Poison Belt, The by Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan, 1911
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger series, which included the books The Lost World, this one, The Poison Belt, The Land of Mist, and two short stories, The Disintegration Machine and When the World Screamed are all very fine examples of early British SF. This one in particular was a quintessential British catastrophe yarn that sits well among the social disaster tales of Wells and the cozy catastrophes of later writers such as Wyndham and Hoyle, because it is essentially an intermediary step between the absolute destruction of Wells and the measured situations of Wyndam's work that really affected none of the characters too badly, and often in the end provided opportunities for growth and more traditional SF style transformation. Of the period's SF writers Doyle may have been one of the most accomplished stylistically, which was good for him because his skills at SF innovation were not up to par.
Set three years after The Lost World, Professor Challenger has again made headlines, this time with a letter to the editor of the London Times chiding The Daily Gazette for printing letters by other scientists who in Challenger's opinion were pure fools. Recently objects in the southern sky had grown uniformly dim, and thereafter radiated in different spectra. Scientists all over the world postulated a number of causes of the change in the night sky, and all said that it was nothing to worry about. Challenger grew tired watching them flail about in the vain attempt to identify the reason. His letter to the editor, in his typical bullish style, spelled it out with the delicacy of a freight train jumping its tracks:
"To a wider audience it may well seem of very great possible importance - so great as to involve the ultimate welfare of every man, woman and child upon this planet. I can hardly hope, by the use of scientific language, to convey any sense of my meaning to those ineffectual people who gather their ideas from the columns of a daily newspaper. I will endeavor, therefore, to condescend to their limitations, and to indicate the situation by the use of a homely analogy which will be within the limits of the intelligence of your readers."
Challenger was not the only abrasive character. Parts of this book read like an archaic buddy-cop movie: The kind where the anti-social cop gets into mock-fights with the chief, who really only wants to see the team do well, and his partner, who only wants to follow the rules. Those scenes were not few in number, and caught and kept my attention well. Here is what I mean. Parts of this book were just plain fun!
Professor Summerlee laid down his pipe and for the rest of our journey he entertained - or failed to entertain - us by a succession of bird and animal cries which seemed so absurd that my tears were suddenly changed into boisterous laughter, which much have become quite hysterical as I sat opposite this grave Professor and saw him - or rather heard him - in the character of the uproarious rooster or the puppy whose tail had been trodden upon...While this was going on Lord John leaned forward and told me some interminable story about a buffalo and an Indian rajah, which seemed to me to have neither beginning nor end. Professor Summerlee had just begun to chirrup like a canary, and Lord John to get the climax of his story, when the train drew up at Jarvis Brook, which had been given us as the station for Rotherfield.
Professor Challenger was a decently crafted character. He was the epitome of the scientist/adventurer archetype that dominated SF of the day. The problem was that with all of his characters save one (Malone, at the end) Doyle stayed within his comfort zone for each of them and failed to stretch them much at all. As the story opened the four main characters from The Lost World had been summoned by Professor Challenger under the pretext of a reunion, but really to watch the world die. Lord John Roxton, a Samuel Clemens-type pragmatist, game hunter and manly man, Professor Summerlee, a critical and assertive doubter of Challenger, and Malone, a star-struck observer and reporter, all arrived at the home Challenger shared with his dutiful wife and taciturn driver, Austin. At Challenger's request they all bore cylinders of oxygen. Challenger's plan was to seal a room in his house, then dispense the oxygen so that the five of them (Austin was not included) in such a concentration that they would not be overcome by the ether. Their plan was to stay alive as long as they could and watch the destruction from the window. Much of the book was dedicated to descriptions of scenes of mass death and carnage.
Farther up (a) nurse-girl lay with her head and shoulders propped against the slope of the grassy bank. She had taken the baby from the perambulator, and it was a motionless bundle of wraps in her arms...On one particular green there were eight bodies stretched were a foursome and its caddies had held to their game to the last. No bird flew in the blue vault of heave, no man or beast moved upon the vast countryside which lay before us. The evening sun shone its peaceful radiance across it, but there brooded over it all the stillness and the silence of universal death - a death in which we were soon to join...I remember another singular picture, some miles on the London side of Sevenoaks. There is a large convent upon the left, with a long, green slope in front of it. Upon this slope were assembled a great number of school children, all kneeling at prayer. In front of them was a fringe of nuns, and higher up the slope, facing towards them, a single figure whom we took to be the Mother Superior. Unlike the pleasure seekers in the motor car, these people seemed to have had warning of their danger, and to have died beautifully together, the teachers and the taught, assembled for their last common lesson.
There really is not too much bad to say about this book until the very end. Revealing the ending would be the equivalent of yelling out "the butler did it!" after exiting a theater (this is Arthur Conan Doyle remember - it has a big twist at the ending) so I won't do it, though I will say that its the most disappointing disaster-story cop-out that I have ever read, and the anger I felt over it made me knock not one but two stars from the rating. There is also a society change element that occurred after the characters had a chance to contemplate life after the passing of Challenger's death-cloud. Those who survived realized the importance of slowing down and enjoying life, and turned their backs forever on the hubbub of the city. Because of that it reads like an old man's wish fulfillment, and probably speaks little to the conclusions that the young would draw. Other than that, the science is pretty dated, though it by no means substitutes hack conclusions for fact. Doyle was as prepared as a man in his day could be to describe the science of the situation, though thankfully he did not dwell on it. Instead he tackled the bigger issues of human concern, and in this case that concern was the insignificance of man before the power of the universe. It was no cozy catastrophe either; although the party was cozy within its sealed chamber, a barely comprehensible death bore down oppressively upon them. Also, I think that this book employed for the first time the motif of the catastrophe/exodus caused traffic jam, as is was written at a time when cars were just coming into everyday use in London.
Overall this was an interesting story with slightly flat characters, who were by no means wooden, who interacted believably with one another. Suspension of disbelief was not a problem, and while the SF elements were drawn well enough, the catastrophe imagery was absolutely fantastic. I'll always consider the ending a big cheat and a ruin of the premise of the story, but I did enjoy it overall.
Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell