John Kinsella. Hollow Earth. Melbourne: Transit Lounge, 2019. ISBN 9781925760279.
With Hollow Earth, Australian poet and writer John Kinsella has made a foray into the other world of the science fiction novel. It’s the story of Manfred Thomas Murphy who passes through an ancient copper mine, a cave on Mount Gabriel, near Schull in southern Ireland, on 31 October 2014. He becomes the first person to pass from the Surface – our world for all intents and purposes – to Hollow Earth, a subterranean world that exists within our own.
Like us in many respects, the people of Hollow Earth nonetheless have created a society that’s more harmonious than ours. Though, as Manfred says, ‘[i]t is no utopia.’ (42) Hollow Earth is described as a world imbued with ‘telekinetic empathy’ that makes speech universal and human differences cherished (37–38). It’s unpolluted by acquisitiveness and power, unravaged by industry, and unspoiled by religious and cultural divisiveness. We’re told, in a foreshadowing of its future, that when the people of the Surface world finally tunnel down to colonise and exploit Hollow Earth, the surface dwellers who seek refuge there are accommodated by the Hollow Earthers (38).
After living in Hollow Earth for a year and a half, Manfred returns to the Surface with Hollow Earthers, Ari and Zest. They travel to Australia on forged passports, believing that Western Australia’s Walwalinj (Mount Bakewell), a site familiar to readers of Kinsella’s poetry, will provide a way back down to Hollow Earth. Instead, they find the entrance sealed. The story then follows their efforts to return to Hollow Earth, taking them from suburban life in Fremantle, to the York agricultural show, to London’s Occupy protests. They encounter the Surface world, its novelty as experienced by Ari and Zest, and the damage it metes out on them through alcohol and drugs.
The story is told in short chapters or vignettes or fragments – some as short as a few words, none more than a few pages in length – which gives the novel a lightness of touch and a sense of pace. Science fiction devotees who enjoy the elaborate world-building the genre is notorious for will find Hollow Earth very brisk. Kinsella’s account of the geography and technology of Hollow Earth is brief: what’s important, for the purposes of the novel, is the character of its society, and the contrast that’s drawn to the rapacious world of the Surface, described in one place as ‘a world of war against all life.’ (51) While the chapters intersperse Manfred’s past with the present exploits of the folie à trois, the story’s briskness leaves the characters of Ari and Zest undeveloped and largely undifferentiated until the novel’s later stages, as we ultimately see the toll that life on the Surface takes on them.
The novel is a parable and a polemic. We readily recognise the villains of Kinsella’s story – exploitative mining companies, developers, complicit journalists, bigots, and the wreckers of the environment. It’s an interesting proposition that Hollow Earth may be read as an analogue for our future, a comparable world contained ‘within’ our own that’s jeopardised by the excesses of our present. Where the novel is too explicit and vehement in its intent it loses some if its potency as a parable. At its best, parable is a deeply subversive mode of writing. It smuggles into a reader its secondary freight of meaning. The subversiveness of that secondary meaning, to borrow from the thesis of David Marno, writing about John Donne’s poetry in Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention, is that we receive it as a ‘cognitive gift’ (Marno, p. 3). If a parable’s range of secondary meanings is subtle enough, we construct them substantially ourselves and those thoughts occur to us as our own. In contemporary film parlance, an effective parable performs a kind of inception.
Hollow Earth is political and a work of persuasion. Readers disposed to Kinsella’s concerns will doubtlessly concur with his critique. More sceptical readers, who might have been persuaded or provoked by a less forceful, more subversive book, perhaps won’t escape the sense that the story is being told, or sold to them, with intent. For those, a softer touch might’ve been warranted. Or, perhaps, the time for such subtlety is passed, as our world continues apace with its ‘war on life’.
Hollow Earth is engaging. The writing feels raw in places, but this rawness, along with the fragmentation of the short chapters or vignettes, compounds its sense of urgency. The story won’t disappoint a casual reader of science fiction, and it’s a compelling reminder of the genre’s possibilities, and of the utility of empathy and imagination as tools of persuasion. Hollow Earth takes Kinsella and his readers into rewarding new terrain and, at once, broadens and consolidates his already substantial oeuvre.
Marno, David. Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2016.
Thom Sullivan lives in Adelaide. His debut book of poems Carte Blanche (Vagabond Press) won the Noel Rowe Poetry Award and the 2020 Mary Gilmore Award.