I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.
The Poison Belt – Arthur Conan Doyle, 1913
The world might run into a belt of poisonous ether from outer space. Professor G. E. Challenger summons his partners in adventures from the novel TheLost World. They are tactless Professor Summerlee, relaxed but ready Lord John Roxton, and journalist Edward Malone. Malone is a cub reporter, the perfect wide-eyed character that an adolescent male reader can simultaneously identify with and deride as a greenhorn.
Nothing if not a realist, Challenger envisions no methodology with which to ameliorate impending doom for the entire world population. He encourages his colleagues to bring oxygen tanks to his country residence so they can wait for the end in a clean room sealed by varnished paper.
And therein lies the major problem of the book. Our brave band first spends time in the sealed room. Then they drive their motor to London. They only observe the terrible effects of the poison belt. They don’t really do anything. I suppose the teenage audience would get off on fires burning down New York, Orelans, and Brighton. Not to mention, the nihilism of:
You are to picture the loveliness of nature upon that August day, the freshness of the morning air, the golden glare of the summer sunshine, the cloudless sky, the luxuriant green of the Sussex woods, and the deep purple of heather-clad downs. As you looked round upon the many-coloured beauty of the scene all thought of a vast catastrophe would have passed from your mind had it not been for one sinister sign—the solemn, all-embracing silence. There is a gentle hum of life which pervades a closely-settled country, so deep and constant that one ceases to observe it, as the dweller by the sea loses all sense of the constant murmur of the waves. The twitter of birds, the buzz of insects, the far-off echo of voices, the lowing of cattle, the distant barking of dogs, roar of trains, and rattle of carts—all these form one low, unremitting note, striking unheeded upon the ear. We missed it now. This deadly silence was appalling. So solemn was it, so impressive, that the buzz and rattle of our motor-car seemed an unwarrantable intrusion, an indecent disregard of this reverent stillness which lay like a pall over and round the ruins of humanity. It was this grim hush, and the tall clouds of smoke which rose here and there over the country-side from smoldering buildings, which cast a chill into our hearts as we gazed round at the glorious panorama of the Weald.
There is a minimum of philosophical talk about the large questions that inevitably get asked by the last people in the world. The high point is stoical Challenger’s “cheerful acquiescence in whatever fate may send.” He says, "Without being a fatalist to the point of nonresistance, I have always found that the highest wisdom lies in an acquiescence with the actual." There are worse messages thirteen-year-olds could take in, as prone as they are to shoulding themselves, shoulding others, and shoulding the world.
Anyway, because of the lack of action, I can only recommend this easy to read but disappointing sequel to the action-packed The Lost World only to the most enthusiastic of Conan Doyle completists or grad students with a professional interest in comparing early SF writers.