Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Science Fiction Vs Religion - C.S. LEWIS: 'The Cosmic Trilogy'




C.S. LEWIS: 
A MINUET OF GIANTS 


The creator of the ‘Narnia Chronicles’ had an 
odd relationship with Science Fiction, and wrote 
his ‘Cosmic Trilogy’ as a Christian retaliation to 
what he saw as a dangerously atheistic genre 


Clive Staples Lewis had an odd relationship with Science Fiction.

To Lewis, myth is important. Myth embodies the aspirations and hidden truths of a culture, in a deeply Jungian sense.

Science Fiction is the mythology of the machine age. Its truths are those that can be rationally quantified. Its aspirations are those of scientific veracity.

CS Lewis was a Christian.

While he was fascinated by the virile energies of Science Fiction, its mytho-poetic possibilities and awesome scope, he was repelled by what he saw as its materialistic ethos.

His answer – his retaliation, was what is now termed ‘The Cosmic Trilogy’ (single volume edition, Pan SF/ 1990). Three novels in which, according to the original blurb, ‘using the apparatus of Science Fiction and his brilliant imaginative gifts, CS Lewis presents the problems of good and evil.’ It is a unique project, one only partially located in the unique genre it hopes to unsettle. A work totally unlike anything else within, or outside the phantasmagorical realm of Science Fiction.


‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ was published by John Lane /the Bodley Head in 1938. It introduces Dr Elwin Ransom, who is to be the central protagonist of the action. He’s a philologist – that’s linguist to you and me, and fellow of a Cambridge College. On his voyage to Mars he is pitted against the scientist Professor Weston who ‘has Einstein on toast and drinks a pint of Schrödinger’s blood for breakfast.’ And the mysteriously devious Mr Devine who, as well as being Ransom’s contemporary at Cambridge, is prone to uttering ‘strange blasphemies and coprology’s.’

‘Perelandra’ – later retitled ‘Voyage To Venus’, followed in 1943. Early mention of ‘the black-out’ locates its creation within the convulsions of World War 2, which perhaps throws its fictional moral conflict into sharper relief. One of the proofs of Weston’s evil in the novel is his professed readiness ‘to sell England to the Germans.’ And later, in a moment of reflection, Ransom muses that ‘at that moment, far away on Earth… men were at war’ in a ghastly reality far removed from the book’s delicate discourse. ‘That Hideous Strength’ arrived in 1945 with an American name-switch to ‘The Tortured Planet’ in an abridged edition ten years after. To Lewis it’s ‘a modern fairy-tale for grown-ups’, its terrestrial – or ‘Tellurian’ setting makes it more a creature of its time than its two predecessors, and it doesn’t travel well. Similarly its multiple narrative viewpoints – one of them through the eyes and brain of Mr Bultitude, a huge black bear, loses the novel its tightness of focus.

Each fictional instalment, although linked by common cosmology and characters, is distinctly different in tone. ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ draws most directly on the conventions of Science Fiction. ‘Voyage To Venus’ is a lush and entrancing allegory. ‘That Hideous Strength’, a bizarre and often unwieldy concoction of mysticism and Ealing Comedy.


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Born in Belfast, 29 November 1898, the young ‘Jack’ Lewis’ early reading included proto-SF and Fantasy from Arthur Conan Doyle, H Rider Haggard, George MacDonald (‘Phantastes: A Faerie Romance For Men And Women’, 1858), and Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (1726). While, still at school, he was so affected by HG Wells’ ‘War Of The Worlds’ (1897) that he briefly embarked on his own first juvenile attempt at interplanetary fiction. As an academic, a Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Magdalene College, Cambridge, he became a prolific writer and poet. His first-published work of prose fiction was ‘The Pilgrim’s Regress’ (1933), a kind of obscurely allegorical rewriting of John Bunyan. Its mixed reception, and a conversation with fellow-‘Inkling’ JRR Tolkien determined that his next venture would be more accessible. So making ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ a hypnotically fascinating and luminously exciting adventure.

Its image of Mars is as distinctive as any in the extensive literature of the red planet. Many writers have personalised Mars, stamping their fictional imprint in its ochre sands. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Stanley Weinbaum, Ray Bradbury. Leigh Brackett. And particularly HG Wells, who – according to Brian Aldiss, ‘awoke Lewis’ imagination and his moral dislike at one and the same time.’ And Wells’ mechanistic, socialist, atheistic vision is regularly alluded to by Lewis, by way of contrast.

Initially on a walking tour of the Midlands, Ransom is kidnapped by Weston and Devine who carry him to ‘Malacandra’ with the intention of trading him to placate the planet’s inhabitants. Critic Peter Nicholls suggests that Ransom ‘like Christ is… offered as a ransom for mankind’ (in ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’). Ransom doesn’t realise he’s on Mars until relatively late in the plot, speculating at one point that he could even be on the Moon’s dark side. Escaping his captors, his journeys on the strange world are shadowed by constant fearful anticipations of Wells’ insectoid reptilian monsters and the soulless dehumanised rule of science he’d learned to expect from ‘War Of The Worlds’ and ‘First Men In The Moon’ (1901). Ransom even recalls specifically ‘how HG Wells’ Cavor had met his end on the Moon’ – although technically it should have been IN the Moon!

Lewis exactly inverts those expectations.

Malacandra is a world in which three sentient species – or Hnau, co-exist in perfect harmony, under the tutelage of the Eldila who are like ‘footsteps of light’, and the world-spirit Oyarsa. It is Earth – Thulcandra, which is the ‘bent world’, the Silent Planet, excluded from the cosmic dialogue because its world spirit, its Dark Lord, the depraved Oyarsa of Tellus, is insane. Devine brings greed and death to Mars, ‘we are all a bent race. We have come here to bring evil.’ While Weston brings more complex ills.


When I first read ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ as a teenager, I did so without preconceptions, and enjoyed it simply as a singularly different slice of SF, and some of its descriptions of Martian alieness remain stunning. ‘He gazed about him, and the very intensity of his desire to take in the new world at a glance defeated him. He saw nothing but colours – colours that refused to form themselves into things. Moreover, he knew nothing yet well enough to see it; you cannot see things till you know roughly what they are.’ Lewis’ portrayal of Mars is largely in keeping with the then-contemporary ideas of the planet. Ransom learns that ‘the Malacandrian atmosphere lay chiefly in the handramits; the real surface of the planet was naked or thinly clad.’ The former, seen from the heights of the ‘undimensioned, enigmatic blackness’ of space, are the wide artificial valleys mistakenly called ‘canals’, cut into the harandra, or dead crust of the ancient world to extend its habitation. This accords with the consensus view of Mars still recognised by fictioneers well into the mid-1960’s. And as yet, CS Lewis’ occasional religious allusions are not highly visible, more a co-opting of religious vocabulary.

Space? ‘Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens.’

Meeting the Hrossa is ‘like the meeting of the first man and the first woman in the world… the first tingling intercourse of two different, but rational species.’ The Hrossa, Ransom considers, resemble talking animals, ‘as though Paradise had never been lost.’ And ‘ever since he had discovered the rationality of the Hrossa he had been haunted by a conscientious scruple as to whether it might not be his duty to undertake their religious instruction’! The climax of the novel is a cleverly-constructed comic three-way dialogue in which Ransom (the philologist) translates Weston’s self-justification of racial destiny, social Darwinism, and scientific ambition into Martian terms that the Oyarsa can understand. His simplified paraphrase reducing the arguments – and hence the underlying premise of most Science Fiction, down to an internally contradictory nonsense.

 

Brian Aldiss calls it ‘one of the most delightful space voyages in the literature’ (in ‘Billion Year Spree’, 1973), and Lewis returns briefly to Mars in one of two short stories – originally published in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’, and later incorporated into the 1966 collection ‘Of Other Worlds’. “Ministering Angel” – from the January 1958 issue, envisages a different and less ethereal planet, with a Monk who had ‘chosen three years on Mars as the nearest modern equivalent to a hermitage in the desert,’ and the whores who arrive there to upset his calm!

But then… of course, the fiction of CS Lewis has ulterior motives. What he calls the ‘hidden story’ beneath the surface plot. It’s entirely possible to read his charming Narnia stories as delightful fantasies without necessarily deciphering the coded messages of their symbolism, although that symbolism is visible. Narnia is a ‘country of walking trees… of Fauns and Satyrs, of Dwarfs and Giants… of Talking Beasts.’ A world in which Digory picks, and is tempted to eat an apple from the magic garden (in ‘The Magician’s Nephew’, 1955). A world breathed into life by the benevolently god-like lion Aslan who is resurrected from death, whose blood can revive the dead (‘The Silver Chair’, 1953), and who finally bids the fantasy world’s cessation with the words ‘the dream has ended, this is the morning’ (‘The Last Battle’, 1956).


With ‘Perelandra’ the moral is even less easily avoided. ‘Authentic Science Fiction’ magazine (no.38, October 1953) calls it ‘a rather slow, somehow boring treatise that grinds an axe so crudely you can see the chips fly off.’ The prefatory disclaimer that ‘all the human characters in this book are purely fictitious and none of them is allegorical’ is difficult to accept, for this – the second ‘Cosmic Trilogy’ novel, is a Perelandrian Book of Genesis. He playfully argues back that ‘a strict allegory is like a puzzle with a solution’ – as his biographer Brian Sibley quotes Lewis as saying, yet his own stories, Lewis claims, more resemble ‘a flower whose smell reminds you of something you can’t quite place.’

In the emerging fragrance of his fictional cosmology Mars provides life’s rough blueprint, a first attempt at animating life-forms. Learning from its crudity, Earth creates humanity, advanced – but flawed by its ‘fall’ from grace. The Moon possesses an underground machine civilisation, suggested but never encountered, which marks the outer limits of Thulcandra’s sphere of evil. While Venus is a new world, its myths yet to be written. ‘The distinction between history and mythology might be itself meaningless’ considers Ransom, in much the same way that with the Eldila ‘the distinction between natural and supernatural, in fact, broke down.’

This time Ransom is summoned through space. He travels to mist-shrouded Venus in a ‘coffin’ powered by Eldila. His interplanetary voyages are all made nude. The inference is of reaching worlds ‘beyond death’, and of rebirth – never stated, but implicit in the image. He discovers Venus, or Perelandra, to be a world of ocean with few points of fixed land, but fleets of floating islands that Lewis illustrates with painterly richness and vivid attention to detail, snaring descriptions with often stunning precision of observation. ‘Great globes of yellow fruit hung from the trees, clustered as toy-balloons are clustered on the back of the balloon-man.’ Lewis later explains that ‘the starting point of the second novel – ‘Perelandra’, was my mental picture of the floating islands. The whole of the rest of my labours, in a sense consisted of building up a world in which floating islands could exist’ (an interview in ‘SF Horizons’, Spring 1964).


Ransom soon meets the Green Lady. The world’s Eve. And shortly after, he discovers Weston there in his familiar role as emissary of evil, but this time he enacts a more focused part. Weston’s soul is owned by the mephistophelean Tellurian Oyarsa. As the novel slowly progresses he decays further into a thing of pure malevolence, becoming first the Un-man, and later the Tempter, as his true intentions clarify. Ransom ‘had a sensation not of following an adventure but of enacting a myth.’ And Lewis adds to that myth-building process with every simile. At one point Weston’s corrupt body even tempts the Green Lady with the suggestion that ‘he (Ransom) does not want you to go on to the new fruits that you have never tasted before.’ Fruit? – what is at stake here is ‘Original Sin’, the loss of Venusian innocence, the prospect of a second Fall, all balanced on the outcome of their individual actions, ‘the sense of precariousness terrified him.’

The leisurely pacing accelerates when Ransom, losing more rounds of philosophical and theological debate than he considers fair, decides to kill Weston. The ethical equation posed by such a murder perhaps being as equally ‘sinful’ as the attempted seduction is not something that worries either the author or his character. The ensuing pursuit takes hunter and hunted to the forbidden fixed land and through a bizarre subworld of caves and their half-glimpsed monsters. A labyrinth compounded of Hades and the Narnian Really Deep Land of Bism beneath the Underland (in ‘The Silver Chair’), a domain complete with a glimpse of its waiting thrones.

Perelandra is saved. Ransom meets the ‘King’ (Adam), and the Oyarsa of both Mars and Venus, to learn more of the true nature of the solar system, and of god – ‘Maleldil’. ‘On Mars the very forests are of stone; in Venus the land swims.’ CS Lewis extends this hard-soft imagery into a definition of male-female beyond physical sexuality, personified by the qualities of these worlds. The interplay of history, myth and morality is its ‘Great Dance’. The fact that it places the human form above all other animals – ‘a little lower than the angels’, is hardly surprising considering its context. As is its sexism. The Green Lady, although nominally equal-but-different, is treated as being of lesser importance than the king. Yet ‘Perelandra’ is a beautifully-woven tapestry of deep and subtle colouration with areas of exquisite prose. His description of ‘ripple trees’ and their tiny denizens runs ‘the wind was blowing the streamers not down the mountainside but up it, so that his course had to the eye the astonishing appearance of lying through a wide blue waterfall which flowed the wrong way, curving and foaming towards the heights.’


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Clive Staples Lewis was a strange, repressed, solitary man who – in Anthony Burgess’ memorable description, was ‘god-drunk’. And he had an odd relationship with Science Fiction. To CS Lewis the spaces separating worlds are ‘god’s quarantine’. This assertion is intended to be serious. A chapter in Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The View From Serendip’ (Gollancz, 1978) amplifies his attitude. Lewis was intensely opposed to all aspects of modernism, including the Rocket Societies that were then being organised by equally fanatical enthusiasts into the grandiosely titled ‘British Interplanetary Society’. Clarke, the group’s treasurer and chief propagandist met ‘Jack’ Lewis for a pre-arranged open debate in an Oxford pub. Lewis was seconded in the confrontation by JRR Tolkien. Clarke by Val Cleaver – who was destined to become head of Rolls Royce Rocket Division!

The debate is fiercely passionate, although from a twenty-first century perspective it increasingly takes on the slightly unhinged air of two bald men fighting over a comb. Lewis contends that space flight will spread humanities crimes to other, as yet uncontaminated worlds. Reduced to absurd simplicity his attitude is of the ‘there are things we are not meant to know /humans should know their place in god’s scheme of things /if people were meant to fly they’d have been given wings’ variety. That human beings should be content with their allotted span – both racially and individually, and when it’s done they should die with dignity as the Martian Hnau will, once they’ve served Maleldil’s purpose. CS Lewis’ mind-set is as mustily pre-industrial and myth-riddled as Tolkien, his colleague in the debate.

While Clarke ripostes that the inevitable future of the race lies out there beyond the atmosphere, quarantine or no. Neither possibility seems any more imminent as the new century lurches into its teens. But Lewis’ opposition to his concepts did not blind him to Clarke’s qualities as a writer. A dust-jacket blurb for ‘Childhood’s End’ (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1954) quotes a Lewis book review with this barbed recommendation – ‘here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim on humanity than its own ‘survival’.’ Clarke himself – in ‘The Coming Of The Space Age’ (Panther, 1970) refers to ‘my old sparring partner’s… theological exercises in SF’. While critic Sam Moskowitz’s essay in the same volume contends that Lewis not only borrowed from HG Wells, but from Olaf Stapledon too, and also assumed his ‘entire religious philosophy as it applied to the space age.’

There’s some evidence that CS Lewis DID admire Stapledon’s elaborate fantasies in which evolving future races hop worlds to escape the extinction of Earth, eventually colonising Neptune two-thousand million years hence – indeed, Lewis even wrote about them with some enthusiasm in ‘The Christian Herald’ (1958). But he obviously rejects what he calls the ‘desperately immoral outlook’ that puts so much faith in humanity’s own ability – in phrases from a letter quoted by Lewis’ biographer and disciple Roger Lancelyn Green, to ‘revitalise the cosmos’.

So can a healthily logical atheist still read and enjoy the books of CS Lewis? The answer is obviously yes, despite himself. In the same way that we can listen to Bach with pleasure, without sharing his faith.


With ‘That Hideous Strength’ even his most dour attitudes seems to have darkened. Prefacing ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ he’d admitted ‘…this author would be sorry if any reader supposed he was too stupid to have enjoyed Mr HG Wells fantasies or too ungrateful to acknowledge his debt to them.’ But the later novel portrays Wells himself as ‘Horace Jules’ – ‘a cockney, a very little man, whose legs were so short that he had unkindly been compared to a duck. He had a turned-up nose and a face in which some original bonhomie had been much interfered with by years of good living and conceit.’ The novels that ‘had first raised him to fame and affluence’ were flimsily grounded in ‘science… taught him at the University of London over fifty years ago.’ The snide character assassination ends with Jules being shot to death!

As Arthur C Clarke writes amusingly in his ‘Astounding Days’ (Gollancz, 1989) World War 2 is brought to a close with the unleashing of two SF concepts into the real world – rocketry, in the form of the V2 Flying Bombs, and atomic power, devastatingly at Hiroshima. Perhaps the muddled and unsatisfactory third instalment of ‘The Cosmic Trilogy’ is presaged by this realisation? That the atheistic proponents of the space age were seeing their dreams enter the realm of news reportage.

To CS Lewis ‘That Hideous Strength’ is ‘a tall story about devilry, though it has behind it a serious point.’ Lewis had already produced a mild and amusing novel about devilry. ‘The Screwtape Letter’ from 1943 depicts a senior devil writing instructions to his young inexperienced nephew, Wormwood, on how to win human souls. Yet here, from the timeless spaces of other worlds, ‘That Hideous Strength’ reduces the scope of its vision down to a very pre-war Little England and the trivial concerns of a highly dated and class-riddled cast of terrestrials, Bill the Blizzard, ‘Fairy’ Hardcastle, Mrs Maggs – the domestic ‘woman who comes in twice a week’, and Mother Dimble. Dr Elwin Ransom doesn’t appear by name until halfway into the book. He is now the ‘Director’, in a beatific state of numinous transfiguration, with the bite on his foot – inflicted by Weston on Venus, borne as a stigmata. While Devine is also present in the form of Lord Feverstone, who becomes Emergency Commissioner of Edgestow – a ‘conquered and occupied city.’

The new protagonists are Mark Studdock – a Sociology Don at Bracton College, part of the Edgestow University complex, and his dissatisfied wife Jane. The first fully-drawn female character in the trilogy – the Green Lady of Venus scarcely counts, she discovers to her own unease that she’s capable of precognition. Aligned with the College ‘Progressive Element’, Mark is inveigled into joining a government-sponsored research centre that has bought the ancient Bracton Wood from the college. N.I.C.E. is the ‘Avengers’-style acronym for this National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments. Weston may be dead, but NICE continues his work by other means, with the ultimate objective of ‘a new type of man’ achieved through ‘sterilisation of the unfit, liquidation of backward races, selective breeding’ creating ‘a new era. The REALLY scientific era.’ Science, equated with fascism.

NICE is an attempted totalitarianism with unconvincing Kafkaesque overtones, and it is – of course, in the sway of the Dark Eldils. They plan to revive the ancient Atlantean magics of Merlin, the great Wizard of Arthurian legend, who ‘had not died. His life had been sidetracked, moved out of our one-dimensional time for fifteen centuries. But under certain conditions it would return to his body.’ Merlin lies secretly entombed beneath the contested Bracton Wood suspended in time, a state that Lewis calls ‘parachronic’, ‘dead and yet not dead, something exhumed from that dark pit of history.’ His pagan Druidical power will be reinforced by what Lewis sees as the new demonic power of science – epitomised by NICE, in which ‘dreams of the far future destiny of man were dragging up from its shallow and unquiet grave the old dream of man as god.’

Here Lewis states his anti-science thesis most nakedly. Science leads to a ‘despair of objective truth’ in which ‘all morality was a mere subjective by-product of the physical and economic situations of man.’ Science undermines belief. And if this conspiracy of logic, realism, and human rationalism ‘succeeded, hell would be at last incarnate.’ Needless to say, Lewis ensures that it doesn’t succeed. A convention of five Oyarsa – those from Mercury (Viritrilbia), Jupiter (Glundandra), and Saturn (Lurga), as well as the two we’ve already encountered, lend a hand. Mark sees through the beguiling pretence of ‘progress’ and returns to more traditional values, and Merlin – once revived, unexpectedly joins the side of light against darkness. 

There’s little of the prose richness of the two earlier novels, but some notes of humour en route. The ‘Head’ of NICE is discovered to be just that – a severed head maintained by a system of tubes, pipes and drips. A horror image lifted directly from the cruder Gernsbackian pulps! While NICE, in its search for the resurrected Merlin, takes an unfortunate and confused tramp into their custody believing him to be the great Druid. But it is more occult flim-flam that SF, and this third volume of the ‘Cosmic Trilogy’ would have been long forgotten if not for the furnace heat of its two predecessors.

And anyway, by March 1949 Lewis’ interests had moved elsewhere. He wrote ‘once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy…’, opening ‘The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe’, with six more ‘Narnian Chronicles’ to follow until ‘The Last Battle’ in 1956.


‘I’ve never started from a message or a moral’ Lewis protests to his ‘SF Horizons’ interrogators, adding ‘of course, it wouldn’t have been that particular story if I wasn’t interested in those particular ideas.’ Science Fiction is an essentially atheistic medium. Perhaps it has to be. Its imagery follows HG Wells Time Traveller to the slow entropic devolution at world’s end. It crosses Olaf Stapledon’s trackless aeons of random evolutions and meaningless extinctions. Even once it had outgrown its early role as propaganda vehicle for the space race, it still conjures up intriguing blasphemies of alternative christ’s, with Michael Moorcock’s ‘Behold The Man’ (1969). The ‘hidden story’ here is inconsistent with belief in god’s eternal plan, inconsistent with the CS Lewis cosmology in which ‘Maleldil was born a man in Bethlehem.’

James Blish questions religious morality by using a Jesuit priest as protagonist of his ‘A Case Of Conscience’ (1958). Anthony Boucher allegedly puts his SF short story “The Quest For Saint Aquin” (1951) at the service of his Catholic faith. Ray Bradbury’s Episcopal priests meet sinless Martians in his “The Fire Balloons” (1951, collected into ‘The Martian Chronicles’), while Walter M Miller’s ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ (1960) centres on the rituals of a Catholic monastery in post-apocalypse America. But even accepting such exceptions, Science Fiction remains the ultimate literature of rationalism. It is the mythology of the machine age. Its truths are those that can be analytically quantified. Its aspirations are those of scientific veracity, with an implacably healthy atheistic subtext. What CS Lewis condemns as ‘the idea which is at this moment circulating all over our planet in obscure works of ‘scientifiction’, in little Interplanetary Societies and Rocketry Clubs, and between the covers of monstrous magazines, ignored or mocked by the intellectuals, but ready, if ever the power is put into its hands, to open a new chapter of misery for the universe’ (‘Perelandra’).

Clive Staples Lewis died on 22 November 1963… living long enough to see Yuri Gagarin, Gherman Titov, Alan Shepard and others follow Weston and Devine in gloriously transgressing god’s quarantine regulations…


C.S. LEWIS: 
THE COSMIC TRILOGY 

The Dark Tower And Other Stories’ edited by Walter Hooper (London, Collins, 1977) unfinished manuscript of disputed authenticity published posthumously, featuring Elwin Ransom involved in an experimental screen that enables glimpses of a parallel universe


Out Of The Silent Planet’ (1938 by John Lane, The Bodley Head, Scribner USA 1938, Pan Books 1952)

Perelandra: A Novel’ (1943 by John Lane, The Bodley Head, also published as ‘Perelandra: World Of The New Temptation’ by US Avon, 1950, and ‘Voyage To Venus’ by Pan Books 1955)

That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale For Grown-Ups’ (1945 by John Lane, The Bodley Head. Specially abridged version by CS Lewis published by US Avon retitled ‘The Tortured Planet’ in 1958, first paperback by Pan Books 1955)

The Cosmic Trilogy’ (single-volume edition by The Bodley Head in March 1990, Pan SF/ 1990, ISBN 0-330-31374-6. Published as ‘The Space Trilogy’ by Scribner Paperback Fiction US 1996.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

POEM: 'A Very Cellular Poem'




A VERY CELLULAR POEM
ALIVE AND WELL AND 
LIVING, IN THEORY 


I’ve fallen into tragic shit,
I’m in love with the blonde girl
with the hair of tentacles
standing beside the pier,
I’m falling out of orbit
endlessly floating in neuron tides,
I’m reading other people’s texts
on the inside of my eyelids

I’ve fallen into tragic shit,
there’s only one time,
and it’s not enough,
despair is always tempting
and cheap dirt is dirt cheap,
it’s night in the abyss where
shocking phosphorescent things
crawl in impossible colors

I’ve seen all this before
in a copy of an ancient film
taken in the days when there
was a London and an Earth,
we’re not born to perfect lives 
but I saw this back in civilization
somewhere in a reconstruction
of a pre-atomic movie-house,
even sorcery couldn’t imagine such
stale lingerie and unfulfilled ambition,
so I might as well get it over with

I’ve fallen into tragic shit,
she tells me that all
my strengths are weaknesses,
that what we call normal
is just a chemical balance
in the brain, that we’re only
alive and well and living
in theory, and now I know
I’ve fallen into tragic shit…


Printed in, and featured on website:
‘BIG HAMMER #17: GONZO LIBRARY OF THE INDY OUTLAW’ http://www.outlawlibrary.blogspot.com 
(US – 18 November 2014)

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

BILL NELSON: Interview & Gig Review




BILL NELSON: 
DREAMING IN MONOCHROME


Gig Review of: 
BILL NELSON with the 
YORKSHIRE ACTORS COMPANY 
at ‘The Warehouse Club’, Leeds 
(26 May 1981) 

Does Doctor Caligari dream in monochrome for t-o-o l-o-n-g? A four-piece theatre group, all white-face, mime exaggeration and stark dramatics are punched through by Bill Nelson’s taped ‘Das Kabinet’ soundtrack cutting electronic shockwaves through the conversation, the sound of breaking glasses, and the flip prurience of ribald hecklers. Then, on video monitors, the vintage violence movie ‘Blood Of A Poet’ (1930) flashes up in ice-sharp black-and-white, and Nelson’s puppet-master Art Attack strategy falls neatly into place. The masks, face paint and surreal symbolism of Jean Cocteau’s film neatly complement the Yorkshire Actor Company’s exhumation of a similarly antique horror text.


But as ghost roadies set up complex effects-boards with adhesive gaffa-tape and kids on a night out away from the Tube crane to catch the silver flicker from the TV screens you start to get intimations of over-ambition. Has Bill Nelson’s vaunting conceptual Art School ambition overshot this audience acceptance-threshold by a parsec-wide credibility gap? There’s a line in tonight’s Weimar-era script of ‘The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari’ (1920) about a man who’s gone twenty-five years without waking – seems like that long since Bill’s been away. But now he’s back with new Northern Dreams and a new chart album. Yet there’s wary talk of his recent ‘Souvenirs Of Impossible Events’ gigs which were composed entirely of pre-recorded tapes and improvised sonic assaults on the outer limits of experimentation…


Theatrical build-up. Then an announcement over the sound system clears the stairs for the imminent appearance of a cult hero. As if choreographed by an invisible switchback, eyes ride into reverse and focus in anticipation like the second coming of some kind of blazing mothership apostle – while the band sneak on behind the amp stacks, chuckling at their cutesy subterfuge.

Pretentious? Art School schlock? Hell no, what they deliver is a sweet wall of sound, harsh jaggedy guitar blocks storming at the disciples in immediate range, inducing the glorious gut-level affirmation of pogoing! “Don’t Touch Me, I’m Electric” is launched as episode one. But by the time they’re through the choppy rhythms of “Rooms With Brittle Views” and into “Furniture Music” it’s time for more meticulous note-taking. Bill Nelson’s in black, broad sash belt delineating bagged black pants, his ‘Dan Dare’ eyebrows arch, occasionally resembling the sensitive Eng Lit teacher of Sixth Form fantasies, occasionally grimacing in an agony of ecstacy as intense as Wayne Sleep, as fingers tongue clitoral flicks up and down the fret. But always there’s the solid up-front front-line Rock.

He announces “Do You Dream In Colour” which jells musically well, best of the set so far, up-gearing from the stark stripped-back rawness in which all frills get lost in the muddy sound-mix with the unintentional electric fireworks, and the near-spontaneous tumble of the build. THIS, from Bill Nelson – clinical craftsman, precise perfectionist!!! But the band is a pick-up of hastily-assembled musicians under the umbrella tag of the ‘Practical Dreamers’. There’s brother Ian Nelson on alto sax and synth, Don Snow thefted temporarily from the Sinceros on keyboards, Bob Danvitchelin of Fingerprints on drums, and Alan Quinn from the News (as well as Bill’s pre Be-Bop Deluxe Global Village band) on bass. A deliberately impermanent line-up designed to feed off its built-in instabilities to result in a novel informality. Quinn grins hugely, an immense guileless smile as he bounces contagiously, set against Ian Nelson’s impassively studious diligence, and Bill’s more devious sideways sneer and more calculatedly self-conscious movements.

Before he delivers the incandescent new single “Youth Of Nation On Fire” born of burning desire – prefaced by a sarcastic swipe at poxy record label politics, and the Red Noise sonic artefact “Out Of Touch” he infiltrates his ‘cultural bit’, which slows the momentum some. Nelson on a solo stool laying over-the-top guitar lines over the top of enormous slow-turning tape spool sounds. His guitar wedged somewhere between Wes Montgomery and a reflective Jimi Hendrix. Music that flits like loose sunlight, ‘enough to make a robot cry,’ long meandering sound strands referenced again to Cocteau, via “Opium”.

The total set, end-to-end, up-market and down, spans just over forty-five minutes, during which he reconnects the audience with the two lost years elapsed between the Red Noise ‘Sound-On-Sound’ (Harvest, 1979) to the solo ‘Quit Dreaming And Get On The Beam’ (Mercury, 1981). The motley devotees retire satisfied, and demanding more. What regulation crowd-pleasing encore is prepared? Surely not “Ships In The Night”? Or could it be the “Adventures On A Yorkshire Landscape” that solitary malcontents howl for? No chance, Bill Nelson ambles back for a second determined shovel-full of solo improvisations. The point is clear. This is a ‘fun’ tour. He’ll play along with this ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll rubbish’ and do it magnificently – but he aint about to compromise. This time he’s doing it on HIS terms, and he’s NOT going to fake it.






BILL NELSON: 
 NEW ADVENTURES ON 
 YORKSHIRE LANDSCAPES


 BILL NELSON was appearing at the Leeds ‘Warehouse Club’ with 
 a solo music-set augmented by Theatre and Jean Cocteau film. 
It was one of my earliest opportunities to use my recently acquired 
 status as Music Journalist with ‘Hot Press’ to pursue my own obsessions. 
And, caught up in transition from the Glam guitar-hero of 
Be-Bop Deluxe, into solo experimentation, 
 he makes for a great interview subject… 


‘NO TRAINS TO HEAVEN’ 

Upstairs in the ‘Warehouse Club’ the self-styled sartorial elite of Leeds act out their public ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn’ fantasies, all black leather, satin and tat, and Bill Nelson reaches out a hand. The palm is slender, cool and smooth, with sculpted artist’s fingers. There is barely perceptible pressure as we shake hands. I’ve seen Nelson before, at one time we even wrote for the same paper! But this is the first direct confrontation, and impressions are duly filed. While a little way away the sad clothes-dummy robots cavort, spending cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention. Bill Nelson is contrastingly understated.

On stage a little while before he’d made concessions to role expectations with black bagged pants and broad black sash, now he’s opted for casual sports jacket with negative ostentation and zero image associations. His guitar might not tell lies, but with Bill Nelson what you see is not necessarily what you get. Perhaps this is a symptom of the hinted dual personality flaunted during the set? A schizophrenic access point by which to home in on the naked psyche? So I accuse him, suggesting there’s an element of condescension in his careful manipulation of the straight Rock format used to infiltrate his advanced cultural scenarios of French avant garde artists and theatre.

But he’s not to be drawn. Smiles playfully through grey owl-eye lenses, swirls ice concentrically around his glass as Devo’s “Whip It” whispers up muted through the floorboards. ‘Naw’ he jibes. ‘It’s just my bizarre sense of humour. I’m enjoying it, I’m enjoying playing again, it’s just that because it’s old material we’re playing, I find I take it all with a pinch of salt. It’s great fun, but it’s not totally Soul-satisfying.’

This is Bill Nelson who toured his own immaculate vision with Be-Bop Deluxe. This is Bill Nelson who, according to contemporary legend, launched Red Noise in its wake as a guerrilla subversion aimed at what he perceived to be the inept inefficient record industry. He’s waging war for the purity of his untainted art – now vindicated after two label-less years by a chart album he’s already bored with!

Is this current band a continuation of Red Noise, then? An emphatic ‘No.’

So is Red Noise totally defunct? ‘Red Noise was intended to be just basically a name to cover all kinds of evil.’

I’ve heard Bill describe Red Noise elsewhere as more a project than a band. ‘It was a project, yes.’

So is this a new phase of that same project?


He selects words deliberately with the skill of an assassin selecting a blade, orders them with the calculated assurance of a man well used to deflecting barbed press impertinences. ‘In some ways it is a continuity, in that it’s playing Red Noise numbers, and it’s playing an album which is finally out after two years.’ Change of tack. ‘I look on this tour like it’s a holiday for me. I don’t really take it THAT serious. If things go wrong I get upset, but I’m probably a lot more lax about the things going off within this band on all levels than I have been in the past. And that’s simply because I know it’s not permanent. It’s a token tour. It’s for people who care about what I’ve done in the past. It’s a hardcore fans’ tour, for people who’ve hung around waiting for the album to come out. I’m not trying to win new hearts and minds with this stuff because I don’t feel – after waiting two years, that it’s worth it.’

The delivery is slick, a practiced PR routine. The problem for me is to de-structure this ritual of two role-playing strangers compressed in an artificial setting for a brief sixty-minutes, and get beyond the glib complacencies we’ve both done fifty times before…


‘STAGE WHISPERS’ 

So I ask if he remembers the counterculture magazine ‘Styng’. He’s now stood sideways, eyes focussed at some point above him, either three-quarters way up the wall, or several years back in time. There’s a vague kindling. ‘Y-e-e-e-s, that’s right. I remember that!’ Regurgitating memories of Barnsley’s harassed and ludicrously absurd underground newspaper, caved in through the combined weight of accumulated hash and obscenity busts a full decade ago. Therein appeared my own first journalistic ramblings – and also a piece written by Art Student Bill Nelson. An analysis of the Who album ‘Who’s Next’, extolling ‘music that flits like loose sunlight.’

We have ignition. Now the grin comes unpressured. ‘Have you got a copy, ‘cos I haven’t? If you could let me have a photostat I’d be really pleased. Because I’ve never had a copy.’

So let’s explore some interconnections. Bill Nelson made his first vinyl around the same time he wrote that review, the rare privately recorded ‘Northern Dream’ (Smile, 1971). Variously re-released in a number of formats over the subsequent years, the twelve tracks – from “Photograph (A Beginning)” to “Chymepeace (An Ending)” was financed by Ken and Betty Bromby of Wakefield’s ‘Record Bar’ and recorded at Holyground Studios, in the bleak backstreets off Wakefield’s Kirkgate. A studio run by Mike Levon and Dave Wood. Bill later recalls (to Mark Hodkinson of ‘Record Collector’) that ‘they were two friends if mine living in a place like a hippie commune, and I used to visit them a lot.’

I also pay a visit to the studio around the same time for ‘Styng’. I was met by the huge imposing form of Mike Levon, who lives with the post-PreRaphaelite Shirl in the flat adjacent to the studio. They overlook Cass Yard, a rundown square of cobblestones besieged by trashcans and decaying buildings forgotten by the council’s redevelopment schemes. The two-track studio, essentially a twelve-foot square converted bedroom. It seems a rather frail optimistic venture pushing its way through the Yorkshire grime towards the sun. Its ratty-haired ambience more late-sixties, the fag-end of hippie idealism, yet also a tentative bridge towards late-seventies DIY ventures. And by implication to Bill Nelson’s own uncompromising stance against the purely profit-driven machinations of an industry determined to reduce talent down into marketable units.

As we sat there talking in mid-1971 I was flipping that album sleeve, a record laid down over a patient and painstaking period fuelled by uncounted cups of coffee, and sessions illuminated by Nelson’s laser guitar-work, derived somewhere between a Folk simplicity – and Jimi Hendrix. A style perhaps filched from the ‘Play In A Day’ book cartoon-illustrated on the cover, honed into shape by playing Shadows and Duane Eddy singles at 33-rpm in order to hear and memorise each note. That sleeve-art is by Eddie Taylor after the style of Robert Crumb, a moon-whitened bedroom with carefully selected books on a shelf – Tolkien, a ‘Beano Annual’, Buddhism, the Bible, Atlantis, and the story of Krishna. An intellectual Bohemian overkill designed to impress. Yet the record works. Simple arrangements, incisive guitar-work, lots of first-person pronouns. From this beginning, Be-Bop Deluxe was to evolve…

In the ‘Warehouse’ tonight, strange ghosts are being unleashed, coming unhinged and out-of-focus like the flickering pages of a burning book. I attempt to pin down memories.

Bill also played on other Holyground products, including the spacey Folk-Psyche ‘Astral Navigations’ album, first issued in a limited edition of just 250. ‘Yes, I played acoustic guitar on that, and Hawaiian guitar on another track…’ Pause, ‘no, I played Hawaiian guitar on ‘A To Austr’ (an album that took its name from an encyclopaedia spine) and on ‘Astral Navigations’ I played acoustic and electric guitar on around three tracks. Just a guest musician role, it was a place that was happening in Wakefield. I haven’t even got copies of those records either!’


‘MUSIC IN DREAMLAND’ 

Be-Bop Deluxe confused and confounded the critics. They were generally shovelled into the Glam Rock, Art Rock, Prog-Rock categories, with Bill regarded as something of a guitar-hero. He could play the game as required. But there was always something that didn’t quite fit. More depth. The debut Be-Bop Deluxe album – ‘Axe Victim’ (Harvest, June 1974) carries a sleeve epigram by phantasmagorical 1930’s French multi-discipline artist Jean Cocteau. The second album – ‘Futurama’ (Harvest, July 1975) includes a track called “Jean Cocteau”, while Nelson’s own label would be named ‘Cocteau Records’. When was that Jean Cocteau influence acquired, did it come around the same formative period?

Bill nods. ‘Yes, I got into Cocteau during Art College, they had a library full of books about obscure Twenties and Thirties artists, and I started tracing things through and finding out what he’d done. There’s a lot of it, he’s a hero still. He’s the only hero I have. I don’t idolize anyone, apart from him.’ Then he stops as though his enthusiasms have run him further than he intended. ‘I don’t actually IDOLIZE him, I just have an affinity. Every couple of years I go to the South of France and hang out in the places he hung out in, and try to soak up some atmosphere. Everyone has some kind of guru.’

In fact, the Cocteauesque theatrical attitudes first became apparent in Bill’s pre-Be-Bop band – Global Village, who used films and masks. Attitudes that resurface in his current involvements with the Yorkshire Actors Company. ‘It’s a cyclic thing’ he concurs. ‘It’s finding its way back to that place again. It’s a re-assessment. Doing a lot of interesting things that are more than just playing Rock numbers on stage.’

Just that now he’s more in a position to indulge those ambitions? ‘I’m hoping to diversify a bit.’

A fine euphemism. But of course, Jean Cocteau never had to play the ‘Warehouse Club’ mid-week. Whereas Nelson’s brief tour is supported by the Yorkshire Actors Company who attempt to do just that, perpetrating a play for which Bill wrote the electronic score. A cyclic element further illustrated by the stylistic counterpoints between their theatrical cavortings, and the monochrome Cocteau film screened on video monitors prior to the gig.

‘Sure, there’s a connection…’ falling short of admitting to a master-plan. ‘It’s a difficult thing for them to do in this kind of place. Not only have they not got microphones on their persons, but this is an abbreviated version of the full production, it’s cut down by half. When they do it in the theatre, obviously people go there to watch that and that alone, and you get an incredible reverence for the act that’s going off. People are very quiet, and they listen. But they said to me that they deliberately wanted to play places that people wouldn’t normally expect a Play to be at. They wanted to take that risk, which is why they’re on the tour. They’re taking all kinds of chances it terms of size and sound – people talking and drinking. I think they’re incredibly brave. I’m full of admiration for them. They’re very good – you should see them in a Theatre doing the whole thing. It’s totally different. It’s so intense, it’s really stunning to watch.’

He’s moving now, this is obviously what excites him most, the new departure of coordinating sound to vision. ‘For the full version I did something like twenty-five pieces of music, and it meant going to rehearsals, timing sequences, making copious notes about what was happening and what impressions I got from what was happening, taking them away and sitting with a four-track machine, various instruments and percussion, and just trying to record sounds and music that related in some way to the visuals that were going on onstage.’

New Adventures on the Yorkshire Landscape? ‘Yeah – in some ways. But it’s NEW adventures, definitely NEW adventures. I’m not interested in turning back the pages and doing what I’ve done so many times before…’


‘BE CAREFUL, I’M AN AXE VICTIM, 
HUNG UP ON THESE SILVER STRINGS…’ 

The reference is to the straightjacket period as Be-Bop Deluxe ran out of momentum. More ghosts, five years on this time. I see Be-Bop Deluxe in Bridlington, a tacky seaside resort on the north-east coast, in winter a surreal paradox of sad arcades with coke culture out of season. Around the ‘Spa Hall’ kids were gathering within earshot of the tide, trying to overhear the support band beyond the faded-grandiose exterior, drab fairy-light constellations in tawdry rainbows dancing in the salt wind above them. ‘You came to watch the band, to see us play our parts. We hoped you’d lend an ear, you hope we dress like tarts, but backstage we stand naked…’ (“Axe Victim”).

I’d seen the Rolling Stones here years before, watched the Kinks in their tired velvet jackets, the Animals dark and menacing. Now 1976, by contrast, seemed a bleak period of shallow Glam-Rock posturing, in which the ‘Sunburst Finish’ album stood out even more three-dimensionally. Downbill is a band called Sailor who’d scored a no.2 hit with “A Glass Of Champagne”. Waiting outside, their sound comes muted to compulsively structured bass-lines over the wash of waves. Then Be-Bop Deluxe, their hard sounds piling up on each other, falling properly and articulately into place. Bill Nelson immaculately white-jacketed like a fifties retread from Jack Good’s ‘Oh Boy’ TV-show, rose in button-hole, black hair combed into quasi-slickback. Words strafing clear and concise – ‘she’s a maid in heaven, he’s a knight on the tiles…’

So what went wrong? For the pundits and hustlers who confidently expected a new Queen or ELO the bust-up of Be-Bop Deluxe must have seemed like failure. ‘Last night I felt immortal, this morning I feel dead’ (“Axe Victim”). From the initial personnel of Bill with guitarist Ian Parkin, Robert Bryan on bass and back-up vocals, Richard Brown (keyboards) and Nicholas Chatterton-Drew (drums) – the group was relaunched after ‘Axe Victim’ (1974) with new shifting line-ups. Simon Fox coming in on drums, first former Cockney Rebel Paul Jeffreys then New Zealand-born Charlie Tumahai (bass) and first Milton Reame-James then Andrew Clark (keyboards, who stayed on for Red Noise). But for Bill, the failure lay not in breaking the band, but in not breaking it two years earlier when creatively, and sales-wise, they’d hit their peak. Yet for contractual reasons, and out of loyalties, they’d done the one-more-tour and the obligatory one-more-album.

‘One thing I got into with Be-Bop was, we were forced into the work syndrome, and it’s very narrow. You focus on just recording and touring.’

What about the critic’s accusation more frequently levelled at Be-Bop Deluxe, that it became too preconceived, too clinical in execution? This hits a nerve. ‘We were musicians! We weren’t idiots hammering away, you know. We knew what we were doing, and that – to some people, is clinical.’

‘SOUNDING THE RITUAL ECHO’ 

Bill’s current musicians are far from contrived. Cannibalising members of the Sinceros and Fingerprints, plus Alan Quinn – a refugee from Global Village, now with the News. It feeds off its deliberate instabilities. There’s a background ripple of conversation, the band are standing around further down the narrow room, tactfully distancing themselves from my cassette machine. There are also members of the Psychedelic Furs somewhere in attendance, plus a couple of Wakefield’s Stranger Than Fictions, and one or two Loss Of Heads.

But Bill Nelson remains the centre of attention, the focal point – as he was in Be-Bop Deluxe. He carries the weight, and it’s he that bears the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism. He looks scrawnier now than he did at the Bridlington Spa, leaner, his features more angular, cheekbones more extruded. But although the gauche naïveté has gone, the energy and enthusiasm is renewed – with a vengeance. In a sense, Bill’s present position could almost be seen as a devolution to that original Holyground ethic, the completion of the cycle, but with the added dimension of a decade’s experience, and a reputation that opens doors to studios like Rockfield and the Stones Mobile. Yet the initial opposition to this freedom, in its guise as the Red Noise ‘project’, was formidable.


He once described the Red Noise ‘Sound On Sound’ (1979) album as left-wing, so in what sense does he consider it to be political? ‘Musically’ he asserts unequivocally. ‘The only politics I can actually talk about with any kind of conviction is in the context of music. Whereas politicians talk about the factors ruling individual’s lives on a day-to-day basis – in terms of economics, laws, decisions, and all the rest of it, the only thing that I can concern myself with politically, is the politics of music.’

With Be-Bop Deluxe he wrote ‘it’s just a matter of style’. With Red Noise he quotes poet Thom Gunn – via George Melly, about “Revolt Into Style”. There’s a temptation to dismiss such rhetoric as similar attitudinising. He talks of his single “Youth Of Nation On Fire” (1981) – still seven-inch minded, but in a futuristic way, as being about ‘youth saying we’ve had enough’. But this ‘old hackneyed lyrical theme is carried by a lot of Asian and Oriental motifs. The cover has a Chinese flavour to it, a Chinese Communistic struggle flavour. Although I’m not a Communist.’

So in what way is the political content more than just an adoption of style, a turning of revolt into marketable symbols? To Bill Nelson it goes deeper than such superficialities would indicate. The real political shift, the only valid revolutionary act is to induce change of consciousness. According to this vocabulary the democratisation of recording technology is political in that it alters the balance from passive consumerism into interactive involvement. And with a few honourable exceptions – such as Mick Farren’s Deviants, Holyground was a trailblazer, an advance guard of that DIY avalanche. Secondly, Bill’s rejection of artful exploitation of his audience in favour of commercial down-gearing into more experimental areas constitutes another shift. Self-determination and creative freedom can never be a part of the media-ocracy. That is also political. So the medium becomes the message. A precious and personal subterfuge.

But wait a moment, this is a back-to-square-one situation! Isn’t this conceptual Trojan Horse a form of condescension? A deliberate multi-pronged manipulation of Rock imagery for culturally ulterior motives? Or if it is, does it matter? I don’t know. Bill Nelson might not be Jean Cocteau, but he sure as hell ain’t Shakin Stevens either!

‘I’m concerned with changing people’s attitudes towards what is, and what is not commercial. What is, and is not music. And you can’t do that by being completely extreme’ he continues, articulately and self-confident. Classless, devoid of regional accent. ‘You have to – not dilute, but direct. You have to aim what you’re doing at a certain part of your audience, and hope that it spreads. The audiences we pull are not exactly unintelligent, and I hope some of the ideas expressed are…’

Absorbed? ‘Yes, in a way. You can only change the system from within. An old adage, but it’s very true. Stand on the outside and shout forever, and all the people on the inside do is use you as a vehicle. You have to reverse that situation. You have to use them, and in some ways it’s a slow, long process. There’s a lot of people I admire. I admire Public Image Limited who do it by sheer force of… how can I put it? Not anger, but there’s some kind of…’

Nihilism? Intimidation? ‘Fear, yes. They almost instil fear into people. Rather than be frightened, people capitulate, and it works for them. I’m not that heartless, and not that cold about it. ‘The Flowers Of Romance’ (April 1981) is the first time Public Image Limited have proved to me they’re worth anything. It’s the best they’ve done. But that isn’t the route that is going to change everything overnight. You have to work in much more subtle and devious ways. I’m far more devious than John Lydon, and nowhere near as honest. If it comes to changing attitudes I’ll do it by devious routes rather than honest routes, because honest routes just get kicked out of the window.’

He gives a self-deprecating laugh. ‘I can’t waste time at my time of life. I can’t waste time alienating people. What I’ve got to do is change people’s ideas and change them very quickly. Give them new ideas and new concepts in a form they can accept – but that bends their attitudes.’

It’s easy to brand such talk as pretentious. The kind of thing that goes down well in intense Art School discussions primed on Jean Cocteau and Marcel Duchamp, but which in the cold glare of Rock ‘n’ Roll come across as arrogant, elitist even. But if you think that, you’ve got it wrong. That would be a misinterpretation. Bill Nelson could have opted for the path of least resistance, capitalising on the proven commercial potential of the Be-Bop Deluxe format. But instead – like the Yorkshire Actor’s Company, he chose to reject sell-out and make his vision work despite occasionally inhospitable climes. I get the overwhelming impression that this decisive rejection of external pressures, and their replacement with far more exacting personal standards, suits him fine. It seems almost intoxicating. It’s an indulgence he’s earned.

So how does he intend to use this freedom? ‘What we’re trying to do now is keep time on one side for production work, some time for film-work, while also running the label. There’s a few things I’m interested in beside just banging guitars out on stage. I’ve pushed them to the back for a long time, and I’m getting to the stage when I should be a little more mature and a bit more disciplined about what I’m doing. I’m hoping to get the next album together after the end of this tour. I want to write it very quickly, literally days before I go into the studio. I’ve got ideas already worked out and I’ll assemble a band to record the album, and take this band on tour with me.’

A backlog of material already on four-track will probably emerge as ‘B’-sides, he explains, while the next line-up will reject synthesiser orientation. Two drummers, one a percussionist. Two bassists, one six-string. Plus marimba, violin, acoustic guitar and vocals. ‘It’s gonna be based on Japanese melodies, and it’s going to be all about eroticism. It’s going to be the most erotic music album ever, without being obvious. It’s going to be erotic to anyone with intelligence. Anyone that’s thick as planks won’t get it.’

A litmus paper test for the intellect, I conclude as my C60 spirals to an end…

Later, outside the ‘Warehouse Club’ in the star-shocked clear Leeds night, a fanzine seller is attempting high-pressure sales technique on a bleached-out refugee from Bill Nelson’s audience. In appearance a regulation – if delightfully dishevelled New Decadent, she seemed unimpressed by the gig. Probably prefers Shakin Stevens. I buy her fanzine anyway!


BILL NELSON: Album History



‘WOW! IT’S SCOOTERCAR SEXKITTEN…!’ 

 Album review of: 
‘AFTER THE SATELLITE SINGS’ 
by BILL NELSON 
(1995, Resurgence RES-114-CD) 

Everything But The Girl go Jungle, so why not Bill Nelson? After all, he’s been here already. He was low-fi hi-tech as long ago as “Do You Dream In Colour”, Indie before there was a name for it.

Trouble is, he plays a fantasi-Cola of three impossible styles before breakfast, programmes plastic tape-recorder and wind-up gramophone, then takes a song idea on a trip around the studio like a ‘dog on an infinite leash.’ For Bill, it’s all just sonic food for inspired noise. Which all makes ‘After The Satellite Sings’ probably too dense for dance. Virtuosity isn’t cool. All you need, after all, is three chords and the truth. And Bill Nelson flaunts his guitar skills in fluid witty snatches, a soft Bo Diddley shuffle feeds onto “Skull Baby Cluster”, a brief Eddie Cochran jolt for “Wow! It’s Scootercar Sexkitten”, then a metal screech play-in to the inspired “Ordinary Idiots”. They all blend in with fleeting Be-Bop horns and jazzy fingering on the exquisite “Flipside” The ambient spaciness of “V-Ghost” follows as a casually immaculate afterthought.

Nelson’s Art-On-Your-Sleeve lyrics, which provide walk-on’s for Jean Cocteau, Jack Kerouac and William Blake are also suspect, right? Oasis thefts from John Lennon or Burt Bacharach, or Blur’s Kinks-Smallfaces lifts are alright. But record buyers and dancers can’t possibly relate to strange French movies, Beat Generation novelists or loopy nineteenth-century visionaries, can they? Isn’t such a limiting attitude even more patronizing?

This album is a Sunburst Finish of avant-Jungle with lyrics like fibre-optic scans of his intestines. If you say David Bowie, then it’s way beyond Bowie’s latest. It draws and blends from each phase of Nelson’s complex career structure, while accelerating the BPM. He adds guitar blasts from Be-Bop Deluxe to manic samples that recall his experimental Red Noise phase, and dedicates it all ‘to the Angelic Presence of Jack Kerouac’ – ‘wither thou goest America, in thy shiny car in the night…’ He feeds on massive reserves of word-power with richly compacted lyrics that have a fastidiously mannered playfulness, a texture and structure, a clarity and precision entirely their own.

Bill Nelson still dreams in colour, dreams of “Beautiful Nudes”, “Phantom Sedan” or “Dreamster 2LR”. And if this kind of virtuosity and intelligence is suspect, then that’s everyone’s loss.




BILL NELSON: 
VINYL FILE – THE FIRST DECADE 

1948 – Bill Nelson, born 18 December in Wakefield, West Yorkshire. A Sagittarius like Jimi Hendrix

1964 – studies at Wakefield College of Art, during various adventures in the Yorkshire landscape including a Rock band called Global Village, plus Gentle Revolution – a multi-media group with movies, actors, mime and masks. Reviews the Who album ‘Who’s Next’ for the ‘Styng’ counterculture newspaper


1970 – features on the album ‘A-Austr: Musics’ from Holyground two-track Indie studios with Mike Levon, who wrote half the songs with Brian Calvert, Chris Coombs wrote the others

1971 – appears on the single ‘Yesterday’ written by Chris Coombs, which is played by John Peel on BBC Radio One. Also on LP ‘Astral Navigations’ with Mike Levon, Chris Coombs and Brian Calvert


1971 – November releases debut solo album ‘Northern Dream’ (Smile LAF 2182) privately recorded at Holyground, an initial 250-pressing financed by Wakefield’s ‘Record Bar’. Simple arrangements lit up by incisive guitar, and lots of first-person pronouns. Side one: ‘Photograph (A Beginning)’, ‘Everyone’s Hero’, ‘House Of Sand’, ‘End Of The Seasons’, ‘Rejoice’, ‘Loves A Way’, ‘Northern Dreamer (1957)’. Side two: ‘Bloo Blooz’, ‘Sad Feeling’, ‘See It Through’, ‘Smiles’, ‘Chymepeace (An Ending)’. Friends Leom Arthur and Gareth Eilledge contribute bass, and Richard Brown on drums. Reissued 2011 as Cocteau COCD 1001, through Cherry Red

1973 – Be-Bop Deluxe ‘Teenage Archangel’ c/w ‘Jets At Dawn’ (Smile LAFS 001.A). First group line-up assembled from friends, rather than according to musical proficiency, with Bob Bryan (later of Rudi And The Zips) on bass, Ian Parkin on guitar, and Nicholas Chatterton-Drew (later of Barnsley band Biffo) on drums. Managed by Betty Bromby – charging £11.50 per gig! Single is done in Roxy/Bowie clothing with 6:50-minute B-side, well-crafted guitar and lyrics. Management switches to Mike Dolan as reputation snowballs



1974 – Be-Bop Deluxe sign to EMI late-1973 in the London ‘Marquee’, and release debut album, ‘Axe Victim’ (Harvest SHVL 813, June) – subtitled ‘Some Rock ‘n’ Roll Madness’ with sleeve epigram by Jean Cocteau, includes both sides of single ‘Jet Silver And The Dolls Of Venus’ c/w ‘Third Floor Heaven’ (June) plus ‘Axe Victim’, Love Is Swift Arrows’, ‘Rocket Cathedrals’ (written by Robert Bryan), ‘Jets At Dawn’, ‘No Trains To Heaven’, ‘Darkness (L’Immortaliste)’ about novelist Andre Gide, ‘Night Creatures’ about a Gay actor, and ‘Adventures In A Yorkshire Landscape’. Lyrical sophistication evident in Rock eulogy ‘be careful, I’m an axe victim, hung up on those silver strings, like wings, like time machines, like voices on the wind’. Produced by Ian McLintoch, with Jenny Haan on guest vocals. Launched by epic tour with Cockney Rebel

1975 – album ‘Futurama’ (Harvest SHSP 4045, July). A line-up purge – Bill recruits Milton Reame-James (keyboards) and Paul Jeffries (bass) snatched from Cockney Rebel as tour terminates (August 1974), and drummer Simon Fox from Hackensack. The two ex-Rebels promptly split (to form new Wave band Chartreuse with ex-Strider vocalist Bob Elliot and issue May 1977 single reviving Kinks ‘You Really Got Me’). Bowler-hatted New Zealander Charlie Tumahai slots into the then three-piece Be-Bop Deluxe to record second LP at Rockfield Studios with Roy Thomas-Baker (known for his work with Queen), with a sometimes impenetrable sound complemented by the overall lyrical-sleeve concept allegedly lifted from Harlan Ellison’s SF novel ‘Repent Harlequin! Said The Tick-Tock Man’. Includes later-single ‘Maid In Heaven’, ‘Jean Cocteau’, ‘Stage Whispers’ (‘I’m waiting in the wings, with all the strings and things, that help me make the music’), ‘Love With The Madman’, ‘Sound Track’, ‘Music In Dreamland’, ‘Between Two Worlds’, ‘Swan Song’ and ‘Sister Seagull’. Yorkshire links retained by inclusion of Grimethorpe Colliery Band – previously used on Roy Harper’s ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’

1976 – album ‘Sunburst Finish’ (Harvest SHSP 4053, February) reaches no.17 in January, on chart for twelve weeks. Engineered by Bill Nelson and John Leckie, with Bill’s brother Ian Nelson adding alto sax and Andrew Powell’s orchestral arrangement. Includes ‘Fair Exchange’ (‘give me your body, love, and I’ll give you my mind’), ‘Heavenly Homes’, ‘Ships In The Night’, ‘Crying To The Sky’, ‘Sleep That Burns’, ‘Beauty Secrets’, ‘Life In The Air-Age’, ‘Like An Old Blues’, ‘Crystal Gazing’ and ‘Blazing Apostles’. On the sleeve a naked girl brandishes a flaming guitar, ‘Melody Maker’ calls the vinyl ‘a finely balanced work with some startling guitar runs.’ A US tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Pure Prairie League get it chart ratings there too, but elements of disillusionment surface. Bill tells ‘NME’ ‘music doesn’t stand on its own two feet any more. It leans heavily on the media. On the advertising media and all the people who go with it’ (7 February 1976)


1976 – February single ‘Ships In The Night’ (Harvest HAR 5140). Andy ‘Mumbles’ Clarke (keyboards) completes line-up with Nelson, Fox and Tumahai in time to be voted ‘New Musical Express’ ‘Most Promising UK New Name’ – prediction fulfilled when it reaches no.23 in February, on chart eight weeks

1976 – August, ‘Kiss Of Light’ c/w ‘Shine’ (Harvest HAR 5110), despite a blitz of press, and Bill informing ‘NME’ of his intended experiments with Environmental Guitar, this single bombs. The 7:30-minute Latin Funk flip credited to Funky Phaser And His Unearthly Merchandise


1976 – September album ‘Modern Music’ (Harvest SHSP 4058) reaches no.12 in September, on chart six weeks. Tumahai’s work-permit trouble restricts UK touring, they record at Abbey Road. The resulting black bands get mixed critical reception, fading in with radio-tuning through cuts from their earlier albums, then running through ‘Bird Charmer’s Destiny’, ‘Forbidden Lovers’ and ‘Dancing In The Moonlight (All Alone)’, closing with acoustic strummed ‘Make The Music Magic’. Nelson and Leckie’s spacily-produced second-side suite forms surreal impressions of their US tour – when Bill reported America is ‘five years behind the time’ (NME, 5 February 1977), ‘Honeymoon On Mars’, ‘Lost In The Neon World’, ‘Dance Of Uncle Sam’s Humanoids’ and ‘Gold At The End Of My Rainbow’

1976 – October EP ‘Hot Valves’ (Harvest HAR 5117) old tracks includes ‘Maid In Heaven’, ‘Blazing Apostles’, ‘Jet Silver And The Dolls Of Venus’ and ‘Bring Back The Spark’ reaches no.36 in November, on chart five weeks. Yorkshire rhythm guitarist Mike Close temporarily augments Be-Bop Deluxe for UK promo tour, and three-month US slog with Angel. ‘You get trapped by your own success, no matter how meagre it might be, it traps you’ (‘NME’, 5 February 1977)


1977 – July album ‘Live! In The Air Age’ (Harvest SHVL 816) reaches no.10 in August, on chart five weeks. Bill now married to Jan and living in Selby. Be-Bop Deluxe’s slick professionalism becomes increasingly devalued as New Wave erupts. Hard-core fans pack out winter 1976 tour to see movie-clip backdrops of seagulls, ‘Astounding’ and ‘Amazing’ SF magazine covers. Issued as renewed pressure on Tumahai forces studio relocation to the South of France. This LP continues SF preoccupation with a still from Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’, and takes live tour tapes ‘from the nervous white light of the stage to the calm persistence of plastic.’ Reproduces cuts from ‘Futurama’ (‘Maid In Heaven’ and ‘Sister Seagull’) and seven from ‘Sunburst Finish’ plus new ‘Piece Of Mine’ and previously-unrecorded 1972 ‘Mill Street Junction’. Also features bonus EP with 9:30-minute live version of uncollected ‘Shine’. Produced by Bill, stand-out tracks ‘Ships In The Night’ and ‘Blazing Apostles’

1977 – September ‘Japan’ (HAR 5135), escaping formula this single uses oriental effects

1978 – January ‘Panic In The World’ (Harvest), then May ‘Electrical Language’

1978 – February album ‘Drastic Plastic’ (Harvest SHSP 4091) reaches no.22 in February, on chart five weeks. Simpler production, approach and ads promoting it as ‘synthetic songs for the video generation’. Moderne sleeve shows the band with TV sets for heads. It programmes the two 1978 singles plus ‘New Precision’, ‘New Mysteries’, ‘Surreal Estate’, ‘Love In Flames’, ‘Dangerous Stranger’, ‘Superenigmatix (Lethal Appliance For The Home With Everything)’, ‘Visions Of Endless Hopes’, ‘Possession’, and ‘Island Of The Dead’. A tour with John Cooper-Clarke results in Bill co-producing and playing in the Bard’s first album in July

1978 – September ‘The Best And The Rest Of…’ (Harvest SHDW 410) Be-Bop Deluxe announce split with £40,000 debt, and Bill complaining of the ‘limitations of a rigid structure. 2LP-set with one album of the ‘best’, the other of new studio material (‘Shine’, ‘Lights’ and instrumental ‘Blimps’). Subsequently Andy Clarke goes into TV-jingles, Fox joins Canadian band Blazer-Blazer. Tumahai first joins Hollywood Killers (August 1979), then joins ex-Wings Jimmy McCulloch and Miller Anderson in Dukes for single ‘Hearts In Trouble’ (Warner K 17453)


1979 – January first from Red Noise, ‘Furniture Music’ c/w ‘Acquitted By Mirrors’ and ‘Wonder Toys That Last For Ever’ (HAR 5176). Bill launches new assault as ‘more a project than a band’, using Andy Clarke (keyboards), Ian Nelson (sax), Rick Ford (bass) and Fairport Convention’s drummer Dave Mattacks for these initial sessions

1979 – February album as by Red Noise, ‘Sound On Sound’ (Harvest SHSP 4095), produced by Nelson and Leckie. Liberated from expectations imposed by Be-Bop Deluxe these twelve relentlessly modernistic and experimental tracks utilise dissonance, violent time-changes and bleep-and-fart electro-effects, with ‘Don’t Touch Me, I’m Electric’, ‘Substitute Flesh’, ‘For Young Moderns’, ‘Atom Age’, ‘Radar in My Heart’, and ‘A Better Home In The Phantom Zone’. It repositions Bill into Eno, John Foxx and Tubeway Army zone, with promo photos revealing Devo/industrial bleak uniformed anonymity. For the tour Steve Peer substitutes for Mattacks

1979 – April ‘Revolt Into Style’ c/w ‘Out Of Touch’ (HAR 5183), top-side lifted from Red Noise album, makes literary links to poet Thom Gunn and jazz singer George Melly. Flip cut live at De Montfort Hall, Leicester. Around this time Bill and brother Ian discard group structure, to record hours of free-form music that will make up the basis for ‘Sounding The Ritual Echo’. Label refuses to release such ‘uncommercial’ material, so Bill produces the single ‘Could This Be Heaven’ for Original Mirrors (Mercury), and works with Arista band News. At Rockfield Studios he also produces the Skids ‘Masquerade’ single and April ‘Days In Europa’ album


1980 – releases May solo EP ‘Do You Dream In Colour?’ (Cocteau COQ1) with ‘Ideal Homes’, ‘Instantly Yours’ and ‘Atom Man Loves Radium Girl’, which reaches no.52 on the UK singles chart with minimal promotion. Still deadlocked with label he forms his own Cocteau Records (74/78 Seymour Place, London W1) in old Holyground/ Smile spirit. Contagious melodies and jerky freeze-frame aurals recorded at Rack Studios and Rockfield. Bill tours ‘Souvenirs Of Impossible Events’ with guitar-sax improvisations over pre-taped backgrounds

1980 – single ‘Rooms With Brittle Views’ c/w ‘Dada Guitare’ (Les Disques Du Crépuscule TWI 013), continuing his return to critical favour this imported continental single reaches no.1 on ‘Melody Maker’ Indie Top Ten 7 March 1981

1981 – May single ‘Banal’ c/w ‘Mr Magnetism Himself’ (Mercury). But first – more production work, ‘It’s Not Me (Talking)’ single by A Flock Of Seagulls (Cocteau), ‘A Certain Bridge’ by Last Man In Europe (Cocteau) and ‘Losing You’ c/w ‘You Don’t Turn Me On’ for Wakefield band Stranger Than Fiction (Ambergris). By May there’s a new label, and new manager – Mercury and Mark Rie respectively. ‘Banal’ cut near Bill’s Selby home on the Rolling Stones Mobile, its title sniping at Harvest official’s suggested ingredient for hits. Flip recorded with Ian at Rockfield, plus 12” tracks ‘Turn To Fiction’ and ‘Hers Is A Lush Situation’

1981 – May Bill Nelson album ‘Quit Dreaming And Get On The Beam’ (Mercury 6359-055) includes ‘Living In My Limousine’, ‘Do You Dream In Colour’, ‘A Kind Of Living’, ‘Youth Of Nation On Fire’, straight into BBC album chart at no.7, vindicating Bill’s determination to control his own musical destiny in defiance of style or hype. ‘Melody Maker’ calls it ‘snapshots of a moving mind… a democratic craziness… where chords are discarded in favour of a trellis-work of lines and figures’ 

1981 – album ‘Sounding The Ritual Echo (Atmospheres For Dreaming)’, originally an instrumental bonus LP to ‘Quit Dreaming’ issued two years after its inception, reissued in 1989 as Cocteau JCS 12, with Dave Mattacks (drums), Ian Nelson (sax), Rick Ford (bass), Andrew Clark (keyboards)

1981 – June double-single and 7-inch ‘Youth Of Nation On Fire’ (Mercury WILL22) with ‘Be My Dynamo’, ‘Rooms With Brittle Views’ and ‘All My Wives Were Iron’. Launched on brief promo tour including the Leeds Warehouse


1981 – August single ‘Living In My Limousine (Remix)’ (Mercury WILL 312) with ‘White Sounds’, ‘Birds Of Tin’ and ‘Love In The Abstract’. With Bill Nelson now established as an idiosyncratic and always-interesting figure out on the perimeter of contemporary music, he continues strictly on his own terms…

1983 – invited by Gary Numan to produce his album ‘Warriors’ (Beggars Banquet). Bill also plays guitar and keyboard on track ‘Poetry And Power’

1990 – creates the Populuxe label, and releases solo material

1995 – album ‘After The Satellite Sings’ (Resurgence RES-114-CD) Resurgence from PO Box 5, Derwentside, Co Durham DH9 7HR

2002 – released ‘Three White Roses And A Bud’, with Fila Brazillia and Harold Budd

2006 – Universal Music (UK) reissue three re-mastered albums with bonus tracks

2013 – plays a fundraiser concert at Wakefield’s ‘The Hepworth Gallery’ in aid of the Unity Works project

2014 – honoured by his home-town with a star on its ‘Walk Of Stars’


Sunday, 23 November 2014

ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: His Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror




‘OUR EYES HAVE 
 SEEN GREAT WONDERS’:

THE LOST WORLDS OF 
 ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE


The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy of 
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE 

 ‘It is imperative that now, at once, while these 
stupendous events are still clear in my mind, 
I should set them down with that 
exactness of detail which time may blur…’ 
                                   (“The Poison Belt”)




The original lure of Science Fiction was the fantastic journey, which grew out of the traveller’s tale. The voyage into uncharted here-there-be-dragons. Exotic lands. Bizarre fauna. Unknown civilisations. Homer could populate the Aegean with mythic phantasmagoria and retain the suggestion of credibility. Marco Polo and Hernán Cortéz could penetrate alienness as fully awesome as any fictional terra incognita. Gulliver could sail to fantasias when there were still islands to discover as unsuspected as the moons of Mars. But world globalisation meant the fantasy option had to be marginalised to greater and greater remoteness if it intended to carry some shred of plausibility, its realms shoved into, and secreted in crevices and niches of increasing inaccessibility – until aerial reconnaissance and geo-sats filled in even those gaps, and fantasists had to nudge their Dragon Isles out beyond the stratosphere, racing the reach of telescopes to other worlds, stars, galaxies. And further…

But therein lies the sub-genre ‘Lost World’. Between Lemuel Gulliver and Yuri Gagarin it was just conceivable that the world held secrets of fabulous mystery. H Rider Haggard found his lost worlds in Africa. Arthur Conan Doyle discovered his – what Arthur C Clarke calls ‘my candidate for the perfect specimen of its genre’, with an expedition to an inaccessible South American plateau. And his adventure stands, even though whatever vestige of what-if has gone with much of the Amazon basin rainforest.

‘The big blank spaces on the map are all filled in’ he has Mr McArdle – news editor of ‘The Daily Gazette’, say at one point, ‘there’s no room for romance anymore.’ He’s wrong. By dispatching reporter Edward D Malone to interview Professor Challenger, he initiates the process of its disproof. ‘The Lost World’ was originally serialised in ‘The Strand’ magazine from April-November 1912, with spot-art by Harry Rountree. Then collected into book form by Hodder & Stoughton. Conan Doyle was fifty-three, and Science Fiction as a genre did not exist. Yet this amazing book contains all the traits that most identify the attractions of big-screen SF.

Malone joins Challenger’s expedition in its hazardous ascent leading to them becoming stranded in the strange domain, they discover living dinosaurs, and are taken prisoner by primitive ape-like Doda tribesmen. Here lies all the ‘Ripping Yarns’ urgency of wide-eyed breathless heroics welded to a near-sublime sense of wonder and limitless possibility. ‘Apparently the age of romance was not dead’ Doyle writes, ‘and there was common ground upon which the wildest imaginings of the novelist could meet the actual scientific investigations of the searcher for truth.’ Later, with the help of the expedition’s fire-arms a human tribe living on the plateau’s far side – the Accala, defeat the Doda, and the team are shown a tunnel-system that returns them to the world below.


In the novel’s Professor George Edward Challenger, Doyle creates the most gigantically memorable character of his long writing career – even if the monumental ubiquity of Sherlock Holmes DOES dominate his literary and popular reputation in a way that eclipses all else. Remove Holmes from the equation and Doyle’s fame would still be secure. ‘The Lost World’ was an immediate bestseller that rapidly graduated onto celluloid – first into a 1925 silent film, and again in 1960 in colour by Irwin Allen. A 1992 remake with John Rhys-Davies as Challenger and David Warner as Summerlee adds photographer Jenny to the team and transposes the Lost World to Africa. Then yet another film – in 1998, transposes the Lost World to a Mongolian plateau! And all the while, the book remain in print and continues to sell, while Challenger himself survived into further exploits which regularly see reprint – ‘The Complete Professor Challenger Stories’ in 1976, ‘The Poison Belt’ (1982), ‘The Adventures Of Professor Challenger’ (1985), and in 1990 ‘When The World Screamed And Other Stories’.

They alone would ensure Doyle’s high profile. Then there’s his other ‘Scientific Romances’, Horror and Fantasy…

In “When The World Screamed” (‘Liberty’ magazine, 1928) Challenger sinks an eight-mile-deep shaft into Hengist Down to pierce the glutinous living core of the planet itself. Here, he’s described as a monstrous egoist, ‘a primitive caveman in a lounge suit… some people are born out of their proper century, but he is born out of his millennium.’ ‘The Lost World’ is more explicit. Professor Challenger, born 1863, educated at Edinburgh University, is ‘a stunted Hercules whose tremendous vitality had all run to depth, breadth and brain.’ He’s a genius, but one characterised by ‘insufferable rudeness and impossible behavior, a full-charged battery of force and vitality.’ Through this pugilistic and challenging persona, Doyle out-Hoyle’s gratuitously contentious astrophysicist Fred Hoyle. He even anticipates him by suggesting ‘had the germ of it (life) arrived from outside upon a meteor? It was hardly conceivable.’ Challenger is ‘a frontiersman from the extreme edge of the knowable,’ but it’s on the South American expedition with Malone, Lord John Roxton, and Professor Summerlee that the fiction REALLY ignites. The bickering professors are drawn larger than life into huge caricatures, which gives them their contagiously infectious life.


But while Challenger may be Doyle’s most complete creation it’s the power of the tale that gives him fascination. Doyle’s style is unobtrusive, there’s carefully described flora and geology sufficiently detailed to suspend disbelief in the most sceptical reader, there’s magical evocations of the lake and its inhabitants during Malone’s solo nocturnal venture into the centre of the strange isolated plateau, the swamp of the pterodactyls, the glade of the iguanodons, yet there’s no phrase wasted on unnecessary introspection or artful artifice. The narrative is related through Ed Malone’s bulletins, ‘what I am writing is destined to immortality as a classic of true adventure.’

He’s not wrong… from bulletin one, through to the final scene of a pterodactyl loosed from Queens Hall over the roofs of London, it never lets up. Conan Doyle used what he termed ‘the universal pass-key of imagination,’ and with it he unlocked realms of wonder.

--- 0 --- 
‘…a dreadful thing has happened to us. 
Who could have forseen it? I cannot forsee any 
end to our troubles. It may be that we are condemned
 to spend our whole lives in this strange, inaccessible place. 
I am still so confused that I can hardly think clearly 
of the facts of the present or of the chances of the future. 
To my astounded senses the one seems most
terrible and the other as black as night…’ 
                                   (‘The Lost World’

Echoing Ed Malone – Celtic temperament, Irish ancestry, Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, born 22 May 1859, was Scots by place of birth – Edinburgh, but Irish by parentage. He had a strong-willed Catholic mother, and an artistic father with a history of epilepsy complicated by alcoholism, who was eventually confined to a Yorkshire asylum. Five years after Doyle’s birth Jules Verne was finding his own prehistoric ‘Lost World’ in ‘A Journey To The Centre Of The Earth’ (1864), a book popular at a time when the young Doyle was enduring education at the bleak Jesuit Stonyhurst Academy, while finding after-hours escape in Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’ novels. It was followed by a more agreeable – but equally Jesuit spell at Feldkirch in Austria, where the young Doyle’s reading taste graduated to Edgar Allan Poe.

Resembling his creation, Professor Challenger, Conan Doyle served time at Edinburgh University, studying medicine. It’s speculated that ‘Sherlock Holmes’ was there too! Doyle met a Professor Joseph Bell at Edinburgh Infirmary, whose precise analytical methods supposedly provided the germ of the Great Detective’s technique. Doyle may also have found early models for the combative Challenger in a fusion of stentorian lecturer Professor Rutherford, and a fellow student George Turnavine Budd. The volatile and extravagantly eccentric Budd is also fictionally recreated in the epistolary novel ‘The Stark Munro Letters’ (1895), which semi-autobiographically relates details of their eventful shared medical practice in Plymouth. Budd was, to Doyle’s biographer Ivor Brown, ‘both physically and temperamentally freakish… a gift to the future novelist.’ He ‘did not live very long and a post-mortem revealed an abnormality of the brain’ which Brown infers was both source of his alarming genius, and of his outrageously unpredictable social behaviour. Both were traits to be transferred to Challenger.


As academic adventurer, Professor Challenger can be seen as the direct link between H Rider Haggard’s ‘Allen Quatermain’, and George Lucas-Steven Spielberg’s ‘Indiana Jones’, and hence becomes a timeless creation. Conversely, there remain many of Doyle’s sensibilities that are difficult for the modern reader to reconcile. After a brief medical apprenticeship in Birmingham, Doyle sailed as medical officer on an Arctic whaler, instinctively disliking the April seal-cull for the fur-trade he witnessed there. Whereas Lord John Roxton is presented as a wholly heroic figure largely on his prowess as hunter, ‘his eager hunter’s soul shining from his fierce eyes.’ On first sighting fresh iguanodon dinosaur prints in the mud of the Lost World, instead of fear or scientific curiosity ‘Lord John looked eagerly round him and slipped two cartridges into his elephant gun’!

By August 1885 Doyle had split acrimoniously with Budd – ripping his brass nameplate from the door with his bare hands. He sailed from Liverpool to Sierra Leone, then – while scrimping a medical practice in Portsmouth, he married, and began writing in earnest. This is the period of his first flirtations with ‘fantastic’ fictions. He had serious literary ambitions that manifested themselves in his novels. ‘Micah Clarke’ came first from Longmans in February 1889, after a number of rejections. An historical tale it sides with the West Country commoners in their insurrection against James II. It was followed by ‘The White Company’ (1891), a chivalrous mediaeval romance, written during his last unprofitable years as a general practitioner.

But all the while he was producing ‘less respectable’ material for a wide variety of periodicals to supplement his income. His first published short stories appeared anonymously, which means that such tales have subsequently been frequently misattributed, incorrectly pirated, suppressed or simply lost in ephemeral journals long extinct. But “The Mystery Of Sasassa Valley” graced the ‘mustard-coloured’ pages of the 6 September 1879 issue of the Edinburgh-based ‘Chambers Journal’, uncredited. It was his second fiction submission, but first acceptance. The story is set in South Africa – ‘this abominable country’, and has its fantasy appeal invested in a ‘haunted valley’ avoided by ‘Kaffirs’. His character sees ‘what the niggers talk about’, a ‘frightful fiend’ with ‘a strange lurid glare, flickering and oscillating.’ However – after a false start or so, a diversion or two, the Sasassa Demon is discovered to be merely a huge diamond reflecting light! Doyle was paid three-guineas for the tale, conditional on his use of the expletive ‘damn’ being deleted by the editor.

It’s more likely that his use of other words would offend the sensitivities of modern readers, although there’s no evidence to suggest that ‘nigger’ and ‘kaffir’ betray anything more than the vocabulary of his time. Doyle considered himself to be socially liberal, and even stood as Liberal-Unionist and Tariff Reform candidate in the 1900 and 1906 elections. Although the use of the word ‘nigger’ occurs in as late a story as “The Poison Belt” (1913) – ‘a sick nigger in Sumatra’, there’s no evidence of any genuine feelings of racism.

In ‘The Lost World’ itself, the expedition’s mighty porter Zambo is ‘a black Hercules, as willing as any horse,’ and even though the qualities we are expected to admire in him – extreme loyalty and tenacious obedience, are just as applicable to a large and friendly dog, the character is respectfully drawn. Doyle’s vehemence is reserved for Gomez, a ‘villainous’ and ‘notorious’ half-breed. While in life Doyle vindicates himself of all such accusations by vigorously campaigning against Belgian racial atrocity in the Congo, and by opposing the pervasive xenophobia of the time by later staking his time, wealth and reputation in the defence of two men he felt to be unjustly imprisoned – a German Jew, and George Edalji, a Parsee. He also displayed unwavering support for the personal integrity of Irish Nationalist Roger Casement, loyal even through a period of Gay-smear stories deliberately disseminated by British authorities.

Conan Doyle’s biographer Owen Dudley Edwards claims to find traces of Roger Casement in the personality of Lord John Roxton…


--- 0 --- 
‘…had Caesar remained faithful as a General 
of the Republic and refused to cross the Rubicon, 
would not the whole story of Imperial Rome 
have been different? Had Washington persuaded 
his fellow-countrymen to wait patiently 
until a Liberal majority in the British Parliament 
righted their wrongs – would not Britain 
and all her Dominions now be an annexe of 
the great central power of America? If Napoleon 
had made peace before entering upon the 
Russian campaign… and so on’ 
                     (“The Death Voyage”) 

But meanwhile, his fiction continued to be ‘scattered around amid the pages of ‘London Society’, ‘All The Year Round’, ‘Temple Bar’, ‘The Boy’s Own Paper’ and other journals’, as he confides to his autobiography ‘Memories And Adventures’ (1924). The extremely odd “An American’s Tale” in the 1879 Xmas ‘London Society’ is a Western in which are ‘heard the fearfulest screams in the stillness of the night,’ and a would-be ambusher is consumed by a giant Venus Fly-Trap with ‘leaves eight and ten feet long and thorns or teeth a foot or more… for all the world like some great sea squid with its beak.’ The victim of this proto-Triffid is ‘torn and crushed into pulp by the great jagged teeth of the man-eating plant.’

Conan Doyle also wrote about the occult (“Selecting A Ghost” in ‘London Society’), the perverse – involving the macabre destruction of a singer’s vocal chords (“The Retirement Of Signor Lambert” in ‘Pearson’s Magazine’, 1898), and the scientific curio (“The Voice Of Science” in ‘The Strand’, 1891). The latter involves the new technology of the phonograph as a comic romantic device, while taking side-swipes at the then-raging Darwin vs Creationist dispute. But there’s little here that would genuinely qualify as proto-science fiction. There IS a form of telepathic vampirism in an 1894 novelette ‘The Parasite’ – in which crippled psychic Miss Penclosa toys with sceptical young physiologist Austin Gilroy. In “The Los Amigos Fiasco” (1892) there’s an electric chair overdose, and a dust-to-gold and back again alchemy in “The Doings Of Raffles Haw” (1891). While Conan Doyle’s 1883 ‘Temple Bar’ short story “The Captain Of ‘The Pole Star’” draws on his Arctic experience as well as – perhaps, on Poe’s “The Narrative Of A Gordon Pym”, so successfully that it ‘struck a powerfully spectral note’ according to no less an authority than HP Lovecraft in his essay ‘Supernatural Horror In Literature’ (1927).

In “A Pastoral Horror” (‘People’, 21 December 1890) a series of murders in the Tyrolese Alps allows Doyle to employ fantastic phrases such as ‘ghastly pallor’, this ‘awful demon who haunts us’, and later ‘the vampire who haunts us… something almost supernatural in the malignity of this unknown fiend.’ But he defuses such horrific expectations when the villain turns out to be merely a homicidal mania possessing the eloquent priest Father Verhagen. With some irony, the priest is identified when he raises his hand to bless the congregation – thus revealing wrist-wounds inflicted by the near-victim of the previous night’s attack! While “Our Midnight Visitor” (‘Temple Bar’, February 1891) is Scottish Gothic set amid the vividly documented bleakness of Uffa, which just might be a conflation of real Scots islands Ulva and Staffa. The tale is awash with dialect conversation postulating ghostly visitation – ‘a wraith or bogle’, who turns out to be merely a French diamond thief. But the narrator strikes a genuinely macabre note as he describes Achille Wolff and his father drowning – ‘revolving in each other’s embrace until they were nothing but a dark loom.’ The fictional Uffa crops up later in the Sherlock Holmes exploit “The Five Orange Pips” (‘The Strand’, November 1891).


In his biography ‘Conan Doyle: A Biographical Solution’ (1977), Ronald Pearsall suggests that Doyle is an unconvincing writer of Horror stories because he doesn’t understand the psychology of fear. A large, physically active man, Doyle could understand adventure and heroism – he boxed, a pupil of Scottish champion Charlie Ball, and he was also an enthusiastic cricketer who once ‘bowled out’ the great WG Grace. He even played as goalkeeper for Portsmouth FA in 1887. He volunteered for active service during the Boer War despite already being in his forties, and ran a frontline hospital after being turned down. But he was a man who had little empathy with either passive introspection or fear.

Instead, he ‘learned’ the techniques of the genre from others, from EA Poe in particular. A later story – “The Leather Funnel” (1902), is a dream of a torture chamber vault that recaptures Poe’s morbid fascinations exactly. Another story, “The Ring Of Thoth” (1890), recalls Poe’s “Some Words With A Mummy” (April 1845). There are more overt cross-over’s. The creation of Sherlock Holmes himself was to some extent based on Poe’s sleuth C Auguste Dupin of “Murders In The Rue Morgue” (in ‘Graham’s Magazine’, April 1841). Doyle seems to admit as much in “The Fate Of The Evangeline” (from the Xmas 1885 ‘Boy’s Own Paper’), a bizarrely convoluted tale of maritime romance, a lover’s self-imposed exile on the Scottish island Ardvoe, and the lost and haunted ship of the title. In the story Conan Doyle uses the device of reproducing spoof newspaper reports – as he would later do in ‘The Lost World’, and goes so far as to quote his mentor – Poe, directly, to the effect that ‘those simple rules as to the analysis of evidence laid down by Auguste Dupin. ‘Eliminate the impossible’ he remarks in one of Poe’s immortal stories, ‘and what is left, however improbable, must be the truth’.’ Holmes himself discusses Dupin’s shortcomings in “A Study In Scarlet” (1887), while Doyle continued to champion Poe over his own creation as late as his American lecture tour of 1894, and in his book of literary criticism ‘Through The Magic Door’ (1907).

In the meantime, among the plethora of hackwork from Conan Doyle’s dog-days was one that would prove singularly significant. The copyright to “A Study In Scarlet” was sold to the 1887 ‘Beeton’s Christmas Annual’ for £25, when Doyle was just twenty-eight. It was the first of four long stories and fifty shorts to feature Sherlock Holmes. The character was soon enjoying serialisation in Greenhough Smith’s ‘The Strand’ with classic illustrations by Sidney Paget. And Holmes was to guarantee Doyle’s financial independence for the years to come.


--- 0 --- 
‘My copy of ‘The Lost World’ (John Murray, 1914) 
has as its frontpiece a photograph showing 
Challenger and the other members of the party to 
that great adventure. The Professor himself, with 
his huge beard and bushy eyebrows, looks very much 
like one of our distant ancestors… The model is 
Doyle himself, heavily disguised, and I 
suspect that the irascible scientist was 
much nearer to his heart than his more 
famous creation, Sherlock Holmes’ 
      (Arthur C Clarke in ‘Astounding Days’, 1990) 

Conan Doyle was dismissive of academic attempts to ‘prove’ Holmes was based on the real-life character of Dr Joseph Bell. According to a newsreel interview Doyle considered such a connection ‘a monstrous growth from a comparatively small seed.’ No doubt he’d show equal contempt for efforts to reduce Professor Challenger down to a similar combination of personal memories. Like Holmes, Challenger – with his ‘Assyrian luxuriance of beard’, is the hugely accomplished product of a rare and prolific imagination. And if he rapidly tires of Holmes – ‘that pale, clear-cut face and loose-limbed figure was taking up an undue share of my imagination’ (‘The Casebook Of Sherlock Holmes’, 1927), Challenger’s roots were a mature and developing enthusiasm.

More specifically, Doyle’s enthusiasm for archaeology came late in his life, after he’d moved to Crowborough on the Sussex Downs. By now he was wealthy and famous, an avuncular paunchy figure, faintly benign and moustachioed in the HG Wells style. He began collecting flints and axe-heads, acquired a large plaster-cast of a prehistoric footprint, and was drawn into the Piltdown Man controversy. ‘The Lost World’ was a direct result of this interest, the first draft of which he scribbled onto the cover of an archaeological journal. And although it was preceded by a series of impressions and tales ranging over the spectrum of antiquity – Greece, Byzantium, and Rome (collected into ‘The Last Galley’, 1911), ‘The Lost World’ was by far its most incandescent manifestation.


A chapter heading – ‘Tomorrow We Disappear Into The Unknown’, sets the tone as the ill-matched expedition follow clues found in a notebook left by American artist-explorer Maple White. What they discover as ‘Maple White Land’ – the Lost World, is meticulously detailed. As large as an English county, they are able to circumnavigate the entire plateau in just six days. It is ‘an oval contour, with a breadth of about thirty miles and a width of twenty.’ Its general shape is that of a ‘shallow funnel, all the sides sloping down to a considerable lake at the centre.’ The geology is described in a convincing fashion, and there’s even speculation concerning the natural balance of fauna – why the carnivores haven’t multiplied unchecked so wiping out their prey.

Subsequent Lost Worlds – and there were still plenty to come, would seldom seem as plausible. Hyatt Verrill’s 1926 ‘Bridge Of Light’ ran in ‘Amazing Stories’ magazine, and also located its Lost World in South America. In 1940 Abraham Merritt’s hero of ‘The Snake Mother’ (published in ‘Fantastic Novels’ magazine) discovers another lost civilisation in an isolated valley in the Peruvian mountains, while LP Sherman’s ‘The Throwback’ (in ‘Fantastic Novels’, 1949) takes place in a forbidden Sierra Madre valley inhabited by monsters from the ‘Secondary Era’.

Victor Rousseau’s ‘The Beetle Horde’ (in ‘Astounding Tales’ no.1, January 1930) posits a ‘Submundia’, a hidden world beneath the South Pole where the titular beetles rule a race of degenerated troglodyte humans. James Hilton’s ‘Lost Horizon’ (1933) and Dennis Wheatley’s ‘The Man Who Missed The War’ (1945) also qualify for inclusion, but the greatest uncoverer of Lost Worlds must surely be Edgar Rice Burroughs. His stories set in Pellucidar ‘at the Earth’s core’ rival his two ‘The Land That Time Forgot’ novels as probably the finest examples of his work, while in his Tarzan sagas his protagonists continue to stumble across forgotten African civilisations with predictable regularity long after such possibilities had become absurd. Even the original ‘King Kong’ (1933) movie has more than a passing similarity to Conan Doyle’s novel – and shares Willis O’Brian, its special effects designer from the 1925 ‘The Lost World’ movie. Yet the most deliberate attempt to recast the theme into an acceptably contemporary way must be Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller ‘Jurassic Park’ (1990) in which an island of dinosaurs are recreated from DNA. As if to make the debt even more obvious, it’s Steven Spielberg-directed movie sequel is even called ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park’ (1997).



Even Conan Doyle himself would make one more foray into the Lost World sub-genre…

Ivor Brown calls this late phase of Conan Doyle’s career proof of his ‘man-boyishness’, a kind of wilful refusal to age gracefully. More likely, he saw himself denied the literary respectability he’d earlier craved and attempted to achieve through his historical novels. The vast and continuing cult popularity of Sherlock Holmes restricted his reputation to what he considered ‘the lower stratum of literary achievement’. So he decided instead to enjoy that celebrity through a series of playful fantasies. 

Easily the most impressive of these shorts is “The Horror Of The Heights” (1913), an almost Lovecraftian title which opens with the chilling line ‘there are jungles of the upper air, and there are worse things than tigers which inhabit them.’ The narrative purports to include the incomplete ‘manuscript known as the Joyce-Armstrong fragment’, detailing the experiences of an aeronaut who ascends to 41,000-feet to discover this weird aerial realm. ‘Conceive a jellyfish such as sails in our summer seas, bell-shaped and of enormous size – far larger, I should judge, than the dome of St Pauls. It was a light pink colour veined with a delicate green, but the whole huge fabric so tenuous that it was but a fairy outline against the dark blue sky. It pulsed with a delicate and regular rhythm. From it there depended two long, drooping, green tentacles which swayed slowly backwards and forwards. This gorgeous vision passed gently with noiseless dignity over my head, as light and fragile as a soap-bubble.’ Soon, the aeronaut is attacked by less attractive denizens of the sky – ‘threatening and loathsome’ with ‘goggling eyes… cold and merciless in their viscid hatred.’ The details of the ascent, the technical descriptions of the biplane’s operation and the problems encountered in its manoeuvre are authentically described, as the biology and appearance of his unearthly creatures are both stunningly imaginative and of an order of literacy only occasionally achieved by SF-to-come for many decades.

It, too, spawned its imitators. Arthur C Clarke comments on the similarities – too close to be coincidence, between it and SP Meek’s “Beyond The Heaviside Layer”, a short story in ‘Astounding’ dated July 1930. Not only did Conan Doyle do it first, declares Clarke, but his story was written ‘only ten years after the first heavier-than-air machine had staggered off the ground.’

A second story – “The Terror Of Blue John Gap” (‘The Strand’, September 1910) tells of a ‘monstrous inchoate creature’ living beneath the ‘hollow’ countryside of Derbyshire – a beast not dissimilar to Bram Stoker’s ‘White Worm’. Doyle conjures up ‘a creature as no nightmare had ever brought to my imagination.’ He even hints at a full subterranean realm of such beings from which the monster originated. These tales, and some further Challenger exploits, show Conan Doyle’s SF at its most sophisticated, competing directly with HG Wells.


“The Poison Belt” bears the distinction of republication in Britain’s first-ever SF periodical – ‘Scoops’ in 5 May 1934, a weekly billed as ‘Stories Of The Wonder-World Of Tomorrow’, although the story had originally seen print just one year after ‘The Lost World’. Brian Aldiss dismisses “The Poison Belt” as ‘a tepid performance, much under Wells influence’, or – to David Kyle, it was an ‘almost the-end-of-the-world story again reflecting Poe.’ The Earth drifts through a ‘poison belt’ of cosmic gas that at first appears to destroy all terrestrial animal life. Challenger, Malone, and the rest of the ‘Lost World’ crew escape its toxic influence by using air canisters, only to emerge into an aftermath of vast desolation. This is fictional territory to be revisited later by ‘School Of Cosy Disaster’ novelists such as John Wyndham and John Christopher. To Aldiss it’s ‘a picturesque deserted London that we shall meet again in ‘The Day Of The Triffids’ (1951).’ Although the dreadful power of the story is somewhat mitigated when people begin to revive from what is not death, but merely a comatose state. Then – following “When The World Screamed” (1928), there’s “The Disintegration Machine” (‘The Strand’, January 1929), a light comic squib concerning Theodore Nemor, a Latvian scientist, and his odd invention. After both Malone and Challenger are disintegrated and reassembled, they dupe Nemor himself into the device and – fearing its use as a weapon of war, fail to restore him…

It might be kinder to leave Arthur Conan Doyle there. For what follows is a slow decline. The horrific scale of World War I casualties – including the death of his own son, brother and two nephews, affected his vision. A younger Doyle – after seeing military action against the Boers in Bloemfontein, had eulogised ‘wonderful is the atmosphere of war’, lamenting a pacified future ‘when the millennium comes the world will gain much, but it will lose its greatest thrill.’ While his swaggering Napoleonic comic ‘swashbucklers’ featuring Brigadier Gerard, delight in bloodshed. Now there’s a change in tone – ‘look how everything has been turned to evil. We got the knowledge of airships. We bomb cities with them. We learn how to sail under the sea. We murder seamen with our new knowledge. We gain command over chemicals. We turn them into explosives or poison gas. It goes from worse to worse…’ (‘The Land Of Mist’, 1926).


Bookending the war, his short story “Danger” (‘The Strand’, 1914) had predicted submarine warfare in a fictional siege of England by ‘Norland’, just one month before European hostilities broke out. Until his “The Death Voyage” (‘The Strand’, 1929) is a speculative ‘alternative history’ postulating an imperial melodrama around the events during the war’s final hours. As the German war machine disintegrates the Kaiser is carried across Europe in the refrigerator car of a sealed train to lead his fleet into a ‘death voyage’ against overwhelming odds. Doyle’s attitude is respectful to this ‘great adventure of the supreme sacrifice,’ this ‘armageddon of the sea.’

But the key story of this late phase is the fantasy novel ‘The Land Of Mist’ (1926), a hideously inept propaganda text for Doyle’s new-found interest in Spiritualism, thinly disguised as fiction. ‘Post-war conditions and new world problems had left their mark’ says Edward Malone, and perhaps – charitably, the same can be said for Conan Doyle. He’d long since abandoned Catholicism in favour of a healthy agnosticism, but now dabbled in Buddhism and Theosophy, hypnotism and Oriental mysticism. He also delved into FWH Myers’ study of psychic research ‘Human Personality And Its Survival Of Bodily Death’ (1903) in an attempt to give meaning to, and find some explanation for the Great War’s carnage.

It was a thread of interest that could be traced back as far as a séance he’d sceptically sat in on in Southsea, accompanying the eccentric astronomer Alfred Wilkes Drayson. A 1900 short story – “Playing With Fire” (‘The Strand’) also deals playfully with psychic chicanery, one which conjures up a unicorn! But certainly after 1920 he devoted his time, cash, and still not-inconsiderable energies to promoting the pseudo-sciences. He wrote books on the suspect topic, including a well-researched two-volume ‘History Of Spiritualism’ (1926), and even ‘The Coming Of The Fairies’ (1921) in which he credulously affirms faked evidence for the existence of the ‘Cottingley Fairies’. 

‘The Land Of Mist’ uses the ‘Lost World’ personnel to give voice to Doyle’s own experiences of seeing and smelling ectoplasmic manifestations. An annotated index of sources follows the story, intended to strengthen its ‘authenticity’. Lord Roxton is seduced by the concept following a spirit visitation by the then-deceased Professor Summerlee, ‘having exhausted the sporting adventures of this terrestrial globe, he is now turning to those of the dim, dark and dubious regions of psychic research.’ Challenger is initially fiercely hostile, snorting ‘like an angry buffalo’ at the very mention of visiting a Spiritualist – ‘next week the lunatic asylum, I presume?’ Perhaps Conan Doyle should have taken heed of Challenger’s commendable contempt – ‘there seems to me to be absolutely no limit to the inanity and credulity of the human race.’ Instead, he contrives the Professor’s unlikely conversion, and then abandons him as a new apostle of the pseudoscience. 

It’s a sad and undignified end to the career of such a contagiously powerful creation. 

Certainly, whatever rationalist bias energised his earlier flights of imagination completely desert this later Conan Doyle. His last book, and final ‘Lost World’ is ‘The Maracot Deep’ (1929), published the year before his death. To Ivor Brown this is ‘a descent into nonsense as well as into the Atlantic.’ Maracot himself – a kind of fusion of Doyle’s two most successful characters, Challenger and Holmes, discovers Atlantis, battles the forces of evil on the ocean bed, and utilises psychic forces to destroy the monstrous ‘Lord Of The Dark Face’ who menaces the subaquatic civilisation in a totally unconvincing denouement. 

But at his best, during his finest years, Conan Doyle’s forays into Science Fiction stand up well to comparison with those of his contemporaries – including HG Wells. “The Horror Of The Height” in particular, while ‘The Lost World’ rightly remains a classic of the genre. It’s a fantasy as rich as ‘the wild dream of an opium smoker, a vision of delirium…’ 

‘Evolution’ writes Doyle through the mouthpiece of Challenger’s colleague Mr Waldron, ‘was not a spent force, but one still working, and even greater achievements were in store.’ In that phrase lies all the promised wonder and anticipation of the most visionary Science Fiction. 



Research texts used for this article include: 

‘CONAN DOYLE: A BIOGRAPHICAL SOLUTION’ by Ronald Pearsall (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1977) 

‘MEMORIES AND ADVENTURES’ by Arthur Conan Doyle (Oxford Press, 1989) 

‘CONAN DOYLE: A BIOGRAPHY’ by Ivor Brown (Hamish Hamilton, 1972) 

‘THE UNKNOWN CONAN DOYLE: UNCOLLECTED STORIES’ edited by John Michael Gibson and Richard Lancelyn Green (Secker and Warburg, 1982) 

‘A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION’ by David Kyle (Hamlyn, 1976) 

‘THE QUEST FOR SHERLOCK HOLMES’ by Owen Dudley Edwards (Mainstream Publications, 1983) 

‘BILLION YEAR SPREE’ by Brian Aldiss (Corgi, 1973)