Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Lost World and Starclimber

After finishing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World I jumped right into the third and last book chronicling the adventures of Matt Cruse and Kate de Vries, Starclimber., by Kenneth Oppel. Both books share similar themes: they are pulp adventures set in around the same time, they feature the discovery (or rediscovery) of new and dangerous animals. Yet these two books are very opposite in their writing styles. And one pays homage to the other in a huge way, which came as a funny coincidence.

There may be spoilers beyond this point...

One of the opening scenes of Starclimber paid homage to the ending of The Lost World. I read these two scenes just hours apart from each other with no foreknowledge of it. It was remarkable how exact  Oppel recreates the ending with only the biggest difference being the creature revealed. In The Lost World, Professor Challenger presents evidence as proof of the discovery of extinct animals found on his expedition to the lost world saving the most irrefutable one for last- a living pterodactyl, which then escapes and terrorizes the audience humbling Challenger's scientific rivals. In Starclimber, this scene is almost exactly recreated as Kate de Vries does the very same thing with a creature she discovered and named Aerozoen, from the previous book, Skybreaker- also humbling her scientific rival. Oppel's version was almost parody and much light hearted as the series is aimed at young adults. In the Oppel version, it is right at the beginning of the book and Kate's rival provides an antagonist for Kate's sub-plots through out the story. This scene served as The Lost World's climax.

The difference in style between The Lost World and the Starclimber (and the rest of the Matt Cruse/Airborn series) is extreme.

Kenneth Oppel writes as if he read a how-to-write-perfectly manual and follows it to the letter. His writing is so well rounded and polished his work, in itself, could be used as a how to manual. The disadvantage to this style of writing is it removes a lot of the unexpected. I anticipated almost every twist. Perhaps this isn't as critical with young adults, but as a reader with some writing training, one knows that if the author mentioned something, it is sure to reappear later in the story. The formula becomes apparent sometimes. It feels like we could take the story and replace the tropes with a different genre and it would work just as well.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writing style, on the other hand... Perhaps I do Oppel an injustice comparing him to a writer so renowned. One interesting thing about Doyle's writing, his protagonists are quite unlikable. Professor Challenger is a pompous ass. Even Sherlock Holmes, if you knew him for real in real life, would be annoying as hell. It's John Watson and Ed Malone who are the ones we really like and relate to. The Lost World sometimes starts down paths that end up nowhere. For example, one challenge the protagonists had was how they were going to get up and out and down from this plateau. Professor Challenger test flies a make-shift balloon constructed out of rope, branches, bubbling methane, and a giant fish's stomach. There is a great deal of detail around this plot device, but then they find a cave and leave that way! What!? Didn't see that coming! And that was totally refreshing and dare I say, a little more realistic.

I recommend both books and both series. The Lost World is part of a series, actually. Professor Challenger went on from there to be in two more of Conan Doyle's novels- The Poison Belt and The Land of Mist, he also appeared in two short stories- When the World Screamed and The Disintegration Machine. Kenneth Oppel's trilogy starts with Airborn, then Skybreaker and ends with this article's Starclimber. I'd love to hear what you think.
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