The Lost World

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As previously noted, my Kindle and I are engaged in a mental tussle over the question of how much I should pay for an e-book.  In truth, only one of the factors mentioned in that post really affects my behaviour: the bottom line is that e-books don’t currently meet enough of my personal criteria for permanent, irrevocable, unconstrained and secure ‘ownership’ to make me enthusiastic about spending big chunks of my limited book budget on them.

That said, I’m enjoying reading stuff on the Kindle, and I continue to find the technology (hardware more than software) terrifically engaging and statisfying.  So I definitely want to use the thing, even if I don’t want to spend too much cash to do so.  Not a problem.  Bargains abound in e-book world.

The problem is finding them. It takes a bit of work, or luck, to excavate treasure.  There’s a distinct lack of reliable signposts to structure your explorations.

Here are a few of the treasures I’ve found so far, all available at the time of writing in the UK Kindle Store for less than the entirely arbirtray figure of £4.  (Can’t speak to the prices in the US Kindle Store, although the one or two I’ve cross-checked are pretty aggressively priced over there too).

Frankenstein will cost you not one penny, and as I’d call it one of the best sf books ever written that looks like a bargain.  I know some people struggle with the antiquated structure and pacing and language – which is fair enough; it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste – but to me that’s surface.  What lies beneath is, if you ask me, a work of visionary genius that puts much of the sf published in the subsequent 200 years to shame.

Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams is the most fun I’ve had on my Kindle since I got the thing, and it cost me just £3.21. It’s far future sf set in a hierarchical human society of nanotech, gene therapy, virtual realities and many other wonders. It’s not what you’d call action-packed – although when face-to-face violence does take place it’s lengthily detailed – and the reader’s not exactly spoon-fed everything about the setting or characters, but I found it pretty engaging. Williams explores the world, both outer and inner, of his human demi-gods with smooth writing and an open mind. It’s kind of like a less democratic, less AI-heavy version of Iain Banks’ Culture, with more ambiguity about the pros and cons of such a society. And the best thing is, there’s plenty more modestly priced WJW e-stuff available for follow-up.

The Hunger Games will currently cost you a modest £2.70.  Now, I’ve not read it, so what am I doing pointing it out?  Well, I’ve bought it for future consumption because, just as Frankenstein marks the origins of the sf genre, this marks its current apogee in terms of cultural ubiquity and popularity.  I’m naturally curious about one of the most successful books the genre has ever produced, and here it is at a bargain price.

Unpossible by Daryl Gregory just sneaks in beneath the cost ceiling I’ve imposed for this post at £3.97.  It’s a short story collection, and an eclectic one at that.  All speculative fiction, from what I’ve read of it so far, but encompassing a wide range beneath that heading.  The tone varies almost as much as the genres do, from the decidedly dark to the wryly humourous to the fabulistic.  All of it’s done with considerable style and wit and polish, though.

I mentioned the (free) Lost World in my last post, so can’t resist pointing out you can also get as much Sherlock Holmes as you could ever possibly want for prices varying from nothing to all of £0.77 for a properly e-bookized collection of the whole canon.

Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine offers a free digest edition, comprising one short story and all its non-fiction content (reviews, commentary etc.) delivered automatically to your reader every other month.  It’s a tempter for a full subscription, of course, (which only costs a couple of £ per issue, I think) but that’s no bad thing since it means they select a high quality story for inclusion.

Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 1 I include here because it’s kind of what e-book shopping should be all about, isn’t it?  The chance to discover something unexpected, unfamiliar and to broaden your horizons.  It offers fifteen short stories for just £0.77, and from the (relatively little) I’ve read of it so far it would be a bargain at twice, or three times, the price.  As with the Gregory collection, the stories are diverse in genre and tone.

And finally, another e-item I haven’t actually read yet, but which also seems to me to illustrate some of what the e-publishing thing should be all about.  The Desert of Souls, an Arabian historical fantasy by Howard Andrew Jones has been getting seriously excited reviews since it was published last year, and I look forward to (probably) reading it.  But first, I’m going to read The Waters of Eternity, a set of six short stories featuring the same characters and setting as that novel, which I bought for just £1.52.  A perfect way to sample the milieu at no great financial risk, and if I like it, a pretty much guaranteed sale of the novel.  Whether you’ve already read and enjoyed The Desert of Souls, or if – like me – you’re just curious, what could be better?

(And I feel compelled to point out that while my own most recent modest contribution to world literature, The Edinburgh Dead, doesn’t quite squeeze under the arbitrary £4 price point, at just £4.49 for the Kindle edition it is, I can absolutely assure you, excellent value.)

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I’ll have more to say at some point about the bargains (real and illusory) available in ebook world, now that I’ve had some time to poke around in the unregulated, mapless swamp that is the Kindle Store.  But to jump the gun, I’ve just finished (re-)reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which cost me all of nothing.

This is a book that comes with a certain vague nostalgia attached for me.  I read it, and I think perhaps saw the not very good 1960 movie adaptation, at a young and impressionable age (certainly long before the cultural zeitgeist had a chance to teach me that Sherlock Holmes was Doyle’s only consequential creation).

The impression it made on impressionable me back then was of vivid adventure; so much so that I’ve got a feeling – impossible to absolutely confirm, given my hazy memory – that I produced my own fanfic set on the dinosaur-infested plateau.  Possibly even illustrated, since I didn’t realise until I was into my teens that the kindest thing I could for the world was to refrain from inflicting my art upon it.

Anyway, what did I make of The Lost World now that I’m a jaded, cyncial grown-up?  I had quite a bit of fun, that’s what.

Like a lot of old novels – this one appeared in 1912, I believe – it’s almost comically out of synch with what we’d call good prose writing these days.  It takes a ludicrous number of pages to get our heroes out of London, let alone up onto the famed plateau, and once there the narrative suddenly becomes frantic, cramming plot developments in one on top of another with relatively little regard for their plausibility.

The sexual, racial and environmental assumptions underlying the text are … not exactly attuned to mainstream 21st century thinking, to say the least.  (I found it oddly entertaining, as something of a conservationist by education and background, the way exploration and research in the novel – and at the time of its writing – revolve principally around shooting everything.  It’s a real taste of a different kind of lost world, and one that has an element of appeal in its certainties and privileges and ambitions.).  One of the central threads of the plot even sees our heroes participating enthusiastically in what might nowadays be seen as at best environmental sin of the highest order, and at worst something approximating to geoncide.

The science of the whole thing is utterly implausible in modern terms, unsurprisingly.  I imagine it seemed a good deal more believeable to its contemporary audience, and the lengthy scene-setting and character introductions at the start of the book were presumably intended to root the thing in the real world, and thereby render the speculations to come even more credible.  That said, the plot has plenty of hand-waving, and if you’re the kind of reader inclined to ask questions, most of them will be of the ‘… huh?’ or ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ variety.

For all these potential barriers to enjoyment that the modern reader faces, though, The Lost World has plenty going for it.  Parts are really quite well and evocatively written; certainly better than Doyle’s early Holmes stories imho.

Professor Challenger, whose titanic, hubristic vision is the driving force behind the plot, is a wonderful creation.  Bombastic, rude, self-absorbed and arguably sociopathic; he’s great fun, and Doyle knows it.  I’d entirely forgotten quite how consistent, funny and thorough his writing of Challenger is.  Personally, I could have done with rather more Challenger stories and rather fewer Holmes, but that’s just me.

I had also forgotten that it’s a kind of epistolatory novel, the entire tale told through letters/article submitted by a journalist to his editor.  It may be entirely coincidental, but given that Frankenstein‘s got major epistolatory elements, and Dracula‘s epistolatory through and through, I wonder if these early writers of spec fic were deliberately using the form to enhance the illusion of reality in their tales.  Perhaps in the 19th and early 20th century ‘documents’ – letters, article, reports, whatever – were more likely to be unconsciously interpreted by the reader as having some kind of intrinsic authority, which they lent to the fantastical events being narrated.  Now, we live in an age of uncertainty and doubt, and are programmed to take nothing at face value.

Above all, I was sucked in by the sheer bravado and ambition of Doyle’s imagination.  At a time long before speculative fiction was the culturally ubiquitous commercial juggernaut of today, here he is spinning a wild tale of adventurers and dinosaurs and apemen in the Amazon; conjuring up visions that must have seemed truly extraordinary to his first readers, and still have the power to excite.

As I said, I don’t think the 1960 film version of The Lost World has very much to offer the modern viewer.  (An aside: whatever our misgivings about CG effects in movies, and I have a few, we should all rejoice unconditionally in the knowledge that the age of adorning real lizards with spurious horns and frills and filming them in close up to pretend that they’re dinosaurs is gone forever.  There can have been few more aesthetically disastrous and reptile-demeaning dead-ends in the evolution of sf cinema.).

So here, instead, is the 1925 silent version in its entirety.  Yes, book to big screen adaptation in just 13 years; even back then, the Hollywood blockbuster machine liked its ideas second-hand.

Like the novel, it takes quite a while to get going, but the dinosaur model animations are terrific, given that it was done almost 90 years ago, and the cast all look just right for their parts and for the time.  It also, arguably, has a better ending than the novel, and one that perfectly prefigures – and to some extent probably directly inspired – the modern obsession with monster-initiated urban destruction on the silver screen.

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