Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Lost World - Introduction

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known for his Sherlock Holmes stories, but he wrote many other books as well. His own favorite was The White Company, a medieval adventure set during the Hundred Years' War. He also wrote science fiction and horror tales such as "The Horror of the Heights" and "The Terror of Blue John Gap", which anticipate the Cosmic Horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft.

Probably the best-known of his non-Sherlockian works, The Lost World, was written in 1912 and had a lasting influence on adventure fiction. I think it's safe to say that every tale involving dinosaurs in the modern age, from Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Land that Time Forgot to Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park owes something to Doyle. If the book did nothing more than present the idea of a remote plateau in the jungle where prehistoric creatures have survived to the present day, it would be a significant landmark in speculative fiction; but The Lost World did more than that; it introduced the world to the belligerent and bombastic George Edward Challenger.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had a special fondness for Professor Challenger. Like Holmes, Challenger was based on a former teacher of Doyle's; in his case a professor of physiology named William Rutherford whose striking, broad-shouldered and bushy-bearded appearance and outgoing manner, Doyle ramped up to eleven. If Huxley was called "Darwin's Bulldog", then George Edward Challenger, (or "GEC" as he likes to call himself), is certainly a charging Rhinoceros.

Doyle had himself photographed dressed up as Challenger to accompany the publication of The Lost World, and I suspect that even more than Holmes, Challenger was a wish-fulfillment character for Doyle. Professor Challenger gave him outlet to rail at all the things that annoyed him. If Sherlock Holmes is pure intellect, then Professor Challenger is pure Id -- combined of course with a massive intellect.

Challenger was the central character in two novels, a novella and a couple short stories. The first, The Lost World (1912), is an exciting adventure story about a trip to the Amazon basin to explore a remote plateau where prehistoric creatures still survive. We'll be discussing this book further in coming weeks.

Doyle followed up The Lost World with The Poison Belt (1913), a novella with a completely different atmosphere, if that's the word I want. The action travels no farther than Challenger's country home outside London with an excursion into the city, and most of the plot involves discussions about the nature of life and death.

Challenger has discovered that the planet Earth will be passing through a region of space, a "current in the ether", that is inimical to life. He invites his companions from the previous adventure to his home where, fortified with bottles of oxygen, he hopes to survive the passage -- at least as long as the oxygen holds out.
He and his companions do survive, and in a creepy, post-apocalyptic section, they drive back into town to witness what has become of civilization. In what one critic has called an ironic inversion of Darwin's "Survival of the Fittest", the only survivor they find is an invalid old lady with an oxygen bottle of her own.

After several chapters of unrelieved gloom comes the happy revelation that the teeming millions of humanity have not all died; that the Poison Belt the Earth has passed through has merely put them to sleep for a day. Humankind has gotten a taste of mortality and a glimpse of it's small place in the cosmos.

It was several years later, in 1926, that Doyle wrote The Land of Mist, the last Challenger novel. By this time, Doyle had become an ardent Spiritualist and the tragic death toll of the Great War lay heavy on his mind. In this book he has Challenger investigating Spiritualism. At first he is skeptical debunker, but through the course of the book he becomes convinced of the reality of the Afterlife, encountering the spirit of a one-time assistant whose death he had always secretly blamed himself for. I find it significant that Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote a similar story in which Sherlock Holmes becomes convinced of Spiritualism.

Professor Challenger appeared twice more in a couple short stories. In "When the World Screamed" (1928) he develops a theory that the Earth is a living creature and that it's crust is only it's tough skin. He sets about to drill a hole through the crust; partially to prove his theory, partially to play a practical joke on the London Press Corps, but mostly, it seems, because his ego is so big that he wanted the planet itself to take notice of him.

Doyle's last Professor Challenger tale, "The Disintegration Machine" (1929), is a more conventional science fiction story. Challenger's friend, the reporter Edward Malone, asks him to come along on an interview of a scientist who has created a device capable of disintegrating and re-assembling matter. The inventor is a repellent chap who plans to sell his invention, with its horrific military applications, to the highest bidder. He also uses the device to play a cruel, but funny prank on the Professor. Challenger takes these affronts with an uncharacteristic calm and the inventor, like most Mad Scientists, comes to a bad end.

The Challenger stories are on the whole entertaining and sadly overlooked, playing with many different aspects of science fiction: cosmic horror and post-apocalypse; the supernatural; and the dangers of technology; but to my mind and probably the mind of most people who have read them, the first Challenger story remains the best.

NEXT:  Journalist Edward Malone tackles the most dangerous assignment of his career: interviewing a homicidal evolutionary biologist with the most outrageous scientific claims. Pack your bags for our expedition to The Lost World: "There are Heroisms All Round Us".

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