More Professor Challenger? More stories featuring the gruff but loveable hero of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World? I couldn't believe it. But there it was- a horrible blue-covered 'classics' edition called 'The Lost World and Other Stories', placed innocently on the shelf, like a landmine of shit hiding amidst the snow-white flowers of the beautiful Bosnian landscape. I couldn't say no. How could this go wrong?
First, a little background. The Lost World (written in 1912) has always been one of my favourite old-time adventure novels, ever since I first stole a copy of it from a friend's house when I was in school. It features Doyle's not-quite-as-famous-as-Sherlock-Holmes character, the crackpot zoologist Professor Challenger, and his expedition to discover living dinosaurs in the Amazon rainforests of South America. He's a big, burly bear of a man with a booming voice and an arrogant, ignorant manner. His condescension towards the non-scientific world is legendary. Truly, he's a character who should only ever have been played in film by the legendary Brian Blessed, who's probably too old now. What a missed opportunity (no disrespect to Wallace Beery or Bob Hoskins).
Challenger disappears into the wilds with scant regard for personal safety like a true son of the British Empire, taking with him only a small group of those he trusts the most. Memorable characters include the brave adventurer John Roxton, and Irish journalist Ed Malone.
Roxton, interestingly, is reckoned to have been based on the British consul Roger Casement. As a thumping great Imperialist, Doyle probably had a lot of admiration for Casement's doings in the Congo, especially when he was exposing the cruelty of Leopold's Belgian Congo state. 'Bravo, Casement!', Doyle must have thought, 'show the world that those dastardly unsporting Belgians have no right to harass native citizens of foreign lands!' I wonder if Doyle saw any similarity when Casement was stripped of all honours and executed for conspiring against the British just before the 1916 Rising in Dublin. Hmm.
Malone is interesting chiefly because his involvement in the expedition is an attempt to impress his girl, Gladys. By the time he returns, she has become engaged to someone else. But that's okay, because by that time, Malone has learned that there's no bond like the bond between a bunch of lads that like to go out into the jungle together, shooting newly-discovered animals. Women in these boys-own adventures are strictly a nuisance, especially when they come between lads who just want to go out into the jungle etc...
There's plenty for the Imperialist to enjoy, too. Challenger and co run merrily amok, encountering (and shooting) incredible creatures, naming things after Queen Victoria (well, they would have if it had been ten years earlier...), and carrying out a little social hygiene on species they find to be literally 'sub-human'.
So basically, The Lost World is an absolute classic. It's genuinely thrilling, funny, has great characters, and plenty of that fin-de-siecle adventurous spirit that characterizes British fantastic fiction of the period. The comradery (a special bond within a group that is in no way erotic or homoerotic- thank you, Urban Dictionary!) between the characters is a big part of what makes the novel great. It's the old-fashioned idea that when you've got your buddies around, you can take on the world (as long as there are no troublesome women around!).
Challenger himself is absolutely hilarious, and is really one of the forgotten greats of fiction. Really, for a literary character not to be as famous as Sherlock Holmes is a bit like being a scientist who's not as smart as Einstein. So, hard cheese, old chum, but it's all in good sport, what?
(more to come about Challenger in part 2)