Speculative Fiction and Lost Worlds

Lost and Found Worlds

Atlantis, the ultimate lost world. Myth or reality?

Speculative fiction is about what-if premises. The lost world trope is the ultimate what-if. A civilization previously unknown rediscovered.

The first thing we need to understand is that lost worlds are not secondary worlds. These are worlds inside our planet, in our universe.

These stories were popular since the 1860s. Jules Verne‘s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) and H. Riddler Haggard‘s King Solomon’s Mines (1885) were seminal works in this subgenre.

These stories were called “adventure romances” and their inspiration was real-life archaeological discoveries.

Suddenly, the Earth was bigger and our knowledge of it was smaller.

Specifically, exploration of Africa, Asia, and America (North and South) put us in contact with long-gone civilizations and their modern descendants. Furthermore, archaeological mystery gave birth to myths and folktales.

Who were the Anasazi people and why they left Mesa Verde?

For instance, if Troy was real, could Atlantis be too? And if the Olmecs disappeared leaving their ruins and artifacts, what other forgotten civilizations could we be missing?

Whatever happened to the Mississippian culture here in the United States? Why the Khmer and the Maya Empires abandoned their glorious cities and temples?

Who were the Rapa Nui people who built the Easter Island heads? Whatever happened to the Mycenaeans, the Aksumite, or the Anasazi?

Better yet, what if the people who built Catalhoyek and Dorinkinyu settlements were still alive, hiding among us?

How would discovering these or other ancient civilizations affect us? Moreover, how much fame and fortune, especially riches and treasure, can be made from these discoveries?

Is it any wonder many critics see these stories as a perpetuation of colonialism?

Are Lost Worlds a Metaphor for Colonialism?

Land of dinosaurs lost world, Pinterest

Colonialism is understood as the settlement of a large group of people over an area and forcing control over an indigenous population. In short, appropriating land for one’s use.

Furthermore, one common link to these stories is the primitivism and barbarism of the so-called lost worlds.

Moreover, some of these worlds are so primitive, that they are even populated by dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts.

Colonialism? In a sense, yes. However, nineteenth-century authors were also seeking social commentary about capitalism and civilization.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s ideas about the state of nature and the moral superiority of uncivilized man were influential too. There was a romanticism to returning to our “natural, pre-civilized state” of being.

Nonetheless, we cannot avoid comparing these stories to the partition of Africa, British imperialism, and the Napoleonic wars that defined the first half of the nineteenth century.

Ancient civilization by Igor Tovstogan, Art Station

Speculative fiction works best as allegory.

Modern authors often write these stories as a critique of colonialism and imperialism. Also, as a social commentary. The human question remains its purpose.

On one hand, lost world stories are survival stories. Take the characters away from civilization and everything they know and force them to survive without modern comforts.

For this premise to work, the lost world has to be less technologically advanced than ours.

Besides, in fairness, could a highly advanced civilization remain hidden from us here on Earth? Moreover, could we colonize them? No way.

Hence, lost worlds are “primitive” by literary necessity. But, are they outdated?

Reinterpreting Lost Worlds for the 21st-Century

Lost World art by Robert Ryminiecki, Art Station

Once upon a time, there was an element of fantasy and even horror when reading stories about lost worlds and civilizations. Survival indeed.

And yet, besides that one Michael Chrichton novel Congo (1980), which was over forty years ago, we don’t have much to go by. Or do we?

Perhaps because we have mapped the whole Earth, we got satellite images, Google Earth, and an international space station that constantly sends photos of our planet, we know as a fact, that the possibility of encountering a hidden civilization on our planets is low, if not impossible.

Maybe deep inside Earth’s oceans. Perhaps inside some remote mountain or iceberg…

And yet, there are stories of lost worlds within speculative fiction. You just have to look within science fiction novels.

Desert planet lost world, image: Tumblr

Modern authors know lost worlds on Earth are an impossibility but nothing is stopping us from finding them in our solar system or another galaxy.

Science fiction stories are full of xeno-archaeologists finding the remains of an unknown civilization and trying to connect the dots about who they are and why they left.

In effect, the why is more important to modern authors than the what.

Was it because of a nuclear war, a natural disaster, overpopulation, a pandemic, a social collapse, or an attack by another civilization? Was it global warming?

These stories do function as science fiction as allegory.

image of Sanghelios, lost world from Halo 5

So, while you wipe tears about literature not producing the nest Burrough’s The Land that Time Forgot or the next Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, why not enjoy instead novels such as:
  • Alastair Reynold‘s Revelation Space (2000) and the mystery of the disappearance of the Amarantin civilization.
  • Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Icehenge (1984) and the mysterious Stonehenge-like structure in Pluto.
  • C. J. Cherryh‘s Foreigner (1994-present) series is about humanity encountering the “lost” Atevi civilization.
  • Tim Pratt‘s The Wrong Stars (2017) has a space crew discover Axiom technology, technology that could mean the end of humanity. But what if the Axiom are not gone?

These are a few examples of lost worlds in speculative fiction. The Barbarian alien trope and stock character remain alive, especially in video games and films.

As long as authors give us lost worlds, we will keep reading them. Why? Because we crave mystery and exploration.

Reader, are you a fan of stories about lost worlds? Which one is your favorite?


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January 2023