Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel

He sees dead people
Published in 1901, The Purple Cloud is a science fiction novel by M. P. Shiel, which is the pen name for Matthew Phipps Shiell (intentionally misspelling his own surname). H. G. Wells praised this novel as “brilliant,” but that just goes to show that even the great H. G. Wells can make mistakes, because The Purple Cloud is anything but.

Given the title and an inkling of the book’s contents, I was expecting something along the lines of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1913 novella The Poison Belt, and the plots of the two books are built upon a similar premise. The latter work is likely a derivation of Shiel’s book, watered down for popular appeal. Early on, Shiel’s narrative voice does sound remarkably similar to Conan Doyle’s, and the two share a predilection for supernatural phenomena. In the opening chapter of The Purple Cloud, Shiel constructs a convoluted set-up by which a psychic medium, while under hypnosis, astrally projects her spirit through time to read a book that was written in the future. That book is the journal of Adam Jeffson, a British doctor who joins an expedition to the North Pole. The story is awkwardly weird at first, but nevertheless quite interesting. There are hints that Jeffson’s involvement in the polar expedition is supernaturally destined, which whets the reader’s appetite for whatever strangeness may follow. The rest of the novel, however, never lives up to the promise of its opening chapters.

Jeffson’s journey to the Pole does not go as planned, and he spends more time in the arctic than he bargained for. On his return voyage, he grazes the edge of a mysterious cloud of purple gas, possibly volcanic in origin, that renders him violently ill. When he makes it far enough south to reach human civilization, he finds that the purple cloud has poisoned the entire planet, killing every human being in its path. The deadly cloud has since dispersed, allowing Jeffson to survive unscathed in this global graveyard. He then spends several chapters wandering the earth, compiling a long-winded travelog of cities filled with corpses. Adding absurdity to tedium, Shiel has Jeffson, a physician by training, unrealistically operating locomotives, large cargo ships, and power plants all by himself.

Part of the fun of post-apocalyptic science fiction is that through vicarious experience of the hero’s adventures in the future world the author has created, you can imagine what you would do if you were the last man on Earth. Once Jeffson resigns himself to the fact that he is humanity’s sole survivor, what he chooses to do with his alone time is simply ridiculous. Shiel makes a lame attempt at philosophical depth by setting up a symbolic dichotomy between black and white, good and evil, God and the devil. This spiritual conflict is too simplistic to be taken seriously and is never fully explored enough to matter. I wish I could complain about the second half of the book, which is just as annoying as the first, but to do so would be to give away the novel’s only surprise.

The Purple Cloud takes itself too seriously to be much fun, yet its attempts to be profound come across as silly. Even worse, it commits the sin of being boring. It may have been innovative for its day, but today’s readers will likely find it dull and disappointing.
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