Conan Doyle’s The Lost World

I’ll have more to say at some point about the bargains (real and illusory) available in ebook world, now that I’ve had some time to poke around in the unregulated, mapless swamp that is the Kindle Store.  But to jump the gun, I’ve just finished (re-)reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which cost me all of nothing.

This is a book that comes with a certain vague nostalgia attached for me.  I read it, and I think perhaps saw the not very good 1960 movie adaptation, at a young and impressionable age (certainly long before the cultural zeitgeist had a chance to teach me that Sherlock Holmes was Doyle’s only consequential creation).

The impression it made on impressionable me back then was of vivid adventure; so much so that I’ve got a feeling – impossible to absolutely confirm, given my hazy memory – that I produced my own fanfic set on the dinosaur-infested plateau.  Possibly even illustrated, since I didn’t realise until I was into my teens that the kindest thing I could for the world was to refrain from inflicting my art upon it.

Anyway, what did I make of The Lost World now that I’m a jaded, cyncial grown-up?  I had quite a bit of fun, that’s what.

Like a lot of old novels – this one appeared in 1912, I believe – it’s almost comically out of synch with what we’d call good prose writing these days.  It takes a ludicrous number of pages to get our heroes out of London, let alone up onto the famed plateau, and once there the narrative suddenly becomes frantic, cramming plot developments in one on top of another with relatively little regard for their plausibility.

The sexual, racial and environmental assumptions underlying the text are … not exactly attuned to mainstream 21st century thinking, to say the least.  (I found it oddly entertaining, as something of a conservationist by education and background, the way exploration and research in the novel – and at the time of its writing – revolve principally around shooting everything.  It’s a real taste of a different kind of lost world, and one that has an element of appeal in its certainties and privileges and ambitions.).  One of the central threads of the plot even sees our heroes participating enthusiastically in what might nowadays be seen as at best environmental sin of the highest order, and at worst something approximating to geoncide.

The science of the whole thing is utterly implausible in modern terms, unsurprisingly.  I imagine it seemed a good deal more believeable to its contemporary audience, and the lengthy scene-setting and character introductions at the start of the book were presumably intended to root the thing in the real world, and thereby render the speculations to come even more credible.  That said, the plot has plenty of hand-waving, and if you’re the kind of reader inclined to ask questions, most of them will be of the ‘… huh?’ or ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ variety.

For all these potential barriers to enjoyment that the modern reader faces, though, The Lost World has plenty going for it.  Parts are really quite well and evocatively written; certainly better than Doyle’s early Holmes stories imho.

Professor Challenger, whose titanic, hubristic vision is the driving force behind the plot, is a wonderful creation.  Bombastic, rude, self-absorbed and arguably sociopathic; he’s great fun, and Doyle knows it.  I’d entirely forgotten quite how consistent, funny and thorough his writing of Challenger is.  Personally, I could have done with rather more Challenger stories and rather fewer Holmes, but that’s just me.

I had also forgotten that it’s a kind of epistolatory novel, the entire tale told through letters/article submitted by a journalist to his editor.  It may be entirely coincidental, but given that Frankenstein‘s got major epistolatory elements, and Dracula‘s epistolatory through and through, I wonder if these early writers of spec fic were deliberately using the form to enhance the illusion of reality in their tales.  Perhaps in the 19th and early 20th century ‘documents’ – letters, article, reports, whatever – were more likely to be unconsciously interpreted by the reader as having some kind of intrinsic authority, which they lent to the fantastical events being narrated.  Now, we live in an age of uncertainty and doubt, and are programmed to take nothing at face value.

Above all, I was sucked in by the sheer bravado and ambition of Doyle’s imagination.  At a time long before speculative fiction was the culturally ubiquitous commercial juggernaut of today, here he is spinning a wild tale of adventurers and dinosaurs and apemen in the Amazon; conjuring up visions that must have seemed truly extraordinary to his first readers, and still have the power to excite.

As I said, I don’t think the 1960 film version of The Lost World has very much to offer the modern viewer.  (An aside: whatever our misgivings about CG effects in movies, and I have a few, we should all rejoice unconditionally in the knowledge that the age of adorning real lizards with spurious horns and frills and filming them in close up to pretend that they’re dinosaurs is gone forever.  There can have been few more aesthetically disastrous and reptile-demeaning dead-ends in the evolution of sf cinema.).

So here, instead, is the 1925 silent version in its entirety.  Yes, book to big screen adaptation in just 13 years; even back then, the Hollywood blockbuster machine liked its ideas second-hand.

Like the novel, it takes quite a while to get going, but the dinosaur model animations are terrific, given that it was done almost 90 years ago, and the cast all look just right for their parts and for the time.  It also, arguably, has a better ending than the novel, and one that perfectly prefigures – and to some extent probably directly inspired – the modern obsession with monster-initiated urban destruction on the silver screen.

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2 comments

  1. Brian’s avatar

    And, of course, being an idiot I went to all the trouble of writing that post and forgot to flag up the two points that made me think of producing it in the first place. Genius. Anyway, I can’t be bothered updating the thing, so a comment will just have to do.

    Forgotten point #1: This being the first centenary of The Lost World‘s publication, let us take a moment to reflect upon how very, very few novels survive in the cultural consciousness for a full hundred years. Not many, that’s how few. It’s the central speculative idea of the book – dinosaurs! Still alive! – that’s ensured The Lost World‘s survival. Without that single, powerfully resonant and engaging idea, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have quite enough else going for it to have garuanteed its persistence.

    Forgotten point #2: The more thing’s change. From the opening chapter:

    ‘Suppose,’ he cried with feeble violence, ‘that all the debts in the world were called up simultaneously, and immediate payment insisted upon, – what, under our present conditions would happen then?’

    It took us until around 2008 to establish beyond doubt that the answer to that question is: nothing good, aka global recession and financial misery lasting for years. Amazing that in it’s centenary year, the book looks prescient – by virtue of a single off-handed comment – in the field of economics rather than any of its speculations.

    Oh, and ‘feeble violence’ is a very nice little turn of phrase that should be too loaded with internal contradiction to work, but somehow does, for me. I think I know what someone saying something with ‘feeble violence’ sounds like, more or less, and that makes it a nice bit of writing.

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