Monday, 24 October 2011
The Lost World
Seemingly at every turn I'm confronted by dinosaurs. The BBC in particular seems keen to shove its Planet Dinosaur series in my face at every opportunity (despite the fact it's a cheap and less good version of Walking With Dinosaurs). So it's perhaps natural that, when stuck for something to read, I turned to the classic SF collection on my Kindle for entertainment.
Arthur Conan Doyle is best known for Sherlock Holmes. The Lost World is hardly unknown, however, and comes almost as highly-recommended as Baker Street's finest detective. It was first published in 1912, being serialised in one of the major publications of the day prior to being published in book form. The story is fairly well known: irascible Professor Challenger claims to have found a place in the Amazon where prehistoric life still exists, and forms an expedition to the isolated plateau, where dangers of varying varieties await the intrepid explorers.
The story is told through the diary/correspondence of one Edward Malone, a journalist who tagged along with the expedition. It bears many of the staples of SF of that era: the writing is bombastic and a little pompous, with the narrator given to exclamations which no modern writer would make. But it's not a bad thing when used well, as it is here, and it helps to place the book in its time. To compare the styles of different eras is a fool's analysis. However, I can't help but mention that the narrator tells us far too many of the characteristics of his fellow explorers, rather than showing them, as is the modern style. There's plenty of the good old 'said-bookism' on display, which always annoys me. Let the dialogue speak for itself! But still, it was the style of the time so a certain amount of overlooking has to go on.
The story is set in its time as well. Ninety-nine years after its publication we know that dinosaurs died out 65.5 million years ago. We know that there's no undiscovered plateau in South America where they could live. These days we'd see genetically engineered monsters in a theme park with some sort of technobabble explanation behind them. In 1912, however, it didn't take too much to suspend the incredulity of the reader and make them believe in this plateau, because it wasn't totally beyond the bounds of possibility that it could exist; there were vast tracts of land unexplored, away from which modern satellites and air travel have taken the mystery.
But anyway, back to the story. Ten years ago I'd have loved The Lost World, and it feels like I missed an opportunity to have a favourite book back then. Dinosaurs attacking, wars between primitive peoples and other such tales of high adventure would have piqued my immature interest. The story is suitably exciting for the 'boys own' audience, and for younger readers there's plenty to get stuck into. But as a slightly older reader, who has read plenty of better SF from a similar time period, it doesn't quite get me all excited as I would once have been. Which is a real pity.