Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873)
The American narrator (unnamed), after an extensive education in England, embarks on a world tour during which he’s invited by a mining engineer to inspect a given works. The two descend to the lowest gallery and see a faint light in the distance. Investigating, they discover a vast chasm lying beneath a vertical drop-off that apparently is artificial: they see roads and part of a construction of some sort. Returning the next day with ropes and lanterns, they begin descending into the light but the engineer falls and dies. The narrator arrives at the bottom just in time to see a giant crocodile devour his friend. Dithering a bit, he walks down into a vast valley lit up by an endless series of lamps that illuminate the cavern as far as the eye can see. There’s lots of vegetation and fungi, colored red, and elk-like animals grazing on the foliage. In the distance a tall man with wings approaches and, touching him gently, relieves his nervousness by stroking him with a sort of wand like apparatus. They journey to a city in the distance that consists of immense buildings, rather like the Egyptian monuments at Aswan, and decorated with fountains and red trees. Entering one of the buildings and climbing to the top story, the narrator is introduced to the tall man’s twelve-year old son, who puts him to sleep by breathing on him.
Waking after an indeterminate amount of time, he awakes and sees that the walls of the room are covered with jewels and crystals, and notices a balcony from which the enormous city can be seen stretching into the distance. His hosts guide him down into a fire-lit triangular plaza and into another building, to a room with with a giant crystal machine and in which a number of children are lying, asleep. He notices, for the first time, a few women evidently caring for the somnolent ones (who are being indoctrinated), and sees that, physically, they are a lot bigger than the men. Entering another room, he sees books with crystal covers, duo decimo size, and then watches a sort of aerial ballet taking place outside, beyond another balcony. His guide enlightens him as to the method of flying: each adult has mechanical wings that fold up when not in use, and that extend via the action of the operator’s arms that slide into recesses in the wings themselves. At this point, he’s overwhelmed by the bizarreness of everything around him and attacks one of the men. They put him to sleep and he doesn’t waken for several days, during which they teach him their language and acculturate him to a limited extent.
Upon waking, the narrator knows a lot more about where he is, due to the advanced mental manipulations possessed by his custodians. After some days of additional education, he comes to learn that his hosts, the Vril-Ya, descended thousands of years ago from the surface, seeking protection from hostile forces engaged in constant warfare. At one time there were nations that warred with one another to the point that mutual destruction seemed inevitable, in spite of their common ancestry. The different factions were all descended from swamp creatures that resembled, in fact, were, frogs. When the decision was made to move underground, the survivors accidentally discovered Vril, a sort of quantum-based force that enabled them to build their cities and to control matter in any way whatsoever. With a touch of their wands they could annihilate any enemy, regardless of its size, and they could create any building or structure necessary for their welfare.
The head of the government was called the “Tur”, and he had total power to manipulate the society as he wished, but only with the consent of the rest of society, mainly because any one person could, using Vril, eradicate whatever he found offensive. Women, being the largest members of the species, ran the social side of the culture, including marriages, divorces, and the production of offspring. Most of the real work, farming, bridge-building, civilian defense, was done by children under the age of twelve, because they were the only ones that had any unbridled fighting instincts left. The city was surrounded by numerous lower-class countries that were savage and resentful of the Vril-Ya, principally because they themselves had no access to Vril. Also numerous swamps and networks of caverns held prehistoric monsters that had to be eliminated on a regular basis merely to maintain the security of the city.
After a period of time, Zee, the daughter of Aph-Lin, the narrator’s host, fell in love with him and was on the point of proposing. Marriage, in the Vril-Ya society, was considered to be “the untrammeled interchange of gentle affections”, and to the authorities that couldn’t be accomplished by allowing the narrator, whom they regarded as little more than a painted barbarian, to wed a native Vril-Ya. And even if Zee verbally stated that she wanted him for a husband, that would be reason enough to murder him. After a certain amount of waffling back and forth, Zee offers to escort him back to the surface, but the narrator is afraid that that would eventually subject the surface dwelling peoples to the awesome power of the Vril, resulting in the destruction of human beings en masse. The Vril-Ya had demonstrated that they have no compunction about slaughtering whole villages with a wave of their wands, so the possibility of them being them loose and unencumbered on the exterior of the planet was frightening. Zee’s younger brother, Taee, has received an order to erase the narrator, so Zee wakes him one night and they travel to the access point, where she flies him up to the lower gallery and then seals up the hole after him. The narrator walks out of the mine, returns home and writes this book to warn humanity of the terror lurking below their feet.
This is one of Bulwer-Lytton’s shorter works and his only science-fiction novel. It was published in 1871, and presumably influenced a number of other imaginative authors, Verne, Burroughs, and many others. It’s quite well realized, with long descriptions of Vril culture and civilization, and speculative material about governments, societies, genetic propagation, and other subjects. Bulwer-Lytton is not well received by modern critics and readers, but, imo, he has a lot to offer the curious who might have the time and inclination to read him. His style is sort of like Charles Reade’s; less egomaniacal than B. Disraeli and not nearly as difficult to follow as, say, Henry James. But he does tend to get carried away with his own thoughts, commonly being distracted into lengthy rambles that don’t contribute much to the action or plot. Some readers like this kind of thing, tho… maybe you’re one?