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Arthur Conan Doyle (ACD) is best known of course for his creation of Sherlock Holmes but he did write other short stories and novels, some of which are famous such as The Lost World and some are rather obscure like this novel. The novel though it's only 98 pages long so perhaps novella would be a more apt term is one which features the heroes from The Lost World i.e., Professor Challenger, Professor Summerlee, Lord Roxton and Edward Malone. However, in this novel all the action happens in Challengers house rather than a trip through the jungle to a mysterious unobtainable plateau. The book brings together the four heroes from the previous novel, Challenger is still the dominant force all bristling beard, loud mouth and uncouth manners (I can never get the feeling of Brian Blessed whenever I read about professor Challenger), Summerlee is the dry acerbic career scientist, Lord Roxton your classic white hunter and Malone the voice of the populace.
The Poison Belt
The poison belt is at it's heart an attempt by ACD to write an apocalyptic tale in which the fate of mankind is in the balance and only the heroes of the tale are in the loop in terms of knowledge and have the drive to ensure that mankind survives the oncoming catastrophe. In a similar manner to HG Wells in the days of the comet, this catastrophe is a pandemic one with the whole world affected as the Earth passes through a mysterious cloud of ether, Challenger has observed the cloud coming nearer and realises what will happen issues orders for his companions to arrive at his house with an oxygen bottle.
The story is told mainly through the experiences of paper writer Malone, he is the one who informs the reader about the situations as they arise, however, it's not written as a pure back date's diary or memoirs but is a real time depiction of the events. This story so different from the Lost World which ACD filled with fantastic animals, proto-humans and a real hardship is one of social comment rather than adventure and excitement.
The book has moments of intentional social comment and rather inadvertent racism, there is plenty of opinion on the fate of the world if a terrible event occurs which makes humans think about their actions. This book was written in 1913 just before the start of the First World War, the placing of social comment on the actions of the desires of humans examining their exploitation of the natural world, avarice, vice, the greed for power and money and the desire for empire building are all covered by Challenger as he challenges the others in the room to justify the existence of the current society. This society is destroyed before our eyes as the Earth passes through the ether, Challenger overcomes the ether by the use of the oxygen cylinders and the book races forward at this time as the cylinders slowly run out as the Earth passes through the ether, the characters are then given a chance to watch the events outside the room's windows. Here the book rather shows the characteristics of the Victorian author, Challenger, Roxton etc are looked after by the use of the oxygen cylinder but Challengers chauffer is allowed to pass out whilst washing the car, Challenger not bothering to let him know of the oncoming danger. Servants clearly know their place in 1913!
The less desirable parts of the novel are the social commentary on the peoples affected by the ether, as the novel begins Challenger writes a letter to the Times pointing out that the people of the Sumatran islands have already succumbed to the ether. The novel soon progresses and the people who succumb first are well at the time considered lesser races, i.e., Chinese, Indian, Africans etc. Challenger once shouts out that the people of the Teutonic race are still fighting the ether but the southern Mediterranean types have started to succumb. The last people to suffer the ether are of course the white Anglo-Saxons and we observe the destruction of the English cities from afar, ACD seems to have great delight in describing golfers passing out on the course and fires starting in the neighbouring farms.
The novel concludes with a positive feeling, the ether passes and life resumes but of course different from before, Challenger remains in position to ensure that the history of the world moves forward in a more concise and considered way. A refreshing thought considering what happened in Europe in the next four years and the carnage and destruction which follow. ACD must have wondered if the Earth really did need to pass through a ether cloud and stop the madness which was going on around him.