The Lost World: The Land of Mist


Pseudo-Science and Science Fiction

"Life was a beautiful thing. The man who appreciated its real duties and beauties would have sufficient to employ him without dabbling in pseudo sciences which had thier roots in frauds, exposed already a hundred times and yet finding fresh crowds of foolish devotees whose insane credulity and irrational prejudice made them impervious to all arguement."

These words, spoken by Professor Challenger in The Land of Mist, are, at heart, a wonderful clarion call to investigating and enjoying the wonders and majesty of the natural world as it is. Unfortunately, they came as part of a text in which the authour was attempting to validate these pseudo-sciences to readers through the very conversion of Professor Challenger himself.

As much as one would like to maintain a basic level of respect for others and their beliefs even as they disagree about them, it is sad to see that someone like Conan Doyle could write such a poetic statement and then immediately become one of the "foolish devotees" it condemns. Even moreso after the triumph of Science Fiction that is The Lost World.

So much of what makes The Lost World work so well as a novel - and subsequently why the remainder of the Challenger Adventures have never quite captured the imagination the same way - is because of Conan Doyle's meticulous palaeontological and naturalistic research. While on first glance the story may appear to be a simple cryptozoological adventure, nothing could be further from the truth. With The Lost World, Conan Doyle tapped into the public's vibrant interest in palaeontology, discovery, human origins, and exotic lands and peoples.

Jules Verne pioneered this "Science Fiction" with his Voyages Extraordinaires, the purpose of which publisher Jules Hetzel described as: "To outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format...the history of the universe." The astonishing inventions of Verne, like the Nautilus and the Columbiad space gun, were little more than plot devices that permitted the story to recount these scientific facts for a hungry and literate public.

The Lost World is much the same. Maple White Land is a plot device to recount the mysterious realms of far flung jungles and far flung antiquity, which Conan Doyle rigorously studied. Along with the apparatus of mock-photos, maps and illustrations, the verisimilitude of the text is what captivated young and old in 1912. The cryptozoology is a means to fixate the imagination on exotic natives and their jungle home, the amazing beasts of the past and the mysteries of human origins.

Really good, really stirring, really lovable Science Fiction has rarely departed from this formula. Sometimes its visions have been dystopian and challenging, but ultimately it always affirms what Professor Challenger observed: life is beautiful. In the piously irreverent Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton tries his hand at poetry: "It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, a creature who does not exist. It is another thing to discover that the rhinoceros does exist and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn't."

The Land of Mist misses out on this grand tradition and grander philosophy. It is little more than a tract for Spiritualism, attempting to prove a pseudo-scientific theory in a fictional framework, rehashing frauds exposed a hundred times over in the hopes of finding fresh crowds of foolish devotees. It may be an interesting look into the psychology of belief in Spiritualism, but its hodge-podge of thinly veiled evangelism fails to impress, and even worse, fails to stir.

After the publication of The Poison Belt in 1913, there was a 13 year gap in which nothing was heard from Professor George Edward Challenger. Then in 1926, perhaps in reaction to the success of the Lost World film in 1925, he surfaced again. However, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who saw much of himself (or who he wanted to be) in the good professor, acknowledged the passage of time by turning Challenger's world upside down. Both Mrs. Challenger and Professor Summerlee have passed away, and from nowhere we are introduced to the hitherto unknown daughter, Enid Challenger.

Furthermore, one doesn't get very far into the text before the strong impression is given that The Land of Mist is intended to take place in an alternate continuity. The book begins with the following paragraph:

The great Professor Challenger has been- very improperly and imperfectly- used in fiction. A daring author placed him in impossible and romantic situations in order to see how he would react to them. He reacted to the extent of a libel action, an abortive appeal for suppression, a riot in Sloane Street, two personal assaults, and the loss of his position as lecturer upon Physiology at the London School of Sub-Tropical Hygiene. Otherwise, the matter passed more peaceably than might have been expected.
This alone would be enough to cast suspicion, if not for another two subsequent passages that further affirm the notion that the previous two Challenger adventures were, as far as this story was concerned, utter fiction. The first of these two is in the Professor's response to the supposed channeling of the recently deceased Professor Summerlee at a Spiritualist church:
Good Heavens, where are your brains? Have not the names of Summerlee and Malone been associated with my own in some peculiarly feeble fiction which attained some notoriety?...
The third instance reaffirms this, but also proceeds to raise some other serious questions about what exactly is the nature of the little world of The Land of Mist. While discussing plans to investigate a haunted house (the only good sequence in the entire novel in the opinion of this author), Lord Roxton quips to Malone: "Well, you can write an adventure that is not perfect bilge for a change- what!..." Altogether, this and the odd continuity gaps seem to affirm that The Lost World and The Poison Belt are in a separate world from The Land of Mist.

The thesis is not without its faults, and these comments sprinkled throughout the text seem to contradict eachother and the status quo of the characters' relationships. Malone and Professor Challenger are friends in The Land of Mist, yet the statement of Roxton all but affirms that Malone was the one who, as we are lead to believe in the Challenger adventure canon, wrote the two infamous stories. One wonders how this could be so considering that Challenger sued and attacked the mysterious author, unless Roxton was having fun at the expense of Malone being a newspaperman and not implicating that he was the authour of The Lost World.

But even then if the events of The Lost World never happened in The Land of Mist, how did Malone and Challenger, who has a reputed distaste for reporters (to the extent of throwing them down flights of stairs), become friends? How did Malone and Roxton? Challenger's diatribe about Summerlee implies that they had never actually shared any such impossible and romantic adventures together. These are questions that are given no discernable answer in The Land of Mist.

There are also signifigant conceptual differences between this and the other Challenger adventures. Whereas the rest are fantastical science adventures, The Land of Mist is little more than pro-Spiritualist propaganda (written by somebody who recieved a Knighthood for writing propaganda no less). The progression of the story, based on its subject matter, is different as well; changing from a linear story to a collection of little "anecdotes" that happen to culminate with the conversion of Professor Challenger. The narration style had changed from being the first person account of Malone to some unknown and semi-omnipotent third person.

The Land of Mist's separation from the body of the true Challenger adventures is further compounded by the fact that the following two adventures, The Disintegration Machine and When the World Screamed, fully and completely confirm that The Land of Mist is a different continuity. Perhaps Conan Doyle recognized his error and backtracked on his misuse of the Challenger characters to further his Spiritualist interests. Nevertheless, Mrs. Challenger is alive and well and ready to take after anybody who would dirty her house in When the World Screams. The converted Challenger proclaims that he does not believe in any of that spiritual nonsense in The Disintegration Machine. Malone, who had lost all newspaper ties at the conclusion of The Land of Mist, was working diligintly for the Gazette in both. While it is possible to consider that The Land of Mist took place in continuity after these latter two adventures, (though it was published before them) it is a consideration that does not hold for very long. There were just two absurd stories that incurred the wrath of the Professor, and Professor Summerlee was in both, whereas he was not in The Disintegration Machine or When the World Screamed.

In conclusion, despite all the conradictions of the contradictions, The Land of Mist is, thankfully, removed from the body of the Challenger adventures. When one consideres Conan Doyle's motives for writing it - in the wake of his conversion to Spiritualism and the popularity of the film version of The Lost World - it becomes apparent that he wished to write a story to relate his experiences, and his character of choice was George Edward Challenger. Kelvin I Jones, author of Conan Doyle & The Spirits: The Spiritualist Career of Sherlock Holmes, notes that:

I always thought that ACD used Challenger for two reasons. First, Challenger was distinctly like himeself in many ways: bluff, adventurous etc. But also Challenger was a bereaved man (as Doyle was: ref his son Kingsley). But secondly, Challenger was a man of great emotion, although ostensibly a rationalist. In his early (Portsmouth) days ACD was much like this: quite unable to accept the truth of spiritualism at that time but always seeking. Challenger therefore, more than Holmes, has more distinct links with his creator regarding ACD's spiritualist side. Holmes would have been too much a rationalist: too aloof, too cut off from his emotions. He was too firmly cast by the time ACD decided to write a novel re spiritualism.
This use of Challenger was probably intentional at first, but when it was negatively recieved, Conan Doyle wrote a pair of apologetic stories. It is obvious, though, that he did not wish that this story be considered on the same level, as the same kind of story, as The Lost World; and he rectified this later with the following exploits of our favorite Neanderthal in a lounge suit.

Review and sidebar by Cory Gross.

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