When the World Screamed by Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle (knighted as Sir Arthur Doyle) is best known for his Sherlock Holmes series of stories. Another of Conan Doyle’s characters was Professor Challenger, with 3 novels and 2 short stories. “When the World Screamed” is one of the short stories in the Professor Challenger series, published in Liberty magazine in February of 1928.

Probably the most famous of the Professor Challenger works is “The Lost World”, where Professor Challenger explores an area of South America still inhabited by dinosaurs.

In When the World Screamed, Professor George Edward Challenger has a theory. He is convinced the planet is alive. Not “alive” in the sense of an ecosystem that thrives or perishes as its denizens do, but an actual sentient creature. He intends to take steps to prove this theory.

The story is narrated not by the title character, but by Mr. Peerless Jones, an expert in well-drilling who Professor Challenger wishes to contract for his idea. The two meet through a mutual friend, Mr. Edward Malone.

Very early on, Jones forms the opinion that Challenger is more than eccentric, he’s “a lunatic”. After some convincing from Malone, Jones decides to meet with Challenger about this job that he has.

In this first meeting, Challenger puts forward his idea that the Earth is an enormous living creature, much like a sea urchin. Challenger draws comparisons between the planet and the sea urchin, claiming that nature repeats itself and its designs, at many scales. He then asserts that in the same way that an urchin would be unaware of millions of tiny insects living on its crusty bodice, then the Earth is unaware of our presence as well.

Jones reaffirms his opinion that Challenger is a lunatic. A charismatic lunatic, to be sure, but a lunatic nonetheless.

It is then that Challenger reveals his plan – to make the Earth creature aware of our presence by drilling through its shell – the earth’s crust. He intends to poke it in the same way a mosquito might burrow through the urchin’s shell.

The bulk of the drilling has already been completed, a sizeable tunnel, almost 8 miles down (a remarkably thin part of the crust, this is). Jones’ expertise is now needed to go that last length, and make contact with the creature that is our planet.

At the bottom of the 8-mile shaft, Jones discovers that Challenger is indeed correct. They see evidence of movement of something immense, but before they can complete their job, Challenger calls a halt to the proceedings. He knows history is about to be made, our understanding of our world is about to be turned on its ear.

Challenger sends out invitations to the greatest minds of his time, assembling an audience of witnesses to this great discovery and the moment of contact.

What happens after they make contact, I shall leave to you, the reader to discover.

This short story takes about 45 minutes to read, so it’s a nice light lunchtime diversion. It reads very well, and I was easily able to remain engaged and visualize the story as I read it.

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