Going Down

Classic subterranean adventure. This edition published by Penguin Books 1965. Cover illustration shows a detail from an unsigned tempera painting by permission of the Terrazza Restaurant Collection, London.

Classic subterranean adventure. This edition published by Penguin Books 1965. Cover illustration shows a detail from an unsigned tempera painting by permission of the Terrazza Restaurant Collection, London.

What lies underneath the surface of planet Earth can stimulate our imagination just as much as what appears in the sky – perhaps more so, since we cannot see any of it directly. It has long been a source of speculation in science fiction, the classic work probably being Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, first published in 1864, though there had been previous stories on the same subject, such as Ludvig Holberg’s 1741 satire The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground.

In Verne’s novel, Professor Lidenbrock and his colleagues descend through a crater in a volcano in Iceland and have many adventures before eventually re-surfacing through the Stromboli volcano in Italy. Along the way, they encounter a range of natural hazards, including subterranean rivers and potholes, and finally, enter a vast cavern with its own ocean and coastline where prehistoric plant and animal life exists in abundance – including also what appear to be primitive humans.

It is the sheer exuberance of the tale, supplemented by the drive and impatience of Lidenbrock himself, which made this, as with Verne’s other stories, so popular at the time. But the thought of a complete undiscovered land, maybe even populated, inside our planet is particularly enticing.

The idea of a world under our own feet has often featured in fantastic fiction since then. Edgar Rice Burroughs created the land of Pellucidar inside a hollow Earth in a series of novels beginning with At the Earth’s Core in 1914. This exotic land exists on the inside of the Earth’s crust, with its own Sun providing permanent daylight, and is populated with various amazing people and creatures.

The title of the Burroughs’ novel was used for the 1976 film starring Peter Cushing as a Victorian scientist who builds a manned “high-calibration digging machine” which will bore through solid rock at 78 feet per minute – the “Iron Mole” which is shaped like a rocket going downwards, resembling the “Mole” used by International Rescue in the 1960s series Thunderbirds to rescue people trapped underground. The scientist’s brash assistant makes the telling remark: “We’ve been on top of the Earth long enough; it’s about time we found out what’s underneath.” But the maiden voyage goes wrong and the travellers keep going down, eventually arriving in the underworld of Pellucidar.

There is a similar project to burrow into our planet – equally fantastic in its own way – in the 2003 film The Core. The Earth’s core stops spinning so its magnetic field starts to fail and we’ll lose all protection from solar radiation. A manned vessel is sent into the Earth to deliver nuclear explosives to re-start the core. Forget scientific accuracy. There’s no exotic underworld here, but our heroes still encounter a series of unlikely events, including entering a huge empty space deep in the mantle.

No, there isn’t any vast range of fantastic life-forms, or another human civilization, deep inside the Earth, but that doesn’t mean there’s no life at all down there. In Earth’s deep, dark secret (New Scientist, 11 May 2019), Graham Lawton explains how Earth’s subsurface biosphere may be the largest on our planet, existing in solid rock. It’s mostly single-celled organisms, but there are a few multi-cellular animals. It starts a few metres below the surface and goes a long way down – perhaps even as much as 23 kilometres deep, surviving extreme temperatures and pressures.

Such microbes might use the rock itself as a source of energy, and there’s the possibility that life on Earth could even have actually started underground and then spread upwards. All of which raises interesting prospects for life on other planets – subsurface biospheres might be thriving elsewhere in the universe, yet there may be very little evidence, if any, on the surface of their existence. If life-forms can originate underground, they might remain and evolve there, and we wouldn’t know it.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: The Enemy Within| The Lonely Universe: Retiring Into Your Shell

Be sociable; support the BIS!