In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle voyages to the many worlds imagined by a forgotten science-fiction pioneer
Victorian science fiction throws out one name: H. G. Wells. So comprehensively has Wells’s name come to dominate, or even define, our understanding of nineteenth-century English science fiction, that his contemporaries and precursors have been lost in the ether or relegated to the status of minor satellites, barely perceptible moons, orbiting Wells’s vast body of work. The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds, published within three years of each other between 1895 and 1898, have come to be seen as the founding texts of modern science fiction in English.
But such an understanding of the emergence of this new genre in the closing years of the nineteenth century obscures the many contemporaries of Wells whose imagination and inventiveness were similarly remarkable, their stories and novels showcasing the brilliant possibilities of this new publishing phenomenon. Of all of Wells’s forgotten contemporaries, the greatest was perhaps George Griffith, sometimes known as George Chetwynd Griffith-Jones (1857-1906).
According to Sam Moskowitz in Science Fiction by Gaslight, George Griffith was the most popular writer of science fiction in England between 1893 and 1895. It was in this latter year that H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, his first novel (more properly a novella), appeared, and Griffith’s popularity would be eclipsed by a newer and greater writer. A. Kingsley Russell’s introduction to the marvellous anthology of early science fiction’s other pioneers, Science Fiction by the Rivals of H.G. Wells, observes that Griffith was a prolific author who also wrote detective fiction; he was also a real-life adventurer and explorer, who once travelled around the world in just 64½ days: a new record for the time, and beating the 80 days achieved by the fictional creation of that other SF pioneer, Jules Verne.
George Griffith’s Stories of Other Worlds, also known as A Honeymoon in Space, a series of connected tales about space exploration, were published in 1900 and then collected the following year. In these stories, the aristocratic inventor Rollo Lenox Smeaton Aubrey, Earl of Redgrave, and his new bride, Lilla Zadie, take an unusual honeymoon: they travel through the solar system to the moon and the planets Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn, keen to explore these other worlds beyond Earth or ‘Terra’. Redgrave is the sole possessor of scientific knowledge – of the fictional ‘R Force’, or anti-gravitational force – which makes space travel possible in the stories. These are probably the earliest works of fiction in English detailing journeys to other planets.
In ‘A Visit to the Moon’, the newlyweds travel from the United States in their spaceship, the Astronef, to the moon, where they come upon an abandoned City of the Dead, at whose centre a vast pyramid stands, surrounded by giants’ bones. Exploring the moon in their spacesuits, they encounter an apelike being with a fishlike mouth, one of the surviving specimens of the ‘lunarians’, cousins of H. G. Wells’s very different moon-creatures, the Selenites. They then travel to the famous dark side of the moon, before heading on for their next adventure on Mars. The stories might be regarded as forerunners to such twentieth-century series as Isaac Asimov’s Lucky Starr novels, in which the ‘space ranger’ David Starr travels through the solar system, meeting the alien inhabitants of the various planets and having improbable but enjoyable adventures.
What George Griffith’s Stories of Other Worlds lacks in dramatic tension, it makes up for in descriptive power. Here he is evoking the desolation of the moon:
The plain itself was a scene of the most awful and utter desolation that even the sombre fancy of a Dante could imagine. Huge mountain walls, towering to immense heights and inclosing great circular and oval plains, one side of them blazing with intolerable light, and the other side black with impenetrable obscurity; enormous valleys reaching down from brilliant day into rayless night – perhaps down into the empty bowels of the dead world itself; vast, grey-white plains lying round the mountains, crossed by little ridges and by long, black lines which could only be immense fissures with perpendicular sides – but all hard grey-white and black, all intolerable brightness or repulsive darkness; not a sign of life anywhere, no shady forests, no green fields, no broad, glittering oceans; only a ghastly wilderness of dead mountains and dead plains.
I read George Griffiths’ Stories of Other Worlds on a Saturday afternoon, and that’s perhaps the best time to dive into them: a sort of Victorian literary equivalent to the 1950s B-movie, a Saturday matinee of the mind. They’re currently out of print, but you can pick up Science Fiction by the Rivals of H.G. Wells, the excellent anthology in which they are reprinted – along with a number of other classic early works of short science fiction – for a few quid online.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.