In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Recently, Anne M. Pillsworth and Ruthanna Emrys reviewed a rather lurid story from Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Horror of the Heights,” about airborne jellyfish creatures threatening early aviators (see the review here). This story, with its pseudo-scientific premise, reminded a number of the commentators of Doyle’s always entertaining (and always irritating) character, Professor Challenger. And it occurred to me, even though I’ve reviewed his most famous adventure, The Lost World, that still leaves a lot of Professor Challenger to be explored. So, lets go back a hundred years, to a time when there were still unexplained corners of the Earth, and join the fun!
Doyle was most famous, of course, for his tales of the hyper-rational detective Sherlock Holmes. But one of his favorite characters was the eccentric scientist and zoologist Professor George E. Challenger. As his daughter is quoted as saying, “My father took delight in Professor Challenger, who appealed to his sense of humor. He read the stories to us as he wrote them, and I have always remembered them since those days with great affection and amusement.” I first encountered the character in a book bought from the Scholastic Book Club in my youth, The Lost World.
Later on, after finding that there were more Professor Challenger adventures, I searched around online, and found a two-volume collection, which I used as the basis for this review. The first includes two novel-length works: The Lost World and The Poison Belt, featuring the main characters from the first book. The second volume includes two short stories—“The World Screamed” and “The Disintegration Machine”—and the novel, The Land of Mist. The two volumes were published as nicely bound trade paperbacks by Chronicle Books from San Francisco in 1989 and 1990.
While these are the only stories Doyle wrote about Professor Challenger, the character has also been revived or referred to by other authors, and there have been a number of movie and television presentations based on The Lost World. One of the books inspired by the original Professor Challenger stories was the book Dinosaur Summer by Greg Bear (which I reviewed here), an alternate history novel whose point of divergence from our own timeline was the notion that the events of The Lost World actually took place.
About the Author
Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was by training a man of science, a medical doctor who first practiced on vessels at sea, and saw the Arctic regions and Africa during his travels. The time in which he lived was one where the boundaries of science being pushed, and like many authors of the time, he was willing to speculate on wonders as yet undiscovered. In his later years, he was increasingly interested in spiritual phenomena and life after death.
I included more bibliographical information in my review of The Lost World, which can be found here. And like many authors whose careers preceded the early 20th Century, you can find a number of Doyle’s stories and novels at Project Gutenberg (including some that are covered in this review).
The Lost World
The first Professor Challenger adventure was The Lost World, published in 1912, a rousing adventure set on an isolated South American plateau, where prehistoric creatures like dinosaurs are found to have survived. While I won’t revisit that tale, the four main characters figure in the stories that follow, and are worth mentioning. There is the physically imposing, emotionally volatile, and intellectually gifted Professor Challenger with his bushy black beard. His most frequent associate is the reporter Edward Malone, an amateur athlete who is willing to go to great lengths to get his story. Challenger’s frequent intellectual opponent (but good friend) is Professor Summerlee, and their arguments are epic and frequently heated. The fourth member of the quartet is Lord John Roxton, a noted hunter and adventurer. The picture below, published in the first edition of The Lost World, was staged by Doyle and some friends, where he donned a fake beard and eyebrows to play the role of Professor Challenger.
The Poison Belt
In 1913, on the heels of their South American adventure, Professor Challenger invites the old gang to his country house to celebrate their accomplishments. Peculiarly, he asks each of them to bring an oxygen bottle to the gathering. Astronomers practicing the new technique of spectral analysis have noted shifts in their readings, and there are reports of illness in far-flung places around the world. Tacking against scientific consensus, Challenger has suggested that the Earth may be passing through a different part of the ether, which might have harmful effects. Malone, Summerlee, and Roxton travel by rail together, and find themselves unusually sensitive and argumentative.
The three friends have a lovely dinner with Challenger, but he tells them he has sealed a sitting room, and wants them all to retire to it with their oxygen bottles, as the change in the ether is poisoning the animal life of the Earth. The only person invited to join them is Challenger’s beloved wife Jessica; smug in the elitist attitudes of the time, they do not even think to invite Austin, Challenger’s loyal butler and chauffeur. The house is on a hill, and from their windows, they see pedestrians collapsing on the nearby road, and signs of chaos around them caused by people succumbing, including rail crashes and house fires. Challenger remarks that the poison appears to be affecting less advanced races first, a remark that conforms to racist attitudes of the time (and there are also a few racial slurs in this and the other stories in the books).
They run out of oxygen, and open the windows of the house only to discover that the atmosphere around them is again safe to breath. But everyone around them appears to be dead. They take a horrifying trip by motor car to London, and begin to wonder if surviving this tragedy was a blessing or a curse. Only one living person is found, an old woman who used oxygen for her maladies, and so survived the ordeal. When they return to Challenger’s home, however, they begin to hear birds and animals, and see people beginning to revive. Whatever the etheric disturbance was, its effects were only temporary, and the story has a happy ending, with Challenger being lionized for being the only person to predict the tragedy. Even the imperturbable Austin forgives his employer for leaving him outside during the event, although he dearly would have loved to visit the Bank of England while all the guards were asleep.
Compared to The Lost World, this was a dark and claustrophobic adventure, even despite Doyle making the effects of the poison temporary in the end. There was no derring to do, no monsters to encounter, and very little action at all. I imagine, had the events in this story actually occurred, mankind would have emerged quite humbled by the experience. And I couldn’t help but wonder if such a profound event could have changed the course of history, and possibly prevented World War I by showing the world how fragile life could be.
The Land of Mist
The next novel was written in 1926, when Doyle was deeply involved in the spiritualist movement of the time. The work at some points reads more like a religious tract than a fictional tale, and I suspect it must have been somewhat puzzling to the readers of the day. Imagine if today, a famous author took some of his most popular action-adventure characters, and put them into a preachy polemic advocating a controversial religious movement.
Challenger’s beloved Jessica has died, and he is now looked after by his daughter Enid, a character seemingly invented for this tale, as she has never been mentioned before. Enid is a freelance contributor to the Gazette, and she and Malone have been working on a series of articles on houses of worship. But when they visit a Christian spiritualist service, they find themselves drawn into believing things they had previously scoffed. Malone is shaken when a medium describes a man who could only be his late friend, Professor Summerlee.
Challenger is appalled that his daughter and friend could be involved in such unscientific nonsense, and when Enid and Malone begin a romance, he is dead set against it unless Malone renounces spiritualism. Then Lord Roxton shows up, having inexplicably developed an interest in the occult, and he and Malone accompany an Episcopal priest who wants to rid a house of the spirit of a dead murderer. There is a subplot where they try to help a medium who gets in trouble with the law, and all sorts of encounters that can’t be explained. Malone writes about these experiences for his paper, but when the publisher wants articles mocking spiritualism, he resigns, and takes a job as Challenger’s business manager.
Challenger finally agrees to attend a séance, and is surprised when the medium gives him information that could only come from his wife, and also sets his mind at ease regarding a medical issue where he was afraid he made a mistake that led to a patient’s death. Having, for once in his life, admitted defeat, he acquiesces to Enid and Malone marrying, and the story ends with them being blissfully happy.
The story is a bit slow, and somewhat preachy, but was interesting because it appears to be a fairly accurate depiction of the spiritualist movement of the time. The romance between Enid and Malone was well-handled, and a gently pleasant example of an early 20th Century courtship.
“When the World Screamed”
This short story, which first appeared in 1928, is set prior to The Land of Mist, and shows Challenger at his bombastic best. Instead of being narrated by Malone, the story is from the viewpoint of artesian driller Peerless Jones. Challenger has received a large inheritance from a benefactor that allows him to undertake a massive drilling project. He has decided that the Earth is a living creature, like a sea urchin, with a fleshy body inside its hard crust, gaining sustenance from the ether as it orbits the sun. And in his hubris, Challenger wants to see what happens when the creature gets poked. Mr. Jones has been hired to set up the final device that will drill into the fleshy substance that has been discovered at the end of the miles deep tunnel. He and Malone barely reach the surface after setting up the device when Challenger sets it off, and the world reacts with a shiver felt around the globe.
The story is written tongue in cheek, and you can tell Doyle is having fun showing Challenger’s grandiose and reckless aspirations.
“The Disintegration Machine”
The last Challenger tale was written in 1929, but is also set prior to The Land of Mist. Challenger is asked by the Gazette to go with Malone and investigate a scientist named Theodore Nemor who claims to have built a disintegration device. They find the man to be absolutely vile and unprincipled, and intent on selling his device to the highest bidders, the Soviet Union. With the death and destruction of the Great War fresh in their minds, they realize the horrible implications of such a device being used in warfare. Challenger, in his irritatingly self-confident way, comes up with a solution that, while immoral, might be the only reasonable way to handle their dilemma.
Professor Challenger is one of those larger-than-life literary characters that any author would give their right arm to create, and his adventures are a great treat for readers. While there are no dinosaurs and foreign travel in his later adventures, they are engaging and worth a read. The Land of Mist may be a bit didactic, but all the stories are well written, and the characters shine throughout.
If anyone else has read these stories, I’d be interested to hear your impressions. And if you’ve encountered any adventures of Professor Challenger, either in film or television, or in stories written by other hands, I’d love to hear about those as well.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.