Tuesday, November 13, 2012

George Griffith (1857-1906)

Né George Chetwynd Griffith-Jones
Aka Levin Carnac and GG
Explorer, Teacher, Journalist, Author
Born August 20, 1857, Plymouth, England
Died June 4, 1906, Isle of Man?

Poor George Griffith. If it hadn't been for H.G. Wells (and Griffith's own native prejudice), his might be a household name today. In the nineteenth century, before science fiction came into existence as a coherent genre, Griffith wrote prolifically about future war, anticipating aerial warfare, missiles, radar, sonar, nuclear weapons, world dominance by multinational cartels, and the rise and fall of powerful states. Even after his work had been eclipsed by that of H.G. Wells, Griffith created imaginative tales of immortality, parallel worlds, lost worlds, spaceflight, multiple dimensions, and psychic powers. Unfortunately, he held the United States in disdain and his stories were not widely published in this country. Readers in Great Britain may know him still. In the United States, H.G. Wells is the author of nineteenth-century British science fiction. There's a lesson in that for writers everywhere: don't look down on your readers.

George Chetwynd Griffith-Jones (1) was born on August 20, 1857, in Plymouth, England. Son of a vicar, he worked various jobs until arriving on the staff of Pearson's Magazine as a clerk. He was by then in his thirties (presumably) and had written several minor works, but the story he proposed to the editor of the magazine was of an altogether different type. We should remember that the nineteenth century was an era of industrialization and mass movements. Those two developments were combined in tales of marvel created by Jules Verne (1828-1905) and in a new kind of tale, the future-war story, pioneered in The Battle of Dorking by George Chesney (1871). George Griffith's proposal was for the future-war story that would make his name. In short order, with Pearson's publication of The Angel of the Revolution (1893), Griffith rose from anonymous clerk to acclaimed author.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls George Griffith "one of the most influential sf writers of his time." Sam Moskowitz--apparently without a sense of irony--described him as "undeniably the most popular science fiction writer in England between 1893 and 1895." That's a very brief period indeed. Even after H.G. Wells (1866-1946) trumped Griffith's success with his own future-war novel, The War of the Worlds (1898), Griffith continued writing tales of nascent science fiction. His works before and after that date include: Olga Romanoff (a sequel to The Angel of the Revolution, 1894), The Outlaws of the Air (1895), Valdar the Oft-Born (1895), The Great Pirate Syndicate (1898), Honeymoon in Space (1900), The World Masters (1903), The Stolen Submarine (1904), and The Great Weather Syndicate (1906). The list could go on and on, for George Griffith was an amazingly prolific writer. Many of his novels were first serialized in Pearson's, then printed in hardback. Even after his death in 1906, his works continued to roll off the presses: The World Peril of 1910 (1907), The Destined Maid (1908), The Sacred Skull (1908), and The Lord of Labour (1911).

Griffith's influence on future developments is documented here and there. In his Weird Tales, Sam Moskowitz wrote:
George Griffith was the science fiction author H.G. Wells regarded as the personification of a popular success and whose influence Wells acknowledged within the context of his stories.
That's not an especially strong bit of evidence for Griffith's place in science fiction. Sam Lundwall offers a little more:
[T]he difference between Griffith's interplanetary novel [Honeymoon in Space] and the first American space opera classic, E.E. Smith's The Skylark of Space (1928), is mostly one of scale, and the numerous space opera tales following this novel are certainly much in debt to Griffith . . . .
As I have mentioned, the nineteenth century was one of mechanization and mass movements. Contemporary authors of a certain stripe prefer mechanization, demonstrating that, even today, more than a century after the death of a seldom-read author, his influence survives. To quote Wikipedia:
Griffith's epic fantasies of romantic communists in a future world of war, dominated by airship battle fleets, and grandiose engineering provided a template for steampunk novels a century before the term was coined.
Do we owe steampunk to George Griffith? If so, that's no small feat for him as a writer. (2) 

Before closing, I should add one more tidbit: Griffith's son, Allan Arnold Griffith (1893-1963), was one of the first men to develop the theoretical concept of the jet engine (in 1926). Born in the same year in which his father first wrote of fantastic ships of the air, Allan A. Griffith helped bring about his father's visions for the twentieth century. (3)

Notes
(1) Griffith's middle name is also sometimes spelled--I believe incorrectly--as Chetwyn.
(2) I'm not an expert on steampunk, but I'm pretty sure it has been stripped of any political content. Science fiction fans may have an imagination, but even they can't envision a world in which communism is somehow a functioning system. That goes beyond the Utopian and into the realm of the delusional.
(3) Eighteen ninety-three was also the year of the World's Columbian Exposition, commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America. Although that world's fair took place in Chicago, a place Griffith would have disliked as he disliked the rest of this country, demonstrations of electrical power and the debut of the Ferris wheel must have impressed forward-looking men like him. Also, Griffith and his compeers wrote primarily of airships rather than of airplanes. The books and magazines in which their stories appeared were illustrated. In other words, images of airships were on people's minds in the mid-1890s. It should come as no surprise that there would be sightings of supposedly real airships in 1896 and 1897 in the United States. The same phenomenon occurred half a century later with the first flying saucer sightings. For years prior to 1947, science fiction magazines had printed images of saucer-shaped spacecraft. Before they could be seen, flying saucers had to be imagined. Artists and writers did the imagining, just as they had done in the late 1800s.

George Griffith's Story in Weird Tales
"The Lost Elixir" (Summer 1974, originally in Pall Mall Magazine, Oct. 1903)

Further Reading
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nichols (1995)
Science Fiction: An Illustrated History by Sam Lundwall (1978)


Text and captions copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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