Sunday, February 17, 2013

Retro Review - "The Horror of the Heights" (1913) by Arthur Conan Doyle

"Retro Review


'The Horror of the Heights'

(c) 1913


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle"

(c) 2013


Jordan S. Bassior


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is today thought of as primarily a writer of mystery fiction rather than of science fiction or historical fiction.  Not only would this have saddened him (he considered the Sherlock Holmes series hack-work to pay the bills, and really cared about his historical novels), it is also not even fair:  not only was he also the author of the Professor Challenger series, most famously The Lost World; but the Sherlock Holmes series itself was borderline science fiction when written, since it asked the question "What if scientific and scholarly logic were applied to solving criminal cases?" (it is easy to forget that in the late 19th century, they for the most part weren't:  criminal cases were thjen solved -- if they were at all -- by people witnessing them or confessing them to the police).

"The Horror of the Heights" is a work of undisputable science fiction by Doyle about airplanes -- a technology only ten years old at the date of writing -- and what men might find when they went higher and higher into the atmosphere.


Ten years in the future, in 1923, aircraft have proliferated, air-mail is common, and daring aviators are constantly setting new altitude records.  But some who climb over thirty thousand feet are mysteriously dying, sometimes with terrible wounds.  Sometimes, their bodies are never found.

Mr. Joyce-Armstrong

... was a poet and a dreamer, as well as a mechanic and an inventor. He was a man of considerable wealth, much of which he had spent in the pursuit of his aeronautical hobby. He had four private aeroplanes in his hangars near Devizes, and is said to have made no fewer than one hundred and seventy ascents in the course of last year. He was a retiring man with dark moods, in which he would avoid the society of his fellows ...

In short a classic Science Hero of the era.  He took off one day with a shotgun in his airplane and never came down, but his bloodstained notebook was found in a field called Lower Haycock, and its contents were remarkable.

According to the notebook, Joyce-Armstrong flew above forty thousand feet and discovered a whole ecosystem of airborne life forms.  There are aeroplankton,

"... The air in front of me had lost its crystal clearness. It was full of long, ragged wisps of something which I can only compare to very fine cigarette smoke. It hung about in wreaths and coils, turning and twisting slowly in the sunlight. As the monoplane shot through it, I was aware of a faint taste of oil upon my lips, and there was a greasy scum upon the woodwork of the machine. Some infinitely fine organic matter appeared to be suspended in the atmosphere. There was no life there. It was inchoate and diffuse, extending for many square acres and then fringing off into the void. No, it was not life. But might it not be the remains of life? Above all, might it not be the food of life, of monstrous life, even as the humble grease of the ocean is the food for the mighty whale?"

giant filter feeders,

"Conceive a jelly-fish such as sails in our summer seas, bell-shaped and of enormous size - far larger, I should judge, than the dome of St. Paul's. It was of a light pink colour veined with a delicate green, but the whole huge fabric so tenuous that it was but a fairy outline against the dark blue sky. It pulsated with a delicate and regular rhythm. From it there depended two long, drooping, green tentacles, which swayed slowly backwards and forwards. This gorgeous vision passed gently with noiseless dignity over my head, as light and fragile as a soap-bubble, and drifted upon its stately way."


"... But soon my attention was drawn to a new phenomenon - the serpents of the outer air. These were long, thin, fantastic coils of vapour-like material, which turned and twisted with great speed, flying round and round at such a pace that the eyes could hardly follow them. Some of these ghost-like creatures were twenty or thirty feet long, but it was difficult to tell their girth, for their outline was so hazy that it seemed to fade away into the air around them. These air-snakes were of a very light grey or smoke colour, with some darker lines within, which gave the impression of a definite organism. One of them whisked past my very face, and I was conscious of a cold, clammy contact, but their composition was so unsubstantial that I could not connect them with any thought of physical danger, any more than the beautiful bell-like creatures which had preceded them. There was no more solidity in their frames than in the floating spume from a broken wave."

and, unfortunately for Joyce-Armstrong, the equivalent of giant cephalopods:

"... Floating downwards from a great height there came a purplish patch of vapour, small as I saw it first, but rapidly enlarging as it approached me, until it appeared to be hundreds of square feet in size. Though fashioned of some transparent, jelly-like substance, it was none the less of much more definite outline and solid consistence than anything which I had seen before. There were more traces, too, of a physical organization, especially two vast, shadowy, circular plates upon either side, which may have been eyes, and a perfectly solid white projection between them which was as curved and cruel as the beak of a vulture.

"The whole aspect of this monster was formidable and threatening, and it kept changing its colour from a very light mauve to a dark, angry purple so thick that it cast a shadow as it drifted between my monoplane and the sun. On the upper curve of its huge body there were three great projections which I can only describe as enormous bubbles, and I was convinced as I looked at them that they were charged with some extremely light gas which served to buoy up the misshapen and semi-solid mass in the rarefied air. The creature moved swiftly along, keeping pace easily with the monoplane, and for twenty miles or more it formed my horrible escort, hovering over me like a bird of prey which is waiting to pounce. Its method of progression - done so swiftly that it was not easy to follow - was to throw out a long, glutinous streamer in front of it, which in turn seemed to draw forward the rest of the writhing body. So elastic and gelatinous was it that never for two successive minutes was it the same shape, and yet each change made it more threatening and loathsome than the last. "

Whereas the other air-fauna are tenuous and both unable and unwilling to harm anything so dense and rapid as a man in an airplane, the air-squid is an aggressive predator and attempts to drag Joyce-Armstrong right out of his open cockpit.  Our hero manages to escape and land, but he is determined to return and this time bring back scientific proof of the existence of this aerial life.

Sadly, when he takes off the second time, shotgun by his side, he does not come back.  The last entry of his notebook hints at his terrible fate.

"Forty-three thousand feet. I shall never see earth again. They are beneath me, three of them. God help me; it is a dreadful death to die!"

This is a really good science-fiction story ruined by technological progress, and what is worse in part ruined within a quarter-century of its writing.  For it was written in 1913, and the very next year of course saw the outbreak of the Great War.  By the end of that war, aeronautical engineering had advanced by leaps and bounds, and by 1923, open-cockpit monoplanes were no longer cutting-edge.  Due largely to manned balloon missions, the stratosphere became better understood, and one thing that was discovered was that the air was too cold and thin above 30 thousand feet for aircrew to remain functional for long at such heights without wearing at least oxygen masks.  By the late 1930's, heavier-than-air craft had also begun to explore these altitudes.  Needless to say, no one ever saw anything like Doyle's aerial ecosystem.

But it was not wholly ruined:  Doyle seems to have been aware of the likelihood of real exploration outdating his tale, and made a clever point in-story to extend its verisimilitude:

"... Some of us can remember how, in our youth, Garros made a world-wide reputation by attaining nineteen thousand feet, and it was considered a remarkable achievement to fly over the Alps. Our standard now has been immeasurably raised, and there are twenty high flights for one in former years. Many of them have been undertaken with impunity. The thirty-thousand-foot level has been reached time after time with no discomfort beyond cold and asthma. What does this prove? A visitor might descend upon this planet a thousand times and never see a tiger. Yet tigers exist, and if he chanced to come down into a jungle he might be devoured. There are jungles of the upper air, and there are worse things than tigers which inhabit them."

Doyle is quite right about this.  Not only is it the case in-story that the "jungles of the upper air" don't start until around forty thousand feet, but if they were real, air currents would probably concentrate nutrients at certain places allowing such "jungles" growth, while most of the stratosphere would remain an "air desert" (Earth's stratosphere is only marginally habitable).  And even if one found such an aerial oasis, one might not immediately attract the attention of a large predator.  By making this point, Doyle enabled his tale to remain plausible up until the late 1940's, when the proliferation of high-altitude exploration and even commercial flights made it exceedingly unlikely that anything like the Horror from the Heights could exist.  Really, it didn't become impossible until the 1960's and the development of reconaissance satellites:  up until then, air jungles might have existed in a few places without our noticing them. 

Doyle also cleverly implied, without having either Joyce-Armstrong or the narrator make it explicit, that the sky-serpents which our hero saw just before encountering the squid-like Horrors, that the aerial ecosystem might have contributed to existing legends.  For what do his sky-serpents resemble but Oriental dragons?  Perhaps at times, unusual conditions of the atmosphere might have driven sky-serpents down (no doubt usually to perish in the unbearably hot, humid and dense conditions of the lower troposphere) to be witnessed by uncomprehending primitives, providing a basis for the dragon-myths.

Also, aside from the problem of life support for the pilot, there is however nothing truly impossible in Doyle's story, especially not from the point of view of 1913.  It so happens that Earth never evolved sufficient high-altitude plankton to support an stratospheric ecosystem:  we have no way of knowing whether or not this was based on fundamental factors of atmospheric density and scarcity of minerals, or simply due to a lack of the required evolutionary contingency.  Lacking such air-plankton, the whole magnificent rest of it cannot be.  Other worlds, especially ones with thicker atmospheres than our own, may well have evolved just such a system as Doyle describes.  In particular, such air-life may exist in the skies of super-terrestrials and gas giants.

Doyle's story arguably had an effect on later science-fiction.  "The Horror From the Heights" was written at the very end of the pre-War era:  the science fiction of the Interwar Era frequently featured large predatory creatures above the troposphere, dangerous enough to destroy armed aircraft.  The karlano of Osnome from E. E. "Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Space (first written between 1915 and 1921, and first published in 1928) and the space-serpents from Charles Willard Diffin's Dark Moon (1931) are good examples of this sort of creature.  There  follows a long lineage of air-serpents stretching through Derleth's Hunting Horrors (The Lurker at the Threshold, 1945) to Pendleton Ward's Rainicorns (Adventure Time, 2007-present).  The more awesome concept of whole aerial ecosystems was taken up by Poul Anderson in Hunters of the Sky Cave (1959) and Arthur C. Clarke's A Meeting With Medusa (1971), both postulating life in the atmosphere of gas giants, and Robert Reed's The Leeshore (1987) with its complex ecosystem stretching from the seafloor to the high-pressure atmosphere of a large terrestrial planet.


This is both a good read and a story which has influenced later science fiction:  I highly recommend it.

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