Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Lost World

Arthur Conan Doyle The Lost World (1912)
As a kid, I loved the black and white Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and so much so that I read at least two of Arthur Conan Doyle's novels being as they happened to have them at the town library; but this was a long, long time ago, and to be brutally frank, these days I couldn't really give too much of a shit about the great detective, generally speaking, and especially not in any incarnation involving Benedict Cucumber. I appreciate that Holmes has many, many fans but the appeal eludes me, and in all honesty feels like my fellow huboons are no longer able to cope with the idea of novels that don't come as a nice tidy and collectable series of sequential scrapes and adventures with running gags and a regular cast just like proper entertainment, the stuff that's good enough to be made into telly. Not having read any Arthur Conan Doyle for three decades, I realise and even hope that I'm almost certainly wrong; although none of this impacts on the general impression I had of him as an accomplished author, and so I approached The Lost World with the same anticipation as I would the work of H.G. Wells.

I spent the first half of the novel looking for patterns that weren't there, assuming that the vaguely repellent Professor Challenger and his bumptious gang of explorers perhaps represented the scientific and imperial orthodoxy of the early twentieth century obliged to confront their own vanity by encounters with the unknown in the form of prehistoric reptiles. This I took from the fact that The Lost World keeps kicking them up the arse, except of course they mostly tend to roll with the punches, which are reduced then to a series of scrapes and japes.

It also seemed possible that The Lost World might be Conan Doyle responding to H.G. Wells, or at least to the contemporaries of H.G. Wells, by playing them at their own game:

'My dear chap, things don't happen like that in real life. People don't stumble upon enormous discoveries and then lose their evidence. Leave that to the novelists. The fellow is as full of tricks as the monkey house at the Zoo. It's all absolute bosh.'

Maybe The Lost World is the science fiction novel done properly in Conan Doyle's view, as perhaps indicated in the Duke of Durham's speech near the close of the tale:

'Apparently the age of romance was not dead, and there was common ground upon which the wildest imaginings of the novelist could meet the actual scientific investigations of the searcher for truth.'

That said, there is little to suggest a devotion to scientific rigour equivalent to that of the later Asimov and his pals. The fabulous dinosaurs of The Lost World are presented as horrors, with little discussion of their habits or anachronistic survival, and of course there are those pterodactyls with wing spans of twenty or more feet.

Then again, there also seemed to be the possibility that this was a tale of jolly chaps set in contrast to the inhuman scientific eccentricity of Challenger, an interesting character, but not really a sympathetic one. You certainly wouldn't want him batting for your team:

'You should cultivate the scientific eye and the detached scientific mind,' said he. 'To a man of philosophic temperament like myself the blood-tick, with its lancet-like proboscis and its distending stomach, is as beautiful a work of Nature as the peacock, or, for that matter, the aurora borealis. It pains me to hear you speak of it in so unappreciative a fashion.'

Ultimately, I had to conclude that I was overthinking this, and that The Lost World really is just a romp, a ripping wheeze, or the literary equivalent of a good hard game of Rugger before tea, as Brian Aldiss puts it. In fact, it pretty much does everything that Aldiss gives as a reason for disliking John Wyndham's novels, and which John Wyndham's novels don't actually do - chaps having a jolly exciting time with thrills and scrapes aplenty.

There's nothing wrong with a bit of brainless adventure, but for my money, The Lost World doesn't actually do it very well. Whilst it contains none of the commentary or criticism of Wells, and is written by an author who generally supported the colonial interests of his country, the imperialism is fairly understated, as is the casual racism that so often infects novels of this vintage. So it scores fairly high in those respects, and is as elegantly composed as you would expect of Conan Doyle; but I expected more, and I didn't anticipate being quite so bored as I was. Oh well.

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