Scotsman Book Club: A great find for a new audience

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THIS week we're reading The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle because very soon at least 200,000 other people will be doing so. That's the number of free copies of the book that are going to be given out, starting today, in Britain's largest single-book reading campaign.

Why? Because it's the 150th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Conan Doyle and the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species. Somewhat lower down in terms of historical importance, it's the second anniversary of The Scotsman's Book Club.

For the first time, Glasgow and Edinburgh are going to join in with the same city-wide reading campaign, backed by a programme of events and activities in each city. Bristol, Oxford, Westminster, Hampshire and Shrewsbury are all also participating.

To support the campaign, four free books have been produced – a paperback of Conan Doyle's classic 1912 adventure, a reader's guide to Doyle, Darwin and dinosaurs, a "quick read" version with puzzles and games, and a graphic biography of Darwin, including his time in Edinburgh.

In Scotland, the project is organised by Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust and in Glasgow by Glasgow City Read, part of the build-up to March's Bank of Scotland Aye Write! festival (6-14 March, full details on www.ayewrite.com). Further details of the campaign – and how to get copies of the books – are available on www.lostworldread.com.

Meet this months panel ...

MARC LAMBERT (ML) is CEO of Scottish Book Trust, the national agency committed to the promotion of reading and writing.

COLIN MANLOVE (CM) is a prominent – and one of the first – literary critics specialising in fantasy writing. His most recent book is From Alice to Harry Potter: Children's Fantasy in England (2003).

KEN MacLEOD (KM) is an award-winning science fiction writer of international repute. He is also one of two writers-in-residence at the Genomics Forum based at Edinburgh University.

DAVID ROBINSON (DR) is Books Editor of The Scotsman.

ANDREW J WILSON (AW) is a freelance editor, reviewer and writer. He is co-editor of Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction and has just written a "new" Professor Challenger story, Out of the Depths.

The panel's views

AW: THE LOST WORLD MAY BE almost a hundred years old but it's not old-fashioned: it's a fast, easy read. Conan Doyle writes with brio, clearly enthralled by Professor Challenger (who was his favourite of all his characters) and the remote plateau he has discovered in remotest Venezuela where dinosaurs still survive.

I've been reading quite a bit of Conan Doyle's other work recently, and I think The Lost World is among his best writing: he's certainly more energised here than in the later Holmes stories. It's also hugely influential – on films even more than other books: Burroughs's The Land that Time Forgot is clearly imitative (and much worse written), then there are films like King Kong and, of course, Jurassic Park.

HG Wells is certainly the founder of science fiction with those three marvellous novels of his in the 1890s – Time Machine, The Island of Dr Moreau and War of the Worlds. But The Lost World isn't far behind them in the masterpiece league.

KM: I first read it in my teens, but I must admit I'd almost completely forgotten about it. Once you get past the old-fashioned language – which isn't hard – it's a gripping read. But talk about "the past is another country" – this England that Professor Challenger, his rival Professor Sommerlee and the journalist Edward Malone leave behind them is another lost world. That's true in so many ways: in its attitude to killing animals for sport – and the rarer the better! – in its attitudes to women and of course in its attitudes to race.

ML: That's where I start to have a few problems with it. I agree it's a riproaring read and I enjoyed it thoroughly. But would I have done so if I was black and coming across it for the first time at school?

It's full of race theory. You seem to have all the various gradations – ape-men, natives, half-breeds, blacks, English, Irish and Scottish. There's also this rather worrying melange of Darwinism and phrenology, the science of cranial development. Stereotypes too – just look, for example, at his portrayal of Zambo, the "huge Negro who is as faithful as a dog" ...

AW: "… And who has the hatred which all of his race bear to the half-breeds." I was worried by that as well. But I feel we should go easy on Doyle as a writer, because there was much more pernicious material being written at the time. Thankfully, there's not too much of that kind of thing when the adventurers reach Maple White Land, the plateau of the Lost World.

DR: Any good teacher is going to use examples of racism and sexism in the book here as part of a discussion on historical attitudes. But I don't think Doyle is relentlessly racist – he'll say the habits of the Amazonian Indian might be "amiable but degraded" and you're just absorbing this when he adds "with mental powers hardly superior to the average Londoner."

CM: Yes, and later on, he's also implicitly asking what's the real difference between the hostile crowd in London who turn out to mock at Professor Challenger's lecture and the ape-men of The Lost World.

Actually, there's quite a lot of criticism of Edwardian society itself. The woman who impels the journalist Malone to join Professor Challenger's expedition turns out to be a heartless egoist, and Challenger himself is shown as resembling the leader of the ape-men he meets in The Lost World.

In some ways, this is a team of men who are travelling into the unconscious in exactly the same way that Conrad was showing in Heart of Darkness and Wells in The Island of Dr Moreau. He's showing how little separates Europeans and the ape-men: move forward a few years and you're in the middle of the First World War and the thinness of that divide becomes all too plain.

But already, by 1912, when Doyle is writing his story, certainty about the world itself is fading. In fiction, hypothetical worlds are becoming common – as soon as you ask "What if?" you are moving away from what we usually think of (wrongly, I'd argue) as Edwardian solidity. Einstein has been finding that time and space aren't fixed; Wells has started a vogue for stories about time travel, Henry James has been writing mainly in the subjunctive.

Underlying all of that, The Lost World is, in some sense, a symbol of the unconscious in which aspects of our own animal ancestry bubble up beneath our rationality ...

DR: … "This hunting of beasts that look like a lobster-supper dream is a brand-new sensation," as Lord John Roxton says.

CM: Precisely. And even if Conan Doyle hasn't read his Freud back in 1912, the point is that all of these ideas are in the intellectual sphere. The new science fiction and fantasy are ways of expressing things that other fiction cannot. They're giving you pictures and images and allowing you to express things that are in your subconscious.

KM: He certainly got most of the evolution and geology right. It was entirely feasible that you could find relict dinosaurs in an isolated location. At the time, and for long afterwards, it was commonly thought that dinosaurs were on their own particular rung of the ladder of evolution and so wouldn't be able to survive in the modern world. They could – and a plateau could indeed act like an island in terms of allowing prehistoric species to endure.

He didn't get the biology right, but neither did his contemporaries – it's quite striking when you see his description of the tyrannosaurus hopping along like a kangaroo. But an area of less than a 30-mile radius, as the Lost World is, would be too small to sustain such a large population of animals and you would also get the phenomenon that happens on islands whereby some animals become much larger and others much smaller – like the dwarf elephants that used to be found on some Mediterranean islands.

Something else he got right: Professor Challenger. He's a much more complex character than I remember. Challenger is actually quite like some older zoologists I've met in my time – a caricature of a type, but a real type nonetheless. Very personal and forceful, yet with an attitude that is both childish but with a wonderful openness.

CM: Yes. On the one hand, a great egotist, on the other a humble scientist who just forgets himself when he's looking at something.

AW: "A homicidal maniac with a turn for science..." There's just tremendous excitement whenever Challenger is around. I've read all five stories in which he appears, and when he's not being dragged in to support Conan Doyle's belief in spiritualism, he works so well as a character. In fact, I'm in the middle of writing a "new" Professor Challenger story. I hope it will fix some of those things that Marc was worried about. Challenger is definitely on the side of the angels anyway – and he just writes himself!

DR: What about the rest of the characters? I quite like the way the journalist Malone had to dissemble to get the story of what Challenger is up to – the scoop of the century. All that struck me as being more modern than I thought the book would be. And Lord John Roxton ...

KM: There is definitely something between them.

DR: Right at the end of the book, he asks Malone if he's getting married and he says: "Not just yet. I think if you would have me, that I would rather go with you." I mean, isn't it just like the closing line in Some Like It Hot?

ML: Or Casablanca. Elsewhere in the book, one of the things I liked a lot about it is that there's a lot of knockabout comedy. It's almost like Tintin at times – there's a lively sense of the ridiculous.

But it's also structurally complex – more so than you might think it needs to be. The story is told in a series of letters in which Malone is reporting back from remotest Venezuela. So you think, how the hell is he going to fix this, to keep a supply of letters going when they're so far from civilisation. And although it works, I wonder why he did that? He could quite easily have told the story through Malone having come back and recounted it.

DR: Writing it that way allows Malone to say: "I am seeing these scenes for the first time. Nobody else in history has seen this." It takes you there, then shows you the unimaginable with incredible immediacy. It's one of the reasons the book works – though I agree, you've got to be a very good novelist indeed to pull it off. Had any other writer before Doyle brought dinosaurs so firmly into the story as we have here?

CM: Edith Nesbit, oddly. She had statues come to life and ramble round an English country garden, and a brontosaurus swim in a lake.

AW: And Jules Verne – though strictly speaking they weren't dinosaurs in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, even though they were prehistoric creatures.

DR: Yet people had known about dinosaurs for decades and there's such a long gap before anyone starts writing about them. Is that really a sign of just how unwilling Victorians were to face up to the consequences of evolution?

Yes, it's only in the 1890s that authors get bolder and begin to challenge received ideas. In War of the Worlds, for example, Wells looks at what the Europeans have done to the Tasmanians and wonders how we'd like it if the boot was on the other foot.

Final question. Before the story begins, Doyle gives us a short verse: "I have wrought my simple plan/If I give one hour of joy/To the boy who's half a man,/Or the man who's half a boy." Does anyone think he hasn't done that?

&#149 Andrew J Wilson reads his "new" Professor Challenger story at the Writers' Bloc Lost World event, Doyle M for Murder, on 26 February at the Pleasance Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh.

Extract

Here Edward Malone, the journalist accompanying Professor Challenger's expedition, first casts eyes on the living "prehistoric" beasts in Maple White Land ...

THE lake lay like a sheet of quicksilver before me, with a reflected moon shining brightly in the centre of it. It was shallow, for in many places I saw low sandbanks protruding above the water. Everywhere upon the still surface I could see signs of life, sometimes mere rings and ripples in the water, sometimes the gleam of a great, silver-sided fish in the air, sometimes the arched, slate-coloured back of some passing monster.

My attention was soon drawn away from these distant sights and brought back to what was going on at my very feet. Two creatures like large armadillos had come down to the drinking place and were squatting at the edge of the water, their long, flexible tongues shooting in and out as they lapped. Soon they scuttled for shelter. A newcomer, a most monstrous animal, was coming down the path.

For a moment I wondered where I could have seen that ungainly shape, that arched back with triangular fringes along it, that strange, bird-like head held close to the ground. Then it came back to me. It was a stegosaurus. The ground shook beneath his tremendous weight, and his gulping of water resounded through the still night. For five minutes, he was so close to my rock that by stretching out my hand I could have touched the hideous waving hackles upon his back. Then he lumbered away and was lost among the boulders.

Looking at my watch, I saw that it was half past two o'clock, and high time therefore, that I started upon my homeward journey. I set out in high spirits, for I felt that I had done good work and was bringing back a budget of good news for my companions. I reflected as I walked that few men in the world could have spent a stranger night or added more to human knowledge in the course of it.

From The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle

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