Niels Klim’s Underground Travels – Ludvig Holberg

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If I had to endure any stock speculative fiction scenario, I’d choose the hollow earth. Partially because Etidorpha made a lasting impression on me, partially because getting lost in a cave is easier than space travel, partially because subterranean societies often combine superscience with occultism and that’s real cool. Knowing my luck, I’d probably end up in some derivative vampire novel filled with bloodsuckers who go on and on about how they’re different from those vampires you read about in other books, they’re sensible realistic vampires, sunlight doesn’t phase them and their mind-reading powers are definitely not silly. Out of sheer irritation, I’d make lazy quips about Twilight until they stake me. I’d rather meet a dinosaur anyday.

So you can imagine my joy when I started read Niels Klim’s Underground Travels, a 1741 Danish novel that can lazily be described as a fusion of Journey to the Center of the Earth and Gulliver’s Travels. Niels Klim is a graduate who explores the wrong cave and ends up plummeting down to the fantastically-named planet Nazar, an orb floating within a geocentric solar system within the hollow earth, complete with miniature sun. He lands in Potu, a kingdom inhabited by condescending tree people – basically Groots with a Houyhnhnm attitude. After working as a footman for a year, the king tasks him with writing a travelogue of Nazar.

I’ve gotta say, this book’s initial set-up was highly reminiscent of Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. Both novels begin with the protagonist falling into the hollow earth and getting arrested by sentient plants. Baum likely read Niels Klim.

Niels’ travels are Oz-like, since they’re a sequence of episodic encounters with freakish beings and bizarre societies. Most of them are trees, including a nation of desolate philosophers, a nation of ecstatic innocents, and a place where traditional gender roles are reversed. Beyond the flora, Niels meets prophetic mermaids, animal people, walking and talking musical instruments and a merchant who communicates exclusively through farts. The last chapter, which reads like a parody of the white savior trope, has Niels shipwrecked upon an island of primitive humans who he quickly transforms into an all-powerful empire, with him as the megalomaniacal tyrant.

There’s a lot that goes on underground.

Easily the best part of Niels Klim are the extracts from Fragments of Tanian’s Diary, kept on a Voyage above-ground, Translated by his Excellency, M. Tomopoloko, General-in-chief, in the Service of his Tanaquitic majesty. These extracts invert the novel’s premise by allowing an inhabitant of Nazar to describe European society. It’s funny stuff, particularly Tanian’s understanding of Catholicism.

There’s only one thing that bothers me. What are the houses made from in Potu? For a tree to live in a wooden house seems uncomfortably close to cannibalism, especially for a society that makes so much of its morality. Maybe it’s fine if the houses are made from a different species of timber, I tell myself something similar whenever I eat meat. If I were writing a story about bipedal tree people I’d have them live in caves or in huts woven from vines. Why would a tree even need a house?

Ignoring pressing real estate questions, I’d recommend Niels Klim to Gulliver fans. It’s not as good, but it’s the same sort of thing.

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