Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Greatest Adventure

Dr Eric Temple Bell (1883-1960) was a distinguished Scottish-born mathematician who wrote science fiction novels under the name John Taine. His lost world science fiction tale The Greatest Adventure was published in 1929.

Lost world stories had been immensely popular ever since the publication of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines in 1885 and they remained popular until the 1930s.

The trick with lost world adventures was to keep coming up with new variations on the theme and The Greatest Adventure certainly achieves that. The cover illustration might lead the reader to expect just another “lost valley of the dinosaurs” story but Taine throws in some original twists.

By 1929 it was no longer really credible to set a lost world story in Africa or South America. The idea that a lost civilisation could still be undiscovered in a world with fewer and fewer unexplored places was starting to become a little far-fetched. The obvious solution was to locate your lost world in Antarctica, which is what Taine does. Antarctica had been used as a setting by Poe and the frozen wastes of the polar regions would be used by a couple of classic science fiction/horror stories in the 1930s - Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? In 1945 it would later be used in one of the last of the great lost world novels, Dennis Wheatley’s The Man Who Missed the War.

The Greatest Adventure is in some ways an anticipation of Lovecraft’s tale, being a story not just of adventure but also of unimaginable horror and cosmic evil.

It all starts with a sea captain trying to sell a strange specimen to Dr Eric Lane. Dr Lane is a biologist and medical researcher with a special interest in the more gruesome kinds of diseases. He is convinced that the answer to the conquest of disease can be found by studying diseases in the lower animals. As a result he has gained a reputation for being willing to pay high prices for anything strange that may be found in the sea. And what Captain Anderson has found is very strange indeed. It looks like the missing link between reptiles and birds. A well-preserved specimen of such a long-extinct creature is exciting enough but the really startling thing about this one is that Captain Anderson swears the creature was alive fifteen minuted before he hooked it. What’s even stranger is that upon examining the specimen Dr Lane is inclined to believe the grizzled old sea dog is telling the truth.

Dr Lane offers to do better than just buying the creature. He will finance an expedition to the place where Anderson found it (Dr Lane is extremely rich having been a successful businessman before taking up science full-time). Captain Anderson is delighted because for him the expedition will serve another purpose. He has reason to believe that the spot in question, on the shores of the Antarctic, contains not just strange animals but oil. Oil in very large quantities.

Dr Lane persuades his friend Drake to accompany the expedition. Drake is an expert in deciphering ancient inscriptions in the form of pictograms. Dr Lane wants him along because of some photographs that Captain Anderson’s first mate Old Hansen took, photographs of apparently very ancient inscriptions. Such inscriptions are not what you generally expect to find in Antarctica. Anderson and Hansen will be part of the expedition as will Dr Lane’s daughter Edith. Edith proves to be extremely useful, being an expert flyer. This is to be a high-tech expedition with its own aircraft.

What the expedition finds proves to be stranger than anyone could have expected although Dr Lane already has his suspicions, having noticed some very odd features about that creature Captain Anderson sold him. What they find is not merely strange but terrifying enough to threaten their collective sanity. They find dinosaurs, they find a lost civilisation, but they also discover a horrifying history of madness and evil.

The parallels between this novel and Lovecraft’s much better-known story really are quite striking. 

Taine’s prose style lacks the baroque excessiveness of Lovecraft but it’s quite serviceable. Taine adds quite a bit of humour to leaven the horror, much of the humour being provided by the first mate Ole Hansen, an indefatigable amateur scientist much given to bizarre and outlandish theories (some of which turn out to be surprisingly plausible). Hansen is a genuinely amusing character so the comic relief isn’t really irritating. 

Taine also shows himself well able to match better-known writers when it comes to flights of the imagination on an epic scale. The science is not always terribly convincing although it’s more plausible that that found in some other celebrated stories in this genre.

If you’re a fan of lost world adventures The Greatest Adventure is well worth seeking out. Very entertaining, and highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. This does sound very interesting. I have so much of a backlog of mystery fiction to read, it is hard to fit in other genres, but I would love to try some vintage science fiction. The Man Who Missed the War also sounds worth a try.