|At last week's DinoCon, Khurt Khave and I gave a presentation about dinosaurs in Victorian and steampunk literature. I'd read most of the key titles but not in some time, so I hauled out one of my copies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Lost World' for a long overdue re-read.
It wasn't the first work of fiction to mention dinosaurs, as that honor goes to Charles Dickens, who described 'implacable weather' in 1852's 'Bleak House' as suggesting that a character might 'meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.'
It wasn't the first to set them in an action-adventure novel either, as Jules Verne's 'A Journey to the Centre of the Earth' in 1864 saw Prof Lidenbrock and his team encounter a whole host of prehistoric creatures during an expedition that carried them through one volcano (Snaefell in Iceland) under the continent of Europe and back out to the surface through another (Stromboli in Italy).
There were a number of other lesser works too, so 'The Lost World' was far from the first in this genre.
Yet, its publication in 1912, following a serialization in the 'Strand Magazine', proved massively popular. It not only firmly became the template from which all further dinosaur fiction would spring, but it gave its name to the genre itself, the 'lost world' genre. Some would arrive very quickly, such as a 1915 Russian version called 'Plutonia' by Vladimir Obrechev, which explored a lost world in Siberia, while others are still arriving. Michael Crichton even borrowed the title of this book for the 1995 sequel to his hugely successful 'Jurassic Park.'
While I remember Conan Doyle being a particularly accessible writer for his day, surely one reason for his widespread success, I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover just how easy a read this is. Victorian literature can often be a challenge to modern readers, but this has none of the flowery language of the gothics or the long asides of Jules Verne. How many have skipped forward over the catalogues of fish in '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea', for instance? There's none of that here. It just gets on with its story, a ripping yarn if ever there was one, with no nonsense whatsoever.
The framework of the story has become archetypal. An intelligent but irascible and socially inept scientist, Prof Challenger, has returned from South America with claims that prehistoric life still exists on a previously unexplored plateau in South America. However his notes and samples were lost, so all he has to go on is a drawing of a stegosaurus. Of course, he's laughed at, but circumstances set up a return trip to prove him either right or wrong.
Accompanying him is a trio of characters. Prof Summerlee, one of his most vocal detractors, wants the opportunity to disprove his claims. Lord Roxton, a hunter and explorer, has history in the region, where he broke up a network of slavers a few years earlier, and is eager for fresh adventure. Edward Malone, a journalist for the 'Daily Gazette', wants to impress his girl, Gladys, who isn't interested in him because he's never done anything romantic in the Victorian sense of the word.
So off they go. As is common in Victorian literature, we learn about their progress through letters, but these are long ones written by Malone and sent back whenever possible to his editor in London for future publication. We skip the boring parts to experience all the key events on the expedition, not only the eventual discovery that Prof Challenger was right but the little successes and failures on the way, many wrought by friends or enemies, either their Indian guides on their journey down the Amazon or warring tribes of humans and ape-men on the plateau.
'The Lost World' really has everything an adventure story needs which, of course, is why it hit a popular nerve and became so thoroughly archetypal.
It also came at a particularly important time, two years before the onset of the First World War, one of the most prominent causes for the decline of the British Empire. At this point, it was still the empire upon which the sun never set but, while the continents had been successfully mapped in detail, there were still blank spots within them that no European had ever visited. Conan Doyle based his Maple White Plateau in Venezuela on what is now known as the Huanchaca Plateau in Bolivia. His friend, Percy Harrison Fawcett, had been exploring this land to map the border between Bolivia and Brazil and claimed to see 'monstrous tracks of unknown origin' there.
So, as fanciful a story as readers knew it was even in 1912, it was always one that just might be true. Who knew what might be lurking in those blank exotic spaces on the map? Conan Doyle tried to make his setting as believable as possible and much of it still reads that way today, though his concept that dinosaurs are fundamentally stupid because of the minuscule size of their brains has been solidly debunked by science over the succeeding century.
Perhaps the greatest reason for its success is that he was very careful to frame this adventure as a story about characters not just what they find. Malone isn't the most interesting person in the world but he has his talents and, of course, he has a reason to be there, one with which all of us can relate: he simply wants to impress a girl. Malone provides a grounding for us everyday readers as a believable working man and his few moments in the spotlight feel like they would be ours too. Most adventures of this era would have cast Lord Roxton in the lead, as he's a sort of wish-fulfilment man's man who we read about in the papers but never know in person. The perpetually feuding scientists, of course, serve both as comic relief and the means by which what we see is explained to us.
While Malone is the everyman who provides our connection to the story through who he is and through his telling of it, the most important character is Prof Challenger, who was introduced in this book and would appear in a further two novels, 'The Poison Belt' and 'The Land of Mist,', as well as a pair of short stories, 'When the World Screamed' and 'The Disintegration Machine'. He's a great character, as wildly emotional as Conan Doyle's most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, is clinical. He's a powerfully-built but hairy man who is famously mistaken by the ape-men of the plateau as one of their own. The bulky and hairy Wallace Beery memorably played him first in the 1925 feature film version opposite stop motion effects by Willis O'Brien, of later 'King Kong' fame. Strangely, the long list of distinguished actors who have played him on screen do not include the most obvious candidate, Brian Blessed, the actor and mountaineer. He's who I always saw when I pictured Challenger, who should merely have a less genial disposition.
With 'The Lost World' still a strong read just over a century after its original publication, perhaps I should follow up with 'The Poison Belt', which I only vaguely remember from my youth. Then I could explore some of the other notable works of science fiction and fantasy from over a century ago to see how well they stand up today. ~~ Hal C F Astell