Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Review - Expedition Beyond: The Anderson Theory by Roger Bagg

Short review: The Earth is hollow and full of Native Americans and Neanderthals.

Large cracks in the Earth
One man's very strange theory
Beautiful natives

Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Expedition Beyond: The Anderson Theory reads kind of like a Jules Verne or Arthur Conan Doyle "lost world" style story written in a manner that aspires to evoke the books of Michael Crichton or Dan Brown. Sadly, the novel never really seems to come together, and is hampered by unconvincing alternative science explanations that try to place a veneer of respectability upon the implausible idea that the Earth is actually hollow. Following the adventures of Des, the former leader of an expedition the explored deep into a mysterious fissure that had opened in the frozen northern reaches of Canada, as he navigates a small corner of the strange world that he finds deep inside the Earth, the book is a moderately engaging adventure built upon an almost wholly absurd premise.

The book opens with George Barrington, a dilettantish hiker traveling through the outback of Australia, going missing with his guide. His wealthy father sends some hired hands to try to find out what happened to his son. Meanwhile, an expedition on the other side of the world in Canada, financed by the mining corporation Boster Denton and led by Des Cox sets out to find and explore a massive open trench in the Earth in the middle of the frozen tundra. The expedition has some setbacks and personality conflicts, but eventually locates their target and begins to delve deep into it when Des is attacked by creatures deep in the Earth and lost. These preliminaries are told out of order for no real apparent reason, and each chapter has an ominous header that includes the longitude and latitude (and eventually "laptitude") where the events take place, as well as the day and time on which they occur. This style of story telling is what gave me the impression that the author was trying to emulate Michael Crichton, who has used this sort of device to heighten the tension created by the events in his books. But by telling the story out of order at this point, Bagg deflates the tension: while the characters are feeling anxious over whether they will find what they are looking for, the reader already knows they will because he saw them do it in an earlier segment of the book. It seems like the author is telling the story out of order simply because that's what has been done in other books that he had seen in this genre, and so he felt like he needed to, even though in this case, it serves to detract from the book's impact.

The preliminaries dispensed with, the book moves on to the real story: Des' adventure inside the hollow Earth, his friend Mitch's efforts to mount a rescue mission to find Des, and the mission on the opposite side of the world to try to locate and recover George Barrington. All of these are more or less tied together by the "Anderson Theory" (named after an astrophysicist with the same name) which is a mish-mash of science buzzwords seemingly thrown together at random with a healthy dash of counter-factual supposition to boot. The primary problem with the theory is that when he is explaining it Anderson makes a basic physics mistake: he asserts that if the Earth is solid the weight of the mass of the planet will cause the atoms at the core to be subjected to so much pressure that they would explode. But physicists already know how much mass is required to cause the atoms at the core to explode: objects with that much mass are called stars. Even Jupiter, with three hundred and seventeen times as much mass as the Earth is insufficiently large to cause spontaneous fusion at its core. Consequently, when Anderson rattles off the rest of his "theory", his wildly silly assertion about a solid Earth exploding makes the rest inherently implausible.

It doesn't help that Anderson's theory is little more than some science words strung together without much rhyme or reason. Anderson apparently started with the notion that there is more matter than anti-matter in the universe, leapt to the idea that the planets and other celestial bodies are hollow, and then ended up assuming that dark matter is reacting with ordinary matter at the core of planets creating radiant energy. Now I'm not sure if Bagg is having Anderson conflate anti-matter and dark matter here, but the problem with this assertion concerning dark matter is that dark matter is dark matter explicitly because it doesn't interact with ordinary matter, making this part of the "theory" just as silly as the idea that a solid Earth would explode. It is common in science fiction to break the laws of physics in some way, or to posit some heretofore unknown principle of science that would allow for advanced technology to be developed, but when an author contradicts the known properties of the universe without even acknowledging that he is doing so causes the reader to lose confidence that the author has done his research. More critically, it makes the science fiction elements of the story inherently implausible, and breaks the reader's suspension of disbelief. Calling a book "science fiction" doesn't mean that any idea can be thrown into the mix uncritically - an author usually has to delineate when they are departing from the currently understood properties of the universe or they risk losing verisimilitude. In Expedition Beyond, Bagg commits this authorial sin, and as a result, the book falls apart.

The truly unfortunate thing about the bad scientific explanation for the hollow Earth is that it really isn't all that necessary for the story to work. In fact, most of the sections that take place in Australia (which includes all the scenes in which Anderson appears) seem to serve very little purpose other than to pad out the page count a bit, because nothing that happens in Australia really seems to affect either Des' adventures in the world inside the Earth or Mitch's efforts to mount a rescue operation to recover Des. And because Des' story, once he falls in with the Anasazi inhabitants and falls in love with their princess Anastasia, is the meat of the book, the Australian segments are more or less extraneous clutter. This point, which isn't apparent until the close of the book, adds to the disappointing feeling one feels after reading it. On the one hand, It makes a certain amount of logical sense that teams working more or less independently on opposite sides of the Earth would not affect one another, which makes it reasonable that the Australian and Canadian groups would not impact each other. On the other hand, because both elements are in the book, there is a certain expectation that, despite being set thousands of kilometers apart even by the direct route through the center of the planet, the two will dovetail in some meaningful way. And because they really don't (except in the most tangential manner), an entire third of the book feels wasted and unsatisfying.

But Des' story, as he navigates the female dominated Anasazi civilization that he has fallen into, is interesting in an Edgar Rice Burroughs kind of way. Or, once the villains of the underworld show up, in a Michael Crichton Eaters of the Dead kind of way. To a certain extent, Des falls into what seems to be a paradise full of tall colorfully-skinned women with only small boys and old men for competition. The fact that they are exclusively vegetarians is compensated for by the fact that their produce is apparently quite tasty and Des' new found ability to control fire. I think that Des' ability to control fire (and resist fire) is supposed to be connected with Anderson's theory about what makes the Earth hollow, possibly connected in some way with dark matter or something, but this never seems to be explained in any manner - he just discovers he can do it and then mostly uses it to impress the natives during meetings. This sort of "party trick" attitude seems to permeate Des' story - upon finding a culture that fights with clubs headed by balls of metal, Des convinces the local weapon smith to craft a sword, but only one sword, so he can have one but no one else is given more effective weaponry. He doesn't suggest making bows, arrows, or even spears and knives to equip his soldiers, but rather scavenges around the local museum to find syringe-like blow darts and eventually centuries old gunpowder stored in a back room. Despite this, Des seems to do a reasonable job of preparing his makeshift army for war, despite being hampered by local politics and the fact that his supposed allies don't seem to think it is important to give him all the information they have about their foes.

At the same time Des is trying to fend off an invasion and rescue the male population of the Anasazi, Mitch is busy trying to mount a rescue of Des himself. And this portion works fairly well, as Mitch works with the Inuit Bearters and the U.S. Army to obtain permission from the Inuit council to return to the fissure where Des went missing and hunt for him. The corporate and political maneuvering that Mitch and his allies go through is somewhat interesting, and the story eventually converges with the underground drama, but most of Mitch's experience seems to be him waiting for the U.S. Army to do something, and then waiting for the Canadian government to do something, and then finally, snookering the Inuit council. But once they get to the trench, getting down to where Des is located is more or less hand waved away with some hastily introduced technology. It seems that an opportunity was missed in having Mitch and his rescue team get to Des so quickly and easily. Instead of having Mitch cool his heels for most of the book waiting on bureaucracies to give him the green light, it would have been much more interesting to have him (possibly along with the expert team we are introduced to in the opening chapters of the book who mostly disappear from the narrative thereafter) work his way down into the underworld in a kind of modern version of Journey to the Center of the Earth. But instead, the story holds Mitch up with red tape for nine-tenths of its length and then has his efforts turn out to be mostly moot.

While Expedition Beyond has some good moments, they are simply not strong enough to carry the story as a whole. Although I suspect that the fact that Des and Mitch had to deal with native American groups both above and below the surface was significant in some way, I couldn't summon enough interest to really care. I also suspect that Mitch bringing a pair of puppies with him into the underworld is supposed to be a momentous development, but as the story ends pretty much immediately after he arrives, this plot element goes nowhere. With laughably bad science, pointless subplots, and several instances of hand-waving to get over plot hurdles, the book ends up feeling contrived and silly. Despite the fact that Des' story in the underworld was somewhat interesting, everything else felt like wasted ink and paper.

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