A Ten Minute Guide to: Lost Worlds (2009)

Here’s my penultimate “Ten Minute Guide” from Death Ray, this one from issue #19, very near the end. This one is on that most Victorian of SF subgenres, Lost Worlds.


Move a rock in SF or fantasy and you’re likely to come across anything from a tunnel that leads to fairyland to a rabbithole that twists down to a late-Victorian smack dream. Secret places, they’re big in Death Ray‘s little world. But there’s one peculiarly scientific form of the hidden realm that we’re interested today – The Lost World.

Lost Worlds are a very specific subgenre of SF (and it is SF, no two ways about it), one born in the 19th century out of man’s growing mastery of science and a shrinking world where real wonders had fewer and fewer places to hide. For all that progress was doing back then to throw back the covers of ignorance, the human need for the soft downy bed of the amazing is a persistent one. When we run out places to put dragons on the map, it’ll be a sad day.

Lost Worlds are funny little nooks of the imagination, a blend of fairyland and lecture hall, where scientists can stop between awesome sights to exclaim “Why, it’s a plesiosaurus!”. But unlike a lot of this SF stuff we write about, they are relatively easy to delineate. They’re places that are out of place, out of time, or both. They owe as much to the myths of El Dorado and lost African Kingdoms brimming with gold as they do to Victorian scientific advances. There’s a recipe. To make a lost world, you need: A) An expeditionary team, shipwreck survivors or other ensemble group, to include one scientist, one inquisitive yet poorly educated damsel, one square jawed hero, one traitor, and sundry bipedal examples of dinosaur food. Alternatively or additionally, one ‘Lord of the Apes/Beasts/Dinosaurs’ or other noble white savage type, B) Dinosaurs or other prehistoric beasts to be explained by said professor and to eat said dinosaur food, C) An ancient tribe of humans, lost native kingdom or remnant of an antediluvian civilisation (or all three, at war), one preferably comprised of an extinct branch of humanity that can also be explained by the professor. One member of which to be friendly D) To be lost, naturally…

Ten Essential Questions

 So, where do these ideas come from?

Lost Worlds (great white hunter shoots prehistoric monsters) are a sub-genre of Victorian Romantic Adventure (great white hunter shoots elephants and, er, the locals). Unsurprisingly they became popular as real adventurers were filling in the last bits of the world map. They bear the heavy hand of three sciences: Archaeology – Victorians were uncovering fantastic ruins from bygone eras, like Troy and the jungle-hidden temples of Khajuraho in India. Paleontology – the world was marveling at dinosaurs for the first time, and geology. And by gad, those Victorians liked to educate us!

Who wrote first one?

The first book that has the whole shebang was Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), which, at its core (arf!), is a platform to explain the scientific ideas of the day. They were a bit off. Arthur Conan Doyle further defined the genre, and Edgar Rice Burroughs exploited it.

There are several kinds of Lost World, aren’t there?

There’s your archetypal Lost World, which is in some isolated spot. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912) being the paradigm – that’s on a plateau deep in the jungle. Another popular kind is the ‘hollow Earth’. This was actually a scientific theory for a few hundred years, and as an idea was allegedly popular with Adolf Hitler. Edgar Rice Burrough’s Pellucidar, a Mongo-like realm that first appeared in At the Earth’s Core (1914) is the model here. A third predominant sort is ‘The Lost Kingdom’, where a hidden society, often antique in style, exists in the mountains, jungle or under the sea. Atlantis, DC’s Themyscira (home of the Amazons) and Marvel’s Nova Roma are examples of this.

These lost kingdoms, they’re not always SF are they?

No, not always. A non-fantastical example is that of Kafiristan in Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King (1888), which is populated by descendants of Alexander the Great’s army. H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines sits in the middle, the kingdom in that has no real fantasy elements, but the book is part of a series in which the fantastical frequently occurs. Others are full on unreal places, like James Gurney’s Dinotopia.

It’s not a dead genre then? I mean, all that stuff is old!

Far from it! There was a big revival of lost world fiction in the 1970s, mostly through films starring Doug McClure, as well as Jim O’Connolly’s fantastic 1969 cowboy effort, Valley of the Gwangi, with its ace Ray Harryhausen dinosaurs.

That was quite a while ago…

Okay more recently, the Indiana Jones films and Peter Jackson’s King Kong both fit into the genre.

But it is trapped in aspic – Kong was a remake, Jones a rehash of old serials…

Michael Crichton created a truly modern ‘lost world’ with his Jurassic Park books. (He had already more directly tackled the genre’s heart of darkness with the not-so-good Congo in 1980). There were ‘hidden kingdoms’ in The Man from Atlantis in the ’70s, Mysterious Cities of Gold in the late ’80s, and 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire from Disney. The idea is alive and well in comics. Just ask Ka-Zar, Lord of the Savage Land, or Wonder Woman.

That’s not really a thriving oevre now, is it?

By Jove, you are argumentative this month! Okay, it is perhaps slightly unmodish, but its appeal remains: the tantalising idea that there might be more to the world than we know about. It’s the same imperative that sends people looking for the Yeti.

I remain to be convinced.

Fair enough, most of the new stuff will always be fond remakes and Victoriana pastiches, but look at Lost. That’s surely the post-modern version of the ‘lost world’ story. The island is the ultimate hidden kingdom – so secret, it moves!

Yeah? So what?

Tomb Raider and other games also enjoy plundering this subgenre. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!

Four Top Lost World Tales

Lost Worlds in novels

At The Earth’s Core (1914)

by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Though most famous through Tarzan’s visit there, Burrough’s Pellucidar was actually discovered by inventor Abner Perry and mining heir David Innes, who use an ‘iron mole’ to burrow 500 miles into the Earth’s crust in At The Earth’s Core. Pellucidar is a mirror image of Earth’s outside, with the seas of the surface forming its continents, and vice versa. It boasts a complicated political landscape, with numerous races of men and non-human sentients, including the Mahar, dangerous psychic flying reptiles. The core was later reached by airship through a polar hole, by which means Tarzan, Burrough’s most famous creation, went to Pellucidar to help rescue Perry and Innes.

The Lost World (1912)

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes creator and fairy-fancier Doyle penned this tale about dinosaurs in the Venezualan jungle, isolated atop a plateau for literally thousands of millennia. In the spirit of the genre they share their home with a tribe of primitive natives and another of ape-men. It’s visited by a rambunctious professor by the name of Challenger, and the journalist Edward Malone, eager to impress his girlfriend and win a big scoop. It’s been adapted numerous times for TV, film and radio, with the likes of Patrick Bergin, Armin Shimmerman, Bob Hoskins, John Rhys Davies and Claude Rains, among others, playing Challenger.

At the Mountains of Madness (1931)

by H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft made a fantastically oblique use of lost worlds in his fiction. We very rarely get to fully see the worlds of which his dream-voyagers, investigators and academics find hints. But the terror Lovecraft whips up with these tentative glimpses of rotting civilisations and degenerate star beings is extraordinary.

Inspired, in part, by Burrough’s At The Earth’s Core, At the Mountains of Madness has archeologists uncovering a shattered city in the depths of Antarctica. Within, the evidence of ancient struggles between ‘The Elder Things’ who founded the place, the Mi-Go and the Starspawn, other extraterrestrial races who followed later. It’s all presented in Lovecraft’s rolling purple prose via a first person narrative that purports to be the journal of the geologist William Dyer. As always with H.P., the story builds from terse science-speak to a towering mountain of hysteria. It also has six-foot-tall, blind penguins, which is bonus.

Jurassic Park (1990)

by Michael Crichton

More recent times have provided great barriers to the lovers of Lost Worlds, like, there really aren’t many places on the globe left where such things could be found. Michael Crichton got round this by creating his own. In the book, geneticists in thrall to Mammon inadvisedly re-engineer a shitload of dinosaurs for a theme park which, this being a Michael Crichton book, predictably goes wrong. As we all know, the book was successfully filmed by Steven Spielberg, and made veritable piles of moolah.

Crichton went so far as to recycle Doyle’s Novel title for his sequel (produced at Spielberg’s urging), where a second island is revealed. As this Isla Sorna has been abandoned for some time, it is even wilder than the first and the book is therefore arguably more in the ‘lost world’ mould than the original Jurassic Park.

Doug McClure

If one actor epitomises the Lost World sub genre, that actor is Doug McClure. One of the inspirations behind The Simpsons‘ Troy McClure, he was, to be honest, a lesser star, but in the 1970s he appeared in a string of awesome (okay, hokey) Lost World style adventures. Three were produced by the British Amicus Productions, mostly known for being the rivals to Hammer Studios. All three Amicus films were based on Edgar Rice Burroughs novels and directed by Kevin Connor – The Land That Time Forgot (1975), At the Earth’s Core (1976), and The People That Time Forgot (1977). After this terrific trio, Connor and McClure took their peculiar brand of rubber-monster magic to EMI to make Warlords of Atlantis (1978). Unfortunately, there their paths parted. McClure kept up his monster work though, dying in 1996 after a long career in TV and pretty shoddy B-movies.


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