Science Fiction Studies

Documents in the History of Science Fiction

The reviews printed below were sent to us by John Eggeling of Phantasmagoria Books, 8 Colwell Road, East Dulwich, London SE22.

Percy Greg. Across the Zodiac: The Story of a Wrecked Record. Two volumes. Trübner & Co., 1880. [From The Saturday Review, February 14, 1880, pp 219-20].

Of late years there has been a notable revival of the fashion of producing imaginary travels and adventures in which the field of the writer's fancy or satire is enlarged by calling up visions of regions or worlds outside our real experience as to inhabitants, situation in space, or both. The late Lord Lytton amused himself for a while with concealing the authorship of The Coming Race, a very successful work of the kind. Then came Mr. S. Butler's Erewhon--also issued anonymously at first--which, if not equal to The Coming Race in workmanship and semi-poetical imagination, must be allowed, we think, to excel it in humour and originality of conception. M. Jules Verne has shot up two Americans and one Frenchman from the earth to the moon, which they failed to hit by no fault in their arrangements or calculations, but by the perturbation due to an unmannerly and unaccountable meteorite which crossed their path, so that they fell back into the sea; where the cylindro-conical shell, being of course hollow to hold them and their provisions, floated with ease and security till a rescue expedition which had been wildly taking soundings all over the ocean at last found them playing dominoes. The story is told with a most ingenious combination of American vastness, French airiness, and minute scientific plausibility. But an attempt to trace all the literature of this class, even in the last ten or twenty years, would be as tiresome as (with all respect for the splendid poetical qualities shown by Victor Hugo in the passage) Don Ruy Gomez's catalogue of the portraits of his ancestors is found on the stage. "J'en passe, et des meilleurs" can hardly be our phrase; for we think we have named the best recent specimens. A very curious monograph might be produced by any qualified worker who would follow up the parentage of these books through Voltaire's Micromegas, Gulliver, Rabelais, More's Utopia, and back to Lucian, if not further; it might be difficult to stop short of the Odyssey. In any case, we must now pass on to the latest comer now before us. Mr. Percy Greg has given two whole volumes to a course of adventures in Mars. We are disposed to affirm as a general proposition that the length of two volumes is too much for an exercise of fancy of this kind; but we are unable to deny in this case that, notwithstanding its length, the tale of unearthly adventure is made to maintain its interest. The work shows great powers of description, no small constructive imagination, and the general merits of practised and forcible writing; against which there are to be set two grave drawbacks--an almost entire absence of humour, and the presence of obtrusive moral. Mr. Percy Greg seems to have chosen pessimism as a profession, and he descants on his theme with all that exquisite relish which appears to sweeten a settled conviction that the world is in a thoroughly bad way, especially when one has the power of compelling attention by expressing it in elegant language. The state of Mars, as described in the record of Mr. Greg's imaginary adventurer, appears to show in a parable what mankind have to expect, or may plausibly be represented as having to expect, from the further progress of science. It is curious that in this book, as in The Devil's Advocate, the author has used a form of writing most effectually fitted to conceal the extent to which he believes in his own prophecies.

His tale purports to be the translation of a MS. written in Latin of a medieval style and in a strange cipher, the sole coherent relic of a quasi-meteoric catastrophe witnessed by an ex-Colonel of the Confederate army on an unknown island in the South Pacific. We are left to infer that this was the final wreck of the extra-terrestrial voyager and his aerial craft. The circumstances account for a good many lacunae in the MS., which have a way of occurring whenever an exact statement is demanded by the context. As for the traveller, his origin and country on this earth are left in much obscurity. The best conjecture we can piece together is that he is an Italian soldier of fortune who has served in India under Mahometan princes, and more or less conformed to Islam; at least he invokes Allah in the course of one desperate encounter. Yet he holds strongly to European ideas of morality and family institutions. Where or how he got the scientific knowledge and command of material resources necessary for the construction of his flying-machine is wholly unexplained. It would seem that he had no family ties, and was in no hurry about returning to the earth within any particular time; for he finds no serious difficulty in marrying a wife in Mars. The date of his journey is laid about 1830, for some reason which likewise does not appear. Five-and-thirty years have to be accounted for between his leaving the earth and his disastrous return; and the time covered by his sojourn in Mars, though we have not calculated it, can in any case be only a small part of this. Perhaps the rest will be filled up in a possible continuation of which Mr. Greg speaks. These remarks are of course pedantic; but we have a purpose in making them. It seems to us that the introductory machinery of Across the Zodiac is an example of a fault extremely difficult to avoid in this kind of writing. It is elaborate, and yet vague; it is always raising questions of detail which it does not even pretend to satisfy. The safer way, which Mr. Greg has presumably spurned as too easy, is to deal in sweeping assertions and invent the first reason that comes to hand for not giving particulars. The telling of impossible things, with a show of minute and probable explanation is an art of itself, and a very difficult one. We are not sure, indeed, that Swift is not the sole master of it. Mr. Greg's middle course neither satisfies the imagination nor leaves it free; we have a feeling of being imposed on.

Lord Lytton's "Coming Race," it may be remembered, were of gigantic stature, were generally admirable if not very interesting, had advanced far beyond us in science, and also cultivated mesmerism and other branches of so-called occult knowledge. In the population of Mars the stature is diminutive, and the other qualities are unequally divided between two factions. The majority are slaves of science. They have lost all religion, all public spirit, a good deal of their morality, and most of their interest in life. Disease and old age, as we understand them on the earth, have been abolished for centuries, yet the people somehow die of no other apparent cause than being tired of living. A century or two of communism which preceded the reign of science has thoroughly disgusted them with politics, and the whole planet is under an enlightened despotism. After abolishing the subjection of women for a time, and greatly misliking the experiment, they have reverted to polygamy. They practise infanticide in moderation, but disapprove of euthanasia on the ground of its obvious inconvenience. They cannot understand how anybody should find any pleasure in dangerous pursuits, or be willing to incur danger to save another from it. But there is a minority which in secret maintains different principles. This body has preserved traditions of spiritual and transcendental doctrine, and has cultivated the practical application of them to the point of making itself extremely formidable. If any of the profane attempt to do a mischief to the Order or betray its secrets, they die suddenly, or go mad, or fall off a housetop. It fares with them as with the sceptics once mentioned by a South-Indian villager to a Government official. Some men had been now and then known, he said, to express doubt if there were any such person as John Company; but of such it was always observed that something bad soon happened to them. Specimens of these mysterious powers are given in the course of the story; and we fail to perceive, notwithstanding an attempted explanation, what was to prevent the Order from subduing the whole planet. The terrestrial voyager is admitted into this society, and by family interest (his Martial father-in-law being the chief man) attains high rank in it, on which the romantic part of the story depends. We shall not further disclose it than by saying that at the end of the book there is an attempted revolution, and a fight quite as lively as terrestrial ones; though, as the traveller notes, it is very ill conducted, in consequence of the art of war having been forgotten for many centuries. The terrestrial visitor flies away after seeing the triumph of his surviving friends assured, and putting a final touch to it by letting down his air-ship so as to crush a considerable number of the profane mob.

The appliances of life in Mars are described in much detail and with great ingenuity. As for the science, we find it rather disappointing. The phonograph and telephone are in common use, and electricity has superseded all other motive powers. But it is not economically applied, if we may credit the traveller's statement that the heat produced in the working of the electric engines used on board ship is sufficient to warm the interior of the vessel in passing through cold regions. We hear very little about the scientific methods and theories of the Martians. Here are a few of the things which we conceive they ought to have done in all those centuries of uninterrupted scientific progress. They ought to have carried the treatment of problems in physics, by both analytical and graphical methods, to a point far beyond our terrestrial mathematicians; and, as a consequence of this, conceptions which among us are reserved for the higher mathematics would be part of the common stock of all educated people and be familiarly used in conversation. They would be in possession of a complete symbolical logic (the more necessary because having only one language would make their verbal reasoning very liable to fallacies), and they would have reduced statistics to a deductive science. They would have decomposed most of the so-called elements; the study of molecular chemistry would have led to the invention of new mathematical methods, and these again to new physical researches; and some Martial Laplace might have established his fame by a classical treatise on the constitution of an atom. The traveller, however, does not seem to have informed himself much about science in the abstract; or perhaps his purely scientific notes were in another book, which was destroyed. In short, there runs through the whole work the feeling we have already expressed, that it is both too much and too little. The Martians, or Martialists, or whatever it should be, are too like terrestrial men. There is really no reason, save the want of a sufficient undiscovered continent, why the adventure should not as well have taken place on the earth. Nor is there any that we can see why Mr. Percy Greg should not write an interesting and successful terrestrial romance if he chose; which, after all, is a more legitimate and enduring form of literary art.

There are one or two other fictions of the Utopian class which we should like just to mention. One is, like Mr. Greg's, a prophecy of the triumphs of science; but, unlike Across the Zodiac, it is the work of a man who saw the day of science coming, and was in nowise afraid. We mean the splendid fragment of Bacon--unhappily but a fragment--entitled The New Atlantis. Another is an anonymous book, called Adventures in the Moon and Other Worlds (London, 1836), excelling in the qualities of humour and a light hand, which we rather miss in Mr. Greg's work. It is almost forgotten now; but its merit is very great. At the time it was thought by some good judges worthy of Peacock. We may also mention a very recently published little volume, Erchomenon; or, the Republic of Materialism (Sampson Low & Co.), in which the conditions of the society described are in some respects curiously like those of Mr. Greg's Martialists; only the scene is laid in the England of six hundred years hence, to which the narrator is transported in a dream. The last piece of the kind we wish to note is contained in a few pages of Sir Humphry Davy's Consolations in Travel, and is distinguished by the success with which unlikeness to terrestrial conditions, yet within the general laws of the solar system, is indicated. The narrator falls into a vision in which he is transported to Saturn by a powerful and beneficent guide, who is manifest to him only as a voice. The inhabitants are creatures with six wings, brilliantly coloured, and furnished with convolutions of tubes which are the organs of senses unknown to dwellers on the earth. Their habitations are suspended in the air and moveable, and they can direct them at will to various regions of the atmosphere for pleasure or research. Strife is unknown to them, their passions are few, and their only ambitions are intellectual. In this pure and noble exercise of scientific fancy there is a very different sort of pleasure from any that can be found in Mr. Percy Greg's powerfully and studiously disagreeable picture of the institutions and manners of Mars.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes) Back to Home