Everyone knows the name of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because of Sherlock Holmes… and that annoyed him to no end. Heck, it’s part of the reason he bumped off Holmes in the first place. He felt his historical novels were far more important, but they were far less popular. I mean, did you know he wrote history books? Didn’t think so.
Eventually he made his peace with this, and branched out into other genres over time, which brings us to his 1912 novel: The Lost World.
There’s a certain charm to be found in reading science fiction or speculative fiction from another era. But while The Lost World is generally classified as science fiction, that doesn’t really feel like the right label to me. There is no advanced technology involved, either by the protagonists or the unexplored region of the world they find themselves in.
When I reviewed Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, I referred to the appeal of the book as “nostalgia for a future that never was.” But in this case, the feeling is more like “nostalgia for a version of the world that never was.”
Stories like this see the earth differently than we do, in ways that might seem ridiculous now, but seemed plausible then. This applies more to Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, however, which I’ll be discussing next time.
At its core, The Lost World is an adventure. It starts with our protagonist, Edward Malone, seeking the hand of the woman he loves, Gladys. However, Gladys claims she could only marry a man capable of great deeds and actions.
So he asks his editor at the Daily Gazette for a dangerous assignment, and is told to interview Professor Challenger, a man who dislikes the press (and pretty much anyone who doesn’t completely agree with him) and is known to assault nosy journalists. Malone’s job is to learn as much as he can out about the man’s recent expedition to South America.
Malone decides to masquerade as a student and get information from him that way. But Challenger is no stuffy thin professor in a tweed suit. He is a huge and impressively powerful man who physically throws Malone out into the street the moment he realizes the reporter’s true intentions.
A policeman sees this, but Malone refuses to press charges, which earns him the professor’s respect. He then lets him in on the secret under the promise of confidentiality: there are dinosaurs still living in South America. Unfortunately, none of his colleagues or peers believe him. This eventually leads Malone to join an expedition to South America with several others to find this lost world…
The idea of prehistoric animals still existing today is nothing new. Jules Verne covered it nearly fifty years earlier. And it certainly hasn’t gone anywhere either, what with stories like Jurassic Park or cryptozoologists still combing the world for everything from Bigfoot to monsters in the Amazon.
This story is very much told as a “ripping yarn” adventure, not unlike an Alan Quartermaine story. So while there is attention to detail to add to the verisimilitude, it still feels like the early 20th century equivalent of a YA novel, intended for boys and young adults.
The core of the expedition team is not unlike your average roleplaying group, with a dedicated fighter, dedicated academic, a well-rounded everyman, and a guy who most likely fudged his dice roles while creating his character (or perhaps just bought a lot of flaws).
The dedicated fighter is Lord John Roxton, an adventurer who helped end slavery on the Amazon, and has notches on his rifle for every slaver he killed. The dedicated academic is Professor Summerlee, a vocal critic of Challenger’s who is basically forced to put-up-or-shut-up. Malone is the everyman, while Challenger is, well, yeah, I’d be checking that guy’s character sheet if I was the GM.
Interestingly, the story was most likely inspired by reports from Doyle’s good friend Percy Harrison Fawcett (whom he based Professor Challenger on), who went on a number of expeditions deep in the Bolivian jungle.
Fawcett believed that “monsters from the dawn of man’s existence might still roam these heights unchallenged, imprisoned and protected by unscalable cliffs.” His memoirs indicate that Doyle came to him with the idea of his book, and that he was happy to supply him with information for it.
The result is an adventure that feels like it did its due diligence in terms of research, but still carries Doyle’s light and engaging style that makes him so readable.
The book was a success, and Doyle would go on to write two other novels and two short stories featuring Professor Challenger. He has even been borrowed by other authors in other works, and has been portrayed on the radio, film, and television over a dozen times over the years.
This is one I recommend as a fun adventure in its own right, but it’s also a chance to see a different side of Doyle as an author, someone who wanted to be known for more than just his detective stories. I’m sure he would appreciate the sentiment.