Wednesday 1 February 2023

The Professor Challenger Stories of Arthur Conan Doyle


Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) is of course most famous for inventing the private detective Sherlock Holmes, whose adventures are described in four novels and 56 short stories, published between 1891 and 1927. He also wrote a wide range of other fiction and non-fiction, of which the most relevant to this blog are the SFF / adventure stories featuring the scientist Professor Challenger. Three novels plus a couple of short stories emerged between 1912 and 1926, of which by far the most famous is the first; The Lost World. All of these were conveniently collected together in one volume, published by Wordsworth Classics in 1995, of which I have a copy: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World and Other Stories.

The Lost World is not just Doyle's best-known SFF novel, it is one of the great classics of science fiction. A scientist explorer, the cantankerous and belligerent Professor Challenger, returns from an expedition to the heart of the Amazon jungle with a claim that prehistoric animals still survive there. He is ridiculed, so organizes a follow-up expedition by a small team including the sceptical Proessor Summerlee, the big-game hunter and explorer Lord John Roxton, and a journalist, Edward Malone, who provides the first-person narrative of the journey and, apart from Challenger himself, is the only character who appears in all of these stories. 

After a difficult journey through the Amazon jungle the team arrive at the base of a plateau, with a circumference of more than 30 miles, which is entirely cut off from the surrounding land by steep cliffs. The team manages to find a way up but then become trapped there. They not only find dinosaurs and other long-extinct creatures, but people, including an earlier form of humanity. After many adventures (spoiler alert!) they manage to find a way off the plateau and return in triumph.

The story is a compelling one, just as gripping now as it was when first published. Of course, our modern knowledge of ecosystems allows us to poke various holes in the plot; but that does not reduce the drama of the story. I don't know if Doyle was aware of the fact that plateaus surrounded by high cliffs (known as Tepui) do actually exist in northern parts of South America, but they are much smaller and have no dinosaurs!

Doyle's next book in the series is The Poison Belt, set three years later. Astronomers begin to discover odd distortions affecting the visibility through their telescopes, and Challenger deduces that the Earth is about to pass through a belt of ether, with unknown consequences. (Ether, a term now used to describe certain chemicals, used to have a much more mystical meaning, as Wiktionary lists: a substance once thought to fill all unoccupied space that allowed electromagnetic waves to pass through it and interact with matter, without exerting any resistance to matter or energy). Challenger invites the same three characters to gather at his hilltop country home where they seal themselves into a room with a supply of oxygen cylinders. As the Earth sweeps into the ether belt, the team look on in horror as people and animals outside immediately collapse, apparently dead. 

Their oxygen supply lasts for long enough for the Earth to pass through the ether belt, and the team are able to emerge from their bunker and travel around. However, this is not an action adventure; for most of the story the characters engage in discussions, often of a philosophical nature. This is not a criticism - Doyle was a good writer who is still able to hold the attention of his readers.

The final Challenger novel was The Land of Mist. This is set several years later and Challenger is an old man - but still just as cantankerous. The subject of this tale is spiritualism. Malone is writing for his newspaper a series of articles about different religions, in collaboration with Enid, Challenger's daughter (and Malone's romantic interest). The focus of the story is on the spiritualist church so Malone and Enid attend various seances as well as church services. At first very sceptical, they soon become convinced by what they are witnessing. Interestingly, Malone is excused narrating duties this time - there is no viewpoint character.

At this point, I should mention a couple of background issues. The first is that spiritualism was very popular in the English-speaking world from the 1840s to the 1920s. The belief that the spirit survived death and could communicate with the living via seances moderated by mediums had a strong appeal (and indeed, still does in some quarters).  The second is that Doyle was himself a prominent spiritualist. 

Knowing this, The Land of Mist is clearly autobiographical; the author takes the reader "on a journey" (in modern parlance), through the stages by which he became a spiritualist (supported by detailed notes at the end of the story). I have to say that I found this unconvincing; the characters were too ready to accept the validity of what they witnessed without question. So was Doyle in real life; for example, he was convinced that a photo of "fairies" was genuine when it was actually a simple piece of fakery carried out by young children. 

This leads us to the final pair of Challenger stories included in this book (there don't seem to have been any others). Both stories are short, in fact The Disintegration Machine is very brief; it concerns a visit by Challenger and Malone to an inventor who claims to have developed a machine which disintegrates matter - everything from a person to a battleship reduced to particles - and can then reintegrate it with no harm done. This device clearly had immense potential in warfare. Unfortunately, by the time our heroes get to see it, they are too late - the inventor has agreed to sell it to an Eastern European power. Challenger finds an appropriate solution to the problem.

In the second story - When the World Screamed - we find that Challenger, having come into a considerable fortune, is spending it on testing a theory of his; that the Earth is actually one huge, living organism. A massive shaft has been driven eight miles deep, until it reaches a point at which the material of the Earth changes to something softer - which appears to have some of the characteristics of life. Challenger intends to punch a large hole in this material to see if there is any reaction (what could possibly go wrong?). Malone features in this story as usual, but narrating duties are passed on to a new character, an engineer called Peerless Jones.

Obviously these tales are somewhat dated and some of the language (unexpurgated in this edition) as well as attitudes are almost as prehistoric as the dinosaurs, but The Lost World in particular is just great fun, and I was reminded of why this was a favourite story when I was a child.

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