Thursday, November 17, 2016

Raiding the Stacks: The Lost World, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

So this week I'm doing something I haven't done in a very long time and dug up a very old sci-fi classic. Well, I say sci-fi although it's fairly tame compared to H.G. Wells or Jules Verne. Anyway, this week I'm talking about The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which I borrowed in audio format from the library. Doyle is most famous, of course, for Sherlock Holmes but The Lost World is no less important because it has given a name to a whole subset of the adventure genre.

Lost World fiction involves an isolated location, either a plateau, cave, or mountain range deep somewhere in an ''unexplored'' continent, or equally common an isolated island. Often a lost civilization or species previously believed to be extinct (dinosaurs being the most common) are contained in this secluded, mysterious, and fantastic location. Although less common nowadays because of increased cartographical knowledge, it still works as a period piece and has found its way into plenty of pulp adventures, which I'm definitely a fan of.

The Lost World involves Professor Challenger who claims to have found a plateau in the Amazon rainforest with living examples of previously thought to be extinct species, including dinosaurs. As this is an extraordinary claim there are demands for evidence and one of Challenger's critics, Professor Summerlee, sets off into the Amazon with Lord John Roxton and reporter Edward Malone, before having their expedition hijacked by Challenger. They eventually discover Challenger's plateau and a world filled with dinosaurs, ape men, and an isolated tribe of humans. There are some thrilling adventures and everyone manages to make it back home to England, with much congratulations all around.

The book feels pretty standard for a jungle adventure of the 1910's. There are brave white men, piercing the mysteries of an ''unexplored'' and ''savage'' continent, dealing with physical danger and the occasional treachery of non-white people. And there is really a lot of unfortunate racism in the book, although that honestly should be expected considering when it was written and who was doing the writing. There are still some pretty cringe-worthy parts, such as when the survivors of a group of ape-men are forced into slavery by the group of humans on the plateau. Now, while the ape-men had been killing humans for years, it still doesn't feel right to commit something very close to genocide and systematic slavery.

The science on the dinosaurs is also pretty dated. This was during the era when it was assumed dinosaurs were all large and fairly stupid creatures to explain why they all went extinct. In fact, it wasn't until the late twentieth century that the stereotype of dinosaurs as being incredibly stupid creatures was replaced by our current understanding. So it's definitely odd to see, especially anyone more familiar with the post-Jurassic Park era.

Overall I'd say the book is okay. It's interesting from a historical viewpoint but I don't know if it's got that much else going for it. There are plenty of other Lost World genre stories, some of which are probably more entertaining than this one, if with slightly less purple prose.

- Kalpar

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