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Doyle, Arthur Conan

Entry updated 4 September 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1859-1930) Scottish author known primarily for his work outside the sf field and in particular for his Sherlock Holmes stories (see Sherlock Holmes). Born in Edinburgh and educated by Jesuits, he studied medicine at Edinburgh University and initiated his own practice in Portsmouth in 1882, having already begun to publish fiction, beginning with "The Mystery of Sasassa Valley" (6 September 1879 Chamber's Edinburgh Journal), followed by his first work of genre interest, "The American's Tale" (Christmas 1879 London Society), which appeared in the American expansion of his first collection, Mysteries and Adventures (coll 1889; exp vt My Friend the Murderer; And Other Mysteries and Adventures 1893 US) [see Checklist for further subtitles]. His early sf short stories include the Identity Exchange story "The Great Keinplatz Experiment" (July 1885 Belgravia), which appeared in The Captain of the "Polestar" and Other Tales (coll 1890); "The Great Brown-Pericord Motor" (5 March 1892 The Ludgate Weekly Magazine), a Satire which appeared in The Last Galley (coll 1911), and "The Los Amigos Fiasco" (December 1892 Idler), which appeared in Round the Red Lamp: Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life (coll 1894), and in which an experimental electric chair "supercharges" a criminal instead of killing him. Doyle's earlier short stories, including numerous fantasies and a few trivial sf stories not mentioned above, were variously (and confusingly) printed and reprinted [see Checklist below for some further details]. Much of this material was reprinted in The Conan Doyle Stories (coll 1929). The Best Science Fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle (coll 1981), edited by Charles G Waugh and Martin H Greenberg and The Captain of the "Polestar": Weird and Imaginative Fiction (coll 2004) edited by Christopher Roden and Barbara Roden; one notable exception is an interesting essay in Alternate History, "The Death Voyage" (28 September 1929 Saturday Evening Post), which remains uncollected.

The first Sherlock Holmes novel was A Study in Scarlet (1887). Doyle's historical novels, upon which he staked much, Micah Clarke (1889) and The White Company (1891), were relatively unsuccessful, but the first series of Holmes short stories in The Strand Magazine (1891-1892) secured his popularity. His interest in subjects on the borderline between science and mysticism is evident in a potboiler about supernatural vengeance from the mysterious East, The Mystery of Cloomber (1889), and in a short novel of Telepathic Vampirism, The Parasite (1894) (see Decadence). Although the Holmes stories suggest an incisively analytical and determinedly rationalistic mind, Doyle was fascinated by all manner of occult disciplines, including Hypnotism, Theosophy and oriental mysticism; following the death of his son he became an ardent convert to Spiritualism. (See The Man from Beyond.)

Doyle's first Scientific Romance, The Doings of Raffles Haw (1891; exp as coll 1892), is a hurriedly written account of a gold-maker (see Transmutation) who becomes disenchanted with the fruits of his philanthropy. Doyle then abandoned sf, writing almost none when he was heavily occupied with Sherlock Holmes, but returned before World War One– in which he took an active though non-combatant part – to make his most important contribution to the genre: following stories like "The Terror of Blue John Gap" (August 1910 Strand) – about a monstrous visitor from an Underground world – came The Lost World (April-November 1912 Strand; 1912) [for subtitle see Checklist], a classic Lost-World novel in which the redoubtable Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in South America where Dinosaurs still survive, as well as a tribe of ape-men (see Apes as Human), though they are soon decimated and the few survivors turned into mourning slaves. In a sequel, The Poison Belt (March-July 1913 Strand; 1913) [for subtitles and vt see Checklist], the human race confronts the End of the World as Earth passes through the eponymous toxic Zone in the universal ether, which causes an apparently fatal "catalepsy" in all living things; among other Disasters, New York is destroyed by fire. Challenger and his colleagues, breathing bottled oxygen to stay awake, discuss the Evolution of a new life in pure Scientific Romance fashion – even the boisterously omniscient Challenger can do no more than observe the changing world and comment upon it – before undertaking a Last Man tour to devastated London. After a day, the poison suddenly dissipates, leaving survivors in a state of collective Amnesia, until the scale of the disaster begins to sink in; subsequently a chastened humanity – as in H G Wells's In the Days of the Comet (1906) – begins to build a socialist Utopia in the ruins.

"The Horror of the Heights" (November 1913 Strand) is an account of strange forms of life inhabiting the upper atmosphere. The novelette "Danger!" (July 1914 Strand), which is assembled in Danger!, and Other Stories (coll 1918), is Doyle's contribution to the Future War genre, anticipating submarine attacks on shipping – a prophecy received sceptically by the Admiralty but validated within months.

Doyle's post-World War One passion for the paranormal, which led him to such excesses as the endorsement of Elsie Wright's and Frances Griffiths's clumsily faked photographs of the "Cottingley fairies" in The Coming of the Fairies (1922), strongly infects his later sf. In The Land of Mist (August 1925-March 1926 Strand as "The Land of Mist or The Quest of Edward Malone"; 1926) Challenger is converted to spiritualism; the remaining stories in the series – which can be found alongside the titular occult romance in The Maracot Deep and Other Stories (coll 1929) as well as in The Professor Challenger Stories (omni 1952; vt The Complete Professor Challenger) – are weak, though "The Maracot Deep" (October-1927-February 1928 Strand) begins promisingly Under the Sea with the discovery of a high-tech Atlantis whose citizens inhabit a vast Edifice [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], but defaults to supernatural deities and Taboo violations in a manner that might a century later seem to constitute an Equipoisal transaction of modes, but here seems to abandon coherence. "When the World Screamed" (25 February-3 March 1928 Liberty), on the other hand, is a striking early Living-World tale, in which our planet reacts to penetration by unleashing volcanoes. Professor Challenger: New Worlds, Lost Places (anth 2015) edited by J R Campbell and Charles Prepolec contains Sequels by Other Hands and some semi-autonomous tales. Doyle's last story of sf interest, "The Death Voyage" (28 September 1929 Saturday Evening Post), proposes an alternate ending for World War One, in which the Kaiser dies at sea in a blaze of history-changing glory, as Napoleon should have done at Waterloo.

Doyle was knighted in 1902, not in recognition of his literary genius but because of his propaganda work during the Boer War: he accepted the gong with some reluctance. [BS/JC]

see also: Biology; Crime and Punishment; Dime-Novel SF; Eschatology; ESP; Forgotten Futures; History of SF; Horror in SF; The Ludgate Monthly; Machines; Medicine; Money; Parasitism and Symbiosis; Power Sources; Psi Powers; Radio; Rays; Rejuvenation; Scientists; Series; Osamu Tezuka.

Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle

born Edinburgh, Scotland: 22 May 1859

died Crowborough, Sussex: 7 July 1930



Professor Challenger

individual titles

  • The Mystery of Cloomber (London: Ward and Downey, 1889) [pb/W G R B]
  • The Doings of Raffles Haw (London: Cassell and Company, 1892) [first appeared 12 December 1891-27 February 1892 Answers: hb/nonpictorial]
  • The Parasite (London: Archibald Constable, 1894) [first appeared 11 November-2 December 1894 Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper as "The Parasite – a Mesmeric and Hypnotic Mystery: Told in Extracts from the Diary of Austin Gilroy, Professor of Physiology": in the publisher's The Acme Library series: pb/nonpictorial]

collections and stories

Posthumous collections are highly selected.

further reading

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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