Friday, August 2, 2013

The Poison Belt by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The apocalypse has never seemed so dull
The Poison Belt is the second of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventures to feature the brilliant but arrogant scientist Professor G. E. Challenger. Published in 1913, it takes place three years after the events of the first episode in the series, The Lost World. A century after Conan Doyle wrote these stories, The Lost World is the only installment of the Challenger series that’s still widely read, and after reading The Poison Belt it’s easy to see why. The latter book captures little of the excitement and wonder of its predecessor.

Challenger has called his three companions from the Lost World expedition—Professor Summerlee, Lord John Roxton, and journalist Edward Malone—to join him at his home for a reunion, with the cryptic request that they each bring a tank of oxygen. When the three arrive, Challenger informs them of his latest startling discovery. Evidence indicates that our solar system is drifting into an anomalous region of the interstellar ether, the chemical composition of which will be harmful to human life. Challenger sees no way of preventing this impending catastrophe, but he invites his guests to join him and his wife in a sealed room where the oxygen from the tanks will briefly prolong their lives. By gazing out the windows of Challenger’s country house, onto the English countryside below, this party of survivors are witnesses to the end of the world as we know it.

The term “ether,” as used here, may be unfamiliar to today’s reader. It is meant to signify the rarefied substance that exists in the empty space between celestial bodies, essentially a sort of gaseous interstellar ocean in which the planets and stars “float”. If the book were written today, the concept of ether might be replaced by dark matter, and perhaps a century from now people will wonder what the term “dark matter” meant. Unfortunately, this is not the only antiquated scientific concept in the book. When the effects of the poison belt begin to be felt on Earth, a few references are made to the fact that the “less developed races” are more susceptible to the phenomenon than the Caucasian race. Even the n-word makes a few appearances. Although such instances of racism are to be expected in literature from this time period, for fans of Conan Doyle the effect of these slurs is similar to the embarrassment caused by the regrettable utterings of a lovable but ignorant uncle.

The main problem with The Poison Belt is that, for a science fiction adventure, there’s very little science and absolutely no adventure. The adventurers spend almost the entire book locked up in Challenger’s room. There is no mission for them to undertake, they don’t attempt to stop the disaster, and there’s no problem for them to solve. They are merely observers of this bizarre event. While the world perishes, they engage in philosophical discussions of death. Is it better to go quickly or linger on? Is there a higher power? None of the characters come up with particularly profound answers. The idea of the poison belt is an interesting one which offers the possibility for a good sci-fi novel, but why on earth did Conan Doyle decide to put Challenger and his team into this story? The daring men who strode bravely through the jungles of South America in The Lost World are here left to sit around and twiddle their thumbs while the world dies. Most Conan Doyle fans would agree that Challenger is a far less interesting and likeable character than the author’s most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. Here the disappointing story makes the contrast even more glaringly apparent. Even those who loved The Lost World are likely to find The Poison Belt a bummer and a bore.

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