I've just finished reading four short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, after having picked them up recently at a book sale in Melbourne Central. The book, "The Lost World and other thrilling tales", is a Penguin republication, and rolls in two of his 'Challenger stories' - novelettes, really - complete with the pictures that, one assumes, originally appeared in the newspapers in which the stories were published; as well as two other shorter pieces which seem almost like prototypical horror stories; and the usual long introductory essay by the scholar who may or may not know what he's talking about.
Conan Doyle of course is best remembered for his detective stories, though as this book shows he could adapt nicely to the demands of the adventure or scientific romance genres of the time . This adaptation may have partly coincided with his growing interest in spiritualism, and there's certainly an interesting ongoing argument about scientific discovery and revelation in these stories. Doyle references H Rider Haggard in the title story, 'The Lost World', which is a well-shaped adventure story about a scientific expedition to find a surviving biological enclave of dinosaurs. The second story, 'The Poison Belt', bears remarkable similarities to H G Wells' novel 'In The Days of the Comet', though it's less successful than Wells' novel.
You certainly find yourself more than a little shocked at the politics of some of these stories. They are all written in the British empire's heyday, directly before the first world war. They celebrate the virtues of adventure, of courage, of daring and adventure and scientific discovery - but also celebrate more questionable virtues. The narrator of the first story, Edward Malone, is spurred to take part in an adventure after being told by his love interest, Gladys, that 'I do want to marry a famous man.' Malone later falls in with a small band of friends (including the Professor Challenger, mentioned above) who, to varying degrees, seem to embody the sort of fame and courage that Gladys requires. Travelling to the Amazon, they are betrayed by a Mexican servant (for no reason that is immediately apparent other than that it is useful for the narrative) and left isolated on a plateau with dinosaurs. There, the Professors Challenger and Summerlee occupy their time in finding live examples of animal life and killing them. (Sometimes, to balance out the plot and make it more exciting, the live specimens spend their time chasing the live characters around and trying to kill them, too.) They are also kidnapped by a race of semi-intelligent missing links, or 'ape men', after which - again with not much plot justification - they decide to side with a group of Indians also living on this (increasingly improbable) plateau, and make war on the ape-men.
There's often very little time amongst these fast moving plot events for much description of the dinosaurs or other extinct life encountered - although there are a few important exceptions to this, one of the best being the discovery of a nest of pterodactyls:
Creeping to his side, we looked over the rocks. The place into which we gazed was a pit, and may, in the early days, have been one of the smaller volcanic blow-holes of the plateau. It was bowl-shaped and at the bottom, some hundreds of yards from where we lay, were pools of green-scummed, stagnant water, fringed with bullrushes. It was a weird place in itself, but its occupants made it seem like a scene from the Seven Circles of Dante. The place was a rookery of pterodactyls. There were hundreds of them congregated within view. All the bottom area round the water-edge was alive with their young ones, and with hideous mothers brooding upon their leathery, yellowish eggs. From this crawling flapping mass of obscene reptilian life came the shocking clamor which filled the air and the mephitic, horrible, musty odor which turned us sick. But above, perched each upon its own stone, tall, gray, and withered, more like dead and dried specimens than actual living creatures, sat the horrible males, absolutely motionless save for the rolling of their red eyes or an occasional snap of their rat-trap beaks as a dragon-fly went past them. Their huge, membranous wings were closed by folding their fore-arms, so that they sat like gigantic old women, wrapped in hideous web-colored shawls, and with their ferocious heads protruding above them. Large and small, not less than a thousand of these filthy creatures lay in the hollow before us.
As science fiction, then, it works amazingly well as an adventure story. As an adventure story, it might have been able to work even without the science fiction.
The second story, 'The Poison Belt', is more of a failure - though in its own way a far more interesting failure than 'The Lost World' is a success. For one thing, the story is based upon a long-outdated, and by now forgotten, scientific theory, 'the ether' (it's a kind of substance that permeates the entire universe). Apparently the earth moves into a portion of the ether that is poisonous to life. Thanks to Professor Challenger's prompting, the main characters secure themselves oxygen tanks, which sees them through the worst of it. This necessitates the wonderfully arbitrary sentence on page 216 of my book -
... I took a taxi, and, having ascertained the address from a telephone book, I made for the Oxygen Tube Supply Company in Oxford Street.
In order to ration their oxygen successfully, Malone, Challenger, and friends spend most of the story holed up in Professor Challenger's living room, which is a decidedly curious narrative choice on Conan Doyle's part. It affords a rather narrow perspective of the world and the human race in its death throes - and a limited perspective is more or less contradictory to the spirit of these sort of tales.* Finally, when the 'poison belt' of ether passes, they are able to go out and wander about the dead world. In one particularly poignant touch, they encounter an old woman who has been prescribed oxygen for a medical condition, and has hence survived: all she does is wonder what this will do to her stocks in a certain company. The whole odd tale concludes with the world coming back to life, in another improbably convenient twist of the plot.
A lot of the charm of these stories, of course, is the way they combine futuristic and/or visionary narratives with outdated early 20th century science. The plot device of the second story - the passing of the earth through a different form of ether - harks back curiously to nineteenth century scientific theories about the universe. Similar plot devices recur in the final two stories, especially the concluding piece, 'The Horror of the Heights', in which an airman ascends above the clouds in a pre-world war I aeroplane, and discovers what he refers to as 'the jungle of the sky' - a whole tangle of bobbing, gaseous jellyfish and airy snakes amongst the upper atmosphere. That's the sort of tale that couldn't have been written even thirty years later, but it's still wonderfully imaginative.
You probably shouldn't let the politics, and late-colonial values of these stories stop you from reading them. They're at the very least excellent entertainments by a master storyteller. And once you get past the scene-setting and the laborious plot devices, you may find hidden treasures aplenty -
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
*One of the pictures early in the story shows the four major characters sitting in a room together, discussing the imminent destruction of the world by poison, while smoking cigarettes. Which is really quite charming.
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