The Lost World – Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)
It has to be said that there are books one reads of which no recollection at all remains after thirty or forty years. I do have notes to confirm that I read this in the Nineteen Seventies. My memory of this is in any case clouded by the 1960 Hollywood movie which I have always loved but which took a few liberties in its interpretation. (There have been at least 14 film, TV and radio adaptations, some more curious than others, such as the 1997 radio version which featured Coronation Street’s Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs) as Professor Challenger, Linus Roache (Ken Barlow’s real life son) and also starred Sir Kenneth Branagh and Sir Ian McKellen).
I was therefore coming at it with a completely fresh eye and expecting something along the lines of an Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure in exotic climes.
I should have known better since I was engrossed from the first few pages and enjoyed every second.
Conan Doyle, of course, is rather more well known for his Sherlock Holmes canon and it’s a shame this novel is not more widely read.
At the outset, an Irish rugby playing reporter, one Edward Malone, is attempting to woo a rather unresponsive young lady called Gladys. Gladys spurns his advances as she feels she can only give her heart to a man who is famous for his heroic deeds.
Mr Malone, she fears, is neither famous nor heroic enough to marry her.
In these opening pages there is far more depth of character and insight than in probably the entire ER Burroughs canon. Plus, it sets Malone up to request his editor to send him on a dangerous mission.
The Editor suggests that Malone arrange an interview with one Professor Challenger, a man who had recently returned from the Amazon with incredible claims but little evidence. Challenger, it seems, had been subsequently derided by his scientific peers and had taken up journalist-bashing as a supplementary hobby.
Malone, against all odds and following a sustained physical attack by Challenger, wins the confidence of the Professor and volunteers to join a new expedition to the Amazon to prove the Professor’s claims that creatures of the Jurassic era have survived on an isolated plateau.
Conan Doyle, one suspects, owes much to Jules Verne’s ‘Journey to The Centre of the Earth’ at least since the basic premise is that the Professor’s only evidence is a fragment of a pterodactyl wing and sketchbook from a previous explorer which showed a sketch of a stegosaurus – seemingly drawn from life.
In ‘Journey to The Centre of the Earth’ of course, the Professor’s catalyst was a note from Arne Saknussemm, found in an old book. Both explorers travel to a remote volcanic region where they discover dinosaurs and plant life from another epoch.
For me, Verne’s novel is far superior, but where Conan Doyle succeeds is in having Malone as the narrator being able to balance a fast moving plot (at least for the time it was written) with some impeccable characterisation and occasional dashes of humour.
Challenger, an erudite but physically formidable figure, is given a foil in the form of his professional rival, Professor Summerlee who – although converted from outright sceptic to believer – is always poised to prick Challenger’s somewhat pompous scientific bubble.
In parts the book may be unpalatable to modern readers where it deals with those who are not British. The native Indian guides (I use the word ‘Indian’ as it is employed by Conan Doyle within the text) and luggage carriers remain mainly part of the scenery while a lone ‘negro’ called Zambo however is described as ‘as willing as any horse, and about as intelligent’.
There are two distinct branches of humanity on the plateau; a somewhat civilised tribe of small native Indians and the larger hairy cannibal man-apes who just will not desist from attacking everyone.
Toward the end, the Indians and the white fellas engage in a final battle with the ape-men who are all but wiped out; their women and children then enslaved by the plateau Indians.
Although this concept of genocide seemed fairly acceptable in genre SF, particularly in the US, up until the Nineteen Forties at least it does seem a tad out of character for Professor Challenger to countenance it.
However we must accept that the values and ethics of most people in Nineteen Twelve were far removed from those a century or more later. Paradoxically, the figure of Lord Roxton, a typical huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ bit of aristocratic totty, seems quite familiar given the British aristocracy’s need to cling on to the past in case it flies away like Challenger’s baby pterodactyl.
Nevertheless it is a compelling and engrossing read, which should figure more prominently in the history of British SF and fully deserves to be more widely read.