A Science Fiction Pulp Classic: The Lost World

Saturday , 30, September 2017 12 Comments

While far from unknown, and especially popular in the first few decades after its release, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World is rarely mentioned as a pulp adventure.  And yet, released in 1912, the same year as Tarzan of the Apes and a year before The Insidious Dr.Fu-Manchu, it’s part of the same tradition.  Primarily known for Sherlock Holmes, Doyle was also a fine adventure writer who excelled at describing action, particularly combat.  His The White Company back in 1891 was an outstanding historical fiction adventure I would rank even more highly than Stevenson’s The Black Arrow three years earlier, and his foray into science fiction two decades later was every bit as fruitful.

It all begins with a man trying to impress a woman.  Edward Malone, an Irish journalist, is infatuated with a Gladys Hungerton, only for her to reply that she can only love a man who has accomplished great deeds.  As she poetically states it,

But, above all, he must be a man who could do, who could act, who could look Death in the face and have no fear of him, a man of great deeds and strange experiences. It is never a man that I should love, but always the glories he had won; for they would be reflected upon me. Think of Richard Burton! When I read his wife’s life of him I could so understand her love! And Lady Stanley! Did you ever read the wonderful last chapter of that book about her husband? These are the sort of men that a woman could worship with all her soul, and yet be the greater, not the less, on account of her love, honored by all the world as the inspirer of noble deeds.

Soon Malone gets a chance to do just that, when he meets the eccentric Professor Challenger, and along with Lord John Roxton and Professor Summerlee, journeys to the Amazon to investigate the possibilities of dinosaurs.  Malone occupies a similar role to Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories; he is the narrator, and a capable, competent hero, but far from the most impressive and interesting of the protagonists.  Which is not to say that Malone is either an everyman or a Mary Sue.  He is described as massive and physically powerful, a reserve on Ireland’s national rugby team, and possesses a unique brand of courage.  While denying that he is brave in the traditional sense, Malone talks about his “horror of cowardice” and how the “terror of such a stigma” prevents him from acting as anything less than a heroic British gentleman.

While not quite as memorable a character as Sherlock Holmes, Professor Challenger isn’t far off, and also ended up being an inclusion in Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton.  Possibly modeled after Isaac Newton, Challenger is an eccentric genius, but of a far more volatile, ornery, and violent variety.  He will not hesitate to physically attack anyone contradicting or annoying him, as Malone finds out in their first meeting.  Physically, while Holmes was tall and lean, Challenger is short and powerfully built.  However, both men share a love for showmanship that makes for exciting, flamboyant reveals.

Lord John Roxton is a fine hero in his own right, who will likely conjure up thoughts of Allan Quatermain.  While much younger than Quatermain during most of the latter’s adventures, Roxton is also a legendary hunter and explorer.  And he has a zest for life and genial nature that Quatermain lacked.  The reader finishes the book wanting to learn much more about Roxton.

Professor Summerlee might appear to be the the most non-descript of the group, but he is interesting for the approach Doyle takes to the story.  Initially, he is set up as Challenger’s professional enemy, who heaps scorn on the latter’s wild theories of dinosaurs in the Amazon.  And yet, when offered a chance to visit there himself, Summerlee does not shy away, and accepts the offer.  Many authors would take the opportunity to make the character into a villain, or at least a coward, but Summerlee is anything but.  Despite being the oldest of the group, Summerlee keeps up with his younger compatriots, and is every bit as willing to risk life and limb, displaying constant bravery and ingenuity in the face of certain death.  He may be a skeptic, but he is a hero all the same.

I spend this much time describing the four main protagonists since, among other themes, the dominant one is male camaraderie; four different types of heroes who rely on one another to survive the perils of dinosaurs, ape-men, and men alike.  Whatever the professional rivalry and bickering between Summerlee and Challenger, it never interferes with risking their lives on the quest, including for one another.  It’s simply the way any true, honorable man should behave.

As with Sherlock Holmes, one of the best series at describing and conveying a sense of the late Victorian British Empire, The Lost World swells with pride in the British race.  (As, indeed, does The White Company)  Himself an Irishman born in Scotland, Doyle makes no distinction between Englishman, Welshman, Scotsman, or Irishman.  All are worthy, equal members of the great nation of Britain, and the four protagonists exhibit the ideals of courage, intelligence, and fair-mindedness any Brit should aspire to.  (Amusingly, in other works Doyle shows a deep respect for and fascination with America, and laments that such natural brothers as Americans and Brits should have quarreled and split up, which he blames George III for)

The book has no shortage of science fiction elements, including Challenger’s ruminations on anthropology and natural history, as well as the most evocative descriptions of savage, bloodthirsty pterodactyls one will ever read, but it’s always in service to a tale of daring and adventure rather than for its own sake.  Thus, it’s very much a part of the pulp tradition.

As mentioned above, the book is a celebration of male heroism, and this is perfectly illustrated by the ending.  I won’t spoil it, except to note that Malone returning to Gladys is one of the funniest and most realistic conclusions to a romantic arc that I’ve ever read.  It’s even more hilarious because Doyle chooses that, of all places in the book, to unfurl his keen wit and comedic description.  Yet, it’s more than just a wry observation on the hypocrisy and perfidy of women.  The subsequent conversation between Malone and Lord John Roxton, ending with a handshake and promise of further adventure, perfectly concludes the book’s themes.  Namely, that heroism is worthy and should be pursued for its own sake, not that of a woman.

I highly recommend it to all readers.

12 Comments
  • deuce says:

    This is a stone-cold classic. Doyle was much more than the creator of Watson and Holmes. Props for the WHITE COMPANY shoutout!

    Doyle was a profound admirer and friend of Haggard. In his turn, he influenced other writers like Burroughs and REH. Crichton was also an ACD fan. The influence of THE LOST WORLD is immense. Challenger really set the template for later “scientist-adventurers” to be modeled on.

    • john silence says:

      I quite like his horror stories too. “The Horror of the Heights” sorta anticipates Lovecraftian SF-ish horror.

  • Jon Mollison says:

    Oh yeah. This one is so good, I reread it every five years ir so.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    I first saw this story in movie form (the version with Claude Raines as Challenger and Michael Rennie as Roxton) and it fascinated me so much I had to read the book. The book was even better, and lead me to not just Sherlock Holmes, but ACD’s historical novels as well.

    Read The Lost World; if you like pulp, you’ll love it.

  • Paul says:

    The Lost World is definitely a classic and like Jon I re-read it every few years. It’s the Platonic Ideal of such stories – it gave the whole sub-genre the name for a reason. Overall, Doyle was as much a founding genius as Wells and Burroughs. They were the Big Three of Scientific Romance.

    I’ve never read any Haggard. How does he rank compared to ERB, ACD etc?

    • John E. Boyle says:

      H.R.Haggard is a contemporary of ACD (he published King Solomon’s Mines just two years before ACD’s first Sherlock Holmes story) but if anything, he is even more of an influence on adventure fiction than Doyle or Wells.

      Haggard was a friend and co-author of Rudyard Kipling and published 70 novels before his death in 1925. ERB, REH, A. Merritt, Talbot Mundy and many others were inspired by his work.

      If you want to get a taste of Haggard’s work, read She (possibly the single most popular novel in the English language), King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quartermain. (all three are often sold together). If you like his work, there are plenty more to read as well; Haggard wasn’t just prolific, he was a heck of a storyteller as well.

    • deuce says:

      Haggard was the fountainhead in many ways. He was deeply respected by his contemporary genre authors in the late 1800s and kept writing until 1920. Fantasy and “exotic adventure fiction” like James Bond, Indiana Jones and Agent Pendergast might possibly not exist without Haggard. He’s also a damned fine writer and I wish I’d started reading him earlier than I did.

      Feel free to check out this thread for Haggard reading tips and info:

      http://swordsofreh.proboards.com/thread/502/rider-haggard-influence-classic-author

  • Xavier Basora says:

    Paul I second John’s praise of Haggard I read She and King Solomon’s Mine. I read
    The sequel to She and lemme rell you he’s such blast to read. The adventures,descriptions and action are enjoyable. Aspring wriers should crib him for inspiration.
    The only thing that bugs me is the melancholia. I get it but sometimes it grates on me.
    xavier

  • Paul says:

    Thanks for the thoughts on Haggard, folks. I’ll have to get into his works.

    My only exposure to him has been through the version of Allan Quartermain in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil, which was great fun.

    • Xavier Basora says:

      That comic doesn’t do him too much justice. Trust read King Solomon’s mine, She and Allen Quartermain. Ayesha is fun too.
      Seriously you can’t go wrong with any Allen Quartermain novel.
      xavier

  • Cro-Magnon Man says:

    Gentlemen, gentlemen, its QUATermain not QUARTermain: Quartermain is the agent of Shield forever going after the Hulk.

    Seriously, even the most exaggerated hyperbole can’t to justice to Haggard’s importance. He is the wellspring of so many fantasy staples and tropes that no one – not even the mightiest giants of the pulp era – can avoid walking in his shadow. You can’t go wrong reading any of his works, but anyone with an interest in heroic fantasy should make a point of trying to read ALLAN QUATERMAIN and NADA THE LILY for the incredible character of Umslopogaas, wielder of the dreaded ax called Woodpecker. One of the greatest – if now criminally neglected – warrior heroes ever created.

  • Constantin says:

    Glad to see an article about Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. He was a great writer and storyteller. A lot of his work was overshadowed by his Sherlock Holmes stories, which is a shame because he wrote some trully enjoyable fiction.

    Besides the Lost World and White Company, I also recommend the Brigardier Gerard stories. They are very entertaining short stories about a young french cavalry officer in the time of the Napoleonic wars. An influence for Geroge Mcdonald Fraser’s Flashman, they are fun and entertaining stories.

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