Filling in the Blank Spaces
In Joseph Conrad’s famous 1899 novella Heart of Darkness the narrator, Marlow, notes that since his childhood the world has become increasingly mapped and explored :
“At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’ The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off”
However, as Marlow goes on to recount his tale of sailing to the “dark” heart of the Congo River, the reader quickly realizes that this is perhaps not quite true (if you haven’t read the book you’ll most likely know its most famous adaptation: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now). There are still places for adventure and exploration…if you know where to look.
But Marlow is correct in stating that in the late nineteenth century the world was becoming a smaller place – transport improvements, communications advances, imperialist expansion, and growing trade networks were all contributing to a more connected world. Out of all this came the “lost world” tale, in which a group of explorers uncovers a lost society in an underground cave, an impenetrable jungle, a vast barren desert, or somewhere equally inaccessible. Usually, and given that these tales emerged from an era of colonialism, the explorers exploit the newly found society in some way and become unimaginably wealthy in the process. The lost world tale was hugely popular in the late nineteenth century and right into the twentieth. British author H. Rider Haggard was a master of the subgenre (with novels like his hugely popular King Solomon’s Mines), and lost world stories proliferated as it seemed like there were fewer and fewer places left to actually find a hidden society.
Conan Doyle’s Lost World
So, when Arthur Conan Doyle published The Lost World in 1912 he was putting his story into a very well-established tradition. Echoing Joseph Conrad, a newspaper editor states at the beginning of Conan Doyle’s tale:
“The big blank spaces in the map are all being filled in, and there’s no room for romance anywhere”
But, of course, that doesn’t deter the narrator, Edward Malone, or the man who leads to expedition: Professor Challenger. In Episode 2 of Words To That Effect (listen here) the Challenger series is discussed. Challenger is nothing like as well-known as Sherlock Holmes but he is certainly Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest creation after the great detective. This world-famous zoologist and polymath is quick-tempered, pompous, arrogant, and prone to passionate and often violent outbursts. He is, in so many respects, the complete opposite to the cool, meticulous, and dispassionate Holmes. Both men, however, take the same rational and scientific approach to their work. In Challenger’s case, it allows him to uncover a lost world of dinosaurs and ape-men on a remote South American plateau.
The Lost World is Conan Doyle at his best and the story has influenced generations of novelists, film-makers and others. Certainly there would be no Jurassic Park without The Lost World and its influence, and that of the subgenre more widely, can be seen in everything from Indiana Jones to Tarzan to Tomb Raider. Lost world stories were also a huge influence on early science fiction, a genre which soon went on to truly explore other worlds far beyond our own planet.
The lost world tale is by now a familiar part of popular culture, and science fiction in particular. There are, of course, few unexplored areas on the surface of the planet today. Perhaps – as Frank Schatzing does in his 2004 bestseller The Swarm – we should be looking instead for lost worlds in that most unexplored part of our planet: the ocean depths.