The Moon Pool
[ bookreviews ]
Come to A Merritt's 1918 tale of Muria, a lost subterranean world, with little or no contextual knowledge, and you'll find a pulp tale worthy of any RKO Radio picture. The characterisations are sketchy and stereotyped, the prose fractured and slightly pompous, and the plot structure already well established within the minds of its original audience. But scratch beneath the veneer of low-brow, pre-war derring-do and you will discover something slightly more subtle and relevant. Well, relevant at least to genre historians like editor Michael Levy, who has taken it upon himself to re-present this slice of science fiction history.
The tale follows one professor Walter T Goodwin, out to discover the fate of a group of friends who have disappeared while researching strange phenomena on an island somewhere within the Carolines. The first half of the novel is taken from an original, extremely popular, short work that appeared in the pages of All-Story Weekly. It focuses upon the discovery of expedition leader, David Throckmartin, by Goodwin and his subsequent revelation that an elemental creature called The Dweller has abducted his entire party. Somewhat predictably, it's not long before the good professor's interview is cut short by the timely manifestation of this otherworldly entity. So far, so Hammer House of Horror...
The second half of the tale reads like, and is, a serialised extension born out of the original’s popularity. Merritt expands upon notions of The Dweller being the creation of some ancient and yet highly advanced race. There's no doubting that, with his visualisation of Muria, the author is navigating his own course down a tributary of the fantastical writing tradition which includes Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World (1912) and Edgar Rice Burrough’s Pellucidar series (1914-1942). In this much, at least, The Moon Pool is interesting. Then, as now, it taps into a very Shangri-La desire for there to still be mysteries undiscovered since antiquity - regardless of any advances in exploration and cartography. This tension between the idea of things being hidden and their discovery - or, to put it another way, the tension between fiction and (science) fact - foreshadows the tropes of many subsequent genre works. So-called Hard SF was all about tempering essential calls to adventure and a pervading sense of wonder with feasible, if not empirical, explanation.
Merritt was, among many other things, a keen follower of popular science. As a consequence, The Moon Pool is riddled with instances where explanations behind the phenomena encountered are rarely side-stepped and theories which, to a contemporary audience, might seem misguided: nuclear energy drives Muria’s vehicles, with no troublesome fall-out or radiation sickness in this pre-Hiroshima wonderland. There’s also a proliferation of the influential, but flawed, concepts from HP Blavatsky's Theosophy, best encapsulated in the idea of a lost Atlantis being the progenitor of modern society. For the most part, though, Merritt does more than his fair share of precognition of modern scientific trends.
From an age before space exploration, he raises concerns regarding the contamination of his troglodyte population by bacteria that have developed on the surface of the planet. He also broaches the subject of interstellar seeding - the idea that life is transmitted on a cosmic level via organisms trapped within meteorites - and even skirts around the idea of televised information through a description of Murian viewing lenses.
But does all this forward-thinking really add up to enough reason to merit (pun intended) the critical elevation that editor, Michael Levy, has chosen to give this text? This is, after all, the very same author that sci-fi critic James Blish infamously labelled “almost unreadable” in his vitriolic attack Exit Euphues: The Monstrosities of Merritt.
The Moon Pool is of its time, caught in an uneasy flux between a questioning modernity and a cooling colonialism: none of its indigenous bit-parts ever find a voice beyond “Sail he b'long port side!” (which, on a plot exposition level, ranks even lower than “Mr Kurtz, he dead.”). Add almost laughable lines (“I need a few things - need them urgently. And more men - white men...”), a banshee-fearing Irishman, a devious Russian double agent and strong but none-too-bright Scandinavian, and everything slips inexorably into the pants-outside-tights realm of Buster Crabb. The female characters fall into the virgins or/whore cliché: Lakla, the voice of ancient gods who rule over the land of Muria, appears to be little more than romantic interest for Irish hunk Larry O'Keefe; Yolara is a cruel yet terribly, terribly beautiful princess who commands the creature known as The Dweller. It’s all very... well... obvious and weirdly twee. In fact, the only thing that truly justifies this text’s place within the early classics of science fiction is the sterling research done by Michael Levy.
From the tight opening essay and meticulous annotation to a marvellous, and yet overly brief, biography (in which we learn about Merritt’s passion for growing hallucinogens), Levy’s dedication to his subject leaps from the page. Esoteric source materials, the origins of Irish airs, publications containing specific scientific theories from the period... He has, most obviously, done his groundwork. And for this, and this alone, The Moon Pool might well be worthy of hardcore critical attention. For the rest of us, though, Merritt’s dated tale is little more than a passing distraction, one that will amuse in much the same way a Sunday rerun of Warlords of Atlantis might. Compared to the more noteworthy entries in this lost world, sci-fi sub-genre, it’s one that won’t be earning itself a TV mini series anytime soon.