Friday, September 13, 2013

The Lost World part 1: "There are Heroisms All Around Us"

Strictly speaking, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not invent the idea of modern-day explorers finding a remote region where dinosaurs still exist. That honor probably goes to Jules Verne's A Journey to the Center of the Earth. But Doyle's adventure novel The Lost World did much to establish the "Land Out of Time" as a sub-genre of speculative fiction.

We begin the story by meeting our narrator, Edward Malone: a likable, energetic young reporter for the London Gazette. He is in love with a girl named Gladys, who, sadly for Malone, regards him solely as a Good Friend. She thinks he's a nice guy and all, but deep in her heart she pines for the rugged, adventurous types like Henry Morton Stanley or Richard Francis Burton who explored the deepest reaches of Darkest Africa.

Desperate to prove himself, Malone goes to his editor, McArdle, and begs for a dangerous assignment; "the more difficult it was, the better it would suit me."

McArdle has nothing like that for him. "I'm afraid the day for this sort of thing is past. ...The big blank spaces in the map are all being filled in, and there's no room for romance anywhere." But he does have an idea. "What about exposing a fraud -- a modern Munchhausen -- and making him rideeculous?" (The spelling is Doyle's; McArdle is Very Scottish; if Kipling had rendered is speech the dialect would have been nigh unreadable)

He gives Malone the task of interviewing Professor Challenger "Professor Challenger, the famous zoologist! Wasn't he the man who broke the skull of Blundell, of the Telegraph?" McArdle smiles grimly. "Didn't you say it was adventures you were after?" This Challenger had returned from a trip up the Amazon with outlandish stories of incredible creatures he had discovered. "Had some damaged photographs, said to be fakes. Got so touchy that he assaults anyone who asks questions, and heaves reporters downstairs." As far as McArdle's concerned, the man is "a homicidal megalomaniac with a turn for science" but promises Malone that the paper will compensate him for any injuries he sufferers.

Malone manages to snag an appointment with Challenger by pretending to be an admirer. Arriving at Challenger's home in Kennsington, Malone is met by the Professor's wife, who warns him of her husband's temper. "You won't believe a word he says -- I'm sure I don't wonder. But don't tell him so, for it makes him very violent. ... Remember he believes it himself."
I was prepared for something strange, but not for so overpowering a personality as this. It was his size which took one's breath away -- his size and his imposing presence. His head was enormous, the largest I have ever seen upon a human being. I am sure that his top-hat, had I ever ventured to don it, would have slipped over me entirely and rested on my shoulders. He had the face and beard which I associate with an Assyrian bull; the former florid, the latter so black as almost to have a suspicion of blue, spade-shaped and rippling down over his chest. The hair was peculiar, plastered down in front in a long, curving wisp over his massive forehead. The eyes were blue-grey under great black tufts, very clear, very critical, and very masterful. A huge spread of shoulders and a chest like a barrel were the other parts of him which appeared above the table, save for two enormous hands covered with long black hair. This and a bellowing roaring, rumbling voice made up my first impression of the notorious Professor Challenger.
The interview goes badly. Malone has many fine and admirable qualities, but dishonesty is not one of them. Challenger immediately identifies him as a fraud, and worse than that, as a journalist. He threatens to physically throw Malone out of the house, and when Malone protests, the Professor grabs him and the two go rolling down the hallway, out the door and down the steps onto the street.

A policeman happens by and breaks up the fight. This is not the first time this sort of thing has happened at the Challenger address, and he asks Malone if he wishes to press charges. Having a moment to catch his breath and consider, Malone declines. "I was to blame myself. I intruded upon him. He gave me fair warning."

This impresses Challenger, and he tells Malone to follow him back into the house.

Mrs. Challenger meets them and berates her husband for assaulting the reporter. In our first glimpse of her, she seemed rather timid and apprehensive, but she has the guts to stand up to him if necessary. Mrs. Challenger is neither a timid doormat, nor a nagging scold. She has incredible admiration for her husband and regards him, as he does himself, as a towering genius -- indeed, it is difficult imagining Challenger marrying anybody who did not, or for anyone who did not to put up with him -- but she believes that his constant bouts of temper and bullying prevent others from recognizing that genius.

There follows a truly bizarre scene. "Stool of penance," Challenger growls. He physically picks up his wife and sets her atop a high pedestal in the room and does not help her down again until she says "please". Malone -- and the reader -- is shocked by this display of spousal abuse, and Challenger comments that doubtless the incident will appear in the morning papers for the amusement of the multitudes. "He's a foul feeder, is Mr. Malone," he tells his wife, "like all his kind." But then he takes a more tender tone.
He placed a huge hand on each of her shoulders. "All that you say is perfectly true. I should be a better man if I did what you advise, but I shouldn't be quite George Edward Challenger. There are plenty of better men, my dear, but only one G.E.C. So make the best of him." He suddenly gave her a resounding kiss, which embarrassed me even more than his violence had done.
This is all we see of Mrs. Challenger in this story. She and Gladys are the only women in the book, and of the two she is the more interesting character. We see more of the relationship between her and her husband, and in a better light, in The Poison Belt, which is set mostly in the Challenger home as the Professor and his close companions await an apocalyptic doom from space. There we see more of the deep affection they feel for each other.

Since by declining to press charges against Challenger, Malone has demonstrated moral sensibility higher than usual for a "porcus ex grege diaboli -- a swine from the devil's herd" as he calls the Mainstream Media, Challenger deigns to give Malone the story he wants -- but extracts a promise from him not to publish the story without Challenger's consent. Malone doesn't like that stipulation, but agrees.

Some two years earlier, Challenger had been on an expedition to the Amazon Basin, "to verify some conclusions of Wallace and Bates, which could only be done by observing their reported facts under the same conditions in which they themselves had noted them." In a native village, he had encountered a dying American named Maple White. Although Challenger was unable to speak with the man before he perished, the man's sketchbook contained drawings of a large plateau rising out of the jungle, and of a grotesque, gigantic lizard with bony ridges on its back and large spikes on its tail. Challenger recognized the creature as matching scientific reconstructions of a stegosaurus.

He traced the artist's path back through the jungle and found the plateau. Challenger was unable to scale its sheer sides, but he took photographs of it. He also spotted, and shot, a pterodactyl.

Unfortunately, the specimen, and most of the photographs, were lost in an accident descending some rapids in the river on the way home. What evidence that remained was so damaged that when he returned to England he was ridiculed as a hoaxer.

Malone, however, finds the evidence as Challenger presents it quite convincing. "You are a Columbus of science who as discovered a lost world. I'm awfully sorry if I seemed to doubt you." Pleased by the young man's praise, Challenger invites Malone to attend a lecture that night at the Zoological Institute's Hall. A noted naturalist will be speaking on "The Record of the Ages", and Challenger has been invited to be present on the platform in order to move a vote of thanks for the guest. He hints that he may "throw out a few remarks" which might be of interest to the general public.

McArdle is disappointed when Malone comes back with no story for publication and not even the prospect of a juicy lawsuit against the pugilistic professor; but he encourages Malone to attend the lecture. "We may get a scoop yet, if we're lucky."

The topic of the evening's lecture is nothing less than the origin of the planet and the development of Life on Earth, as far as can be determined by the science of the day. The speaker is informative and entertaining, with a dry wit which he demonstrates by demolishing an anti-Darwisit heckler in the audience. He is less prepared, however to deal with interruptions from the stage by one of his colleagues. "Question!" Professor Challenger booms every time the speaker alludes to prehistoric creatures being extinct.

The speaker concludes his lecture and Challenger takes the podium.
"I have been selected to move a vote of thanks to Mr. Waldron for the very picturesque and imaginative address to which we have just listened. ... Popular lectures are easiest to listen to but Mr. Waldron ... will excuse me when I say that they are necessarily both superficial and misleading, since they have to be graded to the comprehension of an ignorant audience."
And in case he hasn't insulted both the guest and the audience enough, he condescending continues on to explain that popular lecturers are by nature parasitic, since they merely regurgitate known science for the masses and do not actually discover anything new. That is why, Challenger says, he felt justified, and indeed obliged, to correct the good Mr. Waldron on a couple statements of fact.

This leads to some heated back-and-forth between Challenger and the audience, culminating with this audacious... well, I have to say it, challenge:
"I will not detain you," he said. "It is not worth it. Truth is truth, and the noise of a number of foolish young men -- and I fear I must add, of their equally foolish seniors -- cannot affect the matter. I claim that I have opened a new field of science. You dispute it." (Cheers.) "Then I put you to the test. Will you accredit one or more of your number to go out as your representative and test my statement in your name?"
A professor of comparative anatomy named Summerlee rises to accept the challenge. Challenger then asks if any younger volunteers will accompany Summerlee to aid in the expedition and corroborate Summerlee's findings.
It is thus that the great crisis of a man's life springs out at him. Could I have imagined when I entered that hall that I was about to pledge myself to a wilder adventure than had ever come to me in my dreams? But Gladys -- was it not the very opportunity of which she spoke?
"Sit down, Malone! Don't make a public ass of yourself," a friend who accompanied him to the lecture whispers. But it's too late. The die is cast.
"I will go, Mr. Chairman," I kept repeating over and over again.
NEXT: Meet Lord John Roxton; The trip up the Amazon; a last-minute surprise; and the Plateau at last! Pack your bags; we're off to the Amazon!

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