Thursday, October 24, 2019

In Search of the Unknown by Robert W. Chambers

Adventures in paranormal zoology
American author Robert W. Chambers is best known for his book The King in Yellow, a collection of short stories mostly of the macabre horror variety. His book In Search of the Unknown, published in 1904, shows a more lighthearted side to Chambers. This work is ostensibly a novel, but it reads more like a collection of short stories that have been cobbled together, not entirely successfully, into one continuous narrative.

The narrator of the book is a Mr. Gilland, who in the opening chapter begins his new job at the Bronx Park Zoo as general superintendant of the water-fowl department. The first assignment he’s given is in response to a man who claims to have two specimens of the extinct bird the great auk living in his pond. Gilland is sent to investigate the claim, and, if the auks do in fact exist, bring them back alive for the zoo’s collection. Over the course of the book, Gilland undertakes a few other scientific investigations, each of which brings him into contact with strange zoological anomalies. These include extinct species found alive, fictional species invented by Chambers, mythical creatures, and previously undiscovered humanoids. In each adventure, Gilland manages to fall in love, and his often fruitless wooing of the women in question provides comic relief.

In Search of the Unknown is science fiction in the most literal sense, in that it’s not about speculative visions of outer space or the future, but rather about a scientist and the practice of science. In addition to hunting for mysterious species, Gilland has to contend with other hazards of the profession, such as professional rivalries, contentious scholarly conferences, conflicts with management, and the difficulties involved with hiring assistants, outfitting expeditions, and collecting and transporting specimens. This uncommonly professorial take on sci-fi is one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book. The formula of Chambers’s plots, however, is less satisfying. Each adventure starts with hints of an unusual creature, followed by two or three chapters of the characters mostly bickering with each other until finally the monster shows up briefly at the end.

At about the halfway point, the book really takes a turn for the worse. Gilland is returning home to New York after just having completed a mission in the Everglades. On the train he meets a fellow New Yorker named Harold Kensett. Kensett, a writer, then proceeds to narrate a story about his own encounter with a bizarre animal. Little does the reader know at that point that Kensett will be narrating the entire second half of the book. This abandoning of one hero with whom the reader has become invested only to switch horses midstream amounts to an unforgivable narrative choice. The only possible reason that would come to mind for Chambers doing so is that these were pre-written short stories that were rather lazily slapped together into a poor excuse for a novel. What’s worse is that Kensett’s final adventure in the book is a terrible story that doesn’t at all fit with the rest of the book. Instead of zoological sci-fi, Chambers delivers yet another Victorian tale of supernatural spiritualism that would have been more at home in The King in Yellow.

In Search of the Unknown shares the main same flaw as The King in Yellow: inconsistency. It is difficult to recommend a book when only about half of it is good. Still, even if Chambers’s writing isn’t quite in the same league with someone like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this work provides some worthwhile entertainment for fans of century-old science fiction.

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