The Enemy Within

BIS Space:

Menace from inside the Earth. This edition published by Panther Books 1969.

Threats from outer space feature regularly in science fiction.  But whether they come in the form of alien invasions or other nasties arriving to cause carnage in the inner Solar System, they give the human race one significant advantage – we can (usually) see them coming.  There is something more insidious in a threat from under our own feet – that suddenly arises from within the Earth itself.

We get a sense of this in Joseph O’ Neill’s classic novel from 1935, Land Under England.  The hero finds the descendants of a lost Roman civilization still existing deep underground, where they have developed a totalitarian dictatorship – a perversion of the greatness that Rome had once been – and he must find a way to escape.  Although this aggressive society is safely ensconced in the depths of the Earth, the inevitable concern is about what would happen if it emerged on the surface– a highly relevant storyline at the time in the 1930s, though perhaps not entirely irrelevant these days.

But we need not be limited to fantastic ideas of races, alien or otherwise, living within our planet.  There may be natural sources of threats from below to humanity on the surface.  This thought could be traced back to the causes of Noah’s flood in the Biblical book of Genesis.  It is often thought that rain “for forty days and forty nights” was the cause of the catastrophe, but that alone would have been unlikely to swamp the entire Earth; the significant factor is that on “the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up”, implying some vast eruption of subterranean water.

This was the basis for the flooding of our planet in Stephen Baxter’s 2008 science fiction novel Flood.  Seismic activity on the seabed opens up huge underground reservoirs of water which cause devastating rises in sea levels across the world.  A different kind of underground menace featured in DF Jones’ 1971 novel Don’t Pick The Flowers – drilling on the ocean bed through the Earth’s mantle releases immense quantities of nitrogen into the atmosphere, heavily diluting the amount of oxygen in the air worldwide.  Simply breathing becomes a major difficulty.

A classic novel in this vein is MP Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, first published in 1901 and praised by writers such as HG Wells.  The main protagonist is the first person to reach the North Pole (bearing in mind that this was written before Peary’s 1909 Arctic expedition which actually claimed that honour), where he unwittingly unleashes a lethal vapour from beneath the ground.  The toxic purple cloud spreads across the planet, wiping out the entire human race, and he alone survives.  As might be expected, he goes insane, looting indiscriminately and burning entire cities, though he does eventually find one other person left.  The originality and power of the book are clear, as is also the fact that it inspired so much further apocalyptic fiction throughout the twentieth century.

But can we rest assured that there aren’t actually any reservoirs of nasty things near the surface of our planet waiting to be released and cause mayhem?  Sadly, we probably can’t.  Carbon dioxide is a trace element in the Earth’s atmosphere, where it is vital to the carbon cycle which exchanges carbon between the oceans, soil and biosphere.  We need it.  But it is also a powerful greenhouse gas which can add to the “greenhouse effect” and exacerbate global warming and climate change. 

At the start of the Industrial Revolution, there were around 280 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and, in 2016, we passed the 400ppm mark.  As Professor Ted Schuur of Northern Arizona University explained in The Permafrost Prediction (Scientific American, December 2016), there are signs that, within a few decades, global warming will cause permanent thawing of the Arctic permafrost, which may contain double the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere.  And, if that’s so, releasing it could put climate change beyond any possibility of control by humans.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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