A Review: Beyond The Farthest Star by Edgar Rice Burroughs
February 26, 2010
Beyond The Farthest Star
Edgar Rice Burroughs
Review by R.E. Prindle
There’s a kind of a hush all over the world.
Sadness all over again. The agony of another world war. Tears and sorrow. One would say that it was with a weary pen that ERB wrote the tale of dreary events to come were it not for the fact that he claimed that the story was transmitted across the eons from the farthest star as his typewriter keys began mysteriously clacking by themselves. One almost believes him as the story was completed in only eleven days from 10/24 to 11/05 in 1940.
It must have been with some fear and trepidation that his generation faced the horrifying repeat of 1914-18 in 1940. In that earlier conflict ERB expressed his thoughts in an equally short novel titled Beyond Thirty. As a result of the Great War he forecast an abandoned England, a Europe invaded by Africa and turned Negroid, an Eastern empire ruled by a beneficent China and the New World of North and South America governed benignly and peaceably by the United States.
Faced with the grim reality of possible total destruction from the air he now drew a much more dismal picture. His old rival H.G. Wells in The Shape Of Things To Come was even more desolated. Burroughs’ agent of destruction was accurately projected. It was the great air fleets of, as it turned out, B-29 bombers that flattened whatever they flew over.
“Planes!” said Yamoda’s mother bitterly, “Planes! The curse of the world. History tells us that when they were first perfected and men first flew in the air over Poloda, there was great rejoicing, and the men who perfected them were heaped with honors. They were to bring the peoples of the world closer together. They were to break down international barriers of fear and suspicion. They were to revolutionize society by bringing all people together, to make a better and happier world in which to live. Through them civilization was to be advanced hundreds of years; and what have they done? They have blasted civilization from nine tenths of Poloda and stopped its advance in the other tenth. They have destroyed a hundred thousand cities and millions of people, and they have driven those who have survived underground, to live the lives of burrowing rodents. Planes! The curse of all times, I hate them. They have taken thirteen of my sons and now they have taken my daughter.
So ERB projects a view of planes and that was before the B-2 bomber was constructed or the A-bomb perfected. At that dim far off time at the beginning of the twentieth century when the Wrights flew the first heavier than air craft the hope was that it would eliminate war but now forty years later after a rapid series of improvements the airplane was the ultimate weapon of destruction. Of course both Burroughs and Wells had foreseen such a development. Burroughs in his great Martian air fleets and Wells in his sky darkening flotillas in The War In The Air.
The great B-29 fleets were already being discussed so that Burroughs merely projected what within a few short months would be a reality in Frankfurt when bombs and incendiary devices rained down creating a fire storm with such intense heat that hydrogen and oxygen molecules in the river separated with the inflammable hydrogen being fed by the oxygen.
Forty-three thousand people- men women and children- died in that fire storm that devastated several square miles creating winds of 150 miles per hour. The devastation was unequaled until the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima. The level of destruction was almost equal in each.
It was almost as though Burroughs had the image of the firestorm before his eyes as he wrote.
As the scene of this great air war that had been fought non-stop for over a hundred years he selected the planet Poloda part of the stellar system beyond the farthest star indicating that war was so endemic to humans that even beyond the farthest star there was no escaping it.
At that time Burroughs placed the farthest star 450,000 light years from earth. One is astonished at the low level of astronomical knowledge of the times. The truer figure for a farthest star would be well over 12 billion light years but that would have been incomprehensible at the time. One is startled to think that the vast knowledge, still a fragment, we now possess was unknown even as the fifties began when I was a child. Everything I learned in school was invalidated by the time I graduated. The novel geologic idea of tectonic plates whereby all the continents had been connected and drifted apart was ridiculed while I was in college in the mid-sixties but shortly prevailed. Astronomical horizons were pushed further out as everything that was believed to be true was transfigured before your eyes, nearly on a daily basis. Today the Hubble telescope penetrates space as far as it has even been penetrated yet has still to find the farthest star. Burroughs farthest star was pretty close. At any rate it made a great title.
In many ways Burroughs’ description of the two competing political systems on Poloda, those of Unis/Athens and Kapara/Sparta more anticipated the post-war struggle between the West and the Communist East rather than the Nazis and the West even though the Kapars seem to be clearly based on the Nazis. Burroughs old hatred of Germans stemming from the days of athe Haymarket Riot in Chicago through the Great War was now reactivated and cast in concrete.
The war on Poloda mirrored the reality on earth projected into a distant galaxy. Nor was ERB wrong as WWII morphed into the Korean War and from thence into Viet Nam and now into the great conflict with the Moslem States. We’re not too far from the centenaryof the beginningof the Great War- a full hundred years.
On Poloda as a result of the constant bombing raids from Kapara the Unisans had created retractable cities. When the air raid sirens went off whole cities were hydraulically lowered beneath the earth until the raid was over. Then the cities were elevated while work crews went out to reconstruct the terrain into livable space again.
In Kapara, somewhat like in North Korea during the incessant bombing of the Korean War, the Kapars had tunneled into their mountains in steel reinforced redoubts.
The Kapars had subjugated a race somewhat as the Spartans had the Messenians who had returned to the lowest subsistence level actually having reverted to cannibalism.
While thus portraying life on Poloda ERB was giving intimations of his fears for his own planet. The devastation of the ensuing war was not quite so complete but it came very, very close.
Of ERB’s wide ranging interests astronomy was one. As I indicated earlier the level of astronimcal knowledge in the first half of the twentieth century was fairly primitive. At the time man first walked on the moon in the sixties outer space was still largely a mystery. It is only since then with the huge arrays of radio telescopes on earth and the Hubble stationed in space above the earth that some of the mysteries of the universe are becoming more clear; even then compared to what there is to be known little is that clear.
Thus ERB imagined a solar system in which a ring of eleven planets circled a smaller sun from a distance of a million miles through an atmospheric tube shared by all eleven planets. The pollution from the incessant warfare on Poloda would be shared by all eleven planets in the tubular atmosphere returning back on Poloda.
Titillating stuff. ERB was always inventive.
I, of course, scoffed at the idea of more than one planet being in the same orbital plane but then all my notions of regularity and order were blasted when the Hubble found two gas giants close to each other on the same orbital plane, close to their sun, completing a revolution in three days. A three day year, think of it, something a million of their light years away would be right next door.
I imagine ERB would be having a field day if he were still alive.