Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Percy Greg update

Further to last year's Early spaceships: JJ Astor and Percy Greg (a post on some rather eccentric early SF set on Mars), 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 short obituary of Greg in The Academy and Literature, Volume 37, 1890, which summarises 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.
So, if you missed it, do check out Early spaceships: JJ Astor and Percy Greg for more details on Greg's only SF novel, Across the Zodiac, of which a number of editions are online at the Internet Archive. A precursor to the "sword and planet" genre, it tells via the device of a purported found manuscript the spaceship journey to Mars of an unnamed narrator ("the Innominate") and his time among the "Martialists" there. The Martialist society is strange: a secular scientific culture far advanced in technology yet essentially feudal, and sexist even by late-Victorian standards (on Mars, women are not considered worth educating).

It's unsurprising that the few contemporary reviewers thought it weird. The Pall Mall Gazette (January 20, 1880) guardedly made no critical comment whatsoever, just giving an extended description of the plot and concluding
There is reason to suppose that Mr. Greg and his Innominate believe themselves to have been dipping far into the future, and to have seen "a vision of the world and all the wonders that shall be." This question the readers—and they should have many—must settle for themselves.
The Morning Post (January 27, 1880) was far less guarded.

This is a book written manifestly in imitation of Jules Verne's celebrated stories, and as an imitation it is decidedly successful, but it certainly lacks originality, the the humour which makes up "Un Voyage a la Lune" &c, so amusing is totally absent. Perhaps the most successful original work of this class of late years was Bulwer's "Coming Race," because, under the guise of fairy tale, there was also a thin and steely vein of satire, and the descriptions throughout were remarkably poetical and beautiful. Mr. Greg's "Across the Zodiac" seems wanting in purpose, and three volumes of fabulous adventure would need the pen of a Swift to render them interesting and readable. Still it would be unjust not to accord a fair meed of praise to this venture on the part of a clever man to inculcate his peculiar views and doctrines under the guise of a fiction, as said before, of the Verne class. As usual with writers of this kind of book, the author starts by declaring that he did not write it, but that it is the result of his clever talent at deciphering hieroglyphics. He finds a MS., and this description of a trip across the Zodiac is the result. The style in which the book is written is rather flowing and graceful than otherwise, and not a few of the descriptive passages are not deficient in poetical beauty. The main defect, however, is that there is too much of it—it is too long and spun out. We cannot feel interested beyond a very limited extent by accounts of fabulous places and scenes, so that more often than not books like "Across the Zodiac" resemble the man who tried to sit down between two stools—they come to grief. Too long and marvellous to interest grown-up people, they fail because they are, on the other hands, too learned to amuse children, who, in the present instance especially, are not likely to be amused by innumerable passages on the relationship that exists between the sexes in the Zodiac. Under a thin disguise Mr. Greg entertains his readers through not one but many chapters on his peculiar views concerning the proper intercourse which should be maintained between the fair and the sterner sex, the laws of marriage, and the education of children. After all, it is best perhaps to say your say boldly, and to express your serious opinions in the form of serious essays on social subjects, and not to have recourse to the somewhat played-out artifice of allegory. It is not given to every man to be a Dean Swift or a Bulwer, and Mr. Greg will do well in future to bear that fact in mind.
Greg is an interesting but odd character, an author who swung from youthful atheism and idealism to religiosity and ultra-Toryism, as well as being - at least in later life - something of a fantasist with a rabid hostility toward the winning Union in the American Civil War. The short obituary in the literary news section of The Star (Christchurch, New Zealand, 3rd March 1890) says that his best novels
... were laid in the South during this struggle, and the principal battles 'twixt Northerners and Confederates are most vividly and realistically described in "Errant" and "Sanguelac". Both of these stories are indeed admirable specimens of military romances. One imagined them written by a daring adventurous soldier, who had been through the war himself. As a matter of fact, Mr Greg was a pale, emaciated invalid who had never even crossed the Atlantic.
Addendum (upgraded from comments) Bill Higgins sent a further excellent link to a lovely image from Life magazine (see Picasa and the original in Google Books) of Boris Artzybasheff's 1956 painting of literary inhabitants of Mars. I have to admit I'm a literary philistine on this topic; I only recognised HG Wells' War of the Worlds Martians (and that from the graphic novel League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 2 rather than the Wells description). See the next post for more about the artist.

- Ray


  1. Thanks for posting more information on Greg.

    I just realized that Boris Artzybasheff included Greg's Martials in his 1956 painting showing literary inhabitants of Mars:

    I've added this illustration to my own blog entry.

  2. Edward Said would have had a field day with this. I.e., the implicit idea that what was unknown and exotic, was "oriental," i.e. Arabic.

  3. Also, Mars being desert - and deducibly so, even in Victorian times - it very easily accepts transplants of known desert cultures; and right in the middle of the orientalism vogue, a vaguely Arabic one no doubt sprang readily to mind to Greg. Dune could well be read as a superior example of the genre: Lawrence of Arabia transported to a Mars-like planet.

  4. Dune is interesting in many ways, not the least of which is the gigantic rip off known as Star Wars. I haven't read books 2 and 3. I hear they are awful

  5. I hear they are awful

    I've read them, and agree. Herbert claimed he planned the trilogy from the start, but I don't believe it: resurrecting dead characters by various handwaving mechanisms (cloning, possession) stinks of sequelitis.