Book Review

21/07/2011 § Leave a comment

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Doyle is best known for bringing to life the incomparable Sherlock Holmes. He would eventually come to resent Holmes, believing himself to be bound to a character that was considerably more popular than he ever intended, and more shallow than his other works. In fact, Doyle preferred writing what is now known as science fiction to writing his mysteries.

And one does get the sense that Doyle was a man in love with the rationalist mindset. This is certainly seen in the Sherlock Holmes stories, for Holmes was concerned with logic and rationality above all else. But this mindset is put on even starker display in The Lost World, for in it Doyle allows himself to get carried away in making the story not simply about dinosaurs and lost species, but about the need to trust science above all else.

The story starts off with a young man named Edward Malone talking to a young lady named Gladys, whom he desperately wants to impress. He is very deferent to her, and only wants to please her, so he asks her what he must do in order to be found attractive in her eyes. She tells him that he needs to be adventurous and brave, discontent to simply live in the same routine day after day. Malone takes this to heart and sets off in search of adventure. He tracks down Professor George Challenger, who is ostracized from London’s scientific community because of the “preposterous” claim that he discovered several life forms thought to be long dead.

When Malone interviews Challenger, Challenger launches on a lengthy spiel about how the scientific community in London (and, by extension, England) is close-minded and shallow, incapable of believing the evidence that was presented to them. Challenger soon takes an opportunity to publicly defend himself among his peers, and he is mocked and roundly criticized by Professor Summerlee, who is one of the foremost scientific minds in London. Frustrated with his attempts at convincing the skeptical, he invites Malone and Summerlee, as well as a few others, to join him on a trip to the Amazon where he will prove conclusively that he is telling the truth.

Since Malone is in search of adventure, he readily agrees to go and seek out the supposedly lost world with Challenger. The bulk of the story then concerns the travel to and discovery of the lost world. The lost world contains many life forms and species once thought dead, and is thus fraught with peril. Fortunately, the caravan is accompanied by an adventurer named Lord Roxton.

The group does indeed conform that Challenger is telling the truth, and they manage to escape from the lost world and bring back evidence of their discovery. Again, Challenger presents his case to the foremost scientific minds in London, only to be ridiculed again, even though Summerlee and Roxton swear to the validity of Challenger’s claims. Challenger then plays a trump card in the form of releasing into the crowd a pterodactyl that they captured in the lost world. This is evidence enough for the scientific community, and Challenger and Summerlee are immediately celebrated as heroes and geniuses. They also become remarkably wealthy as a result of their findings.

The book closes with Malone returning to see Gladys, and tell her of his adventure in the Amazon. Unfortunately, Gladys got married while Malone was gone, and so his hopes of wooing her are dashed. Interestingly, this is not as disappointing to him as one might suspect, for he resolves himself to seeking once more after adventure. He finds Roxton and tells him that he is game for whatever adventure he would wish to pursue, and so he and Roxton then make plans to explore Africa.

This book is an interesting read because of how Doyle views science. Doyle was very much in love with rationalism, and so he embraced the ideals of the scientific method. Yet, unlike many science fetishists today, Doyle was able to see quite clearly how human nature can never be fully eradicated from any discipline. The scientists that Doyle describes in the book are selfish and self-indulgent, and disparaging of outsiders. Anything that challenges the orthodoxy is to be mocked and ostracized. Not much has changed today.

Doyle also realizes that there is a thin line between faith and proof. The reason Challenger was rejected at the first was because his proof was worthless. He claimed to have taken pictures of the fantastic animals and plants that he claimed to have seen, and that these pictures were damaged when his canoe capsized on the return trip home. He was not accompanied by another scientist, so there was no one to verify his story, and the only proof that survived the trip was part of a pterodactyl wing, which many experts said could easily have been faked, and was anatomically wrong anyway because pterodactyls did not have feathers and Challenger’s wing did. Challenger was obviously in the right, but his proof was insufficient at first, and so he was essentially asking his fellow scientists to have faith in him.

Finally, Doyle manages to show that he is the master observer of human nature. Though Gladys only appears briefly, Malone’s interactions with her reveal a glimpse at woman’s true nature. Though Gladys obviously enjoyed Malone’s company, she was not attracted to him because he was, in a word, boring. He had an almost insignificant job at a newspaper, and stuck to his boring routine. He had no sense of adventure, and was completely uninteresting. Doyle, probably from experience, knew that women are attracted to brave, adventurous, exciting men. This is what Gladys wanted Malone to know, and is a lesson that all young men today should learn as well.

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