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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known for his Sherlock Holmess, but he wrote many other books as well.  His own favorite was The White Company, a medieval adventure set during the Hundred Years' War.  He also wrote science fiction and horror tales such as "The Horror of the Heights" and "The Terror of Blue John Gap", which anticipate the Cosmic Horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft.

Probably the best-known of his non-Sherlockian works, The Lost World, was written in 1912 and had a lasting influence on adventure fiction.  I think it's safe to say that every tale invovling dinosaurs in the modern age, from Edgar Rice Burroughs's The Land that Time Forgot to Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park owes something to Doyle.  If the book did nothing more than present the idea of a remote plateau in the jungle where prehistoric creatures have survived to the present day, it would be a significant landmark in speculative fiction; but The Lost World did more than that; it introduced the world to the belligerant and bombastic George Edward Challenger.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had a special fondness for Professor Challenger.  Like Holmes, Challenger was based on a former teacher of Doyle's; in his case a professor of physiology named William Rutherford whose striking, broad-shouldered and bushy-bearded appearence and outgoing manner, Doyle ramped up to eleven.  If Huxley was called "Darwin's Bulldog", then George Edward Challenger, (or "GEC" as he likes to call himself), is certainly a charging Rhinoceros.

Doyle had himself photographed dressed up as Challenger to accompany the publication of The Lost World, and I suspect that even more than Holmes, Challenger was a wish-fulfilment character for Doyle.  Professor Challenger gave him outlet to rail at all the things that annoyed him.  If Sherlock Holmes is pure intellect, then Professor Challenger is pure Id -- combined of course with a massive intellect.

Challenger was the central character in two novels, a novella and a couple short stories.  The first, The Lost World (1912), is an exciting adventure story about a trip to the Amazon basin to explore a remote plateau where prehistoric creatures still survive.  We'll be discussing this book further in coming weeks.

Doyle followed up The Lost World with The Poison Belt (1913), a novella with a completely different atmosphere, if that's the word I want.  The action travels no farther than Challenger's country home outside London with an excursion into the city, and most of the plot invovles discussions about the nature of life and death.  

Challenger has discovered that the planet Earth will be passing through a region of space, a "current in the ether", that is inimicable to life.  He invites his companions from the previous adventure to his home where, fortified with bottles of oxygen, he hopes to survive the passage -- at least as long as the oxygen holds out.

He and his companions do survive, and in a creepy, post-apocalyptic section, they drive back into town to witness what has become of civilization.  In what one critic has called an ironic inversion of Darwin's "Survival of the Fittest", the only survivor they find is an invalid old lady with an oxygen bottle of her own.

After several chapters of unrelieved gloom comes the happy revelation that the teeming millions of humanity have not all died; that the Poison Belt the Earth has passed through has merely put them to sleep for a day.  Humankind has gotten a taste of mortality and a glimpse of it's small place in the cosmos.

It was several years later, in 1926, that Doyle wrote The Land of Mist, the last Challenger novel.  By this time, Doyle had become an ardent Spiritualist and the tragic death toll of the Great War lay heavy on his mind.  In this book he has Challenger investigating Spiritualism.  At first he is skeptical debunker, but through the course of the book he becomes convinced of the reality of the Afterlife, encountering the spirit of a one-time assistant whose death he had always secretly blamed himself for.  I find it significant that Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote a similar story in which Sherlock Holmes becomes convinced of Spiritualism.

Professor Challenger appeared twice more in a couple short stories.  In "When the World Screamed" (1928) he develops a theory that the Earth is a living creature and that it's crust is only it's tough skin.  He sets about to drill a hole through the crust; partially to prove his theory, partially to play a practical joke on the London Press Corps, but mostly, it seems, because his ego is so big that he wanted the planet itself to take notice of him.

Doyle's last Professor Challenger tale, "The Disintigration Machine" (1929), is a more conventional science fiction story.  Challenger's friend, the reporter Edward Malone, asks him to come along on an interview of a scientist who has created a device capable of disintigrating and re-assembling matter.  The inventor is a repellant chap who plans to sell his invention, with its horrific military applications, to the highest bidder.  He also uses the device to play a cruel, but funny prank on the Professor.  Challenger takes these affronts with an uncharacteristic calm and the inventor, like most Mad Scientists, comes to a bad end.

The Challenger stories are on the whole entertaining and sadly overlooked, playing with many different aspects of science fiction:  cosmic horror and post-apocalypse; the supernatural; and the dangers of technology; but to my mind and probably the mind of most people who have read them, the first Challenger story remains the best.

NEXT:  Journalist Edward Malone tackles the most dangerous assignment of his career:  interviewing a homocidal evolutionary biologist with the most outrageous scientific claims.  Pack your bags for our expedition to The Lost World:  "There are Heroisms All Round Us".


Everybody likes stories with dinosaurs! Which is your favorite?

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| 42 votes | Vote | Results

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Comment Preferences

  •  Darwin's Tip Jar (19+ / 0-)

    You can find links to previous entries in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Club series here at our Nifty Sci-Fi/Fantasy Index.

    I live for feedback!

    "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

    by quarkstomper on Sun Apr 28, 2013 at 06:07:05 PM PDT

  •  Before I even read this, I just wanted to say that (13+ / 0-)

    your last diary, "They Did Not Die in Vain... Much", was really something.

    Anyone who wants to read you writing about something besides SF should check it out. It says a lot about West, Texas, Rick Perry, the Republicans, bogus patriotic sentiment, and hypocrisy. Well written, quarkstomper.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Sun Apr 28, 2013 at 06:42:11 PM PDT

  •  Man, This is Embarassing (7+ / 0-)

    I forgot to include The Lost World in my poll.  Ah well.  It will be getting enough attention anyway.

    "All the World's a Stage and Everyone's a Critic." -- Mervyn Alquist

    by quarkstomper on Sun Apr 28, 2013 at 06:43:07 PM PDT

    •  I wanted to vote for The Lost World, and had to (8+ / 0-)

      settle for "Jurassic Park."

      I read "The Lost World" while recovering from surgery. There are things we now know to be errors, like Iguanadon standing on their hind legs to browse among the leaves of trees. However, Doyle's book does reflect the scientific thinking of its time, so that's not really a fault.

      There's also one dinosaur unknown at the time and even today that had a head like a frog and jumped around like a kangaroo. Since it was a very large predator, it must have made the ground shake. This one was imaginary, but Challenger explains the fossil record is imperfect and we haven't discovered fossilized remains of this critter yet. Any paleontologist will admit this. Doyle's research was impressive.

      Also, it's a fun read. Prof. Challenger is an asshole but an entertaining one.

      Find out about my next big thing by reading my blog. Link is here:

      by Kimball Cross on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 04:40:39 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Nice to learn more about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (9+ / 0-)

    I was vaguely aware that he'd written other things, and I've seen a picture of fairies that he found convincing - even though it looks to the modern eye like really bad photoshop.

    But he's so much the creator of Sherlock Holmes, that I never think about the rest of it. Thanks for exploring his other sides a bit, before jumping into The Lost World.

    It's not so surprising he's almost synonymous with Holmes. There are few more groundbreaking and influential characters in all of fiction.

    Those stories are completely central to the development mysteries, puzzle novels, police procedurals, thrillers of all kinds. And all the iterations of Holmes, all the characters who grew out of that seed. What a fertile plot Doyle discovered.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Sun Apr 28, 2013 at 06:57:10 PM PDT

    •  Photographing Fairies (8+ / 0-)

      I read a marvelous novel called Photographing Fairies (1992, by Steve Szilagyi) based loosely on the Cottingley Fairies.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle appears briefly in the novel.

      It's written in the style of the time.  IIRC, all the chapter titles begin with "How..." as in "How I found out something worth knowing".  Great read, best enjoyed at the pace of the time -- like The Lost World or a Jules Verne adventure.

      There's a film version of Photographing Fairies but I haven't seen it (or intend to).

      Better to hide your tax returns and be thought a crook than to release them and remove all doubt. [Adapted from Abraham Lincoln]

      by Caelian on Sun Apr 28, 2013 at 08:54:11 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I admit I've never read The Lost World (9+ / 0-)

    Do you actually recommend it, because I'm ready to dial up the library website and press the button!

    •  If Quarkstomper doesn't ... (9+ / 0-)

      ... recommend it, than I will!

      Conan Doyle occupies an interesting place in Pulp Literature, alongside Haggard, Wells, Wallace, Verne, and Jack London.

      Wallace Berry as Prof. Challenger (1925)

      Over time, threads of The Lost World became intertwined with the DNA of adventurous entertainment.

      Millions of us – the majority – must come together to insist that President Obama and the Democrats stand up and fight for the things we sent them there to do ... Michael Moore

      by MT Spaces on Sun Apr 28, 2013 at 08:25:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  This is the one Sir Arthur Conan Doyle book (7+ / 0-)

      that was around my house when I was a kid. I haven't read much Sherlock Holmes, but I'll bet I read The Lost World several dozen times by the time I was a teen.

      Professor Challenger was awesome (in the true sense of the word.) The excitement in the hall full of eminent, doubting scientists -- and then the sailor who "saw the devil between me and the moon!" -- reduced me to helpless laughter every time I read it. It probably still would.

      I LOVE this book!

  •  I much prefer to read about (8+ / 0-)

    vertebrate paleontology for my Dinosaurs and the rest of the Big Weird Dead cool things.

    I will never forget the day I earned fantastic cool points by walking into an exhibit at the museum with my five year old son. "Mommy, what's that?"
    "That is a cast of Chasmosaurus belli, from the bones dug up by Sternberg in 1931. It ate plants and moved like a rhinoceros."
    My son's jaw dropped. Several other kids around said "Oh, COOL! and several parents' eyes widened. And some gave me dirty looks.

    I had been reading about Sternberg the night before or I wouldn't have had it all at my fingertips, but it was a gorgeous skull and way memorable.

    When you come to find how essential the comfort of a well-kept home is to the bodily strength and good conditions, to a sound mind and spirit, and useful days, you will reverence the good housekeeper as I do above artist or poet, beauty or genius.

    by Alexandra Lynch on Sun Apr 28, 2013 at 08:27:21 PM PDT

  •  Hoo-ray for Professor Challenger (8+ / 0-)

    I read The Lost World many decades ago and loved it, especially the ending (which I won't spoil).  Along with the great adventure bits on the Plateau, there's a lot of big-ego infighting among scientists back in London, something instantly recognizable to anyone who has been in academia or other research environment.

    Of the movie treatments, I really like the 1925 "live music" version.  There's a good DVD with great soundtrack by the Alloy Orchestra.  Caelian-Bob says check it out.

    I also liked "When the World Screamed".  Great idea of the world as giant armadillo/blowfish swimming through the Ether.  I suspect Crack in the World (1965) was inspired by it.

    Better to hide your tax returns and be thought a crook than to release them and remove all doubt. [Adapted from Abraham Lincoln]

    by Caelian on Sun Apr 28, 2013 at 08:32:21 PM PDT

  •  Le Voyageur du Mésozoïque (7+ / 0-)

    My favorite dinosaur book is a French/Belgian graphic novel / extended comic strip called Le Voyageur du Mésozoïque [The traveller from the Mesozoic] about hatching a dinosaur egg that was preserved in the Antarctic ice.  It's in the Spirou et Fantasio series, which feature a wonderful impish creature with an absurdly long tail called the Marsupilami.  Don't know if they're available in English.

    French Wikipedia link

    Better to hide your tax returns and be thought a crook than to release them and remove all doubt. [Adapted from Abraham Lincoln]

    by Caelian on Sun Apr 28, 2013 at 08:44:03 PM PDT

  •  Anyone ever read (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MT Spaces, quarkstomper

    this to their kids?  It's a classic.

    April is Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention Month. Every month should be so.

    by Powered Grace on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 05:49:03 AM PDT

  •  That Was Fascinating! (4+ / 0-)

    This from a reader who doesn't read much scifi at all anymore and can't stand dinosaurs in books.  Don't get me started on Jurassic Park!  Yet, I think I glimpsed a headline recently that scientists were debating the ethics of cloning extinct life forms.  That means the possibility exists of making books like the one you diaried about, and the other titles mentioned, less fiction and more fact.

    My gut reaction is "Ugh!"  But who knows?  One thing I can easily imagine if such cloning comes to successful pass.  Every kid will want a pet dinosaur.

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 06:33:39 AM PDT

  •  Thank you for a fun trip down memory lane. There (6+ / 0-)

    was a time as a kid that I absolutely inhaled any and every thing having to do with dinosaurs. I was absolutely convinced that "dinosaur detective" would be my grown-up job description. When I finally realized that dinosaur hunting consisted of digging in the dirt away from amenities such as showers and freshly clean clothes, I settled for just reading about them.

    Although I still watch any new finds or interpretations of old ones on TV, my sci-fi reading now consists more of weres and vamps with fairies and other magical folk showing up occasionally. I think that my adult enjoyment of sci-fi is at least partly based on the "what if" scenarios I learned to love as a kid reading Verne and then others like him.

    I have to also add my thanks for your diary, "They did not die in vain . . . Much," that Brecht singled out up thread.  I was unsure of the protocal, but decided adding my 2¢ here was the best option.

    Perry's unbelievingly unfeeling and self-serving response to the preventable tragedy had me yelling at the TV.  Where'd he go for inspiration? The owners of the Bangladesh factory that burned down and killed millions?

    Your cogent response helped distill my disgust and added another descriptive to add to Perry's list: weasel.  It fits perfectly. Perry consistently shows what a lying hypocritical irresponsible crass corporately-owned & cowardly weasel he is.

    I'm sorry I missed reading your diary in real time. I'm definitely checking out your past diaries I've missed. Thanks for the link in your tip jar.

    "In politics stupidity is not a handicap." Napoleon Bonaparte

    by citylights on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 06:39:08 AM PDT

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