city, but their tech is deteriorating, and they can’t fix the old machines. This culture also has teaching machines and memory disks, so it’s uncertain why they can’t fix things. They have been eking out an existence since the cretaceous, presumably waiting for the surface to become livable. Even though they have the mole, nobody ever uses it to check on surface conditions, because… um.
Ok, I didn’t mean to do a plot summary here, I just wanted to list these tropes, but I got sucked into it, and as I did, all these gaping plot holes opened up…
After a wonderfully detailed opening featuring scuba diving and a tidal wave striking a shore which sets up the discovery of Saa’s Crypt, the descriptions grow more and more vague, as to what it’s like, to be walking around a mile or two beneath the earths crust in a ‘fire suit’ which protects you, but somehow, there are…I guess caverns and underground lava seas…you can’t really see much of anything, the story moves along at a good clip… more and more tech is introduced, working flawlessly after 60 million years, which allow stuff to happen. There are long winded explanations of the tech.
…oh, you wonder, what the hell was in the unabridged edition!
…Jesus, the reason I wrote this was to tell you that this book was wonderful to me, in second grade, and I wanted to say it still holds up, but like a Jerry Lewis movie, its one of those things that can’t really make the leap, from youth to mature appreciation.
But I believed in Saa, the lizard man, last of his super intelligent, rational reasonable and kind race. I believed in the undying underground diamond city of Haad, preserved perfectly for 60 million years by a mysterious gas. I believed in the mole, which could travel through rock in one of two modalities; one which leaves tunnels behind, perfectly round smooth tunnels, or in an invisible mode, where the melted rock just hardens again leaving no trace of its passage. I used to think about the mole a lot, as I recall.
Boy could I believe in stuff, when I was in second grade.
What is this story, though, really about?
It’s about adventure; finding a hidden world beneath your feet, about voices out of ancient time talking to you, it’s about encountering the alien other and befriending it, finding out that the other is just like you. It’s about fearlessness, as the amiable professor drags along his young charges, into the underground city, and into the mole, to travel deeper and deeper into the earth.
This is Turner’s only SF book.
As I contemplate what to do with the rest of my writing life, this book confronts me, haunts me, weirdly.
Middle Grade and YA authors get there first.
Could I lean how to be one of them?