In 2012, HiLoBooks reissued Arthur Conan Doyle’s Radium Age sci-fi novella The Poison Belt (1913); I provided the following introductory essay. The reissued volume is available here, or you can read a serialized version online, for free, here.
A scant three years after having led an expedition into South America’s deepest jungle in search of surviving pterodactyls, iguanodons, and proto-humanoids, the controversial Scottish physiologist and physicist George Edward Challenger summons his dino-hunting comrades. His telegram message is a terse one: “Bring oxygen.”
The three men — Professor Summerlee, an elderly zoologist whose work is as respected as Challenger’s is suspected; Lord Roxton, a globe-trotting soldier and big-game hunter; and Malone, an Irish-born journalist and rugby champion — hasten to Challenger’s country home south of London. There, they discover that the planet is passing through a belt of poisonous ether. Having transformed his wife’s dressing room into an airtight chamber the inhabitants of which will not suffer the effects of the ether until the oxygen canisters sputter their last (in approximately 16 hours), Challenger invites his guests to join him in “assisting at a tremendous and awful function”: the end of the world.
Thus begins The Poison Belt, the second of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories. The series’ first installment, The Lost World, appeared in 1912 — an annus mirabilis for science fiction. That year saw the publication of Rudyard Kipling’s ambiguous-utopia airship yarn “As Easy As A.B.C.”; awesome chthonic catastrophes by Jack London (The Scarlet Plague), George Allan England (The Vacant World), and Garrett P. Serviss (The Second Deluge); and William Hope Hodgson’s future-Earth horror tale The Night Land. In the story “The Zayat Kiss,” Sax Rohmer first introduced his villainous scientist Fu Manchu; and in a serialized “planetary romance” later titled A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs first introduced his heroic adventurer John Carter. The Lost World, meanwhile, not only launched the dinosaurs-still-live meme, it introduced the second of Doyle’s ultra-logical protagonists.
Professor Challenger is, to borrow his own phrenological terminology, a highbrow trapped in the body of a lowbrow. A world-class mountain climber as well as a materials scientist whose inventions can detect torpedoes and make use of radioactive pitchblende, Challenger is possessed of an enormous skull (housing “the greatest brain in Europe, with a driving force behind it that can turn all his dreams into facts”) and a short, powerful body covered with coarse black hair. In the penultimate Challenger story, Malone will describe the professor as “a primitive cave-man in a lounge suit.” In The Poison Belt, Challenger solves an insoluble scientific puzzle (the blurring of Frauenhofer’s lines in the spectra of both the planets and the fixed stars), all the while strutting like a turkey-cock, croaking and leaping like a bullfrog, and snorting like a buffalo. “For a moment all the crudities and absurdities of the man vanished,” marvels Malone at one point, “and he loomed before us something majestic and beyond the range of ordinary humanity.” What Malone fails to perceive is that this “bullying, ranting, arrogant man who had alternately amazed and offended his generation” is a superman not despite but because of precisely these ironic contradictions.
Challenger is not the kindly and beautiful homo superior with whom we are familiar from many Golden Age sci-fi and comic books. Like certain other Radium Age supermen (e.g., Humpty, in Olaf Stapledon’s Last Men in London; Victor Stott, in J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder; Pollard, in Edmond Hamilton’s “The Man Who Evolved”), Challenger is not only literally egg-headed, he is contemptuous of lesser mortals. His eyes, we read in The Poison Belt, are masterful, his smile benignant; unlike Sherlock Holmes, that keen student of human nature, he is ill-suited to tackling problems that arise within society. Readers who enjoyed The Lost World might therefore have expected Doyle to next send Challenger on another journey far from Edwardian civilization — perhaps all the way to the planet’s “sensory cortex.” Challenger would make just such a trip, in 1928’s “When the World Screamed”; however, in this first sequel to The Lost World, Doyle’s plotting is counter-intuitive. He locks his assembled adventurers into an English sitting room! Why?
Critics are right to regard The Poison Belt as a sociopolitical allegory, along the lines of H.G. Wells’s pre-WWI utopian fiction. Written during the First and Second Balkan Wars, the novel concludes with a chastened British populace going about their lives in a more pacific, thoughtful manner. The book also lingers over a tableau non-vivant in which the bodies of a wealthy group of pleasure-seekers are mingled with those of a restaurant’s employee, a couple of hobos, and a Pekingese: “One instant of time had put aristocrat, waiter, tramp, and dog upon one common footing of inert and dissolving protoplasm.” So The Poison Belt anticipates both 1914 and 1917. But the best way to describe Doyle’s Lost World sequel is as a philosophical novel — more precisely, an epistemological thriller. Although myriad disasters transpire (a train crashes within view of the group’s hyper-oxygenated chamber, Brighton burns, London’s streets and churches are choked with fallen bodies), Challenger & Co. are prevented from acting. Instead, they must interact.
By what process is knowledge acquired? Is the positivistic quest for certainty a fruitful one? Can intuition play a role in science? Rather than grapple with murderous hominidae atop an isolated plateau, in this story Challenger and his guests grapple with no less intractable questions. Under the influence of the ether, each character becomes the avatar of a Weltanschauung. Mrs. Challenger demonstrates simple faith. Roxton, the hunter-warrior, hews to a virile stoicism: “If we have to go,” he demands, when Challenger first turns on the oxygen, “what is the use of holdin’ on?” Malone, the Celt, goes as fey as Lt. Kevin Riley in “The Naked Time” episode of Star Trek: He weeps for his mother dying alone in her wee cottage, he laughs uproariously, and he declares that he is already dead. Although Roxton’s heroics nearly stole the show in The Lost World, and although Malone will star in the series’ third installment (The Land of Mist), in this Kammerspiel — the protagonist and antagonist of which are Challenger and Summerlee — they are foils.
Summerlee, who has spent years tediously classifying British chalk fossils, is an avatar of scientific materialism. In his very first appearance in The Lost World, he rose from the audience at a public lecture in order to accuse Challenger of making non-testable assertions. We can infer, then, that his mode of acquiring knowledge is an inductive one. Summerlee proceeds, that is, by means of instruments and techniques of observation and experiment, from case/hypothesis (e.g., “These beans are from this bag,” to use the logician C.S. Peirce’s well-known 1878 “beanbag” example), to a fact gathered as a result of observation (“These beans are white”) and thence to a law-like rule (“All the beans from this bag are white”). This is empiricism at its most painstaking.
So steeped in the dogma of his scientific faith is Summerlee that he comically refuses to credit the evidence of his own senses, for example when he is attacked by a pterodactyl (“a ptero-fiddlestick!”), or, at the end of The Poison Belt, when he witnesses dead men and women rise yet rejects Challenger’s diagnosis of catalepsy: “After all,” he insists, “that is only a name.” Despite many redeeming qualities, including integrity and fortitude, Summerlee, whose manner is (we learn in The Lost World) “dry, half-sarcastic, and often wholly unsympathetic,” whose temper is “naturally acid and skeptical,” and whose characteristic pose involves “shaking his sardonic head in unsympathetic silence,” is the villain of The Poison Belt. Because he takes his particular logic of the process of knowledge as an automatic value, the archinductionist Summerlee is oppressive in his righteousness and destructive in his negativity. He’s no Professor Moriarty, but when someone who pretends to an enlightened knowledge allowing him to demystify the fetishistic beliefs of the naïve fails to turn his anti-fetishistic gaze upon his own fetish of demystification, then — or so Doyle hopes to persuade us in the Challenger stories — his science or criticism is fatally compromised.
Is Professor Challenger, in contrast to Summerlee, a deductive reasoner? Although Doyle championed the deductive method, I’m persuaded — by certain 1970s-era analyses of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories by Umberto Eco, Thomas A. Sebeok, Carlo Ginzburg, and others — that the answer is no. Unlike the inductive method, which proceeds from case/hypothesis to observed result to law-like rule, the deductive method proceeds from law-like rule (e.g., “All the beans from this bag are white”) to case/hypothesis (“These beans are from this bag”) to observed fact (“These beans are white”). Summerlee, who tests particular premises in order to arrive at general conclusions, is no doubt skeptical of the deductive method, which reaches particular conclusions from general premises; however, in these stories he is horrified by Challenger, who proceeds from law-like rule (e.g., “All the beans from this bag are white”) to observed fact (“These beans are white”) to hypothesis (“These beans are from this bag”). C.S. Peirce named this latter method, which is the reverse of the inductive method, abduction. Whereas the inductive researcher designs experiments in accordance with a starting hypothesis, the abductive reasoner makes imaginative excogitations of hypotheses on the unknown causes of resulting facts.
Let’s slow down. What exactly is the conflict between Challenger and Summerlee’s knowledge-seeking methods? “Abduction seeks a theory,” explains Peirce, while “Induction seeks for facts.” Induction compares homogeneous facts in order to enunciate general properties; abduction seeks a hypothesis that can explain a single heterogeneous fact. In real life, these methods are complementary; we employ both as we explore daily life. But in the sphere of scientific research, abductive reasoning is, according to Peirce, “a bolder and more perilous step.” Confronted with a heterogeneous fact (e.g., a pterodactyl sailing 20th-century skies, or the blurring of Frauenhofer’s lines in the spectra of both the planets and the fixed stars), an abductive investigator like Challenger first reasons backward, casting about in his mind for a law-like rule via which the observed facts might be interpreted, i.e., in order to identify the fact’s possible causes. He then takes an imaginative leap forward, challenging established paradigms and common sense with a bold, creative, innovative conjecture. “It is the privilege of the original thinker to put forward ideas which are new,” Challenger boasts, in “When the World Screamed,” even if — he adds, in a snide put-down of his fellow scientists — such ideas are “unwelcome to the common clay.”
It’s telling that in the years since their first adventure, Summerlee has been classifying fossils, while Challenger has been writing a key to all zoologies portentously titled The Ladder of Life (which might remind readers of Holmes’ proposed textbook on the “whole art of detection”). According to Summerlee, Challenger’s method tempts him to form premature theories based upon insufficient data; this makes him an “obstinate dogmatist,” or worse: a would-be “Pope of science, with infallible decrees laid down ex cathedra.” But according to Challenger, who in The Lost World sets aside “the whole experience of the human race” in favor of his own dinosaurs-still-live conjecture, Summerlee’s method has rendered the man an “unimaginative obstructionist.” Imagination and intuition, the (lowbrow) influence of which the (highbrow) inductive method is designed to counteract, are crucial to the (high-lowbrow) abductive method. Because it depends on these abilities, Pierce called abduction “the loftiest of our merely instinctive powers.” The cave-man in a lounge suit agrees: “When great facts are laid before you,” he complains of Summerlee, “you have not the intuition, the imagination which would help you to understand them.”
When Summerlee accuses Challenger of setting himself up as a Pope of science, i.e., a scientist whose conjectures and law-like rules are non-testable and therefore infallible, he raises an important question: Aren’t intuition and imagination anathema to reason? Yet no matter how far-fetched, Challenger’s hypotheses are always proven correct, thanks not merely to his powers of observation and analysis, which make him well informed about a vast spectrum of potentially relevant bits of knowledge, but also to his imaginative, intuitive ability to perceive connections between aspects of the world that to others seem disconnected. In the Challenger stories, as well as in the Holmes stories, Doyle expresses a scandalous hope that the apparently natural, inevitable, and permanent schism between (lowbrow) imagination and intuition and (highbrow) analysis and criticism might be bridged.
This hope was something of a meme among certain early 20th century thinkers and writers. In fact, the sole instance in which Challenger is ever mistaken is when he boasts that his own (high-lowbrow) mode of reasoning is a phenomenon that “one can hardly expect twice in the same generation.”
In H. Rider Haggard’s 1919 science fiction novel When the World Shook, for example, in addition to seeking the reincarnation of his lost love, Humphrey Arbuthnot seeks a dialectical synthesis between the worldviews of his comrades, the devout minister Bastin and the skeptical doctor Bickley. Before leaving on their adventure, Bastin proposes a toast to the Unknown, to which Bickley replies that everything worth knowing was already known, so a toast to the Truth would be better. “Let us combine them,” suggests Humphrey, “and drink to the Unknown Truth.”
In a 1913 Atlantic Monthly essay on “The Life of Irony,” the American intellectual Randolph Bourne lamented that both the scientific materialist and the superstitious believer are forever condemned to defending a citadel of truth. Bourne calls on his fellow intellectuals to avoid erecting such a citadel, and instead to remain agile and mobile. Irony — not destructive, cynical irony, but playful yet engaged irony — isn’t merely an attitude, in this account, but a way of life. The ironist’s mode of reasoning Bourne describes as “this pleasant challenging of the world, this insistent judging of experience, this sense of vivid contrasts and incongruities, of comic juxtapositions, of flaring brilliances, and no less heartbreaking impossibilities.” This phrase perfectly describes the experience of reading Radium Age science fiction generally, and Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories in particular.
In France, meanwhile, Alfred Jarry’s Gestes et opinions du docteur Faustroll, pataphysicien was published in 1911. Like Professor Challenger, Doctor Faustroll is a brilliant yet comical scientist-inventor who embarks on amazing adventures — sometimes, as in The Poison Belt, without leaving home. Accompanied by the bailiff Panmuphle and by his laughing monkey servant Bosse-de-Nage, Faustroll sails around (an allegorical version of) Paris in an amphibious sieve-craft whose construction was based on his insights into capillarity, surface tension, and equilateral hyperbolae. Opposed to mainstream science’s principe de l’induction, Faustroll instead practices a “science of imaginary solutions” that he calls ’pataphysics. Whereas the inductive reasoner brackets his imagination and blinkers his perspective, the ’pataphysician embraces as many perspectives as possible; no conjecture is regarded as impossible.
What this detour into Radium Age science fiction, progressive pragmatism, and absurdist literature is intended to demonstrate is that although Summerlee is an avatar of the Enlightenment, Challenger isn’t a counter-Enlightenment figure. (He is a master of the laboratory arts, and his researches are exhaustive: When Summerlee, in The Lost World, sneers that “even a limited knowledge of comparative anatomy” should suffice to persuade anyone that South American cannibals are of Mongolian descent, Challenger retorts: “When one’s knowledge is exhaustive, one comes to other conclusions.”) Instead, Challenger is an avatar of a Counter-Counter-Enlightenment: an Enlightenment that is enlightened about itself. Unlike Summerlee, and at the risk of making himself disreputable and ridiculous, Challenger occasionally turns his anti-fetishistic gaze upon his own fetish of demystification. Despite his braggadocio, he does not set himself up as a Pope of science: Like his Continental colleague Faustroll, Challenger strives to be open-minded.
In The Land of Mist, for example, Challenger will chastise himself for having been so unimaginative and obstructionist in regard to the emerging “science” of Spiritualism; already, in The Poison Belt, he is prepared to debate Summerlee over the question of the continuity of life after death. Challenger’s mode of reasoning is neither entirely intuitive and imaginative (counter-Enlightenment) nor entirely analytical and critical (Enlightenment); it hovers ambiguously between these savage and civilized extremes. His is a feral mode of reasoning. If I’m making Challenger sound an awful lot like Faustroll, I’m hardly the first to notice their similarities. When a “Professor Challenger” makes a cameo appearance in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, a treatise rejecting the notion that thinking can ever be a disinterested pursuit resulting in a determinate, fixed truth, his description of his own invented discipline (“rhizomatics, stratoanalysis, schizoanalysis… the science of multiplicities”) sounds an awful lot like ’pataphysics. Deleuze and Guattari, that is to say, penned a Doyle-Jarry literary mashup.
With the possible exception of The Land of Mist, in which Malone tediously argues the case for the continuity of life after death (and in which poor Summerlee’s ghost is summoned as an unwilling witness), Doyle’s stories are intended not to demonstrate the infallibility of abductive reasoning, but instead to make us aware of a counter-counter-Enlightenment alternative to inductive reasoning and the scientific materialism it supports. Challenger is a figure of fun, not only because of his roosterish deportment but because of his biases — which he shares with Sherlock Holmes — regarding the “less developed” races of the world, the “less complex” peoples of Europe, and so forth. (Gordon Dahlquist’s Afterword to this book is incisive on this topic.) As Doyle reminds readers via Malone, a relativist who comments that “the science of one generation is usually the fallacy of the next,” the fatal flaw of deductive and abductive reasoning alike is their mutual starting point: a law-like rule, concerning the social or physical world, which might or might not not have been adequately tested via inductive reasoning.
True, the law-like rules with which Doyle’s investigators begin are always proven correct, but that is so for the purpose of entertainment. Doyle’s vision is an ambiguous one: Highbrow critical analysis is destructive; lowbrow intuition and imagination is biased; high-lowbrow abduction might hold the best aspects of these modes together in productive tension… or else it might synthesize their worst aspects.
Reading science fiction is always a productively alienating experience, according to Fredric Jameson, who claims that the effort required of the science fiction reader — who is asked to imagine a world that is politically, economically, socially, and psychologically different from our own — breaks the paralyzing spell of the quotidian. In doing so, according to Jameson, the fiction of Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Samuel R. Delany, for example, bears comparison to the avant-garde literature of Brecht and Beckett. But perhaps the comparison should be the other way around. Though it was written half a century before Queneau, Perec, Calvino, and other avant-garde authors began introducing artificial constraints into their writing, Doyle’s The Poison Belt restrains the reader in a space that resembles the interior of her own skull before proceeding to interrogate her fundamental cognitive orientation. When Challenger, et al., pull chairs up to their locked chamber’s window in order to observe the goings-on, the reader finds herself peering out of her own skull’s eye sockets with increasing anxiety. Because Doyle refuses to endorse any one particular logic of the process of knowledge, the reader begins to feel like a Ballardian or phildickian astronaut trapped in a space capsule whose viewscreens cannot be trusted; we perceive reality as though through a glass darkly.
Far from being incompatible with utopianism, such productive anxiety is evidence that we’re reading utopian science fiction. Ambiguously utopian, to be precise; Jameson, in an even more precise coinage, describes science fiction which is neither naively utopian nor cynically anti-utopian as “anti-anti-utopian.” Challenger’s feral, ambiguous, anxious, intuitive-analytical credo — “The possibilities of the universe are incalculable and… the wisest man is he who holds himself ready for the unexpected” — is that of anti-anti-utopian science fiction at its best.