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Retro Reads: In Search of the Unknown

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Written in an inimitable parody of period “boys’ adventure” stories, “In Search of the Unknown” is a true hidden treasure. Our hero is a bumbling ornithologist who never quite snares the big discovery or the girl, but remains convinced of his prowess despite all evidence to the contrary. As his adventures become increasingly madcap (and his frustration increasingly dire,) he relies on his unwavering faith in science to see him through Nature’s most ridiculous jokes.

In Search of the Unknown by Robert W. Chambers Chambers is an engaging writer with that rare golden ability to satirize with a straight face. He begins “In Search” almost believably, introducing the protagonist as a dedicated if somewhat dense science hero as he ventures north to locate a Great Auk. Ultimately Chambers winds up sending a famous professor-turned-circus-man into the Everglades to face an unthinkable fate: abduction by a race of invisible but physically perfect Amazon women who probably want him to make apple pie for the rest of his life.

Chambers’ style is fast, engaging, and instinctive. He also dares to ridicule the backward class and gender roles so unpleasantly typecast in cheap 19th century adventure literature. This is refreshing. Habitual readers of classic science fiction become accustomed to wincing at the blithe bigotry of the period, and while Chambers was surely a victim of the same sentiments as the rest of his generation, his general awareness makes it easier to forgive his specific failings.

Aside from a few overtly ridiculous moments, the parody’s believability is never in question. Some readers may find the serial short story structure annoying in its repetitiveness, but most will enjoy the gradual ramping-up of the idiocy of the heavily accoladed men (and lovely ladies) of letters.

While the genre he lampoons is largely gone the way of the dingue, the modern descendents of Alan Quartermain exist in a state of ironic awareness about their own goofiness. Something about the seriousness of scientists – particularly those who wax poetic about bacteria and string theory – begs so hard for a humorous treatment that the movies are saturated with Doc Browns and Absent-Minded Professors. Even Indiana Jones, the direct descendent of the victims of Chambers’ pen, is not without a funny side.

In Search of the Unknown is available for download from Project Gutenberg in multiple e- formats including Kindle.

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