Hugosauriad 2.5: Savage Pellucidar!

There is a nice point to be made about a theme I’ve often covered on my blog to do with bias in samples, processes and algorithms. There is a mistaken view that if some process has a bias against a group in terms of representation or classification that somebody must have put it there — as if somebody had to turn on a bias switch. That’s not how it works. Bias can arise for unexpected or even coincidental connection between disparate things in reality.

Starting this project of looking at dinosaurs within the Hugo Awards I had no prior reason to expect that I’d tap into a strand of traditionalism and nostalgia in the Hugo Awards. Although, on reflection, it is perhaps no surprising that dinosaurs aesthetically connect with that.

It was long after I’d complied my first list of likely works to look at that rather than getting a broad cross-section of the Hugo Awards, I was seeing a range of works in which the Hugo Awards changed more slowly. Putting Brian Aldiss aside (and he was a late addition), the writers I’ve included up to 1971 are all American men born no later than 1921. Robert Silverberg doesn’t appear in my slice through the Hugo strata until 1981 at a point where he is regarded as a veteran returning from a hiatus.

Are the Hugo Awards forward looking and averse to nostalgia? A James Blish pointed out in A Case of Conscience, sometimes the answer to such question is “Yes and no”. Yes, the Hugo Award often reflected societal and cultural change and no, they often look backwards.

So here we are in 1964. The Beatles are on the Ed Sullivan show, Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King wins the Nobel Peace Prize, Khrushchev is deposed, the Moog synthesiser is revealed and both the Vietnam War and the Space Race are in full swing. NASA’s Mariner probe flew past Mars and sent back pictures of a crater-pocked Mars, changing the planet in our imaginations.

Meanwhile, in the Hugo Award for Best Short Story we have Savage Pellucidar, a story written in the 1940s by a man born in 1875. Of course, that one finalist doesn’t define how Worldcon members were voting. Poul Anderson’s complex “No Truce with Kings” won the category and the other finalists included Roger Zelazny’s classic “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” and “Code Three” by Rick Raphael. I can’t say I have heard of Raphael but his story is available here from Baen with an introduction by Eric Flint ( )

And my flippancy about the backwards-looking aspect of nominating Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1964 is severely undercut by the fact that of all the stories I’ve covered so far this is the first one with women characters with actual character, agency and focus. The nearest we’ve had so far is Liu Meid in A Case of Conscience who is just barely sketched out as a character. Burroughs gives us O-aa, a knife wielding prehistoric woman who doesn’t take any shit from anybody.

Every sail was set and flapping idly. A figure materialized out of the fog. O-aa saw that it was the little old man, and the little old man saw that the figure by the rail was O-aa. He glanced around. There was no one else in sight. He came closer.
“You are a voodoo,” he said. “You brought bad winds. Now you have brought calm and fog. As long as you are aboard we’ll have bad luck.” He edged closer. O-aa guessed what was in his mind. She whipped out her dagger.
“Go away, eater of men,” she said. “You are just one step from death.”
Ah-gilak stopped. “Gol-durn it, girl,” he protested, “I ain’t goin’ to hurt you.”
“At least for once you have spoken the truth, evil old man,” said O-aa. “You are not going to hurt me. Not while I have my knife. All that you intended to do was to throw me overboard.”
“Of all the dod-gasted foolishness I ever heard, that there takes the cake, as the feller said.”
“Of all the dod-gasted liars,” O-aa mimicked, “you take the cake, as the feller said. Now go away and leave me alone.” O-aa made a mental note to ask some one what the cake was. There is no cake in the stone age and no word for it.
Ah-gilak walked forward and was lost in the fog. O-aa stood now with her back against the rail, that no one might sneak up on her from behind. She knew that she had two enemies aboard—Ko and Ah-gilak. She must be always on the alert. The outlook was not pleasant. The voyage would be very long, and during it there would be many opportunities for one or the other of them to harm her.

Less acceptable these days are the numerous usages of the then common racial slur for Native Americans — mainly from Ah-gilak, a character from our world who is meant to be obnoxious at aimed at people of Pellucidar with brown skin colour.

The prose is very mixed and the dialogue is very stilted but there are parts that have a feverish strangeness that I hoped for:

Some fifty feet above the surface of the sea she came to the mouth of a large cave from which emanated a foul stench—the stink of putrid carrion—and as she drew herself up and peered over the sill of the opening, three hissing, screaming little horrors rushed forward to attack her. O-aa recognized them as the young of the thipdar. Paleontologists would have classified them as pterodactyls of the Lias, but they would have been surprised at the enormous size to which these flying reptiles grow in the Inner World. A wing span of twenty feet is only average. They are one of the most dreaded of Pellucidar’s many voracious carnivores.
The three that attacked O-aa were about the size of turkeys, and they came for her with distended jaws. Clinging to her support with one hand, O-aa whipped out her knife, and beheaded the leader of the attack. But the others came on, their little brains, reacting only to the urge of hunger, had no room for fear.
The girl would gladly have retreated, but the insensate little terrors gave her no respite. Squawking and hissing, they hurled themselves upon her. She struck a terrific blow at one of them, and missed. The momentum of the blow carried her blade against the vine to which she clung, severing it just above her left hand; and O-aa toppled backward.
Fifty feet below her lay the ocean and, perhaps, Tylosaurus and Death. We, whose reactions have been slowed down by, generations of civilization and soft, protected living, would doubtless have fallen to the ocean and, perhaps, Tylosaurus and Death. But not O-aa. Simultaneously, she transferred the knife to her mouth, dropped the severed vine and grabbed for new support with both hands. She found it and held. “Whe-e-oo!” breathed O-aa.

The story itself rambles in multiple directions which prevents any sensible plot summary. Imagine an account of a particularly unruly D & D campaign where much to the consternation of the DM, the party have headed off in different directions and all the DM can do if throw random encounters at them until they meet up again, having given up on the careful crafted narrative intended. Even so, it is still Pellucidar, the mad Hollow Eath world full of cave people and dinosaurs and where our oceans are their continents and vice-versa.

The novella is supposed to be read with the previous three novellas ‘Return to Pellucidar’, ‘Men of the Bronze Age’ and ’Tiger Girl’ (all collected under the title Savage Pellucidar) but there is also a kind of inconsequential quality to all of them. Stuff happens and then other stuff. The overworked Yankee cannibal Ah-gilak does all sorts of terrible things and people end up just shrugging it off. The whole thing ends with almost a literal ‘and they all lived happily ever after.’

Everyone was happy except Ah-gilak and Gamba. Ah-gilak had been happy until he saw O-aa. Gamba was never happy. Abner Perry was so happy that he cried, for those whom he thought his carelessness had condemned to death were safe and at home again. Already, mentally, he was inventing a submarine.

But I can understand the excitement. The earlier three novellas had been published in Amazing Stories in 1942 but the last one had ended with the main series character David Innes and Dian the Beautiful of Amoz still looking for each other. Savage Pellucidar was the resolution of the various story lines but was not found until after Burrough’s death. The publication of the story in 1963 concluded the Pellucidar series which had started with ‘At the Earth’s Core’ in 1914.

I can see why people picked this but it’s not for me. Pellucidar is enticing as an idea but it is also rooted in a fantasy about frontier colonialism and that civilisation is degenerate. That doesn’t belie the warmth and depth Burroughs adds to his characters or the humour of the writing but it is part of how the work was already well past its time in 1964.

Next time we go for a stroll in Wisconsin with Clifford D. Simak’s ‘The Thing in the Stone


8 responses to “Hugosauriad 2.5: Savage Pellucidar!”

  1. I love Pellucidar and ERB in general, but I can’t blame anyone who finds his outlook intolerably racist and often sexist.
    His earliest works had women whose agency was to choose death over rape, if things reached that point (very much in the spirit of 19th century “captivity narratives” about frontier women abducted by native tribess). But he got better with women as he aged — Oo-a is absolutely delightful and he has a capable swordswoman in “Fighting Man of Mars” as well.
    His “Apache Devil,” IIRC, is a Western with a Native protagonist and the story sides with him against the bigots. Doesn’t make his racial views elsewhere palatable.

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    • O-aa is a star, particularly how she talks back to people. I hadn’t expected ERB to be comedic, so that took a bit of a shift in perspective to get the dialogue.


    • I used to love Burroughs in general and the Pellucidar books in particular, when I first read them as a teenager. They lost their appeal for me, as I grew older and the problematic aspects became more apparent.

      Though I vividly remember the description of Pellucidar in At the Earth’s Core with its upwards curving horizon and its stationary small moon, which creates the Land of Awful Shadow. Truly a great, if implausible SFF setting.

      But while the reptilian Mahar are certainly dinosaur like, the Caprona novels (The Land That Time Forgot and The People That Time Forgot) are a better choice for Burroughs with dinosaurs.

      As for how this managed to get a Hugo nomination in 1964, nostalgia was obviously strong with Hugo nominators that year. Besides, most of them had probably grown up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s the same mechanism that nominates for and awards Retro Hugos to rather unremarkable early stories by future stars.

      Liked by 1 person

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