Nature’s on Top This Time: On Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World and The Poison Belt”
By Sasha KarsavinaAugust 31, 2023
The Lost World and The Poison Belt by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The hallmark of Doyle’s terrestrial science fiction is its ability to recast the living world as alien through defamiliarization. Written when Europe’s attempts to conquer time and space through technological means threatened to disenchant a rapidly contracting globe, Doyle’s Professor Challenger series made the planet and its processes strange again. Doyle’s late-career canon—replete with sentient planets, toxic atmospheres, and closed ecological systems—anticipates the windswept tableaux vivants of Jeff VanderMeer’s and Chen Qiufan’s contemporary climate fiction, among others.
For Doyle, who spent part of his youth apprenticed as a ship surgeon off the coasts of Greenland and South Africa, the terrestrial emerged as the enduring site of the fantastic. The medical student–turned-novelist saw himself transformed by the gravitational exertion of a historical moment in which technological advances, scientific discoveries, and Western colonial enterprises were rapidly altering the known boundaries of the physical universe. Proponents of Darwin’s theory of natural selection joined forces with physicists and early proto-ecologists, such as Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), to argue for a model of an interconnected natural world bound by increasingly fantastic laws. At the same time, the industrial capital-fueled exploration boom of the early 19th century had largely run aground. The twilight of the Victorian era witnessed the discursive proliferation of lost worlds, hollow earths, and forgotten races in the public imagination. This literature’s nostalgic signature both signaled and attempted to counteract a growing sense of ennui among the inhabitants of Europe’s imperial core, promising its jaded audience a perpetuity of worlds to investigate, claim, and plunder. Figures such as H. Rider Haggard, whose 1885 novel King Solomon’s Mines and the subsequent She: A History of Adventure (1887) inaugurated what has come to be known as the “lost world” genre, took inspiration from recent colonial exploits and archaeological digs in equal measure to proclaim the rediscovery of once-extinguished empires. The decimated lifeworlds of yesteryear reemerged as the bright worlds of tomorrow.
In his science fiction debut The Lost World (1912), which describes an ill-devised exploratory expedition to the Amazon basin in search of prehistoric life, Doyle presents a playful meta-reflection on the genre that gives it its name. From the get-go, its primordial promised land carries with it the whiff of implausibility, if not outright fabrication. Facticity takes a back seat when pitted against the British public’s insatiable desire for spectacle. When Edward Malone, a wide-eyed Daily Gazette reporter, demands that his editor assign him as a correspondent on a glory-shrouded “mission” into the unknown, the latter wryly replies that “[t]he big blank spaces in the map are all being filled in, and there’s no room for romance anywhere.” If Malone wants terra incognita, he’s going to have to invent it. Enter Professor Challenger. With water-damaged slides and a sketchbook of questionable doodles in hand, this Scottish explorer conjures an antediluvian South American paradise out of thin air for our naive narrator. Sensing a story that would render the 1869–71 New York Herald–publicized rescue of Dr. David Livingstone by Henry Stanley utterly provincial in comparison, Malone rushes toward what promises to be the marquee event in the post-Victorian theater of exploration. Throughout the story, Challenger’s “lost world” carries a purposeful phantasmic connotation that it never quite dispels. Serving as an authorial self-insert, the braggadocious academic is a shameless fabulist. When the exploration party arrives in South America to independently verify the Scotsman’s claims, they find that the map Challenger provided them is in fact only a blank page. What lures the hapless band of would-be adventurers (and the reader) deeper into the Amazonian jungle of the text is Challenger’s prodigious power of persuasion.
It is The Lost World’s latter half that reveals the genesis point and genetic code of Doyle’s terrestrial science fiction. The novel’s science-fictional edge lies in its ability to estrange the Earth from the grip of prosaic modernity, the novella’s eponymous plateau evoking a foreign “planet in its earliest and wildest state.” Obsessively recounting the flora and fauna of the Amazonian tropics, Doyle steeps his readers in vivid evocations of a botanical wonderland. It is not portals, time machines, or underground passages that await, but nature. Rare orchids and lichens smolder, vertiginously high treetops weave into the roofs of Gothic cathedrals, the drone of the insects resounds like the incantational “beat of a distant surf.” To enter through Challenger’s “private gate into the unknown,” the readers must “push through” a succession of stand-alone biomes that flicker past like bioluminescent atriums in a botanical garden. Açaí palms give way to shrubs, which give way to marshlands. The process of cognitive estrangement—innate to science fiction as a genre—happens not through the means of technics or aliens but through an expanded awareness of the environment. Boundaries between the mundane and its fantastic inverse are slippery. The explorers find themselves in a new world precisely at the moment when they allow themselves to be baptized body and soul via submersion in an atmosphere cut off from anthropogenic markers. By relinquishing their “town-bred” preconceptions and reservations, they find themselves able to see the dinosaurs that Challenger excitedly points out, which before appeared as nothing more than oversized storks. Under the spell of the biosphere, civilization bids farewell and fairyland beckons.
For all of Doyle’s abolitionist and conservationist sympathies, the text often succumbs to its own racist discourses grounded in the pseudoscience of the day. It is telling that this New World’s potential to serve as a suprahistorical “do-over” is undercut by the explorers themselves, under whose paternalistic guidance (and firepower) the plateau and its Indigenous populations descend into ecological dysregulation and genocide. Imperial means, regardless how benevolent, beget the same old stories. At the novel's conclusion, all that remains with the reader is the ghostly image of a once cage-bound pterodactyl disappearing over the London sky—a vision of liberation and paradise lost in equal measure.
Lost World’s 1913 climate-focused sequel, The Poison Belt, notably bids farewell to exotic locales by taking place in the London countryside. Expanding its scope, the slim novella exchanges the localized excesses of the lost world genre for the austere trappings of global ecocatastrophe. The environment is no longer a malleable playground for bored Londoners; instead, it emerges as a terrifyingly active, alien force. In the words of one of the characters, “nature’s on top this time.” The slim novella, which reconvenes our “epoch-making” cast, finds the planet’s atmosphere poisoned temporarily by ether. In a narrative where varied elemental forces increasingly appear interchangeable, the cosmos, the sea, and the atmosphere—and the question of their regulation—weave into a single thematic whole. As society collapses, the protagonists can do little more than wait, philosophize, and observe through the muslin drapes of an oxygen-proofed sitting room—the moment of intervention having slipped irretrievably by. Observing the whole of humankind “lying so helpless beside” the planet “it used to control,” one of the discussants concedes that, against the vast immensity of “geological time,” man appears as a brief interlude in a story of cosmic proportions. From today’s vantage point, The Poison Belt not only recalls an eschatological vision of a carbon cycle derailed but also reads like an ecocritical decentering of the human through fiction as well.
The strength of Doyle’s science fiction lies in its facilitation of an encounter between the reader and the biosphere they inhabit. The long-delayed 1928 follow-up, “When the World Screamed” (alluded to in the introduction but not included in the MIT reprint), exemplifies this quality, with the short story portraying the most direct (and violent) encounter between Challenger and the planet yet. Narrated by a disgruntled artesian borer, the story details a misguided attempt to drill into Earth’s core, painting a vision of a sentient planet wounded by anthropogenic change decades prior to James Lovelock’s famous Gaia hypothesis. Intent on showing that the world is a “living organism,” Doyle reunites us with Challenger for a penultimate time, shuttling the reader down an eight-mile underground shaft whose “dark walls” appear to be crisscrossed with nerve endings and “sown with the dust of diamonds.” The plot itself resolves in hubristic Challenger fashion. An attempt to penetrate into the planet’s neural center induces a pained, resounding scream, with a subsequent geyser wiping out all traces of the expedition: “No sound in history has ever equalled the cry of the injured Earth,” the narrator describes. “Who is there […] who has ever yet described adequately that terrible cry?” he asks, a rhetorical question which can serve as the postscript for Arthur Conan Doyle’s science fiction in its entirety.
Sasha Karsavina is a writer, translator, and PhD student at Yale University.
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