The Lost World Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle, 1912

Adam Christo­pher re­mem­bers one of the most im­por­tant sci- fi yarns of the early 20th cen­tury

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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.

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