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Lost Worlds

Entry updated 2 April 2015. Tagged: Theme.

This rubric covers Lost Races, lost Cities, lost lands and Islands: all the enclaves of mystery in a rapidly shrinking world that featured so largely in the sf of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This subgenre was obviously a successor to the Fantastic Voyages of the eighteenth century and earlier, but there are important distinctions to be drawn. The earlier tales had belonged to a world which was still geographically "open"; at the time Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735), Australia had yet to be discovered by Europeans and Africa had yet to be explored. The lost-world story, however, belonged to a cartographically "closed" world: in Jules Verne's and H Rider Haggard's day unknown territories were fast disappearing. The options were running out, and hence the nineteenth-century lost lands tended to be situated in the most inaccessible regions of the globe: the Amazon basin, Himalayan valleys, central-Asian and Australian deserts, at the poles, or within the Hollow Earth. These works are also distinguishable from earlier travellers' tales by their much greater "scientific" content. The new sciences of geology, Anthropology and, above all, archaeology had a considerable influence on Verne, Haggard and their successors. For a while, the fiction was concurrent with the reality (at least in the popular mind). From the discoveries of Troy and Nineveh to those of Machu Picchu and Tutankhamun's tomb, there flourished a "heroic age" of archaeology and scientific exploration, of which the fiction was a natural concomitant and to which the Indiana Jones movies – beginning with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) – looked nostalgically back.

The fiction was often based on Pseudoscience rather than real science, for example the many Atlantis stories which followed the success of Ignatius Donnelly's nonfiction Atlantis, the Antediluvian World (1882). Tales of undiscovered worlds within the Earth tended to be based on the crackpot geology of John Cleves Symmes. Perhaps the best of all inner-world fantasies (though not set in a full-scale Symmesian Hollow Earth) is Voyage au centre de la terre (1863; exp 1867; trans anon as Journey to the Centre of the Earth 1872) by Jules Verne, in which explorers reach a subterranean sea by way of an extinct volcano. Other Underground lost worlds include Lytton's The Coming Race (1871; vt Vril: The Power of the Coming Race 1972), William N Harben's The Land of the Changing Sun (1894), John M Leahy's Drome (January-May 1927 Weird Tales; 1952), Stanton A Coblentz's Hidden World (March-May 1935 Wonder Stories as "In Caverns Below"; 1957) and Joseph O'Neill's Land Under England (1935). The Hollow-Earth story "Black as the Pit, from Pole to Pole" (in New Dimensions 7, anth 1977, ed Robert Silverberg) by Steven Utley and Howard Waldrop is a pastiche of this whole tradition.

The archetypes of the lost-race story are, in the main, unrepentantly romantic. Edgar Rice Burroughs was an extensive contributor to the subgenre (with, for example, The Land that Time Forgot [stories September-November 1918 Blue Book; fixup 1924] and most of his Tarzan novels) but its most famous exponent was a generation earlier: H Rider Haggard, whose lost-race fantasies include King Solomon's Mines (1885), Allan Quatermain (1887), She (October 1886-January 1887 The Graphic; cut 1886; full text 1887) – these two introducing the hugely popular erotic motif of the beautiful queen, or high priestess, who attempts to seduce the hero – The People of the Mist (1894), The Yellow God (1908) and Queen Sheba's Ring (1910); the publication dates of these novels span the period when the species was in its heyday. Other notable examples are William Westall's The Phantom City (1886), James de Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888) and Thomas Janvier's The Aztec Treasure House (1890). The best-known individual work in the genre may be The Lost World (1912) by Arthur Conan Doyle, a perennially popular adventure story about the discovery of surviving prehistoric creatures on a South American plateau (see The Lost World). The species was popular in the general-fiction pulps but was in decline by the time the first SF Magazines appeared, though lost-world stories by A MerrittThe Face in the Abyss (8 September 1923 Argosy plus "The Snake Mother" 25 October-6 December 1930 Argosy; fixup 1931) – and by A Hyatt VerrillThe Bridge of Light (Fall 1929 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1950) – proved influential on some later sf writers. John Taine's The Purple Sapphire (1924) and The Greatest Adventure (1929) have stronger sf elements than usual, though somewhat vaguely described superscientific technology was common enough in the subgenre. Other authors of lost-race stories include Grant Allen, Ganpat, Austyn Granville, Andrew Lang, William Le Queux, John Mastin, S P Meek, Talbot Mundy, Hume Nisbet, Gordon Stables, Rex Stout, E Charles Vivian and S Fowler Wright.

Even from the 1930s, when fewer lost-world stories were being published, there were occasional popular successes. The film King Kong (1933) opens in a lost world. James Hilton's mystical Tibetan romance of Immortality, Lost Horizon (1933), was a bestseller (see Lost Horizon). Later examples can be found in the work of Dennis Wheatley, including The Fabulous Valley (1934), Uncharted Seas (1938), which was filmed as The Lost Continent, and The Man Who Missed the War (1945). As also noted in the entry for Lost Races, the setting of stories in Earthly lost worlds and lost lands has been largely superseded by offworld stories of planetary exploration and the Colonization of Other Worlds.

The lost-world subgenre survived longer in Cinema, where a traditional Cliché associated with this theme is the climactic destruction of the lost world, Island or enclave by volcanic eruption, earthquake, flood or some combination of these Disasters. Examples given entries in this encyclopedia include Son of Kong (1933), Lost Continent (1951), Two Lost Worlds (1951), Unknown World (1951; vt Night without Stars), The Jungle (1952), Untamed Women (1952), Port Sinister (1953; vt Beast of Paradise Isle), The Incredible Petrified World (1957), Monster from Green Hell (1957), The Lost World (1960) and Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961). [DP/BS/PN/DRL]

see also: Apes as Human; Pastoral; Worlds of Ultima.

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