Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Lost World & Other Stories- Part 2

Having read part one, you will have been left in no doubt that Professor Challenger and his scientifically-questionable methods had a large influence upon my youthful self. So I simply couldn’t wait to crack into this new book which promised more Challenger adventures. I was rather disappointed then, to find them, on the whole, brief and unremarkable. Perhaps the story When the World Screamed comes the closest to recapturing some of that Challenger magic. The Poison Belt, however, feels like a second-rate take on a H. G. Wells scenario.

Other factors rankle also. Challenger had held unconventional and unpopular views before in The Lost World, but then he had had solid proof that his crazy ideas were true. His continual ranting about having the correct scientific attitude held up, because he had good reason to know that he was right. In these new stories, Challenger continually leaps to incredible conclusions, and he’s proven correct just because the author makes it so. If Challenger claims that the world is a giant echinoderm (a sea urchin, to the zoologically-challenged) based on no evidence at all, then he’s right. Just because. I know it’s anal to berate fantastic fiction for lack of scientific rigour, but Doyle had got that mix just right before (he was a trained doctor with an above-average understanding of science), and in this volume I feel he does the good Professor an injustice by slighting it. Challenger is supposed to be a genius who’s unafraid to go against the status quo, but in The Lost World he would never propose these kinds of ideas without evidence. And in fact, this idea turns out to be more relevant to this article than I had first supposed…

No matter, I thought. There was one final story left in the collection, and it was a whopper. The Land of Mist. The only story in the book of comparable length to The Lost World. Ah yes, I thought. Doyle has been holding out on us, but here’s where the real meat is. This is where he’s been hiding his aces. Everything’s going to be okay.

So Lord Chelmsford may well have thought before the battle of Isandlwana.

See, between writing The Lost World and The Land of Mist, Doyle became pretty heavily involved with Spiritualism. This interest had begun to bleed, more than a little, into his writing. He turned his considerable talents of propaganda-writing towards promoting his new religion, giving lectures to packed halls on sell-out tours all over the Empire. This happy thought is never more than the length of a silver-cord from your mind as you peruse the pages of The Land of Mist.

Now, one of the chief pleasures of reading turn-of-the-century fantastic fiction is the wealth of bizarre ideas which were still taken for granted at this time- ether, spirit-writing, mesmerism, the hollow Earth, social Darwinism and the like. Science was in its adolescence, and was confidently expected to finally prove things that everybody already knew- that God was in his Heaven, white men were fit to rule the world, and that the lower classes were happy with their lot. Souls could be weighed and fairies and spirits could be photographed (because the camera never lies, right?) Of course, it didn’t quite turn out like that. It's a fascinating period, and in a way, I find Arthur Conan Doyle to be an apt representation of it as a whole.

As a young man, Doyle turned his back on his Catholic faith. No-one in this day and age could believe such nonsense, right? Science (and Darwin in particular) had banished the age of superstition, right? The future creator of Sherlock Homes declared that he would never again believe anything that could not be proven. But fast forward to the end of the Great War, and the picture is very different. With Europe in ruins, with every last Victorian ideal of decency and honour lying strangled and mashed in the muck of the Somme, and with his beloved son dead from Spanish flu, Doyle discovered (as much of the world did) that the gap left by religion has to be filled by something else. But not just anything- for once you embrace rationalism, there’s no going back. Traditional Christianity would clearly not do. Some new idea that could return meaning to life, but which was amiable to the new mechanistic nuts-and-bolts universe that science was revealing was in order.

Over the course of the 20th century, many people would come to fill this hole with UFO’s, automatic writing, electronic voice phenomenon, new age-ism, star people, Scientology, creation ‘science’, intelligent design, and dancing statues at Ballinspittle. But Doyle filled it with Spiritualism.

In The Land of Mist, Professor Challenger examines this strange new phenomenon. Of course, he begins as a sceptic. He applies the correct amount of caution. He is a scientist, after all, and he knows that Spiritualism is a mine-field rife with cads and charlatans. After attending several séances and witnessing the manifestation of his dead wife, he decides that the phenomenon is genuine. Doyle then gets up on his soap-box, and allows Challenger to make the case clear- death is not the end, spiritualists and mediums are really in contact with the dead, and a new and better world is around the corner for those of us who accept that this is really happening. Challenger (and thus Doyle) believes that this is the most important breakthrough in history. As you are reading this, remind yourself- this guy was knighted for his ability to create propaganda (which he did during the Boer War and the Great War).

I enjoy Spiritualism as one of the bizarre ideas that gives the Victorian period its flavour, but this book is just sad.

It’s sad that Doyle really believed that a bunch of fakers shaking tables in dark rooms were going to change the world.

It’s sad that the creator of the most famously-logical character in history also created this misguided polemic.

And it’s especially sad that he hijacked a bunch of my favourite characters to do it!!

Doyle truly believed that he had met and conversed with the apparitions of his dead son and others. He saw, smelt and touched them. In his own head, he was completely convinced. A recent book by Andrew Norman tries to prove that Doyle was slightly schizophrenic. I don’t believe such explanations are necessary. People seem to be hard-wired to believe weird things, and that’s the end of it. We know now, of course, that spiritualism was no more than a bunch of cads and charlatans. Challenger was right. I think it’s best to leave the old fellow have the last word.

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