Science fiction didn’t start with Star Trek! As part of my ongoing research into the genre, I’ve been reading a few SF novels that date back to the early part of the 20th century. Today it’s time for a peek into The Face in the Abyss, by A. Merritt. Published in 1930, it’s a rousing adventure tale in which an American adventurer stumbles upon a lost civilization deep in the Andes.

By today’s standards, it’s strictly fantasy. The place is ruled, more or less, by the Serpent Mother, who has the lower body of a snake and the upper body of a small, childlike woman. Everybody in the place (other than the Native American servants) is immortal. Invisible beings fly through the air. Yet Merritt went to some pains to present the book as science fiction. In three separate passages, the Serpent Mother explains to the American adventurer that all of the seeming miracles he’s witnessing are simply advanced science, not magic.

The problem Merritt wrestled with was that neither the technology of the day nor his own imagination was up to the task of creating the advanced science of a civilization that’s millions of years old. There are lots of light shows — dazzling optical displays, some of which appear in the beautiful color illustrations in the new hardcover edition I purchased. In today’s terms, the lost race has used genetic engineering (Merritt refers to it as controlling evolution) to produce lizard-men and spider-men. But there are no hovercars, for instance: The immortals are carried around in litters. Their servants are armed with javelins.

Maybe it’s not surprising that the lost race hasn’t used their technology for much. They haven’t done much of anything except live in this lush valley for a million years. Progress and ambition seem to be entirely foreign to them.

It’s a good story, and Merritt was a capable writer. But right now I’m thirsting for something more modern and relevant.

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