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Lost Races

Entry updated 27 November 2023. Tagged: Theme.


The lost-race sf theme goes hand in hand with that of the Lost World; there are few lost worlds, lands, continents, Islands, or regions Underground (see Hollow Earth) which do not come equipped with one or more indigenous races ripe for First Contact and perhaps displaying interesting quirks for the student of Anthropology.

The famous eighteenth-century precursors of the theme, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735) and Robert Paltock's The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1751), should not perhaps be termed lost-race tales because – just as in much Proto SF – there was still a sense that vast tracts of Earth remained unexplored and that marvels could still be expected somewhere over the horizon. Only in a mostly known world does the presence of a forgotten people inhabiting a kind of Pocket Universe generate its special sf piquancy. Nineteenth-century examples were thus increasingly numerous, especially later in the century, and the theme remained popular well into the twentieth century despite the dwindling number of plausibly unexplored locations, even in the interiors of Africa and South America or the Himalayan fastnesses. The Lost Tribes of Israel were apt to be found almost anywhere.

Only very occasional lost-race novels have appeared since World War Two. Ian Cameron's The Lost Ones (1961; vt Island at the Top of the World 1968; rev 1974) is set in the Arctic and was filmed by Disney as The Island at the Top of the World (1974) directed by Robert Stevenson. Stones of Enchantment (1948) by Wyndham Martyn, The City of Frozen Fire (1950) by Vaughan Wilkins, Lost Island (1954) by Graham McInnes and The Rose of Tibet (1962) by Lionel Davidson seem rather old-fashioned. Gilbert Phelps's The Winter People (1963), though, is an intelligent novel about an eccentric South American explorer and his discovery of a remarkable tribe. Stephen Tall's The People beyond the Walls (1980) is a remarkably late example. Generally, though, postwar lost-race stories edge close to pastiche; several examples are given in the Hollow Earth entry.

The fact that this species of fantasy was so little influenced by scientific thought may be a result of its being largely anachronistic (and therefore implausible) from its beginnings. Once Transportation technology had allowed Phileas Fogg to achieve his object, the lost-world fantasy owed more to the desire that enclaves of mystery should exist than to the likelihood that they did. Even from the point of view of sociological or political thought-experiments, the genre had surprisingly little to offer. The lost-race story is obviously an opportunity for the setting up of imaginary Utopias and Dystopias, but these elements are not as common as might be expected, and most of the stories listed above – which include the best-remembered classics of the genre – are quite straightforward romantic adventure. It has been suggested, too, that such stories allow exercises in imaginary cultural Anthropology, but few of these stories are of any real interest in this respect – an exception being the late example Providence Island: An Archaeological Tale (1959) by Jacquetta Hawkes – and they have more to offer the student of popular mythology – in which context they are discussed by Brian Street in The Savage in Literature (1975).

What sadly cannot be disputed is that throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century the category as a whole served as a hothouse for some of the less attractive consequences of the sometime marriage between Fantastika and Imperialism, its texts promulgating an astonishing array of racist arguments and assumptions (see Race in SF), perhaps in part because nineteenth-century Europeans in general, caught as they were in the climactic decades of empire building, had become pathologically incapable of perceiving any angle of vision that might disqualify their sense of proper sovereignty over the world and its "lesser" races. As far as individual Lost Race tales go, the implications of this blindness vary according to geography. Tales featuring Ancient Egyptians or survivors of Atlantis, which all but their most naive readers knew from the first were confabulations, remain relatively harmless as artefacts of the romantic impulse of earlier generations. But no Lost World novel set further south in "Darkest Africa" will have much to say about those millions of square miles that does not make for embarrassed reading a century later. Tales set in India and the Far East condescend more complexly, and are in any case interfused with Yellow Peril topoi.

Lost Race tales set in America necessarily depict civilizations mutilated centuries previous beyond easy recognition, and whose huge contribution to the rich civilizations that succeeded them seemed indecipherable to authors of romances set in the immense and fractally complex southern two-thirds of the Americas; it might be noted en passant that almost all authors of Fantastika in Latin America have eschewed the Lost Race novel. Such tales, written in English, usually feature fragments of Aztec or Mayan or Incan civilizations that have survived in secret; these tales are almost always seen through a patriarchal, missionary-Christian, Imperialist lens guaranteed to travesty any portrait drawn. As argued by recent scholars like Mariá Rostworowski (1915-2016), in books like her Historia del Tahuantinsuyu (1988; trans Harry B Iceland as History of the Inca Realm 1999), the Inca realm (as an example) was not in fact a failed Empire on the top-down Roman model, but a confederation based on complex (and undoubtedly coercive) reciprocities; and was matrilineal. No hint of any such knowledge seems to have been acceptable to nineteenth-century authors of the form; which not only underscores the cognitive paucity exhibited in the Lost Race novel as a whole, but can be seen as exposing a deeply damaging failure of imagination.

Science-Fiction: The Early Years (1990) by Everett F Bleiler lists and describes some hundreds of lost-race stories up to 1930, its index allowing a sort by scientific advancement (from barbaric to superscientific), or by location (Antarctic to Siberia), or by racial derivation (from Atlantean via Hebrew and Old Norse to Phoenician); it has been complemented, and in some ways superseded, by Stuart Teitler's By the World Forgot: Towards a Bibliography of Lost Race Fiction (2013). A relevant essay is "Lost Lands, Lost Races: A Pagan Princess of Their Very Own" by Thomas D Clareson in Many Futures, Many Worlds (anth 1977) edited by Clareson.

Special efforts are required to make a modern lost-race scenario at all plausible. Vernor Vinge's "Apartness" (June 1965 New Worlds) posits a post-holocaust world in which a degenerate tribe found in Antarctica proves to be the remnant of South Africa's long-expelled white minority. Following John Blackburn's use of lost races to evoke Horror in SF – for example in For Fear of Little Men (1972) – Jeff Long's The Descent (1999) locates its demonic-seeming human offshoots in a rationalized Hell far Underground. But modern sf generally looks to space for its lost (human) races, who are typically inhabitants of out-of-contact planetary colonies. Works featuring systematic attempts at recontact with such colonies include Eric Frank Russell's The Great Explosion (fixup 1962), earlier episodes of Frank Herbert's The God Makers (fixup 1972) and Brian Stableford's Daedalus Mission sequence opening with The Florians (1976).

Perhaps indirectly through the chastening discoveries of modern culture scientists, and perhaps through simple embarrassment, there is more and better cultural anthropology in offworld stories of planetary exploration and Colonization of Other Worlds – the mostly postwar subgenres that largely superseded the traditional lost-race story – than can be found in lost-race stories set on Earth. [DRL/DP/BS/JC]


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