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Captain Adam Seaborn

Symzonia
A Voyage of Discovery

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The identity of “Captain Adam Seaborn,” the fictitious author of Symzonia, is not known with certainty, but very probably he is John Cleves Symmes, Jr., born 1780 in New Jersey. A former U.S. Army officer, he had gone into business as a trader after his honorable discharge in 1815, but with little success.

In 1818 Symmes published a paper, which, in his words, he sent to “each notable foreign government, reigning prince, legislature, city, college, and philosophical societies, throughout the union, and to individual members of our National Legislature, as far as the five hundred copies would go.” In it he wrote, “I declare the earth is hollow, and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentrick spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles 12 or 16 degrees; I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking. [...] I ask one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with Reindeer and slays, on the ice of the frozen sea; I engage we find warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals if not men, on reaching one degree northward of latitude 82; we will return in the succeeding spring.”

What had convinced Symmes of this theory, and how firmly he actually believed in it, we do not know, but until his death in 1829 he vigorously kept promoting it, making converts (among them a millionaire named James McBride, who supported it in a book he published in 1826), and lobbied for funding of an expedition that would enter the earth’s interior through the openings at the poles, in the hope of establishing profitabe trade with the inhabitants found within. The idea of the Earth being hollow was not new — the renown astronomer Edmond Halley had proposed it as a scientific theory in 1692, and in 1741 the Norwegian writer Ludvig Holberg had published a novel (still popular well into the 19th century), The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground, in which he described utterly fantastic adventures of a traveler to the Earth’s interior — but the idea of navigable “polar openings” to an inhabitable interior world was Symmes’s.

Symzonia, published 1920, describes the expedition that Symmes envisioned as already having taken place. The book was obviously meant to popularize both the hollow Earth theory itself, and the funding of an expedition — in addition, it presents a concept of a just, peaceful and egalitarian Utopian society, contrasting it with the violence and greed of our world. Though Symzonia is well enough written it has no outstanding literary merits, is not particularly exciting as an adventure story, and its social criticism is muted by the desire not to overly antagonize those whose material support the author seeks. Still, for anyone interested in the history of fantasy literature, this is a work of major importance.

In 1823 James McBride managed to submit a proposal to the U.S. Congress requesting funding of an expedition to the Earth’s interior, led by Symmes, which was voted down only by the relatively small margin of 56 to 46. Symmes died in 1829, but his follower Jeremiah Reynolds continued lobbying, until funding was finally obtained for what became the “United States Exploring Expedition” to the Pacific Ocean and the Antarctic, 1838 to 1842 (also known as the “Wilkes Expedition”) — an undertaking that, even if it did not produce (or seriously search for) an entrance to an interior world, turned out to be of major importance for the development of U.S. 19th-century science.

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