In the late 19th and early 20th century, European maps still had large swathes of terrain marked as unknown. The siren call of these blank spaces led to some of the greatest explorations known to man and sparked the imaginations of countless young and not-so-young readers.
Writers, of course were quick to fill in the blanks that real-life explorers were leaving. It was a time when one felt that anything could be found in those spaces, from an advanced civilization, to Prester John’s people to Shangri-La. Readers couldn’t get enough of it, and some truly talented people took up the challenge of revealing what lay behind tropical jungles, Asian mountains, African deserts and Antartic ice. Perhaps the most recognizable today are Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, H. P. Lovecraft and, of course, most famous of all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Each of these men gave the genre their particular spin (especially Lovecraft in At the Mountains of Madness). Haggard was the great doyen of the genre, and Burroughs was perhaps better known for Tarzan (which we discuss here) and Barsoom, but all three were inspired by the same terra incognitas.
Conan Doyle used his fame to create what is arguably the purest form of the lost world story, however, and my recent reading of The Lost World and Other Stories (essentially the complete Professor Challenger tales) is what inspired me to write about the sub-genre here.
The first thing we need to understand is that, while they may seem to us to be Fantasy stories today, these books were very firmly planted in Science Fiction convention when they were written. Even At the Mountains of Madness was more akin to a modern SF story than the usual Lovecraftian horror piece. These writers, while poring over their incomplete maps were asking the central question of science fiction – “What if?” – and attempting to answer it in the most plausible way while telling a gripping story.
Professor Challenger himself is an interesting character. A rough-around-the-edges, unapologetic genius who is loathe to suffer fools – or anyone else really – he is the driving force behind the discovery of a world of prehistoric creatures (and both uncivilized natives and under-evolved proto-humans) on a plateau in South America in what is almost the standard recipe for Lost World tales.
The science fictional purity is lost in later Challenger stories as the protagonist (and Conan Doyle himself) become lost in their attempts to put a scientific frame around the period’s craze for spiritualism. In my opinion, these are the weaker books, but perhaps, like so many others, I am tainted by my modern views.
That last brings us neatly to the central point of any discussion about lost world stories. While they certainly had a golden age, that era passed as the gaps in those maps steadily got filled in with the names of villages and rivers and mountains. The need to suspend disbelief became too great and people, more sophisticated now, moved on to newer things.
Worse, modern reevaluation has cast many of these explorers as little more than land-and-resource-grabbing colonial exploiters.
My response to this is twofold. I am saddened by the fact that I will never be able to feel (as an adult, at least) the wonder that must have been common for educated people who understood that those blank spaces existed, and there was actually something there… and wouldn’t it be nice to imagine that that something was a wonderful something?
But even with a modern education, I still enjoy these romps into the supposed unknown, and my sadness is heightened by the knowledge that very few really good Lost World type books are published each year. It’s a loss to readers everywhere, but it’s logical and follows the market.
Finally, it becomes necessary to address the whole revisionist thing. No one will pretend that the scramble for Africa didn’t happen (or was in any way positive for the people already living there) but I am of the opinion that classic literature needs to be evaluated within the mores of the times, and that any attempt to apply a post-colonial prism is a waste of time and space in academic journals which could much better be used for praising my own books (or panning them – all is well as long as they spell my name right).
Our obsession with judging the past by our standards and rewriting it to suit our tastes has been particularly cruel to this brand of literature. The fact that it still survives to be enjoyed today by those with the open minds needed to do so is a testament to how much fun it was in the first place. And “The Lost World” is as good a place to start as any other (although my own personal favorites are the Haggard books).
Gustavo Bondoni is an award-winning Argentine novelist. He is the author of Siege, a well-received far future tale of survival and determination.