Review of Under meteorernas trumeld (1932)

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Ossian Elgström (writer).

Read in 2020.

A natural disaster lays waste to European Russia at an unspecified point in the near future. On its periphery, Sweden rebuilds over a period of months and becomes the launching point for an international expedition into the stricken nation, where dinosaurs roam the land and the cities have sunk beneath the ocean.

The title means “Under the meteor barrage”, referring to a concept of artillery fire popularized in WW1. Indeed, one of the heroes in this young-adult SF novel is an engineer named Ramberg, out of work after having manufactured chemical weapons for the British in WW1. There is no redemption arc for Ramberg, nor is he personally traumatized by the horrors he has caused. His background is only meant to sound cool, like the title. As a pure hero, Ramberg creates a wonderful new chemical weapon, “titanite”, which has a cooling effect and range vastly greater than a spray of dimethyl ether or tetrafluoroethane. Its impact resembles the near-future weapons of Last and First Men (1930). Chemical superweapons were the most destructive technology imaginable before the fission bomb.

Ramberg’s cold spray is used to kill weirdly hostile dinosaurs and many other enemies in the story. Though it is a novel, published in hardback, it combines several motifs and subgenres familiar from the pulps: Novel weapons of war, lost-world fauna, telepathy, a medieval bestiary (here that of Cosmas Indicopleustes) reinterpreted to make sapient non-human species, the myth of Atlantis, the hollow earth, apocalypse in multiple forms extending to the destruction of Sweden and human civilization, and adventurous journeys of scientific discovery akin to those of Jules Verne. There are moments of wit, as in this excerpt, where a hot Baltic Sea disgorges an animal near Hanko, Finland:

Den långa, smala halsen med sitt lilla trekantiga huvud slungades tvärsöver spillrorna av en fiskarstuga, och hade den skräckslagne fiskaren, som jämte hustru och barn tagit sin tillflykt bakom en sten strax bredvid, varit paleontolog, skulle han genast i den ofrivilliga gästen igenkänt ett exemplar av svanödlan Elasmosaurus, och det till på köpet ett ordentligt genomkokt exemplar av densamma.

The long, thin neck with its small triangular head was flung across the debris of a fisherman’s cabin, and had the terrified fisherman, who’d taken refuge beside his wife and children behind a nearby rock, been a palaeontologist, he would immediately have recognized in the figure of his uninvited guest a specimen of Elasmosaurus, one of the Plesiosaurs, and a thoroughly cooked specimen at that.

Unfortunately, Elgström is both a Nazi sympathizer and scientifically illiterate to the point that he fails to make the novel worth a look. Ramberg’s cold spray produces temperatures below 0 K. Neither it nor massive volcanism seem to affect the weather. The travellers can somehow tell, inside the hollow Earth, when the sun sets and rises, even when its rhythm changes. It changes because, months apart, naturally occurring meteors keep hitting the same side of the planet at nearly right angles. They penetrate the crust on that side, and the molten core as well, but then come to a stop inside the crust on the opposite side, like rocks gently landing on the seabed after dropping through ice and liquid water. This is in spite of the author’s description of the comets’ velocity: “millions of kilometres per second” as a result of having “fallen for thousands of years”, i.e. having been accelerated like rocks falling to the Earth under the full force of its gravity.

The “barrage” makes the Earth rotate more slowly, which in turn draws the oceans away from the Equator, completely flooding Scandinavia and much else. Finally, the disaster stops gravity, as if gravity were now a centripetal force generated by rotation alone to act against inertia. This makes the earlier comment about the meteors’ velocity all the more mysterious: If gravity is a product of rotation instead of mass, then how did the Earth tug on these meteors consistently for thousands of years, bringing them to multiples of the speed of light? Did Elgström imagine that nothing else in the universe was spinning? In reality, a “meteor” travelling at realistic velocity is typically vaporized on contact with the Earth, having negligible impact on its rotation.

The loss of gravity is what finally brings down humanity, mercifully ending the narrative along with it. Near the end, Ramberg remarks that—with the exception of Australia’s Anglo-Saxon population—widespread flooding has left only “the garbage races” (skräpfolken) to profit by calamity. Elgström’s racism, like that of H. P. Lovecraft, was stronger than the norm for his time. Elgström was also sexist: The Atlanteans reward the human heroes with assigned sexual partners and declare that the Atlantean state, where women are universally relegated to the domestic sphere, is happy, and has been so since ancient times.

The ideas are bad, the characters are flat and violence is ever present. It’s shown in a fascist mode where the heroes are always ready to kill, diplomacy works only with creatures who are inherently ethically good, and everyone else is aggressive. My sense is that Elgström was basically sincere in this world view. He could not have believed there was a cave full of living dinosaurs and Atlanteans under Russia, but the errors made in his treatment of this fictional subject seem to have come from his own ignorance, rather than any modernist game with the premises that would be required for so much pulp subject matter. For example, although he takes some of his monsters from Cosmas, Elgström clearly rejects Cosmas’s flat-Earth cosmology. There is some ambiguity in this regard because, along the way, the author does make up various explanations for real phenomena on an obviously fictional basis. Woolly mammoths rise inside pillars of ice from the hollow Earth to appear regularly in Siberian permafrost instead of having died in Siberia, which one character declares is “finally a reasonable explanation” for the amount of mammoth bones. One African tribe, the “Sara Djengi”, which a footnote says was exhibited in real-world Stockholm in 1932, is supposed to have invented its lip plates in deliberate imitation of Cosmas’s subhuman cynocephali. These are just-so stories reminiscent of Genesis (ca. 500–400 BCE) and probably composed with a wink and a nod, as if Elgström had been capable of something more plausible. I don’t think he was.

Elgström was ignorant even of the humanities and falsely attributes the myth of Atlantis to Herodotus, not Plato. When he needs a miraculous reason for why something did not burn in a destroyed Atlantean craft, he explains that the item of interest was stowed in a cabinet made of asbestos. This is almost, but not quite, funny enough to be enjoyed ironically, and the prose is mostly functional. However, in the final analysis, there is very little reason why this book should be read, except as a reminder of why science fiction was openly reviled by the cultural establishment for the next several decades, and how openly racist Swedish pop culture was before WW2.

References here: Som jungman på en Ostindienfarare (1939), Lucifer’s Hammer (1977).

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