Thursday, September 20, 2018

Conan Doyle’s mistake

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is famous as the author of the character Sherlock Holmes, the detective who relies on logic to solve the most abstruse cases, as in the famous quote from the story The adventure of the blanched soldier, included in the collection The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes:
When you have eliminated all that is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
Apart from his mystery books, one of his science fiction novels is also very well known: The Lost World, published in 1912, whose protagonist is Professor Challenger, an unbearable scientist, who also appears in other stories by Doyle. This is the plot of The Lost World:
A group of explorers manages to reach an almost inaccessible mesa, lost in the Amazon rainforest, so isolated that dinosaurs and other extinct animals survive there, as well as two races of humans or primitive pre-humans (Pithecanthropus and Homo sapiens). After they manage to escape and return to England, Challenger gives a lecture about his findings, which nobody takes seriously until he exhibits a specimen of Pterosaur that he managed to take from the mesa in the form of an egg, later incubated.

The survival of extinct animals in remote places of the globe goes back to Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, where the explorers witness the fight between a plesiosaur and an ichthyosaur in an underground sea, deeply sunk under Europe.
Conan Doyle’s novel has influenced literature and cinema. In 1914, just two years after its publication, Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of Tarzan, published At the Earth’s Core, probably influenced by the two above mentioned books. In this novel, he combines the theory of the hollow Earth (see an earlier post in this blog) with the survival of dinosaurs and other extinct animal species. This book became the first of a series of seven, known by the name given by its inhabitants to the hollow Earth: Pellucidar.
Burroughs returned to the subject in 1916 with the first book of his Caspak trilogy (The land that time forgot). Caspak is an unknown and inaccessible continent in the South Pacific (!!!) where there are extinct animals, although the reason is quite different from other similar novels: in that continent, evolution does not act on species, but on individuals. Although all are born in the form of fish, some leave the water and become reptiles (including dinosaurs). Those that mature further move across the continent and become first mammals, then apes, primitive men, and modern men. But their evolution does not end there, for a few end up becoming vampire-like beings equipped with wings and able to fly. Perhaps Burroughs believed that this will be the final result of the future evolution of our species.
Coming back to Conan Doyle’s novel, we can find in its plot a few mistakes, some of which go beyond the usual limits of the reader’s credulity. Let us take a look at them:
·         The mix of species from different times and parts of the world. In the Amazonian plateau the explorers found, not just dinosaurs (species from both the Jurassic and the Cretaceous), but also giant Miocene birds (Phorusrhacos), giant Eurasian deer of the Pliocene, and saber-toothed tigers and giant armadillos of the Pleistocene (these really lived in the American continent).
·         Pithecanthropus (now called Homo erectus) lived in Asia and Africa about one million years ago. It is highly unlikely that they ever reached America.
·         But the biggest failure of the novel is the presence of Pterosaurs, the flying reptiles of the Mesozoic that play such an important role in the outcome of the plot. If there were Pterosaurs at the top of that inaccessible mesa, they would have spread throughout South America, for they could fly! This little detail greatly reduces the credibility of the novel.
Among modern influences of The Lost World we can mention Michael Crichton’s use of its title in the second and third part of his trilogy, that began with Jurassic Park. Another influence is the 2002 animated film Dinosaur Island, which although follows fairly closely the plot of Doyle’s book, replaces the characters in the novel by four young people (two boys and two girls) who are taking part in a reality show. The film makes the same mistake of putting pterosaurs in the mesa, and replaces the pithecanthropus by Homo habilis, an exclusively African species, which makes it practically impossible for them to have reached America. Modern humans, on the other hand, have been eliminated.
But Conan Doyle’s biggest mistake was letting himself be fooled by mediums and other supporters of spiritualism. As a consequence, he became its tireless advocate, both in real life and in stories, such as his short novel The land of mist, where professor Challenger reappears, together with several characters from The Lost World. In this work, Doyle asserts that spiritualism is about to become a science that will revolutionize our lives.

The same post in Spanish
Thematic Thread on Literature and Cinema: Previous Next
Manuel Alfonseca

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