Wednesday 11 November 2020

George Chetwyn Griffith's A Honeymoon in Space

Quite often, both the chief delight and the greatest challenge of Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances is the quality of the language. Earnest, effervescent, sometimes overwrought 19th century prose can, in the right hands, not only describe the scene with vivid intensity but convey the mood of overstuffed Victorian formality. In less capable hands they are a mulch of jagged cliches, stilted dialogue, and bizarre Eurocentric racial attitudes. Thankfully George Chetwyn Griffith was a much more accomplished writer than many. Granted, he certainly has his share of melodrama, unrealistic conversations, and objectionable views towards the ethnic characteristics of Martians (as well as clumsy prose: "I wonder if the descendants of the ancestors of the future human race on Saturn will invent anything like a suitable language."). Nevertheless, Griffith's background as a journalist prepared him to deliver his forays into Scientific Romance with the pitch of a Jane Austin novel set in space.

For your consideration, this extended excerpt from the opening chapter of his 1901 novel A Honeymoon in Space, in which "the tall athletic figure and the regular-featured, bronzed, honest English face" of Rollo Lenox Smeaton Aubrey, Earl of Redgrave, Baron Smeaton in the Peerage of England, and Viscount Aubrey in the Peerage of Ireland, appears in his flying machine to whisk Miss Lilla Zaidie Rennick and her chaperone away from a trans-Atlantic steamer on its way to an arranged marriage of economic convenience...
Mrs. Van Stuyler was shaking in every muscle, afflicted by a sort of St. Vitus' dance induced by physical fear and outraged propriety. Quite apart from these, however, she experienced a third sensation which made for a nameless inquietude. She was a woman of the world, well versed in most of its ways, and she fully recognised that that single bound from the bridge-rail of the St. Louis to the other side of the clouds had already carried her and her charge beyond the pale of human law.
The same thought, mingled with other feelings, half of wonder and half of re-awakened tenderness, was just then uppermost in Miss Zaidie's mind. It was quite obvious that the man who could create and control such a marvellous vehicle as this could, morally as well as physically, lift himself beyond the reach of the conventions which civilised society had instituted for its own protection and government.
He could do with them exactly as he pleased. They were utterly at his mercy. He might carry them away to some unexplored spot on one of the continents, or to some unknown island in the midst of the wide Pacific. He might even transport them into the midst of the awful solitudes which surround the Poles. He could give them the choice between doing as he wished, submitting unconditionally to his will, or committing suicide by starvation.
They had not even the option of jumping out, for they did not know how to open the sliding doors; and even if they had done, what feminine nerves could have faced a leap into that awful gulf which lay below them, a two-thousand-foot dive through the clouds into the waters of the wintry Atlantic?
They looked at each other in speechless, dazed amazement. Far away below them on the other side of the clouds the St. Louis was steaming eastward, and with her were going the last hopes of the coronet which was to be the matrimonial equivalent of Miss Zaidie's beauty and Russell Rennick's millions.
They were no longer of the world. Its laws could no longer protect them. Anything might happen, and that anything depended absolutely on the will of the lord and master of the extraordinary vessel which, for the present, was their only world.
"My dearest Zaidie," Mrs. Van Stuyler gasped, when she at length recovered the power of articulate speech, "what an entirely too awful thing this is! Why, it's abduction and nothing less. Indeed it's worse, for he's taken us clean off the earth, and there's no more chance of rescue than if he took us to one of those planets he said he could go to. If I didn't feel a great responsibility for you, dear, I believe I should faint."
By this time Miss Zaidie had recovered a good deal of her usual composure. The excitement of the upward rush, and what was left of the momentary physical fear, had flushed her cheeks and lighted her eyes. Even Mrs. Van Stuyler thought her looking, if possible, more beautiful than she had done under the most favourable of terrestrial circumstances. There was a something else too, which she didn't altogether like to see, a sort of resignation to her fate which, in a young lady situated as she was then, Mrs. Van Stuyler considered to be distinctly improper.
Griffith was most famous in his day for his political novels of future war, such as Angel of the Revolution: A Tale of the Coming Terror (1893) and Olga Romanoff (1894). Pure cosmic explorations were more rare, and he restrained himself from the socialist revolutionary views that he injected more freely into his war books. These views likely limited his appeal in the United States, but perhaps enhanced his appeal in the milieu of public debates between Victorian-Edwardian England's intelligentsia. Between 1893 and 1895 he was considered the most popular English writer of Scientific Romances, until Wells usurped him.

A Honeymoon in Space was originally serialized in Pearson's Magazine as Stories of Other Worlds, before being collected into a single volume in 1901. The change in title is significant. Though still suggesting considerable adventure and wonder, the idea of a honeymoon also implies a certain comfort and familiarity... A domestication of outer space. While his protagonists Lord and Lady Redgrave are exploring uncharted territory, Griffith is not. Based on popular conceptions of cosmology and evolution in his day, Griffith retreads the ground of the celestial spheres as a study in the pathways of human development. 

Lord Redgrave represents the old English aristocracy of propriety and heredity, while Miss Zadie represents brash and youthful American inventiveness. Zadie's father came up with the plans for a flying machine powered by a mysterious repulsive force, and Redgrave's money financed it, though primarily as a means to impress the nubile young lady. After rescuing her from her terrible mistake, their wedded union signifies a union of the United States and United Kingdom under the sole dominion of aerial travel. Griffith takes his time to expound on how the non-English speaking parts of the world bristle at this new development, and he goes out of his way to allude to his views on an American presidential election circa 1900 whose contenders have long since been forgotten (William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, for the record, and his implied support was behind McKinley's platform of "sound money").

After their exercises in electioneering, Lord and Lady Redgrave depart for a whirlwind tour of the solar system, with stops on the Moon, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. On each orb the couple meet expressions of various hypothetical stages in human development. Life on the Moon is all-but extinct, the atmosphere slowly having ebbed away from Selene's weak attractive force. All that remains are degraded forms living out degraded lives in the black swamps of the Moon's deepest craters. Mars is peopled by a civilization that has bred out emotions, and thus become barbarous and violent. Their duration on that planet is nasty, brutish, and short. Venus fares much better: on the love-planet are a sensuous, innocent people who fly on diaphanous wings, to whom all manner of sin are unknown. Despite the pleasures of their time spent on Venus, Redgrave and his wife feel they must leave lest they become the serpents. 

A typical interaction on Mars.

After finding Calisto, a moon of Jupiter, to be another dead world like our own Moon, the couple stop at Ganymede. Here are a highly intelligent and evolved race whose technological supremacy is allowing them to hold onto the last ebbs of life on their own dying world. Here, more than anywhere else, Griffith wastes time on his unfortunate racial ideas. Such views were ubiquitous at the time... In fact, ideas of racial superiority, eugenics, and human perfectibility through breeding were most popular among revolutionary progressives like Griffith. When Zaidie asks why these people are akin to Greek statues come alive, her husband replies:
"Survival of the fittest, I presume. These are probably the descendants of the highest races of Ganymede; the people who conceived the idea of prolonging the life of their race and were able to carry it out. The inferior races would either perish of starvation or become their servants. That's what will happen on Earth, and there is no reason why it shouldn't have happened here."
These people are intelligent and sophisticated, stoic and rational. On Venus "the inhabitants had never learnt to sin; here they had learnt the lesson that sin is mere foolishness, and that no really sensible or properly educated man or woman thinks crime worth committing." A group of distinguished Ganymedian scientists acquiesce to join the stellar explorers on a hazardous trip through the thick clouds of Jupiter to it roiling, pyroclastic surface. Barely surviving this, the couple returns the scientists to their slowly extinguishing orb and make way to Saturn.

The ringed world has Griffith's closest approximation to a world that recapitulates evolution. They first descend to the equator, which is so low and heavy in atmosphere that it acts as something of an aetheric ocean populated with aerial jellyfish of sorts. After recklessly prodding those carnivorous monstrosities  (because they're Victorians and that's what they do), they head further north where the atmosphere thins out, discovering primordial saurian swamps and glacial mastodons before finding traces of Saturn's own race of proto-humans. Finally, after several millions of miles, they decide it is high time to return home.

Griffith's views on the composition of life in the solar system were not far removed from those of popular culture at the time. A commonly held notion was that the planets themselves reenacted evolution on their track out from the Sun to the out solar system. Mercury was a planetary prototype, the earliest stage of a planet's formation. Venus was widely expected to house dinosaurs and other prehistoric monstrosities beneath its shroud of vapour... A moist, swampy, antediluvian world. Earth was Earth, and Mars was a dusty, dry, dessicated world with a society either extinct or on the verge of it. Its pyramids and canals were mute testaments to a great civilization now gone. Then came the asteroid belt, the final fate of a planet, decayed and broken apart.

This speculative idea of extraterrestrial life proved fruitful for both two-fisted adventure stories and for tracts on human development. It's hard to beat dinosaur hunting on Venus or swords and sandals among the Martian ruins. But it also allowed authors to position current humanity on a continuum of savagery to higher civilization, whatever they conceived those things to be. Thus social theory could be consciously woven into adventure stories.

George Chetwyn Griffiths' A Honeymoon in Space is available in Science Fiction of the Gay Ninenties: An Anthology - 1890-1910, edited by C.W. Gross. 

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