Arthur Conan Doyle


The Disintegration Machine


(NB: Review contains spoiler)


Doyle reintroduces us to the impossibly arrogant (and gifted) Professor Challenger and his chronicler, the steadfast journalist Malone. That exposition amusingly accomplished, they head out to inspect a potentially great invention (or hoax) that can purportedly dis- and reassemble matter to and from its basic molecular structure.


The medical, commercial and transport potential of this device are ignored, as we focus on the potential for world domination and destruction. Doyle doesn’t play with the idea for novel application, but for the moral responsibility of the scientist. Very much a precursor to the whole issue of the atom bomb.


The inventor turns out to have a great scientific brain but a paltry, greedy spirit (something you could tell by how he looked – we’re not so far from a time that phrenology was taken seriously). He’s prepared to sell to the highest bidder. In order to snare him Challenger states the negative case:

There is no doubt that you have come upon a remarkable property of nature which you have succeeded in harnessing for the use of man. That this use should be destructive is no doubt very deplorable, but Science knows no distinctions of the sort, but follows knowledge wherever it may lead.


However, Doyle’s paragon scientist character actually feels utterly assured that this is not the case, and takes the first opportunity to disintegrate the inventor, with no more hesitation than he would a mad gunman!


It’s striking to a ‘modern’ reader to see some of the black and white moral judgements made in stories of this vintage. Not that we don’t make them now, we just don’t notice them because they’re consistent with the assumptions of our own culture. It reminds me of the attitude to the anachronistic cave men of Doyle’s Lost World – they are merely a doomed/superceded foe to be pitied, but exterminated (if they threaten) without compunction.


June 2003

(2nd reading)