Monday, May 27, 2013

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Classic adventure, questionable science
Outside of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation is the scientist and adventurer George Edward Challenger. Professor Challenger starred in three novels and two short stories, beginning with The Lost World, first published in 1912. Edward Malone, a journalist of athletic build but timid demeanor, seeks an interview with Challenger, hoping the eccentric misanthrope might provide some good copy for his paper. Though at first Challenger is hostile to the reporter out of a general hatred for those of his profession, he soon takes a liking to the young man. The relationship between the two characters is very similar to that between Holmes and Watson, except that Challenger is a bigger jerk than Holmes and a far less intriguing character. Challenger reveals to his newfound confidant that in the Amazon rain forest he has discovered a remote plateau where prehistoric creatures that have long been thought extinct still thrive. When Challenger makes his findings public before a meeting of the Zoological Institute, he is confronted by doubters. To test the veracity of his claims, an expedition is hastily organized, consisting of Dr. Summerlee, a rival scientist; Lord John Roxton, an aristocratic sportsman, and Malone, who volunteers for the journey in hopes not only of finding a good story but also of adding some much-needed adventure to his life.

Malone is the narrator of the tale, and most of the book is written in the form of letters sent back to his newspaper. This makes for an awkward construction, as it becomes clear that at the end of every chapter Malone is going to be safe in camp scribbling his account, while some overly convenient method will be contrived for an Indian to carry off his letter to the civilized world.

The Lost World is the prototypical tale of a team of scientists venturing into unknown lands, upon which Jurassic Park is just one of hundreds of descendants. In typical Conan Doyle fashion, the story starts out at a rather slow pace, with secrets being revealed gradually over time. Though this challenges the attention span of the 21st-century reader, there is a charming freshness to the sense of wonder expressed when remarkable discoveries are finally made. Dinosaurs live! It should come as no surprise that the expedition eventually reaches the plateau and finds the prehistoric creatures in question. The fact that the adventurers are not travelling back in time, but rather visiting an area of evolutionary stagnation, allows Conan Doyle to indulge in some evolutionary anachronisms. In this world, unlike in prehistoric reality, dinosaurs coexist alongside prehistoric mammals, ape-like humanoids, and modern Native Americans. One of the book’s disappointments is that it does not spend enough time on the dinosaurs, but brushes by them rather quickly in order to focus on the apemen, at which point it becomes just another white-man-conquering-the-savages story. Throughout the book, the expedition members seem less concerned with practicing science than they are with invading a new territory. Towards the end of the book, the expedition team makes a choice that no scientist would ever make, a choice to destroy rather than to preserve. The overall message of the book, rather blatantly stated, is one of the superiority of man over nature, and, less obviously, of white European men in particular.

Though it was perhaps ground breaking for its time, and it’s certainly a step above run-of-the-mill pulp fiction, The Lost World has since been surpassed by many of the imitators it inspired. Those who appreciate classic adventure fiction will find much to appreciate, but it should not be considered a must-read by any means.

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