Monday, April 10, 2023

BIG IDEA: “Happy to Be Hollow” • by Gordon Grice

What I thought I’d like about Godzilla vs. Kong is right there in the title: monsters fighting. I’m a sucker for that—the idea, anyway, if not always the execution. What actually ended up holding most of my attention, though, was its hollow earth gimmick. 

It shouldn’t have. Science debunked that gimmick before it ever got started—a couple of times in the 1700s, with experiments that measured the mean density of the earth. Turns out our planet must be packed with dense matter, like iron and nickel. There’s no room for any significant pocket of air. The entire history of hollow earths in fiction, starting from proto-SF writers like Edgar Allan Poe, happens long after that, and stems not from real science’s brief flirtation with the idea, but from the later, popular notions of crackpots. John Cleves Symmes Jr., for instance, thought openings at the poles led to a world plastered inside the globe. If Symmes were alive today, he’d have a YouTube channel about Stanley Kubrick faking the Apollo landings.

So the science in this kind of fiction has always been pseudo-, yet here’s a Hollow Earth shamelessly showing itself in the 21st century, unconvincingly explained with science-flavored remarks about “gravity inversion.” When one of our heroes gets described as “a sci-fi quack trading in fringe physics,” it feels like a pre-emptive self-strike. I picture the screenwriters hoping we’ll laugh with them, instead of at.

But I’m not here to laugh (much) at Hollow Earth. I mainly want to figure out why I love it.

Let me parse the gimmick a bit:

One part of it is a land of prehistoric megafauna. That goes back at least to The City of the Beasts (1856) by Hungarian writer Mor Jokai. Jokai’s megatheria and ichthyosaurs dwell not underground, but in and around Atlantis. If you want to visit, sorry; the sinning Atlanteans annoyed God and He flooded the place. It was a popular way to explain extinctions in a period of upsetting, Genesis-busting fossil discoveries. Jokai is one of the few writers I’ve discovered so far to make something like good science fiction out of it, but even he finally collapses into preaching.

Shortly thereafter, Jules Verne tucked his megafauna underground in A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864). Sail-backed Dimetrodons stroll an underground beach; a giant Hominid tends a flock of mastodons; marine reptiles battle it out. Reading this novel with post-Kong eyes, its glaring deficiency is heroic adventure. Verne’s humans just sneak away.

For humans bold enough to try capturing the critters, I leap ahead to Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World (1912) and its 1925 film adaptation, obvious influences on Kong in plot and gimmick, and packed, at last, with actual dinosaurs. Doyle’s speculative setting is a jungle plateau, though, not an inner earth. A more on-the-nose influence on Godzilla vs. Kong is the Pellucidar novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, starting with At the Earth’s Core (1914). Pellucidar spills over with dinosaurs, ape-men, and man-eating flying reptiles.

A derivative movie with bad science ought to make for lousy viewing, but for this SF fan, it kind of worked. Why?

First, there’s an appeal in scientific near-misses. Or even, honestly, wide misses. When my son and I watched, our heckling included questions like “Where’s the light coming from?” and “What's an anti-gravity drive?” We whipped out our phones to research. And my point is, we enjoyed trying to figure it out. I’d love a novel or movie that got all its science right, but I doubt I’ve ever seen one. We SF fans are all about approaching the asymptote, not attaining it. I’m happy with a good effort that poses intriguing, arguable, amateur-researchable questions.

Next, nostalgia. Both Verne and Burroughs were favorites of my youth. I mentioned that to my son—telling him, for example, how the horizon of Pellucidar also tilts up, just like in the movie. And then I had the urge to tell him a lot more about Pellucidar. Fortunately for him, I noticed that his interest was merely polite.

I’ll tell you, though, because it’s where I found the most powerful source of my enjoyment. Not just nostalgia, but connection. Specifically, I spent most of the movie trying to fit it into fictional universes I’ve encountered. I wanted the flying reptiles to have mesmeric powers, as in Pellucidar. I wanted the Atlantis connection, because I’ve read that was implied in dialog cut from the script of the original Kong. I wanted Tarzan to show up and speak to Kong in Mangani, which actually happens in some crossover novel I’ve mostly forgotten.

I’m talking, partly, about a shared universe. This, I suspect, is part of why Marvel movies remain popular without often being good. It’s not what the filmmakers have done with Spider-Man; it’s what they might do, considering the vast catalog of old stories to pick from. Godzilla vs. Kong is the fourth in a franchise that, up to this point, hadn’t hooked me. What made the difference this time wasn’t what it actually links to—in fact, I wasn’t much interested in the other kaiju that lumbered in for the obligatory CGI wrestling matches. It was the not-there-on-the-screen connections I could, and did, imagine.



Gordon Grice’s short stories have lately appeared in Shotgun Honey, Night Terrors, and Metaphorosis. He has written about sustainability and the history of science for National Geographic’s Shark Attacks, Discover, and The New Yorker. He occasionally remembers to post at (Photo credit: Mark Brown)


BIG IDEAS is a new feature we’ll be giving a trial run for the next few Mondays. The concept is that I’m looking for short (1,200 words max.) but fairly serious think pieces examining the conceits and assumptions that underlie our genre, done with an eye towards what still works, what desperately needs to be updated or replaced, and which honored old tropes of our genre should be taken out to the edge of the camp and shot.

Does this sound like something you’d like to be a part of? If so, drop me a line at to tell me what you might like to write about. If I like your pitch and don’t have one like it already in the works, we can talk terms and schedules. For the full call for submissions, follow this link:

Go ahead, pitch an idea! The worst I can do is say no.