Writing

Lessons From the Tedious Writing of The Disintegration Machine

Cover art from the Disintegration Machine, showing something that looks like a film projector.

Nearly everyone knows Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as the author of Sherlock Holmes, but the good detective wasn’t Doyle’s only creation. Doyle was a prolific author, penning many tales outside the Holmes universe, and today we’re looking at one of them: The Disintegration Machine. While Holmes has a lot of overlap with speculative fiction, Disintegration Machine is straight up scifi, with a teleporter and everything.

Unfortunately, this story does not hold up to well compared to Doyle’s other works, as you may have guessed from the title. But to find out why, we must delve deep into the text, and perhaps learn a few lessons along the way.

Watch Your Wordiness  

PROFESSOR CHALLENGER was in the worst possible humour. As I stood at the door of his study, my hand upon the handle and my foot upon the mat, I heard a monologue which ran like this, the words booming and reverberating through the house:

‘Yes, I say it is the second wrong call. The second in one morning. Do you imagine that a man of science is to be distracted from essential work by the constant interference of some idiot at the end of a wire? I will not have it. Send this instant for the manager. Oh! you are the manager. Well, why don’t you manage? Yes, you certainly manage to distract me from work the importance of which your mind is incapable of understanding. I want the superintendent. He is away? So I should imagine. I will carry you to the law courts if this occurs again. Crowing cocks have been adjudicated upon. I myself have obtained a judgement. If crowing cocks, why not jangling bells? The case is clear. A written apology. Very good. I will consider it. Good morning.’

Wow, that is quite a paragraph. Here we see the first major problem with The Disintegration Machine: it is incredibly verbose. This is just a taste of what is to come, but it’s notable because it’s dialogue. Professor Challenger is conducting a one-sided conversation that lasts 139 words, and it tells us almost nothing. None of this information will be important later. We do learn that Challenger is a long-winded jerk, but that could have been accomplished with far less work. All that’s needed is one or two lines to establish the flavor of the rant, and then a summary from the POV character. Something like this…

Example

“Do you imagine that a man of science is to be distracted from essential work by the constant interference of some idiot at the end of a wire? I will not have it. Send this instant for the manager.”

On and on he went, demanding apologies and threatening to bring his case before a court of law.

Sticking a long block of dialogue at the front of your story is like putting down a road block for the reader. You want to build interest as fast as possible, but this only results in boredom and frustration. If I didn’t have a job to do, I’d have put the story down right there. For now, I can only hope there’s some very important reason we needed to start the story this way. Maybe Challenger is the antagonist and it’s important that we hate him.

Introduce Your Point of View Character

It was at this point that I ventured to make my entrance. It was certainly an unfortunate moment. I confronted him as he turned from the telephone —a lion in its wrath. His huge black beard was bristling, his great chest was heaving with indignation, and his arrogant grey eyes swept me up and down as the backwash of his anger fell upon me.

[Challenger yells about whoever he was talking to, then yells at the POV character, who he calls “Malone.” Supposedly they are friends]

I was hunting in my pocket for McArdle’s letter when suddenly some new grievance came to his memory. His great hairy hands fumbled about among the papers upon his desk and finally extracted a press cutting.

We are six paragraphs in and I know almost nothing about this mysterious “I.” I only know his name is Malone because Challenger called him that. First person is a great way to introduce the POV character in their own words, but so far we have nothing. Malone may as well be a camera floating in midair.

By now I’m fairly sure that Challenger, despite being a rude windbag, is not the antagonist. In fact I think he’s the protagonist, and Malone is playing Watson to his Holmes. That’s not a surprise considering the author, but Doyle seems to have forgotten how the Watsonian character works.

This isn’t Doyle’s first story using Malone as a narrator, but even later works in a series need to characterize the narrator.* This is especially true for Doyle’s stories, which don’t come with an obvious reading order.

Compare this to The Naval Treaty, a later story with Watson and Holmes. The first several paragraphs are dedicated to what Watson is doing and his emotional state. We learn he’s about to get married, and that he’s excited to work on another case with Holmes. This is vital, as Watson must be compelling enough for the reader to enjoy being in his shoes, watching Holmes solve mysteries.

A short story like Disintegration Machine doesn’t need pages and pages of introduction, but it needs more than it has. Something like this…

Example

My name is Donald Malone,* and in all my years as a science correspondent, I’d never seen Professor Challenger in such a state. I rushed to draw out my pad and pencil as he bellowed into the telephone. Whatever had gotten so deep under his collar, there was bound to be a story in it.

With that quick and dirty intro, we learn Malone’s job, that he’s got a long relationship with Challenger, and that he’s eager for a story. That’s enough to get us into his head.

Don’t Make Your Protagonist a Raging Jerk

‘You have been good enough to allude to me in one of your recent lucubrations,’ he said, shaking the paper at me. ‘It was in the course of your somewhat fatuous remarks concerning the recent Saurian remains discovered in the Solenhofen Slates. You began a paragraph with the words: “Professor G.E. Challenger, who is among our greatest living scientists—”‘

‘Well, sir?’ I asked.

‘Why these invidious qualifications and limitations? Perhaps you can mention who these other predominant scientific men may be to whom you impute equality, or possibly superiority to myself?’

‘It was badly worded. I should certainly have said: “Our greatest living scientist,”‘ I admitted. It was after all my own honest belief. My words turned winter into summer.

Wow. I thought maybe Challenger was just an ass to strangers on the phone, but he apparently acts that way to everyone. Not only is he immediately rude to Malone, supposedly his friend, but then he gets in a tiff because he wasn’t called the “greatest living scientist.” Mythcreants won’t let me publish the words I’d like to use to describe this guy, but suffice to say, I do not like him.

And Malone just takes it, acting like he’s the one in the wrong. How dare he not bow and scrape to this demigod of a man. Oh, sorry, “demigod” is probably insulting. I should have just said “God.” Malone claims he honestly believes that, but it sounds like he’s afraid of what Challenger will do when not appeased.

This is the guy we’re supposed to follow for the rest of the story. The one we’re supposed to cheer for. It’s going to be a long ride. Again, I’m not sure what happened to Doyle when he wrote this. Sherlock, for all his idiosyncrasies, is a likable character. He has to be. Challenger reads like an arrogant caricature of Holmes.

Start Your Story Where the Action Is

[Challenger talks about how cool he is for a while, before finally letting Malone get out the letter he brought. It reads:]

Please call upon our esteemed friend, Professor Challenger, and ask for his co-operation in the following circumstances. There is a Latvian gentleman named Theodore Nemor living at White Friars Mansions, Hampstead, who claims to have invented a machine of a most extraordinary character which is capable of disintegrating any object placed within its sphere of influence. Matter dissolves and returns to its molecular or atomic condition. By reversing the process it can be reassembled. The claim seems to be an extravagant one, and yet there is solid evidence that there is some basis for it and that the man has stumbled upon some remarkable discovery.

I need not enlarge upon the revolutionary character of such an invention, nor of its extreme importance as a potential weapon of war. A force which could disintegrate a battleship, or turn a battalion, if it were only for a time, into a collection of atoms, would dominate the world. For social and for political reasons not an instant is to be lost in getting to the bottom of the affair. The man courts publicity as he is anxious to sell his invention, so that there is no difficulty in approaching him. The enclosed card will open his doors. What I desire is that you and Professor Challenger shall call upon him, inspect his invention, and write for the Gazette a considered report upon the value of the discovery. I expect to hear from you to-night.

-McArdle.

‘There are my instructions, Professor,’ I added, as I refolded the letter. ‘I sincerely hope that you will come with me, for how can I, with my limited capacities, act alone in such a matter?’

Ugh, just reading Malone debase himself to this arrogant windbag is painful. I wish he’d go and solve the mystery himself. He can probably get it done before Challenger is finished complaining about how he only got 36 presents this year but last year he got 37.

Anyway, here we learn that all of this setup was for Malone to bring a letter about this weird technology Challenger is supposed to investigate. Despite being a veteran author, Doyle is making the same mistake as a lot of newbies: starting his story too early.

This story is about investigating the disintegration machine,* and that’s where it should start. Instead of opening with Challenger yelling at his phone, the first paragraph should have described him and Malone arriving at Dr. Nemor’s lab. Any important backstory could have been filled in as the story went.

Keep Your Paragraphs in Check, Please

[Challenger goes on even more about how awesome he is, then the two of them head out towards Nemor’s place.]

I had, before leaving Enmore Gardens, ascertained by the much-abused telephone that our man was at home, and had warned him of our coming. He lived in a comfortable flat in Hampstead, and he kept us waiting for quite half an hour in his ante-room whilst he carried on an animated conversation with a group of visitors, whose voices, as they finally bade farewell in the hall, showed that they were Russians. I caught a glimpse of them through the half-opened door, and had a passing impression of prosperous and intelligent men, with astrakhan collars to their coats, glistening top-hats, and every appearance of that bourgeois well-being which the successful Communist so readily assumes. The hall door closed behind them, and the next instant Theodore Nemor entered our apartment. I can see him now as he stood with the sunlight full upon him, rubbing his long, thin hands together and surveying us with his broad smile and his cunning yellow eyes.

He was a short, thick man, with some suggestion of deformity in his body, though it was difficult to say where that suggestion lay. One might say that he was a hunchback without the hump. His large, soft face was like an underdone dumpling, of the same colour and moist consistency, while the pimples and blotches which adorned it stood out the more aggressively against the pallid background. His eyes were those of a cat, and catlike was the thin, long, bristling moustache above his loose, wet, slobbering mouth. It was all low and repulsive until one came to the sandy eyebrows. From these upwards there was a splendid cranial arch such as I have seldom seen. Even Challenger’s hat might have fitted that magnificent head. One might read Theodore Nemor as a vile, crawling conspirator below, but above he might take rank with the great thinkers and philosophers of the world.

‘Well, gentlemen,’ said he, in a velvety voice with only the least trace of a foreign accent, ‘you have come, as I understand from our short chat over the wires, in order to learn more of the Nemor Disintegrator. Is it so?’

‘Exactly.’

I’ve been summarizing a lot of this story, but it was important for you to suffer through those two paragraphs the same way I did. Now you understand the nature of the beast. First, we get a long description of the people Nemor is talking to when Malone and Challenger arrive. Doyle lavishes so many words on the Russians’ clothes that I felt sure they’d be important later. They’re not. Even if they were, the description should be cut down.

Then we get a painstaking description of how ugly Nemor is. I can only assume Doyle read Mary Shelley’s famous book and decided to make his character a cross between Dr. Frankenstein and Igor. This is too much physical description. We don’t need to know about all of Nemor’s skin blemishes.

Nemor’s extreme description is meant to convey that he is both evil and super smart. Doyle isn’t the only author to use “ugly” as a shorthand for “evil,” but it’s still a bad idea. At best it will seem hopelessly outdated. At worst, the story will come across as an attack on anyone who doesn’t meet traditional standards of beauty. To make this extra pointless, Doyle eventually gives up and just tells us that Nemor is both evil and super smart.

Give Your Conflict Stakes

‘May I ask whether you represent the British Government?’

‘Not at all. I am a correspondent of the Gazette, and this is Professor Challenger.’

‘An honoured name —a European name.’ His yellow fangs gleamed in obsequious amiability. ‘I was about to say that the British Government has lost its chance. What else it has lost it may find out later. Possibly its Empire as well. I was prepared to sell to the first Government which gave me its price, and if it has now fallen into hands of which you may disapprove, you have only yourselves to blame.’

‘Then you have sold your secret?’

‘At my own price.’

‘You think the purchaser will have a monopoly?’

‘Undoubtedly he will.’

‘But others know the secret as well as you.’

‘No, sir.’ He touched his great forehead.

‘This is the safe in which the secret is securely locked —a better safe than any of steel, and secured by something better than a Yale key. Some may know one side of the matter: others may know another. No one in the world knows the whole matter save only I.’

[Nemor goes on for another paragraph about how only he knows how the machine works.]

‘You will excuse me, sir,’ boomed Challenger, who had sat in silence up to now, but whose expressive face registered most complete disapproval of Theodore Nemor, ‘we should wish before we discuss the matter to convince ourselves that there is something to discuss.

We have finally arrived at what passes for the plot in this story. In fact, we have two plots: the mystery of if Nemor’s machine is real, and the threat that he’s going to sell it to an unnamed foreign government. The previous section hinted at Russia, but it wasn’t specific.

Neither of these plots has much in the way of conflict or tension. The machine either works or it doesn’t; on its own, that’s not compelling. Nemor’s threatening to sell the machine could be compelling, except we don’t know if the machine actually works, or who he’s selling it to. Are they bad people? No one knows. Spoiler alert: we will never find out who Nemor’s buyer is.

It’s ironic that despite all the story’s excess text, it hasn’t given us enough information to care about the plot. Worse, the plot is caught in a catch 22. The only stakes are that Nemor has sold the machine, but that only matters if the machine actually works, which we haven’t seen yet.

Side note: if you think it’s a bad idea for Nemor to brag about selling his machine to a hostile power, and then explain that they can’t make it work without him, you’re not the only one. He might as well be waving a sign that reads “get rid of me please.”

Keep the Tech Speak Relevant

[Nemor and Challenger argue for a while longer, before Nemor finally says he has a working model of the machine on his property.]

‘May we see this model?’

‘You will not only see it, Professor Challenger, but you will have the most conclusive demonstration possible upon your own person, if you have the courage to submit to it.’

‘If!’ the lion began to roar. ‘Your “if,” sir, is in the highest degree offensive.’

‘Well, well. I had no intention to dispute your courage. I will only say that I will give you an opportunity to demonstrate It. But I would first say a few words upon the underlying laws which govern the matter.

‘When certain crystals, salt, for example, or sugar, are placed in water they dissolve and disappear. You would not know that they have ever been there. Then by evaporation or otherwise you lessen the amount of water, and lo! there are your crystals again, visible once more and the same as before. Can you conceive a process by which you, an organic being, are in the same way dissolved into the cosmos, and then by a subtle reversal of the conditions reassembled once more?’

‘The analogy is a false one,’ cried Challenger. ‘Even if I make so monstrous an admission as that our molecules could be dispersed by some disrupting power, why should they reassemble in exactly the same order as before?’

First, I want some thanks for the five or six paragraphs I’ve summarized for you. What’s left might seem overwhelming, but I saved you from even more. This story is less than 5,000 words, but it feels like a 200,000 word monster.

Next, holy technobabble, Batman! So the machine works like salt dissolving into water, except apparently it doesn’t. Not only is this explanation long and tedious, but it turns out that’s not even how the machine works at all, so what was the point?

We’ll cut Doyle a little slack because readers of 1928 probably weren’t as familiar with the concept of disintegration as readers of today are. It makes sense to throw in an explanation. Even so, it doesn’t need to be nearly this long or this convoluted. Something like this…

Example

“Everything in the universe is made of tiny atoms,” Nemor said, turning to me as though I were scientifically illiterate. In truth I was well versed in atomic theory, but I let him go on. “The machine breaks those atoms apart, and brings them back together with the flick of a switch.”

“So you claim,” Challenger said.

When writing explanations for scifi technology, it’s best to focus on what the device does, rather than how it’s accomplished. Audiences will suspend their disbelief for all manner of wondrous tech. But if you try to explain the how, it becomes clear that you don’t know what you’re talking about,* and the audience will quickly lose patience.

Keep Your Characters Rational

[Nemor goes on with more technobabble, this time comparing his machine to magic and sorcery, before finally leading Challenger and Malone into the room where the machine is kept.]

‘This is the model which is destined to be famous, as altering the balance of power among the nations. Who holds this rules the world. Now, Professor Challenger, you have, if I may say so, treated me with some lack of courtesy and consideration in this matter. Will you dare to sit upon that chair and to allow me to demonstrate upon your own body the capabilities of the new force?’

Challenger had the courage of a lion, and anything in the nature of a defiance roused him in an instant to a frenzy. He rushed at the machine, but I seized his arm and held him back.

‘You shall not go,’ I said. ‘Your life is too valuable. It is monstrous. What possible guarantee of safety have you? The nearest approach to that apparatus which I have ever seen was the electrocution chair at Sing Sing.’

‘My guarantee of safety,’ said Challenger, ‘is that you are a witness and that this person would certainly be held for manslaughter at the least should anything befall me.’

‘That would be a poor consolation to the world of science, when you would leave work unfinished which none but you can do. Let me, at least, go first, and then, when the experience proves to be harmless, you can follow.’

Of course Challenger has the courage of a lion. He probably has the fortitude of a rhinoceros too. Speaking of which, the description of him “rushing” at the machine is comical. It sounds like he means to engage it in single combat, a bracing round of fisticuffs with the infernal contraption.

But no, the reality is far sillier. To test the machine, Challenger plans to place himself inside it. Keep in mind this is a machine that disintegrates people. There’s no way that could go wrong. Challenger’s only safety precaution is that Nemor probably won’t kill him intentionally with Malone watching, which is true, but what if the machine just doesn’t work properly?

Malone points this out, but then his solution is to go instead. Gentlemen, do you not have a brick you could put in the machine first? Maybe a nice potted plant if you want to test it on living tissue?

But no, they’re intent on using a human being, as if the only two possibilities are that nothing happens or that the machine works perfectly. Challenger is a terrible scientist.

Don’t Sabotage Your Action With Slapstick

[Malone gets in the machine, and it works! He disappears for a moment, then comes back. Then Challenger takes his turn, and when he’s gone, Nemor decides to bring him back without his hair and beard.]

There was the click of the lever. An instant later Challenger was seated upon the chair once more. But what a Challenger! What a shorn lion! Furious as I was at the trick that had been played upon him I could hardly keep from roaring with laughter.

His huge head was as bald as a baby’s and his chin was as smooth as a girl’s. Bereft of his glorious mane the lower part of his face was heavily jowled and ham-shaped, while his whole appearance was that of an old fighting gladiator, battered and bulging, with the jaws of a bulldog over a massive chin.

It may have been some look upon our faces—I have no doubt that the evil grin of my companion had widened at the sight—but, however that may be, Challenger’s hand flew up to his head and he became conscious of his condition. The next instant he had sprung out of his chair, seized the inventor by the throat, and had hurled him to the ground. Knowing Challenger’s immense strength I was convinced that the man would be killed.

So this scene is uncomfortable. I’m guessing it’s supposed to be funny, but it just feels kind of absurd. Challenger is a huge jerk, so some readers might get a bit of schadenfreude from his embarrassment, but he’s also our protagonist. In theory we’re supposed to cheer for him.

The way Challenger reacts makes him seem like some kind if enraged berserker rather than a human being. It’s one thing to be upset this was done to him, but he seems to have skipped right past confusion about where his hair went and into full-rage mode.

Nemor also has no reason to do this. If anything, he should be trying *not* to antagonize Challenger and Malone. He’s just sold a very powerful machine to a foreign government, which could get him into a lot of trouble with the authorities. Of course, Nemor has already proven himself to be bizarrely antagonistic. If he wasn’t, the story would probably be over by now, and wouldn’t that be a shame?

Establish Threat Early

[Malone convinces Challenger not to kill Nemor, and after some arguing Nemor brings Challenger’s hair back. Then Nemor starts talking about the machine’s practical applications.]

‘I have explained, sir, that this is a model. But it would be quite easy to erect a plant upon a large scale. You understand that this acts vertically. Certain currents above you, and certain others below you, set up vibrations which either disintegrate or reunite. But the process could be lateral. If it were so conducted it would have the same effect, and cover a space in proportion to the strength of the current.’

‘Give an example.’

‘We will suppose that one pole was in one small vessel and one in another; a battleship between them would simply vanish into molecules. So also with a column of troops.’

‘And you have sold this secret as a monopoly to a single European Power?’

‘Yes, sir, I have. When the money is paid over they shall have such power as no nation ever had yet. You don’t even now see the full possibilities if placed in capable hands hands which did not fear to wield the weapon which they held. They are immeasurable.’ A gloating smile passed over the man’s evil face. ‘Conceive a quarter of London in which such machines have been erected. Imagine the effect of such a current upon the scale which could easily be adopted. Why,’ he burst into laughter, ‘I could imagine the whole Thames valley being swept clean, and not one man, woman, or child left of all these teeming millions!’

This section is odd because Malone’s letter already speculated on the machine’s use, but now the story is acting as if the characters never considered it. Repeating important info is often a good idea, but this section makes it sound like the characters forgot what they read earlier. At least with the spelling out of how the machine can be used, we finally have some stakes for this conflict: If a hostile nation had this technology, they could literally wipe Britain off the map.

This comes more than three quarters of the way through the story, and it is way too late. You need to establish the stakes of your conflict at the beginning, so your readers have a reason to stick with the story. Stakes create drama and tension; they make the story matter. Forcing your readers to wade all the way to the end just to find out what’s at stake is a recipe to drive them away.

Doyle didn’t have to open with this. He could have started with a different set of stakes, and then saved this for the ending reveal. If Challenger and Malone thought they were investigating Dr. Nemor’s murder, only to find he was still alive and trying to sell dangerous technology to the enemy, that could have worked well.

Of course, there’s still the problem of knowing nothing about the government Nemor is selling to. Are they evil? Specifically, is it worse for them to have it instead of the British government? Without knowing more it’s hard to get excited.

Don’t Make Your Protagonists Seem Evil

[Challenger acts very impressed, then tricks Nemor into entering the machine, claiming there’s a malfunction.]

There was a sharp click and the man had disappeared. I looked with amazement at Challenger. ‘Good heavens! Did you touch the machine, Professor?’

He smiled at me benignly with an air of mild surprise.

‘Dear me! I may have inadvertently touched the handle,’ said he. ‘One is very liable to have awkward incidents with a rough model of this kind. This lever should certainly be guarded.’

‘It is in number three. That is the slot which causes disintegration.’

‘So I observed when you were operated upon.’

‘But I was so excited when he brought you back that I did not see which was the proper slot for the return. Did you notice it?’

‘I may have noticed it, young Malone, but I do not burden my mind with small details. There are many slots and we do not know their purpose. We may make the matter worse if we experiment with the unknown. Perhaps it is better to leave matters as they are.’

‘And you would—’

‘Exactly. It is better so. The interesting personality of Mr. Theodore Nemor has distributed itself throughout the cosmos, his machine is worthless, and a certain foreign Government has been deprived of knowledge by which much harm might have been wrought. Not a bad morning’s work, young Malone. Your rag will no doubt have an interesting column upon the inexplicable disappearance of a Latvian inventor shortly after the visit of its own special correspondent. I have enjoyed the experience. These are the lighter moments which come to brighten the dull routine of study. But life has its duties as well as its pleasures, and I now return to the Italian Mazotti and his preposterous views upon the larval development of the tropical termites.’

Looking back, it seemed to me that a slight oleaginous mist was still hovering round the chair. ‘But surely—’ I urged.

‘The first duty of the law-abiding citizen is to prevent murder,’ said Professor Challenger. ‘I have done so. Enough, Malone, enough! The theme will not bear discussion. It has already disengaged my thoughts too long from matters of more importance.’

So the story ends with Challenger effectively killing Nemor. That’s pretty extreme. Nemor comes off as a jerk but not as evil. He certainly didn’t deserve death. Maybe Malone could have called the police first? The casual way Challenger dismisses the murder adds to the feeling that he’s the real villain of this story, even though we’re supposed to be cheering for him.

If Doyle wanted the story to end with the protagonist killing the villain, he needed to set up an appropriate context. Readers will accept a hero who kills, but only if there’s a good reason. I’ve said before that this story needed stronger stakes, and this is another example of why. It’s understandable for the hero to kill a man if it’s the only way to keep dangerous technology away from an evil dictator, less so to keep the technology away from an unnamed “foreign government.”

The story also needed a stronger reason why this was the only option. The current conflict has no sense of urgency, it seems like Malone and Challenger have plenty of time to consult the proper authorities and prevent his device from leaving the country. Finally, this solution doesn’t even feel permanent. People will no doubt come looking for Nemor. What happens if they just flip the switch back and rematerialize him?

Oh, and notice how even at the end, we can’t escape those over-written paragraphs of dialogue. Nothing brings the story to a satisfying climax like line upon line of a long-winded speech.

An Overwritten Story With No Stakes

The Disintegration Machine was written near the end of Doyle’s life, by which time he was already a powerhouse author recognized worldwide for his Holmes stories. Perhaps that accounts for how bad it is. When an author is that famous, no one is going to tell them no. Or perhaps Doyle was in poor health by then, and not able to give the story his full attention. I can’t say for sure, but I can say that this story is a mess from start to finish. 

If I were given this manuscript as a developmental editor, my first step would be to ask the author questions to determine his vision for the story. Since Doyle hasn’t returned my emails lately, I’ll have to make an educated guess. While this is the last of many stories featuring Malone and Challenger, Doyle’s stories are meant to stand independently. So I’ll address this as a stand alone.

First, Challenger’s character needs to be reworked. He’s so unlikable that finishing the story is a painful chore. One option would be to simply switch him out for Sherlock Holmes, but let’s assume Doyle isn’t up for that. We’ll keep Challenger’s skepticism, and emphasize his attention to detail as a scientist. His extreme arrogance and aggression will go out the window.

For any other author, I’d recommend the POV be put in Challenger’s head, but since Doyle pioneered the Watsonian style, I’d work with him to give Malone some better characterization. The most obvious solution would be to make him the eager newshound in contrast to a more cautious, scientifically minded Challenger.

Next, we need to fix the plot. A basic outline would look something like this…

  • Challenger arrives to investigate the disappearance of Dr. Nemor, a famous inventor working for the British government.
  • Challenger discovers that Nemor was working on a strange device, and that foreign agents* were seen spying on him.
  • Challenger tracks down the foreign agents, thinking they killed Nemor before he could complete his device.
  • In the climactic reveal, Challenger finds that Nemor faked his own death so he could sell the device to an enemy of Britain.

Beyond the plot, the text itself needs serious revisions. Endless paragraphs of dialogue and descriptions would have to go if the story were to be in any way enjoyable to read. But none of that would help if the plot wasn’t addressed.    

Despite coming from a talented and well-established author, this story as written has little to offer. Its plot is confused, its characters are either boring or detestable, and its wordcraft is beyond verbose. Altogether, it is a thoroughly tedious read.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    Great article once more, but how dare you say berserkers are no human beings? As creator of a character who can turn into a berserker at will (in the classic sense of being able to fight despite severe injuries and not feeling pain or fear), I have to protest, of course.

    I have to admit I never went much into Doyle’s work beyond Sherlock Holmes and his horror stories (years ago, I found a great collection going by the title “Tales of Unease”), but on the whole, Doyle was better when writing short stories. That doesn’t mean, however, that all of his short stories were good. The fact that this one is from his late work might explain the problems, of course, but then, he should have been a very experienced author by then and seen the weaknesses.

    Holmes does sometimes appear as rather unpleasant as well, but it’s usually in the heat of the moment when his mind is completely focused on the case and he simply has not time for pleasantries and is short on patience. Challenger can’t claim any of that in this story.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Good point, I should stop berserker-shaming.

      • Cay Reet

        To be honest, it’s not an easy ability to balance, though. I do so by also making clear it takes my character a lot of willpower to end the berserker mode and that, of course, she still has to deal with any injuries received during it afterwards. Makes her very conscious about using it in the first place.

  2. SunlessNick

    Then we get a painstaking description of how ugly Nemor is.

    The first thing that came to my mind in that description was Mr Hyde – though I don’t know when the two were published relative to one another – but that quality of seeming like they ought to be deformed while not having a visible deformity is something the two have in common.

    Challenger’s like this in all his stories, btw, but the absolute worst was The Day the Earth Screamed, where we’re meant to gloss over a death toll in the hundreds of thousands to obsess over how awesome Challenger is (and yes, these are deaths he directly caused).

  3. Cay Reet

    According to Wikipedia: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published 1886, The Disintegration Machine was published in 1929.

    Stevenson actually was in good company with his descriptions of Hyde … at that time, Lombardo’s idea that outward deformities were a sign that there were inward defects, too, was still popular. That wasn’t the case any longer in 1929.

    • Cay Reet

      Ooops, this was meant to be an answer to SunlessNick…

    • SunlessNick

      The disintegration machine was that late? Huh.

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