The Lost World Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1912
Adam Christopher remembers one of the most important sci- fi yarns of the early 20th century
As one of the
greatest contributors to modern popular literature, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation is, of course, the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes. But Conan Doyle wrote more than just detective fiction, and while he ( and several contemporary critics) regarded the seven purely historical novels written between 1888 and 1906 as his best work, there was just one character, after Holmes himself, that would live on in popular culture. This remarkable figure was a loud, aggressive, brash professor, a “caveman in a lounge suit”, the one and only Professor George Edward Challenger, the star of a series of short novels and stories that mix science fiction and science fantasy with a healthy dose of pulp action and Boy’s Own adventure. And it is the first of these — The Lost World — that has gone down in SF history as a classic of its kind.
Originally serialised in The Strand Magazine from April to November 1912, The Lost World is about as high- concept as you can get: on a remote mountain plateau in the heart of the Amazon, dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts have miraculously survived the aeons. That’s all the reader needs to know. The tale is narrated by a reporter, Edward Malone, who is assigned to cover Professor Challenger’s return expedition to the Amazonian jungle after a public meeting turns to tumult when the Professor attempts to show evidence he has gathered of the plateau’s impossible inhabitants. To settle the matter, an expedition is assembled; adventure and derring- do ensues. The plateau is real, as are the creatures that live on it. What is also real is the life- threatening situation the expedition finds itself in — betrayed by their native bearers and trapped on the plateau, Challenger and co must not only face flesh- eating dinosaurs and pterodactyls, but a tribe of vicious ape- men with an alarming penchant for throwing people off cliffs.
Well deserving of its place as a science fiction classic
Although published in the late Edwardian era, The Lost World feels like a throwback to an earlier age of Victorian high adventure. Livingstone and Stanley — no doubt still great heroes looming large in the national psyche — are both namechecked, despite their famous meeting on the shores of Lake Tanganyika having taken place 40 years previously. The perilous journey of Challenger’s expedition through the Amazon just to reach the plateau itself is arguably the most thrilling part of the story, told with beautifully descriptive touches by our intrepid reporter, Malone.
The most surprising thing is the lost world itself — there are dinosaurs and other impossible survivors of prehistoric epochs, but like the man- eating plants in John Wyndham’s classic The Day Of The Triffids, the monsters are almost peripheral to the story. Instead, the focus quickly turns to the expedition’s quest for escape, their capture by the ape- men, and subsequent rescue by some native Indians, with whom they form an alliance in order to defeat the enemy.
Thrilling adventure, certainly, but the archaic nature of the story – and the author himself – rears its ugly head with some frequency. Conan Doyle’s attitudes towards race and cultures other than the “superior” European, while absolutely of the period, are enough to take the shine off the book for the modern reader.
Despite this, The Lost World is still well deserving of its place as a science fiction classic. It wasn’t the first story to feature dinosaurs in the modern world – prehistoric monsters feature in Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, first published in 1864 – but the influence of The Lost World would be felt for decades to come, serving as the inspiration for everything from the 1969 cowboys- vs- dinosaurs film The Valley Of Gwangi to a modern classic, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park.
Professor Challenger and his friends would feature in four more stories, the last of which, The Disintegration Machine, was published a little more than a year before Conan Doyle’s death in 1930. While The Lost World is the most famous and well- remembered, taken together, the Challenger canon represents a collection of early British sci- fi worthy to stand alongside that of Conan Doyle’s contemporary, HG Wells. Adam’s latest novel, Elementary: The Ghost Line, is out now from Titan Books.