A Line in the Sand

One of the things I have been dealing with in these past few days as I make my way through some very early works of what would eventually come to be known as science fiction is… whether or not they can be counted as science fiction at all. Yes, Twenty Thousand Leagues holds together remarkably well, The Scarlet Plague is a post-apocalyptic scenario and as such it falls into what has since become a well-defined sub-genre, and even The Star Rover seems to fit the bill somehow, though there really isn’t that much science in it at all. It is oddly enough with the Professor Challenger stories that this becomes more of an issue.

These works are, at best, very soft SF… or at least The Lost World is. The question is whether or not that label can be expanded to include the rest of the series. What is ironic is that what first got me thinking about this was precisely a line in The Poison Belt that deals with the way in which our perception of what ’science’ happens to be tends to change as our knowledge evolves:

…the science of one generation is usually the fallacy of the next.

Well, seeing how that particular book deals with the consequences of the Earth moving through a poisonous patch of the ether, I think it is safe to say that the book’s own premise fits that definition to a t. In that regard I am tempted to file it under a heading of fiction rather than of science fiction, especially because Conan Doyle himself really should, or at least could, have known better.

Yes, I’m all for making allowances for the fact that science insists on proving that our most cherished scientific certainties are dead wrong time and time again, but let’s face it, The Poison Belt was first published in 1913, whereas the Michelson-Morley experiment had cast some serious doubts on the existence of the ether all the way back in 1887, and Einstein had published his paper on Special Relativity in 1905. Still, seeing how some –including Morley himself– were still busy trying to prove that particular experiment wrong at the time this book was written, it can’t really be said that Conan Doyle was holding on to a belief that was perceived as universally discredited, not back then.

Okay, so maybe we can stretch the definition enough to include The Poison Belt, what about The Land of Mist? There I am even less sure, and in a way that is funny because I have no problem stretching the boundaries of the genre to include The Star Rover, which is just as weak on the scientific aspect of things, so maybe it is just that there is something about that particular book’s emphasis on spiritualism that I find annoying, something that makes me want to resort to some mind-bleach to delete it from my memory altogether. No, I’m not done reading it yet, but the truth is that so far it reads like a fourth-rate pamphlet in which the characters are mercilessly eviscerated.

As a writer, however, I find this shortcoming to hold a particularly valuable lesson: it is precisely what made this book so dear to its author that makes it almost unbearable for me as a reader.

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