Arthur Conan Doyle was born on May 22 159 years ago. On that day this year, tens of thousands from around the world wished Sherlock Holmes a very happy birthday. Not surprising, because May 22 is also celebrated as Sherlock Holmes Day — for obvious reasons.
But what would Conan Doyle himself have thought of this, assuming he was still around?
It’s pretty easy to surmise, actually. Conan Doyle was frustrated at being synonymous with just one of his creations — a fact that rankled him no end, especially since that creation overshadows all his other writing, which he considered superior to the detective stories that have made him a household name. “I believe that if I had never touched Holmes, who has tended to obscure my higher work, my position in literature would at the present moment be a more commanding one,” wrote Conan Doyle in his memoirs.
Conan Doyle didn’t care much for Holmes, viewing him as an increasingly burdensome weight; to the extent that he killed off the great detective to get rid of him once and for all in The Final Problem — only to bring him back half-heartedly under intense public pressure and a lot of hate mail (plus overdue and unpaid bills). In Conan Doyle’s own words, “To tell the truth, I am rather tired of hearing myself described as the author of Sherlock Holmes. Why not, for a change, the author of Rodney Stone, or The White Company, of The Lost World? One would think I had written nothing but detective stories.”
Conan Doyle didn’t care much for Holmes, viewing him as an increasingly burdensome weight
It is the last book that is of interest to fans of science fiction and adventure stories, for it introduced to the world the ‘caveman in a lounge suit’, Professor George Edward Challenger — huge, a rude, crude (but not prude) man of science and scientific methods, with a keen mind and a jack-of-all-trades.
If Conan Doyle found inspiration for Sherlock Holmes in Joseph Bell, a surgeon and teacher at the University of Edinburgh, he found inspiration for Professor Challenger in the same place. It was a physiology teacher called William Rutherford, who, with ‘his Assyrian beard, his prodigious voice, his enormous chest and his singular manner,’ supplied a template for the professor.
And that’s more or less where the similarities between the two Conan Doyle creations ends.
As author Michael Crichton – a fan of the Professor Challenger adventures and who, like Conan Doyle, wrote a book called The Lost World, also involving dinosaurs – notes in his introduction to one of the The Lost World’s re-issued editions, “…the two characters are so diametrically opposite in every way that Challenger becomes a kind of anti-Holmes. Where Holmes is tall and lean, Challenger is squat and pugnacious. Holmes shuns publicity; Challenger craves the limelight. Holmes charms, Challenger insults; Holmes is subtle, Challenger crude; Holmes is diffident, Challenger aggressive.”
“The two characters are so diametrically opposite in every way that Challenger becomes a kind of anti-Holmes” — Michael Crichton
The Lost World came out in 1912, and was inspired in part by the ‘scientific romances’ of that age – by Jules Verne and HG Wells – while throwing in adventure in the tradition of H. Ridger Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. It tells the story of an expedition, which includes a reporter, a biologist and a big game hunter adventurer, deep into the jungles of South America where, on a remote plateau, evolution has taken a slightly different turn. In this lost world, land dinosaurs still roam around and pterodactyls are still flying. What’s more, it is a place inhabited by a race of primitive ape-men as well as another race of indigenous yet anatomically modern humans. All this leads to many a perilous adventure and encounter, including capture by the ape-men.
The success of The Lost World led Conan Doyle to pen another Professor Challenger story just a year later and in 1913, The Poison Belt appeared, in which Earth’s inhabitants ‘die’ as it passes through a belt of poisonous ether. The only people who survive this are Professor Challenger, who’d predicted this based on his research, and his team from The Lost World, whom he invites home for the period, sealing them inside a room with ample oxygen supplies. Humans are resurrected in due course, but not before many genuine deaths have happened due to ‘machines run amok.’
There would be no Professor Challenger story for over decade after this. And when it did appear, in 1926, it would centre largely around Professor Challenger’s daughter and reflect Conan Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism. Let’s move on.
The last story to feature Professor Challenger was The Disintegration Machine, a short story that involves a machine capable of disintegrating objects and then bringing them back together again – including humans
Conan Doyle would write two more Professor Challenger stories, When the World Screamed in 1928, and The Disintegration Machine in 1929. The former sees Professor Challenger drilling deep into the Earth’s mantle, convinced that it is a sentient being. In many ways, When the World Screamed foresees many of the modern ecological and environmental concerns, and regards Earth as a living being capable of feeling pain and the hurt inflicted on it by humankind.
The last story to feature Professor Challenger was The Disintegration Machine, a short story that involves a machine capable of disintegrating objects and then bringing them back together again – including humans, its greedy inventor who is willing to sell this as a weapon to the highest bidder and ends with Professor Challenger dispensing his own brand of justice.
These five stories – the most influential, fun, and most adapted of which is The Lost World – are all now available in many editions and don’t cost a lot. Furthermore, having lapsed into public domain, they are now available to read online for free (along with his other works), on the Arthur Conan Doyle page of the Classic Literature Library, under the heading ‘Professor Challenger Books’.
So go ahead, and make your acquaintance with Professor Challenger and enter The Lost World. Conan Doyle prefaces the book by writing,
I have wrought my simple plan
If I give some hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man
Or the man who’s half a boy.
This writer – who’s yet to decide if he’s a boy who’s half a man, or a man who’s half a boy – did find more than an hour of joy in following the adventures of Professor Challenger. I hope you do too. That’s it for this week’s edition of New Worlds Weekly, and I’ll be back next Friday as we together explore yet another facet of this wondrous genre that goes by the name of ‘science fiction’. Live long and prosper!
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