Thursday, February 18, 2016

Guest Post: A Look Back at Crichton's Lost World

Today we welcome Rohan Long to the blog to offer his insights about The Lost World novel. Rohan is a zoology teaching guy at University of Melbourne. You can find him on Twitter @zoologyrohan and listen to his new musical project, Bronzewing, at bronzewing.bandcamp.com. Take it away, Rohan!


The Lost World, published by Michael Crichton in 1995, must have been one of the most anticipated literary sequels of all time. And yet, it seems to have been forgotten almost instantly.

The basic plot (spoiler alert?) is that mathematician Ian Malcolm has teamed up with palaeontologist Dr. Richard Levine to find a remote, isolated region where non-avian dinosaurs have escaped extinction. The appearance of a number of unusual animal specimens leads them to Isla Sorna in Costa Rica. They are joined on the island by field biologist Sarah Harding, a couple of engineers who designed their gear and two precocious high school students – you can almost see Spielberg standing over Crichton’s shoulder at the computer, cajoling him to add some kids to the cast. Unbeknownst to our team, they are followed to the island by unscrupulous geneticist Lewis Dodgson and his team of expendable dinosaur chew toys who are attempting to steal the animals for their own nefarious ends (again).

Writerly advice? Illustration © David Orr 2016.

In contrast to Jurassic Park’s amiable Alan Grant, Crichton writes Levine as an irritating pedant, albeit one with the fierce intelligence to back it up; “the best palaeobiologist of his generation, perhaps the best in the world”. Yet it’s hard to believe that a brilliant, world-renowned scientist would think that a remnant population of living dinosaurs is a plausible scenario. This is fringe stuff; the sort of thing only taken seriously by young Earth creationists and cryptozoologists. Levine even puts forward Mokele-mbembe – a folkloric sauropod from the Congo beloved by both aforementioned groups – as supporting evidence for his ‘lost world hypothesis’, a suggestion more befitting a recreational sasquatch hunter than a world authority on palaeontology.

Malcolm’s stated reason for being on this expedition is that it will allow him to work out the cause of the Cretaceous mass extinction. This is basically a silly idea and Crichton is coy as to how exactly one would make this deduction. The majority of the dinosaur species on the island weren’t even alive during this era. Ok, Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, Parasaurolophus and Pachycephalosaurus were right there at the KT boundary, but how is the behaviour of say, Procompsognathus - extinct around 145 million years earlier - going to contribute to this theory? There’s a constant nagging question plaguing the book - why on earth would Malcolm willingly place himself on yet another island full of blood-thirsty dinosaurs - and this flimsy premise for a science experiment cannot and does not fulfil this narrative shortcoming.

Throughout the novel, there’s an unearned air of absolute certainty from the scientist characters. We hear Harding explaining exactly what the predator-prey ecology should be like on the island, Levine authoritatively identifying dinosaurs to species level based on a glance – how could they possibly know this stuff? Crichton was by no means a stupid man, but half way through The Lost World I felt like I was reading Dunning-Kruger Effect: The Novel. A vast amount of the dialogue is clearly intended to make the reader think, ‘Wow! These people are so smart!’ – and that’s certainly how I responded when I was younger – but this time around I found it grating and unwarranted.

In the later years of his career, Crichton showed a tendency toward scientific conservatism and denialism. Knowing this, it’s hard not to pick up on passages in The Lost World as precursors to this kind of thinking. One of Malcolm’s early speeches about the nature of evolutionary thought contains noticeable creationist talking points – even quoting Hoyle’s famous line about evolution being as improbable as ‘a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747’. The final statement of the book, spoken by engineer Thorne, but it could have easily come from Malcolm or Levine, basically states that because people used to believe in phlogiston and the like, all science is fantasy and can’t be trusted.

I’m critical of The Lost World, but I have enjoyed revisiting it. I realised that this novel contained some of the most evocative scenes of life at a university and as a field researcher that I had read as a young person. The descriptions of Levine and Malcolm’s research and meetings at academic institutions in California, the passages about Sarah Harding’s work on hyenas and her struggles as a female scientist; these really stuck with me as a teenager. That’s what I’m hoping to take away from this re-reading and not the silly caricature of science so inevitable of mass-produced pop culture.


And as a bonus treat, I really dig Rohan's Bronzewing album, so take a listen.

6 comments:

  1. lol that illustration david - bravo!

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  2. Small nitpick, Levine & Malcolm weren't just flying off willy-nilly searching for Mokele-Mbembe's: they both had reason to believe that the dinosaurs resurrected by the scientists of Jurassic Park had somehow survived the absence of their zookeepers.

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    1. If I remember correctly, Levine initially has no knowledge of the JP dinosaurs - he thinks that the specimens that are surfacing are naturally occurring. Malcolm, of course, knows their origin but he doesn't say anything until later.

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  3. No mention of the tyrannosaur shenanagins this time 'round?

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    1. Or the JPraprors enjoying chocolate, or how the film and book bear little Resemblance to each other?

      No theorizing on what made Crichton give up on science?

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    2. Ha, I had a word limit, so I didn't cover everything I wanted although I hadn't intended on covering those points. The chocolate thing bugged me because I thought it made no sense for Levine - a supposedly meticulous neat freak who expresses concern at his observations being tarnished by outside variables - to casually litter in the middle of his science experiment. Raptors liking chocolate sounds kind of silly, but plenty of modern carnivores enjoy it.

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