Saturday, June 2, 2007

Review: The Lost World

The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle with an introduction by Michael Crichton and Diane Johnson and notes by Julia Houston. Recommended.

By Arthur Conan Doyle's day, advances in scientific method and technology had broadened our knowledge and shrunk our world. The popularity of novels such as Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne lay in part in the mystery of the unknown and inaccessible places in which they were set and their effect on a human imagination that probably felt crowded and claustrophobic. The Lost World continues the tradition with a wry nod to the reality that events recounted by narrator/journalist E. D. Malone were no longer possible or even imaginable.

The reader is privy to the humor long before the narrator, who is sent to seek adventure by the woman he loves. "It is never a man that I should love, but always the glories he had won, for they would be reflected upon me," Gladys tells Malone.

Malone seeks adventure to impress his ladylove, while Professors Challenger and Summerlee aim to distinguish themselves in the crowded field of zoology, and Lord John Roxton desires to set himself apart from his fellow big-game hunters. In his world, anyone can hang a rhino head on the wall, but how many have the chance to take a dinosaur?

They are extraordinary men, like those of The Mysterious Island. Intentionally or not, Conan Doyle pays homage to Verne when Malone writes, "I have as companions three remarkable men, men of great brain-power and of unshaken courage" and "Man was always the master." In the post-Darwin age, Verne and Conan Doyle were ready to demonstrate that nature was at the service of resourceful man.

The humor in The Lost World, such as the resemblance of the ape-men king to Professor Challenger and their subsequent treatment of him, is balanced by scenes such as the narrator's vivid description of a pit into which he falls. "This bottom was littered with great gobbets of flesh, most of which was in the last state of putridity." The addition of, "The atmosphere was poisonous and horrible" is gratuitous for the imaginative reader, whose mind pictures "these lumps of decay."

The Lost World is strongest when it is focused on the characters, the plateau, and the dinosaurs, especially the pterodactyls, and weakest when attention is turned to the plateau's anthropomorphic life. While Challenger believes it to be a watershed in evolutionary history, the battle that determines supremacy is anticlimactic compared to the descriptions of the swamp of the pterodactyls, the glade of the iguanodons, and Malone's death trap.

The amount of time spent on the plateau is short, but seems tediously prolonged by some of Conan Doyle's plot choices. The ending is predictable, as it was meant to be, and only the surprise prepared by Challenger for the Zoological Institute adds interest to it. While Verne wisely destroyed his creation, thus making it possible, Conan Doyle leaves his plateau intact, with conflicting hints from the narrator that it is impossible to find and that it will someday be exploited by hunters, adventurers, and other men.

When man finds undisturbed nature, he is bound to ruin its very character. Within a week of their arrival, the four adventurers and their technology have altered a longstanding balance of power. A paradise that never was is no more.

As with Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle's strength is in creating characters with a handful of memorable traits—the pompously arrogant Challenger, the acerbic Summerlee, the courageous and bluff Lord John, and the young Malone, whose naivete and powers of observation make him a suitable stand-in for the reader.

Despite its weaknesses of plot and its Eurocentricity apparently bolstered by Darwin's work (the Europeans are clearly the fittest, with Indians and Africans serving as subject races and "half-breeds" as a treacherous one), The Lost World is still a good adventure story, even if dated. Suspend your modern sensibilities and beliefs and enjoy the possibilities of an impossible tale.

Saturday, 2 June 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

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