The lost world is a subgenre of the fantasy or science fiction genre that involves the discovery of a new world out of time, place, or both. It began as a subgenre of the late-Victorian adventure romance and remains popular into the 21st century. The genre arose during an era when the fascinating remnants of lost civilizations around the world were being discovered, such as the tombs of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, the semi-mythical stronghold of Troy, the jungle-shrouded pyramids of the Maya, or the cities and palaces of the empire of Assyria. Thus, real stories of archaeological finds by imperial adventurers succeeded in capturing the public’s imagination. Between 1871 and the First World War, the number of published lost-world narratives, set in every continent, dramatically increased. The genre has similar themes to “mythical kingdoms”, such as El Dorado. In the popular imagination lost cities are real, prosperous, well-populated areas of human habitation that have fallen into terminal decline and been lost to history. Most real lost cities are of ancient origins, and have been studied extensively by archaeologists. Abandoned urban sites of relatively recent origin are generally referred to as ghost towns. Fictional lost cities have been created by many authors as the setting for stories and myths throughout the ages. These include places such as Atlantis, Ur, Lemuria and Thule, which have become part of the shared mythology of the human race.
King Solomon’s Mines (1885) by H. Rider Haggard is sometimes considered the first lost-world narrative. It tells of a search of an unexplored region of Africa by a group of adventurers led by Allan Quatermain for the missing brother of one of the party.The book was first published in September 1885 and became an immediate best seller. By the late 19th century, explorers were uncovering ancient civilisations around the world, such as Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, and the empire of Assyria. Inner Africa remained largely unexplored and King Solomon’s Mines, the first novel of African adventure published in English, captured the public’s imagination. Haggard’s novel shaped the form and influenced later lost-world narratives, including Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King (1888), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912) and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot (1918). Earlier works such as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) had certain lost world elements and inspired H P Lovecraft to write At the Mountains of Madness a century later. Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) meanwhile popularized the theme of surviving pockets of prehistoric species.
Fictional lost cities have been created by many authors as the setting for stories and myths throughout the ages. Atlantis is a supposed mid-Atlantic island and city described by Plato within an allegory on the hubris of nations in his works Timaeus and Critias. Despite its minor importance in Plato’s work, the Atlantis story has had a considerable impact on literature and has become a byword for any and all supposed advanced prehistoric lost civilizations and continues to inspire contemporary fiction, from comic books to films. Lemuria is the name of a hypothetical “lost land” variously located in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The concept’s 19th-century origins lie in attempts to account for discontinuities in biogeography. Though Lemuria is no longer considered a valid scientific hypothesis, it has been adopted by writers involved in the occult. Accounts of Lemuria differ, but all share a common belief that a continent existed in ancient times and sank beneath the ocean as a result of a geological, often cataclysmic, change, such as pole shift. Thule was supposedly a far-northern location in classical European literature and cartography. The Greek explorer Pytheas is the first to have written of Thule, doing so in his now lost work, On the Ocean, after his travels between 330 BC and 320 BC. Subsequently, the term ‘Ultima Thule’ in medieval geographies denotes any distant place located beyond the “borders of the known world”.
Contemporary American novelist Michael Crichton invokes the lost world tradition in his novel Congo (1980), which involves a quest for King Solomon’s mines, fabled to be in a lost African city called Zinj. During the 1990s, James Gurney published a series of juvenile novels about a lost island called Dinotopia, in which humans live alongside living dinosaurs. The lost world is present in many other media. In video games, it is most notably present in Tomb Raider and its sequels, and in the Uncharted franchise. In movies, the Indiana Jones franchise makes use of similar concepts. Also comics make use of the idea, such as Savage Land in Marvel Comics and Themyscira in DC comics. One of the most recent additions to the genre is Anthony Nansen’s 2015 novel Deep Time; this is an epic novel about a cryptozoologist who discovers in Africa a lost world of prehistoric life. In the novel the hero travels with various companions into the heart of Africa and through evolutionary periods of time. Ultimately the lost world genre gave birth to science fiction. Perhaps this was a logical evolution – when there were no longer any unexplored corners of our earth to set their stories in, it was only natural for writers to turn to space.