Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 3, 2020

Hollow Earth (2019), by John Kinsella

John Kinsella (b.1963) is a well-known Australian poet, essayist, critic and novelist, but Hollow Earth is his first venture into science fiction.  This is the blurb:

Fascinated by caves and digging holes since childhood, Manfred discovers a path through to another realm via a Neolithic copper mine at Mount Gabriel in Schull, Ireland. The world of Hollow Earth, while no Utopia, is a sophisticated civilisation. Its genderless inhabitants are respectful of their environment, religious and cultural differences are accommodated without engendering hate or suspicion, and grain, not missile silos are built. Yet Ari and Zest accompany Manfred back to the surface world. ‘Come with me and see my world.’

So begins an extraordinary adventure in which the three wander the Earth like Virgil’s Aeneas, Ari and Zest seeking re-entry to their own world. The Hollow Earthers are shocked at the cruelty and lies of the surface world, the dieback spreading through the forests. Yet they are seduced by the world’s temptations.

Kinsella’s parable draws on a rich tradition of Hollow Earth literature and science fiction including Bradshaw’s The Goddess of Atavatabar (1892). With strange beauty, its alluring trajectory vividly captures our 21st-century world in crisis. Like Manfred, we are often blindly complicit in the earth’s downfall. ‘Happiness is under our feet.’ sings the narrator in this passionate, layered and compelling new novel.

So, in echoes of well-intentioned colonists of earlier eras who took the naïve by ‘invitation’ to see a different world, we see Manfred escorting Ari and Zest around the surface world.  In short chapters of often only a paragraph or so, Kinsella depicts a different way of thinking about so much that is the norm for us:

Our bodies function the same way yours do.  Skin colour — you object to our skin colour being the colour of leaves, of grass? Of soil?  Of rock? Of water? What is it with you, that you are so out of tune with your surroundings that you differentiate between a person and the world they are part of? (p.41)

Some chapters are devastatingly short, just a single line on an otherwise blank page:

Zest took a liking to codeine, Art to ephedrine. (p.47)

While another amplifies this motif:

Alcohol, not manufactured but manifested through natural processes of fermentation, was not part of Hollow Earth’s sensual register, for it had no effect beyond poisoning if taken in excess and was only used as a preservative.   Manfred had warned them that consuming alcohol on the surface would affect them, and would have consequences.  So when they found the minibar, the temptation proved too much and Ari and Zest swallowed three miniature bottles of scotch and vodka (he wasn’t sure who ended up with which) in rapid succession, which set off a chain reaction that had far-reaching consequences for their sense of self-worth and their understanding of their own ontologies.  They didn’t act drunk, in a surface sense, but had deep crises of purpose, belonging, and identity.  There was nothing uplifting and then depressing about it — it was all depressing and depression.  (p.59)

Kinsella doesn’t go out of his way to depict an imagined world full of hi-tech gadgetry or a landscape of diaspora.  Rather, he simply alludes, for example, to a future where there are different forms of communication now that the World Wide Web is obsolete, (though pleasingly, there is still a bookshop, at least in Cork).  But in general there is nothing to laugh about on the surface, it is a world written with disturbance, and although below is no Utopia either, Ari and Zest are peeved about the way Manfred has misrepresented his world: they want to know why surface dwellers had starved each other to death…

They continue to do so across the surface of the globe, Manfred admitted.  It’s lousy with cruelty.

You have been selective in telling your stories, Manfred. You have lured us here with promises of insights that would help other Hollow Earthers on our return.

But you can belong here, said Manfred — through you humanity can realise it does not hold exclusive rights over existence.

So you’re using us? (p.61)

(I have to confess to using line breaks for this dialogue.  There are no quotation marks in the text and the dialogue beats back and forth all within one paragraph.  It works fine in the book, but I’ve altered it in the excerpt for clarity because here it’s out of context).

The sense of a climate crisis which has besieged us this summer is predicted by Kinsella’s characters in this book (which was published in our previous spring):

Yesterday we saw an island full of birds and flowering hedges, and now we look across the harbour, out to the island, and it is burning all over.  Now we hear those fires are out of control.  Are we in your ‘summer’ now?  You said it wasn’t legal.  You make rules you don’t live by?’ (p.76)

They are baffled by the way people go about their daily business, knowing the threat of nuclear conflagration is ever-present, and it’s hard not to share their conclusion that the surface world is a psychosis.

The novel lost me a bit in the middle: I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on all the time because the trio were on drugs as they made their way from Ireland to Perth, for reasons that didn’t make much sense to me except that they were looking for the entry point back to Hollow Earth.  (For some reason, they could not return the way they came). However, it’s quite clear that the confusion is intentional:

When was this on the timelines of their time together on the surface?  They did not know and neither do we.  We might be flashing back, or jumping ahead of ourselves.  But I think we are there now , with them.  Knowing little, but enough to satisfy ourselves that we know something. (p.159)

Something clicked into place when I came across the allusion to Brendan the Navigator’s shipwreck scenario. I think it explains the connection to Ireland as well.  This is from my review of Navigatio by Patrick Holland:

Irish immram flourished during the seventh and eighth centuries. Typically, an immram was a sea-voyage in which a hero, with a few companions, often monks, wanders from island to island, meets other-world wonders, and finally returns home. The story of Brendan’s voyage, developed during this time, shares some characteristics with immram. Like an immram, the Navigatio tells the story of Brendan, who, with some companion monks, sets out to find the terra repromissionis sanctorum, the Promised Land of the Saints or the Earthly Paradise.  (See Wikipedia).

Alison Croggon’s novella of the same name is a subversive feminist tale that also has its genesis in the story of Saint Brendan of Clonfort, but its fragmentary shape is more like that of Hollow Earth, and Croggon like Kinsella is a poet.

If you’re the kind of reader who gets frustrated by quotations from Virgil in Latin, maybe this is not the book for you.  OTOH Google makes this one easy: It turns out that this fragment:

et quacumque viam dederit fortuna sequamur

comes from The Aeneid, Book 11, v. 128): and it was translated by Jules Verne in (yes, you guessed it, Journey to the Centre of the Earth) as

And whatever route fortune gives, we shall follow.

But this reminded me of my adventures with Finnegans Wake. Norwegian? Bits of Spanish?  The last line in Latin, something to do with a huge monstrous shepherd??

Hjyterspectal faspberryt crysstel pasiblid, ø pesyhü lossést
≠ gyttynnm haster berrt larr larr larr rest haster larr larr larr
haster gyttynnm ø gyttynnm haster berrt larr larr larr rest haster
larr larr larr haster gyttynnm = ‘Immanis pecoris custos, immanior
which is not to say such an image cannot be cast, because it can.

There are other books mentioned in the Acknowledgments but not FW so I must have got that wrong…

Though it seems to me that Hollow Earth is not much like any SF I’ve ever come across, Bill at The Australian Legend describes it perfectly as the science fiction novel you might expect from a poet.  He reviewed it here.

Author: John Kinsella
Title: Hollow Earth
Cover art by Stephen Kinsella, cover and book design by Peter Lo
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019
ISBN: 9781925760279, 268 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Transit Lounge and from Fishpond: Hollow Earth


  1. Well thank you for that mention. I was glad my first Kinsella was both SF and truck driving on the Nullarbor. Love the connection you make to the Irish St Brendan the Navigator tradition. I’m sure I didn’t make much sense of Hollow Earth but I certainly enjoyed reading it.


    • Oh, yes, I got to that part about the truckie, and thought, of course Bill has bonded with this poet! (Not that you have a ‘beer belly’, I hasten to add).
      Re not making sense of it: I found the early part of it much easier and I put that down to the second part being influenced by the drug odyssey. (Really, I do not understand the preoccupation with drugs in our literature.) But I suspect that like James Joyce and also most things poetic e.g. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, things become clearer with successive readings, especially if in the interim you have come across — as I coincidentally did — influences like the Brendan story.


  2. Great cover, but I’m not sure, given my reading backlog that I’ll seek this one out – though if Bill enjoyed reading it? Hmm … maybe I should consider it.


    • Oh, *smacks forehead* your comment reminds me: I forgot to include the cover credits and how many pages…I’ll have to fix that. Anyway, it’s not very long. 268 pages, but that’s misleading because so many of them have only one line or a brief paragraph.


      • Ah, one of THOSE books… I am glad you are doing pages now, btw.


        • I am doing my best to remember. Somebody ticked me off a little while ago because I didn’t mention the book designer… this startled me a bit because hardly anybody does it anyway and half the time the publishers don’t provide the info either. But pages I can do, as long as I remember…


          • I thought once a our doing the designer but as you say its often not recorded. Noticed that you started doing it a little while ago and thought again but still haven’t! That’s a bit mean to tick you off on that.


            • Oh well, at least it shows that it’s something people are interested in, and it was a good reminder! And she wasn’t rude or abusive, not at all.

              Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, no www but a bookstore? That’s a bonus. I’m not a fan of sci-fi but this doesn’t sound like any sci-fi I’ve looked at before. I’m not sure if I am up to the task but I will think about it. Perhaps I’ll go over and read Bill’s thoughts too. Great review Lisa.


    • Heh, it makes perfect sense to me, that when all the gadgetry becomes obsolete and only the geeks can keep up with the replacements, those of us left behind will still be able to enjoy our lo-tech simple pleasures:)


  4. […] exactly how I felt about a book we’d both read: I’m sure I didn’t make much sense of Hollow Earth but I certainly enjoyed reading […]


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