Lost Horizon was a 1933 utopian novel. Not a whole lot happens, and most all of that toward the beginning. Once the inciting incident occurs, the rest is just talking, and since the story is told in the form of a flashback, there’s not a lot of drama. The story itself is obviously intended to be thought provoking, not exciting.
As I said, the ideas are more fun than the telling. Shangri-La is an impossible place where the rules bend. It’s majestic, exotic, and fun. The basic conflict is one of action vs repose. Is doing more important than thinking? In Tolkien terms, who has a more interesting story: Bilbo when he rests in Rivendell, or Frodo running about getting into fights? Hilton does a better job of making this complicated than you might expect.
The problems with the story are not a lot happens, the locals are basically scenery for noble Europeans and Americans, and wisdom is drawn from laziness. In order, there’s just not a lot that happens. No one does much. This is a big point, because the setting is violently predicated on Gotterdammerung and the doing of things is bad. Everything people do ends badly. War is coming, and we’re all gonna die. So the wise people do nothing.
I mean nothing, nothing, because the only shred of conflict is a love triangle that goes exactly nowhere.
The locals are scenery, meant to show the wonder of the white people. They do nothing.
In fairness, the white people don’t do anything either, see above, so at least it’s even-handed doing nothing. But a bunch of white people go to Tibet to do nothing, where the local Tibetans do nothing, and the story follows the white ones. The one character who does anything interesting on camera dies before you find out his name. He has no lines. Eh.
So the story isn’t that hot.
But I liked Shangri-La a lot. It’s a mystical city up by mystical mountains, and while my red-blooded self was looking for a few murders, the ambience of the story flowed over me like a warm wave. I enjoyed the reading. I liked thinking about magical cities in the mountains. There was an allure there, and I related to the characters if not their inactivity. Conway (MC) expresses very accurately what it’s like to go through something, and be done with it, and keep on living. He talks about the numbness, what can become laziness, and the way that seems hidden in wisdom. The points about the refugees from the WW1 trenches speak clearly.
I utterly reject the pessimism of the book. I don’t like the way they go seek out new experiences to be met by their own people. The whole thing is just too safe, and what might be the most exciting part, the escape from Shangri-La, doesn’t actually take place on camera.
It’s also one of these artsy books where they insinuate all the action, expose all the thought, and resolve nothing.
The book left me hungry.
Hilton obviously wrote from a perspective of being racially tolerant, and that’s fascinating to see. 1930s tolerant comes across very oddly today. I do wonder what 2110s will think of 2020s tolerant, and bet they’ll look as oddly at us now as I do at Hilton. It keeps the ego in check.
It could have been really good if the doer, Mallinson, made articulate arguments and wasn’t such a pointless boor. If the book was an actual battle of ideas, a dialogue like the Gorgias, or even just a meaningful conflict. But Mallinson isn’t really a character, he has only one emotion: frustration, and the bizarre love angle between him and Lo-Tsen could really use some flesh. The book reminds me a lot of Hemmingway, who I also frequently find unsatisfying.
It could have been really good if Chang had a motivation, a plot arc, a character, or anything at all really. If any of the locals did.
Lost Horizon is like reading a framing story about reading a book, where at the end the narrator puts the book down, loses it, and ends on the giant cliff-hanger, ‘does he find it again?’