Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Lost World & Other Stories

Arthur Conan Doyle is primarily known for creating Sherlock Holmes, and the sheer number and quality of stories he turned out with that protagonist would be enough to give any writer enduring fame, even if he'd never written anything else.

It turns out, though, that Conan Doyle wrote a mind-boggling number and range of books and stories*.  His historical novels, which include The White Company and Sir Nigel, are right up there with any other historical fiction you could find: they're accurate to their periods, exciting, funny, and expressive of great emotional range all in equal measure.  I recall the Napoleonic Brigadier Gerard stories, which I admit I haven't read in about a decade, as being a cross between Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time and Don Quixote, with a dash of P.G. Wodehouse thrown in.

And then there are his adventure stories and science fiction, which include The Lost World and the other stories published in this volume.  Anyone who's read and enjoyed the works of H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, or H.G. Wells, whose books are the best comparisons I can think of for this one (and which are probably good comparisons, since both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, I now realize, are mentioned on the back cover of my copy of the book), will either already know about The Lost World or will be delighted to hear that it exists.

In The Lost World, the belligerent, bristling, and brilliant Professor Challenger sets off to find a part of the Amazon jungle rumored to contain prehistoric fauna - living dinosaurs, in short, an idea that sets London afire with speculation.  He and his companions, journalist Edward Malone, Professor Summerlee, and big-game hunter Lord John Roxton, are a strangely assorted bunch; Professor Challenger, who is perhaps even more of a genius than he arrogantly believes himself to be, bullies and insults them all throughout.  In the hands of a writer as skilled and imaginative as Conan Doyle, this group might make for entertaining reading even if all they did was go to the grocery store.  Add in some pterodactyls, and believe me, the use of pterodactyls in this story is epic, and the book's dynamite.

I mentioned in a previous post that Conan Doyle was the only author I've read who consistently makes his genius characters seem believable.  Sherlock Holmes is one; Professor Challenger is another.  It's clear to me, both from Conan Doyle's characters and from the breadth and depth of his own intellectual pursuits, that he was quite the genius himself, and not just a genius of a writer.

The other stories in this volume feature the same characters, and The Poison Belt, The Disintegration Machine, and When the World Screamed all live up to the standard of quality set by the title story.  The volume's one weak point is The Land of Mist, which features spiritualism as its main theme.  Conan Doyle was quite the spiritualist and student of the paranormal, and he wrote several books attempting to validate the existence of paranormal phenomena and convince the skeptics.  Those books, or at least the ones I've actually seen and read, are weird beyond my ability to describe**, but at the very least they were openly written as arguments for the existence of spirits and similar.  The Land of Mist is a spiritualist manifesto masquerading as fiction.  Its essential dishonesty, if you're aware of Conan Doyle's leanings, lessens it greatly as a story, and the plodding earnestness with which it's written makes it dull.

I can't recommend the book too highly, however, and anyone who's missing out on Professor Challenger and company is missing one of the greatest treats in speculative fiction.  Five stars, both overall and within its genre.

* Wikipedia, as usual, has a carefully categorized and to my knowledge complete bibliography.

** I thought The Coming of the Fairies, which I was lucky enough to find a rare copy of many years ago (it has since been reprinted), was a joke until I looked it up.

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