A man descends a deep mineshaft and finds himself in a subterranean world populated by an advanced human-like species known as Vril-ya, so-called because of their command of the almost magical power vril, which they harness to create all manner of scientific wonders. The man spends some time (months? years? quite hard to tell in a land with no day or season) among the Vril-ya, and primarily concerns himself with observing their society.
It is on its surface a utopia — without war, without class, without hunger, without disease. The people live in quiet ease, all labor having devolved to automata or made trivial by the use of vril. However, on reflection, it’s culturally stagnant and is governed by a brutal dictatorship masked only by the bland complacency of the inhabitants, at peace with its neighbors only by the mutually assured destruction of a vril war. The man fears the annihilation this “coming race” would spell for his own people if and when they reach the surface world. On the other side, the Vril-ya are deeply concerned with the dangers this Tish (literally tadpole, but meaning barbarian) poses to the Ana (people) should his Pah-bodh (false) ideology spread, risking their decline into Koom-Posh (…hard to translate concisely, let’s say degeneration) or even Glek-Nas (utter corruption).
Incidentally, a great deal of time is spent expounding on the Vril-ya language. The vocabulary presented is no more than a dozen or two words, but Bulwer-Lytton does set forth a thought-out grammar, seemly quite influenced by Sanskrit and Welsh.
The daughter of his host, Zee, falls in love with the man, which is most perilous for him. Such a match between a Gy (female Vril-ya) and a Tish is proscribed and the Tish will be executed to prevent it. And it does come to that. The Tur (leader) issues the man’s death warrant, but Zee, rather than see her beloved killed, returns him to the cavern he entered by and he escapes back to the surface world.
The book was a touch disappointing, if only because I went in with such high hopes. Zanoni and A Strange Story are masterpieces of esoteric fiction, and as I knew Bulwer-Lytton had a personal interest in the Hollow Earth theory, I expected so much from a story that explores it. Unfortunately, he’s a bit too caught up in the concept of inner-earth people and on speculating on what they might be like, and as a consequence, he never gets around to much in the way of plot or character development.