Sunday 6 September 2009

Early spaceships: JJ Astor and Percy Greg

The combat with the dragons - JJ Astor's A Journey in Other Worlds

I recently mentioned searching for print citations for "spaceship". The 1894 one mentioned in the OED comes from JJ Astor's A Journey in Other Worlds. This book is online - Gutenberg EText-No. 1607 - and is not at all unreadable despite the cheesiness of characterisation and dialogue.

"Come in!" sounded a voice, as Dr. Cortlandt and Dick Ayrault tapped at the door of the President of the Terrestrial Axis Straightening Company's private office on the morning of the 21st of June, A. D. 2000. Col. Bearwarden sat at his capacious desk, the shadows passing over his face as April clouds flit across the sun. He was a handsome man, and young for the important post he filled--being scarcely forty--a graduate of West Point, with great executive ability, and a wonderful engineer. "Sit down, chappies," said he; "we have still a half hour before I begin to read the report I am to make to the stockholders and representatives of all the governments, which is now ready. I know YOU smoke," passing a box of Havanas to the professor.

Prof. Cortlandt, LL. D., United States Government expert, appointed to examine the company's calculations, was about fifty, with a high forehead, greyish hair, and quick, grey eyes, a geologist and astronomer, and altogether as able a man, in his own way, as Col. Bearwarden in his. Richard Ayrault, a large stockholder and one of the honorary vice-presidents in the company, was about thirty, a university man, by nature a scientist, and engaged to one of the prettiest society girls, who was then a student at Vassar, in the beautiful town of Poughkeepsie.
The main story concerns the trip of Professor (or Dr. - Astor can't seem to decide) Cortlandt, with his colleagues Bearwarden and Ayrault, to Jupiter and Saturn aboard the Callisto, a spacecraft propelled by "apergy" beams. What's immediately interesting is its vision of its 2000AD setting. As outlined in Chapter IV (Prof. Cortlandt's Historical Sketch of the World) and Chapter V, it's a very Green future making extensive use of wind and solar power, electric cars, gliding ornithopters, and so on, but a world with an English-speaking joint hegemony, split between the Americas and the British Empire. There's an ongoing project to reduce the Earth's axial tilt to reduce climatic extremes near the poles. The off-world section starts out in Lost World vein; the travellers land on Jupiter, where they have to fight off prehistoric beasts. But then it takes a mystical turn. On Saturn, amid more adventures fighting monsters, they encounter the spirits of the dead and have various instructive visions; Ayrault has an out-of-body experience that takes him back to Earth. Strange cross-genre stuff. The author JJ Astor is, by the way, John Jacob Astor IV, who died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

Anyhow, I was pleased to find a citation antedating the OED's by 14 years
"The Apergy once mastered, it was comparatively easy to anticipate and improve upon the ideas of a trifler like Jules Verne, and build a space-ship".
- A STRANGE JOURNEY, The Pall Mall Gazette, London, England, Tuesday, January 20, 1880; Issue 4652
found via 19th Century British Library Newspapers
This is from a review of Percy Greg's 1880 novel Across the Zodiac: The Story of a Wrecked Record (Gutenberg EText-No. 10165); the term doesn't appear in the novel itself. I've passed the citation on to the OED's Science Fiction Citations project. In some respects Astor's book appears to be strongly derivative of this: he definitely nicked the apergy propulsion idea. The storyline of Across the Zodiac is rather different, however; the "wrecked record" refers to a found account of an unnamed protagonist who has gone to Mars on a ship called the Astronaut - the first OED citation for this word. He finds the "Martialists" to be small but humanoid.
He was about four feet eight or nine inches in height, with legs that seemed short in proportion to the length and girth of the body, but only because, as was apparent on more careful scrutiny, the chest was proportionately both longer and wider than in our race; otherwise he greatly resembled the fairer families of the Aryan breed, the Swede or German. The yellow hair, unshaven beard, whiskers, and moustache were all close and short.
He subsequently marries a Martial woman, Eveena 1 but things go pear-shaped when he gets involved in a local power struggle, and fighting ensues. It's more or less a prototype for the "sword and planet" genre of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Barsoom" novels. Neverthless, it's also technological - some Martial technology is well ahead of Earth's - and has mystical aspects such as telepathy. There's an extended description in Free Energy Pioneer: John Worrell Keely by Theo Paijmans, which discusses the cross-talk between other works and ideas of the time. Greg's Martial culture is essentially feudal, a system adopted after a failed Communist revolution, and appallingly sexist
...The advocates of female equality made a very hard fight for equal culture; but the physical consequences were perfectly clear and perfectly intolerable. When a point was reached at which one half the girls of each generation were rendered invalids for life, and the other half protected only by a dense stupidity or volatile idleness which no school punishments could overcome, the Equalists were driven from one untenable point to another, and forced at last to demand a reduction of the masculine standard of education to the level of feminine capacities. Upon this ground they took their last stand, and were hopelessly beaten. The reaction was so complete that for the last two hundred and forty generations, the standard of female education has been lowered to that which by general confession ordinary female brains can stand without injury to the physique. The practical consequences of sexual equality have re-established in a more absolute form than ever the principle that the first purpose of female life is marriage and maternity; and that, for their own sakes as for the sake of each successive generation, women should be so trained as to be attractive wives and mothers of healthy children, all other considerations being subordinated to these. A certain small number of ladies avail themselves of the legal equality they still enjoy, and live in the world much as men. But we regard them as third-rate men in petticoats, hardly as women at all. Marriage with one of them is the last resource to which a man too idle or too foolish to earn his own living will betake himself. Whatever their education, our women have always found that such independence as they could earn by hard work was less satisfactory than the dependence, coupled with assured comfort and ease, which they enjoy as the consorts, playthings, or slaves of the other sex; and they are only too glad to barter their legal equality for the certainty of protection, indolence, and permanent support."
One might suspect Swiftean satire, but this is undoubtedly the author talking. The Suffolk-born Greg (1836-1889) was a talented journalist who wrote prolifically, but turned increasingly flaky and "rabidly conservative" towards the end of his life. As the ODNB says:
In his youth Greg became known as a secularist, in middle age as a spiritualist, and in his later years as a champion of feudalism and absolutism. His violent opposition to the Unionist side in the American Civil War was made public in his History of the United States to the Reconstruction of the Union (1887) and earned him the reputation of political hard-hitter on the Penny Press. His more eccentric political and religious convictions were forcefully urged in two collections of his essays ... as well as in imaginative novels
Contemporary British papers were quite laidback about his works - The Graphic's obituary called his History of the United States a "meritorious history" - but Burton J Hendrick's 1939 Statesman of the Lost Cause - Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet says that Greg's "hatred for America knew no bounds, and his History of the United States is one of the most violent polemics ever committed to paper". That hatred was specifically directed at the Union, which he viewed as intolerant Puritans ganging up on the aristocratic south (see Normans and Saxons: southern race mythology and the intellectual history of the American Civil War). His 1880 novel Errant: A Tale of Latter-Day Chivalry and the 1883 Sanguelac ground the same axe, and even Across the Zodiac starts with a framing story involving a rude Yankee contrasted with the brave and courteous ex-Confederate officer who found the space traveller's account at the Astronaut's crash site. (Funnily enough, Burroughs' John Carter of Mars was also a Confederate officer).

Among Greg's other novels, The Verge of Night (1885) featured an embattled hero in the form of a Conservative politician whose father and wife try to commit him to an asylum for his political views. Ivy: Cousin and Bride (1881) is the nearest he wrote to a non-polemical novel; while it does feature a Tory journal editor, it's largely a human interest novel about the consequences when a man is forced to marry his cousin for the sake of family honour. Two collections of essays, The Devil's Advocate (1878), and Without God: Negative Science and Natural Ethics (1883), also expressed Percy's reactionary views; the first was satirical dialogues dissing modern developments of his era (such as universal suffrage, female suffrage, the pace of life, the Union), the second targeted agnosticism.

Addendum According to the narrator, Eveena "might possibly have completed her tenth year". No paedophilia is involved: a Martian year being about 687 Earth days, this makes her nearly 19 Earth years in biological age. Nevertheless, the narrator's attitude to her is distinctly parent-child and rather creepy: constant flirtation about chastising her. I vaguely wondered about the similarity between Eveena/Weena; a quick Google finds others who consider an influence on HG Wells likely (see Science Fiction Studies, #3, Volume 1, No. 3, Spring 1974, the HG Wells and earlier SF section, as well as Google Books).

Addendum 2 (July 7, 2010) Upgraded from comments: Bill Higgins - aka Beamjockey - kindly sent me a link to his weblog mentioning that Percy Greg has had a Martian crater named after him: see Hot Martian News: Craters Named for George Pál & Percy Greg. Thanks! Bill's post links to a shory obituary of Greg in The Academy and Literature, Volume 37, 1890, which confirms Greg's career and beliefs:

Mr Percy Greg, who died on Christmas Eve, was a native of Manchester, where he was born in 1836. His father was Mr. William Rathbone Greg, the well-known writer on social and economical questions. Mr. Percy Greg devoted himself to literature and journalism; and, after serving ou the Manchester Guardian, removed to London, where he wrote leading articles for the Standard and other papers. Some of his earliest work appeared under the name of Lionel H. Holdreth. Two volumes, entitled Shadows of the Past and The Spirit of Inquiry, were radical in their tone, as to both theology and politics. The list of books published under his own name is lengthy: Interleaves in the Workday Prose of Twenty Years (1875), The Devil's Advocate (1878), Across the Zodiac (1880), Errant (1880), Ivy, Cousin and Bride (1881), Sanguelac (1883), Without God (1883), The Verge of Night (1885), The History of the United States (1887). Mr. Greg was to the last a fierce partisan of the South in the war of the Secession, and the "Lost Cause " had no advocate on the other side of the Atlantic so warm and so implacable. Perhaps his best book is Interleaves—a little volume of verse that is very little known. Here too the Southern Confederacy is heroically sung; but, apart from these mistaken efforts, it contains "The Martyr of Doubt," "The Martyr of Faith," " Why should the Atheist fear to Die ?" " Thy Kingdom come," and "Hallowed be thy Name." These pieces are expressive of widely different sentiments; but all are marked by strong poetic feeling. The two last-named have been included in the recent Hymnal edited by the Rev. John Hunter. - W. E. A. A.
- Ray


  1. Amazing the twisting coincidence

  2. "the twisting coincidence"

    Dr C, you've lost me there.

  3. I guess I meant more like a thread from Astor (and the significance of this name in American folklore is interesting in its own right) to Burroughs to even sword and planet, or rather, light saber and planet of Lucas. Greg, on the other hand, sounds like a prig. And that comes from Southerner.

  4. Ah, as in thread of allusional precedent (which - I just mentioned in an addendum - extends to HG Wells). Although I knew about the Titanic one, I wasn't aware of what a powerful dynasty the Astors were in the USA. In the UK, the highest-profile one was Nancy Lady Astor, a complete upper-class twit who got into politics through an astonishing piece of nepotism: her husband, the MP Waldorf Astor, came into his inherited title so became ineligible, so she got his job (purely on merit no doubt ...!)

    As to Greg, he made the jump from political affiliation to monomania: not a good sign when someone grinds the same axe in everything they write, even when it's completely irrelevant to the context.

  5. The modern alien navy not only has ships; it also has submarines.

  6. Sorry I am so late getting back; its been busy. I didn't realize that Waldorf Astor was a British Lord. The Waldorf Astoria Hotel figures prominently in the lore of mid century America. In addition to being a luxery hotel for the New York upper crust, it used to host dances for schools such as the ivy league and, my alma mater, Georgetown. These would be on weekends when the hotel wasn't too busy (Thanksgiving weekend being the most famous). One of us would rent a hotel room there and the rest of us would pile in, six to a room, exiting through the furnace room to avoid scrutiny by the liveried staff.

  7. Astronomers have just named a crater on Mars for Percy Greg. For details, see my article:

    I spotted (and enjoyed) your review while searching for information about him.