The 1912 Novel
Since the invention of his masterful detective, the name of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been synonymous with that of Sherlock Holmes. However, even in the course of writing his adventures, Conan Doyle resented the literary typecasting. Despite his best efforts - including a knighthood for writing propaganda during the Boer War - the association could not be thwarted. Conan Doyle tried to murder Holmes in 1893's The Final Problem, only to resurrect him by public demand in 1903's Adventure of the Empty House. His best efforts were not in vain, as they produced one of the great enduring classics of Scientific Romance.
Pulling together numerous strands of influences, Conan Doyle inaugurated a whole genre in speculative fiction: the lost world tale, so-named for his 1912 novel, The Lost World. Though roughly preceded by the works of Jules Verne and Sir H. Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle essentially crafted the story of the Victorian-Edwardian explorers heading to far-off lands where dinosaurs and other fantastic and prehistoric life still rules. Those influences were so diverse that it is difficult to know where to start.
Perhaps the first is with the inspiration for Conan Doyle's second great character after the great detective. Professor George Edward Challenger was practically everything that Holme was not. While both men were preternaturally brilliant, Challenger was a bullish ruffian who had little patience for anybody and none whatsoever for members of the press. Short and stocky with a thick black beard, he was loud, brash, condescending and everything Conan Doyle himself secretly wished to be. In fact, the author would dress up as his character and call upon unawares friends in order to test their courtesy. The inspiration for Challenger came from one of the professors Conan Doyle suffered while studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, who went by the name of William Rutherford and whose echo the fellow student Robert Louis Stevenson immediately recognized in The Lost World's protagonist.
We are introduced to Challenger and his overblown claims of a plateau in South America where dinosaurs walk the earth by the reporter Edward Dunn Malone. This youthful member of the press, who Challenger sent tumbling down the stairs in a fistfight, was inspired by E.D. Morel. Morel, also a British journalist, was a tireless activist and prior to supporting the pacifist movement in WWI, joined with Roger Casement in an anti-slavery campaign against the Congo Free State.
Casement, in turn, inspired Lord John Roxton, the debonair and aristocratic gentleman hunter who accompanies the Challenger Expedition into the heart of the Amazon. After working on the issue of the Congo, Casement turned his attention to the issue of Native exploitation in Peru under the auspices of the British Peruvian Amazon Company. The incident also worked its way into The Lost World and the righteous background of Roxton. Unfortunately for Casement, these experiences soured him to the exercise of British Imperialism and he was executed in 1916 as an Irish Republican traitor to the Crown.
Thus were the characters. Next to come was the setting. For the most part, the 1905 textbook Extinct Animals by Edwin Ray Lankester provided the necessary scientific information by which Conan Doyle populated his plateau. Some illustrations were practically plagiarized for inclusion in the media of the serialized story, which had an impressive array of "journal sketches", maps and formal illustrations by Harry Rountree. Lankester didn't mind it though. On the contrary, he carried on a correspondence with Conan Doyle and suggested various beasts for him. Extinct Animals is the only source directly mentioned in The Lost World and Lankester the only academic peer who Challenger did not ruthlessly insult.
One creature not accounted for in Extinct Animals was the scientific find of the century, which turned out not to be very far from Conan Doyle's own home. In the nearby gravel pits of Piltdown, the skull of the missing link between man and ape was discovered. Piltdown Man would eventually be revealed as a fraud, of course. The fault was that he was made to resemble what scientific theory thought at the time was the course of human evolution, in which the large brain developed first, followed by the bipedal, human body.Increasing finds out of Africa showed the opposite trend, and finally radiometric dating exposed the contrived artifice of Piltdown Man. None of this was Conan Doyle's disposal, however, and Piltdown Man became the type of the ape man that menaces the expedition. In fact, some armchair Sherlockians have speculated that Conan Doyle may himself have been implicated in the fraud.
The most direct inspiration, the one that touched off Conan Doyle's writing, was a set of Iguanodon tracks that had pressed themselves into the petrified clay of Sussex. While England was still a swampy Jurassic wetland, a herd of these earliest described dinosaurs passed within miles of what would, millennia later, be Conan Doyle's estate. The mystique of these proved too much for the imaginative author. A cast of one of the prints adorned his mantle, an image of the trackway adorned the cover of the first printing of The Lost World, and a trackway of Iguanodon prints - along with their makers - were the first sign of life encountered by the Challenger expedition on reaching the plateau.
These influences together resulted in a work of first rate Scientific Romance. Unlike later Challenger Adventures, such as The Poison Belt and When the World Screamed, the science in The Lost World is top-notch based on what was known at the time. The credibility of a prehistoric Sussex populated with a mix of British and American saurians in the depths of South America was strained, of course, but in each element Conan Doyle took the considerable effort to research his subjects. Verisimilitude was added by fictionalizing the lives of Morel and Casement and the hardened culture of tropic regions they experienced. The Lost World becomes a clinic in how to write ripping good Sci-Fi.
Jules Verne pioneered this whole type of Science Fiction with his Voyages Extraordinaires, let alone the lost world tale, the purpose of which publisher Jules Hetzel described as: "To outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format...the history of the universe." The astonishing inventions of Verne, like the Nautilus and the Columbiad space gun, were little more than plot devices that permitted the story to recount these scientific facts for a hungry and literate public. The Lost World is much the same. The plateau is a plot device to recount the mysterious realms of far flung jungles and far flung antiquity, which Conan Doyle rigorously studied. Really good, really stirring, really lovable Science Fiction has rarely departed from this formula.
For more on the 1912 novel, subscribe to this weblog and peruse our archives!