Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Conan Doyle’s The Disintegration Machine and When the World Screamed

The best known of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s science fiction novels is of course The Lost World, chronicling the adventures of the extraordinary Professor Challenger. Professor Challenger featured in several of Conan Doyle’s other stories. Most are collected in the Wordsworth paperback volume The Lost World and Other Stories. I’ve reviewed The Lost World and The Poison Belt elsewhere, but the final two stories in this volume, The Disintegration Machine and When the World Screamed, are also not without interest.

The Disintegration Machine dates from 1929. Professor Challenger has heard of what might be an amazing if terrifying scientific achievement or merely an imaginative fraud. But the potential dangers of Theodore Nemor’s disintegration machine are such that he cannot afford to ignore it.

Along with the newspaperman Malone (the only journalist he will tolerate) Professor Challenger sets out to discover if Nemor’s invention really can do what has been claimed for it. What Challenger sees in Nemor’s laboratory will shock him, but Professor Challenger knows how to handle the situation in his characteristically direct way. It’s an amusing story with a sting in the tail.

When the World Screamed, originally published in 1928, is much more interesting. Professor Challenger has become a convert to a startling theory about the nature of the Earth. He believes it’s alive. Literally. That it has a consciousness. The problem is that the Earth is apparently unaware of us. Professor Challenger intends to change that.

This is not a hippie-dippie Gaia-type story but it does illustrate the way in which Conan Doyle’s interests in both science and mysticism occasionally coalesce in an interesting way in his fiction.

The tales of Professor Challenger are varied in both quality and tone but all are very much worth reading.

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