Polar Creepiness in Early Sci-Fi Novels: Background information when reading Pym

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Pym

A Novel

by Mat Johnson

Pym by Mat Johnson
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2011, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2012, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

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Beyond the Book:
Polar Creepiness in Early Sci-Fi Novels

Print Review

Uncharted expanses of polar ice are blank pages for science fiction writers to drool over, and many frozen landmarks spring to mind when trolling the genre. frozen waterfall image What better place to locate creepy caves, secret lairs, and unexplained phenomena? A closer look through the early literature of science fiction reveals that polar inscrutability has stirred the imagination for many generations.

Frankenstein cover Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) opens with the letters of an Arctic explorer, Robert Walton, who comes across an eerie sight: "We beheld, stretched out in every direction, vast and irregular plains of ice, which seemed to have no end. Some of my comrades groaned, and my own mind began to grow watchful with anxious thoughts, when a strange sight suddenly attracted our attention... a being which had the shape of man, but apparently of gigantic stature.... We watched the rapid progress of the traveller with our telescopes, until he was lost among the distant inequalities of the ice."

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket cover Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) draws on scientist John Cleves Symmes's "Hollow Earth Theory," a speculation stating that the earth might actually be a hollow sphere and "habitable within." His hypothesis invited literary creativity; the idea of vast hidden worlds underground opened the possibility of strange races and unfamiliar creatures, as illustrated by Poe's mysterious creature: a "shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow."

Le Sphinx des Glaces cover One of the fathers of modern science fiction, Jules Verne, wrote an entire two-volume sequel to Poe's novel. In Le Sphinx des Glaces (1897), Verne uses Arthur Pym's shipmate Dirk Peters as an entrée to the polar realms. Though there are no ice creatures evident in Verne's novel, there is a giant magnet in the shape of a sphinx, pulling ships and men alike to their doom.

At the Mountains of Madness cover In H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness (1936), a scientist tries to stop an exploratory expedition to the Antarctic, for fear that ill-advised digging will stir up the ancient, alien creatures living deep underground. He recalls his experience hunting fossils at the South Pole, returning to discover his men and dogs dissected in turn. He casts his eye "over the unsampled secrets of an elder and utterly alien earth," and the novella ends with the same cry of terror that Poe's Tsalal natives give in response to the polar whiteness: "Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!"

This article was originally published in April 2011, and has been updated for the September 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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