In the 1957 Universal film The Land Unknown, a quartet of men and one woman discover a tropical wonderhell 3,000 feet below sea level in the frozen wastes of Antarctica, replete with killer plants and savage dinosaurs. But, as it turns out, this was not the first time that four men and one woman had battled prehistoric monsters and inimical flora in a surprisingly balmy valley on the frozen continent. That honor, it would seem, goes to a book called, fittingly enough, The Greatest Adventure, written by John Taine. In actuality, “John Taine” was the pen name of Scottish mathematician Eric Temple Bell, who used his own name only when he authored books on science and math, reserving the pseudonym for when he wrote works of science fiction, of which he created 15, starting with 1924’s The Purple Sapphire and ending with 1954’s G.O.G. 666.
The Greatest Adventure was his fifth sci-fi outing, and was initially released in 1929, when Bell/Taine was 46. The book was originally released as a $2.50 E.P. Dutton hardcover, with a Jack Perkins dust jacket depicting what looks like several white, bipedal boar creatures on the cover. But the novel is perhaps best remembered today due to the 35-cent Ace paperback reprint of 1960 (D-473, for all you collectors out there), with a blonde woman cowering before a demon-faced, fanged brontosaurus (?) on its cover. And if you’re wondering just why the plant-eating brontosaurus should be drawn with such pointy fangs in its gaping maw, not to worry … that aspect is covered during the course of Taine’s story.
In the book, the reader is introduced to Dr. Eric Lane, a biologist who has long endeavored to understand the building blocks of life. Lane, a widower, lives in San Francisco with his 18-year-old daughter Edith, and on the day of his own 40th birthday, is given a most unexpected gift. A whaler captain named Anderson, knowing of Lane’s passion for investigating unusual marine specimens, brings him the corpse of a reptile/fish/bird creature the likes of which the doctor has never seen. The animal had risen to the surface of the sea near Antarctica, along with several thousand other monstrous oddities. Anderson’s first mate, Ole Hansen, also produces some rocks that had been found near the frozen shore; rocks covered with undecipherable pictogram inscriptions. Lane calls in his young friend John Drake, a nerdish archeologist, who can make neither head nor tail of the unknown writing. But the baits have been set, and the quartet of men (yes, and one woman) decides to go to the frozen wasteland and investigate.
Thus, after six months of preparations and training on their part, the whaler does indeed set sail for Antarctica, only to come upon a beach strewn with the carcasses of prehistoric beasts subtly different from any ever suspected from fossil remains. And later, the monsters’ living brethren are discovered, in that fertile valley 3,000 feet below sea level. The manner in which our hardy band of five (The Greatest Adventure features virtually no other characters) faces these prehistoric brutes, searches for hidden oil deposits, riddles out the secret of those glyphs, and endeavors to make it back to civilization in one piece comprises the bulk of this most interesting saga.
As it turns out, the title of Taine’s book has a double meaning. Of course, “the greatest adventure” refers to the expedition and its manifold discoveries, but as Lane tells us at one point, the words also describe what he feels is mankind’s most important goal: the discovery of how to create life, Frankenstein style. (I will go so far as to reveal that Lane’s feelings regarding the desirability of this scientific pursuit undergo a radical reassessment by the book’s conclusion.) And for those readers expecting a vacuous mélange of man vs. dinosaur here, based on that sensationalistic Ace cover, let me say that the old adage is true: You really can’t judge a book by its cover. Taine’s book is intelligent and a lot dryer than one might expect, despite having any number of exciting sequences.
Among the best: Our hardy band explores an area covered with blowholes thousands of feet in depth, out of which erupt gas and flames at regular intervals; Ole and Edith fly into a cave (feminists should note that Edith proves herself not only every bit as spunky and courageous as the men, but also the most competent pilot) and get trapped with a horde of shambling beasts and flying reptiles; Drake figures out a way to eliminate a gaggle of creatures utilizing blowhole-spawned carbon monoxide; the men are trapped in a cliff-side cavern with a nastily inquisitive dinosaur and must dynamite their way to safety; and our team battles the rapidly growing plant life that has erupted from some long-dormant spores overnight. Also leavening out some of the dryness are touches of wry humor that Taine scatters about; Ole, in particular, is a highly amusing character, given to loquacious theorizing on every matter that pops up, thus exasperating his captain to no end.
The book is also unexpectedly rife with literary references (such as to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Maeterlinck’s play The Blue Bird, Shakespeare’s Richard III) and Biblical allusions. The Greatest Adventure is hardly an empty-headed affair, and its author demonstrates that he is not above making up his own words at times to suit his purposes (or is “stuntist” actually a word?).
Still, I had any number of problems with Taine’s work here that prevents me from giving it a higher grade. For one thing, The Greatest Adventure is just a tad too dry, with reams of exposition on those darn blowholes, for example. And yet, some sections of the book feel overwritten (to wit, “[the ship] headed due south in the sparkling air, cleaving a sea of chrysoprase,” and “The archaean rocks are an unread history…”), strangely enough. The author is guilty of some casual racism in his story (use of the “N word”; one character referring to Lane’s Chinese manservant as “your mandarin”), although it is not mean spirited, and must be considered as an unfortunate norm for its era. The book’s romance (between Edith and Drake, of course) seems to have been shoehorned in as an afterthought, and not enough information about the prehistoric men of the frozen continent is vouchsafed by the author, for my money.
More troubling for this reader, though, were a few out-and-out flubs that scientist Bell was guilty of in this novel. He tells us that the Age of the Dinosaur ended around 9 million years ago, whereas that figure should be closer to 65 million. In addition, he tells us that the classic quote regarding the perfect cup of coffee (“as black as the devil, as sweet as love and as hot as hell”) derives from a Spanish phrase, whereas it has usually been attributed to Talleyrand, a Frenchman. And while I’m nitpicking, wasn’t John Fiske the author of the book Through Nature to God, not Herbert Spencer?
But enough quibbling. Even with these minor problems, The Greatest Adventure is a wonderfully memorable read. My own 1960 Ace edition was, sadly enough, falling apart as I read it, but not before I turned the last yellowed and crumbling page a fairly satisfied customer. Whether or not the book was the inspiration for the Universal film 28 years later is unimportant; the novel stands on its own as a commendable entertainment … especially for those readers who want to see what happens when a dinosaur gets a poison-tipped knife stuck into its eye! Spoiler alert: It isn’t pretty!