Empire of Earth
Victorian and Edwardian Military SF
Hi. I’m Marcus Rowland, and for those of you who haven’t suffered through one of my talks before, I publish a role playing game called Forgotten Futures which is based on Victorian and Edwardian fantasy and science fiction. By the way, that’s technically a lie because the term science fiction didn’t actually exist until considerably later, most scholars prefer “scientific romances,” but I digress. I tend to read a lot of the stuff, whatever you call it, and today I’m going to look at a particular subset of these stories – early military SF.
Getting back to SF, the simple form of these stories usually involved a mad scientist or anarchist who invented a new weapon and used it to terrorize the world, or impose his will on it. Verne pioneered the field with The Clipper of the Clouds and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, with dozens of imitators. Usually the weapon was some sort of flying machine, used to bomb the rest of the world into submission.
At this point we have predecessors of most of the ingredients of the modern military SF novel, in one form or another. Before the end of the century Wells added antigravity, in The First Men in the Moon, and there were soon stories in which brave explorers from Earth visited new worlds and new civilizations, and killed the bally natives with their trusty Maxim guns.
The pictures here are from George Griffith’s 1900 story World of the War God, part of A Honeymoon in Space, in which the hero and heroine and their trusty servant, the first human visitors to Mars, first ram and destroy an entire Martian fleet which appears to have done them no harm, then wipe out an angry Martian mob who for some reason are a little upset about this, and finally murder the Martian ruler because he looks at the heroine with lustful eyes - British diplomacy at its finest!
You’ve probably never read the novel that actually put all the pieces together and seems to be the first to depict a war that’s actually waged in space; it’s very obscure, and disappeared for nearly a century after publication. It’s The Struggle for Empire: A Story of the Year 2236 by Robert William Cole, about whom virtually nothing is known. He wrote three books which were published by small presses around the turn of the century, and The Struggle is the only one to survive. It’s currently only available in a very expensive facsimile edition published in the nineties, but next year I should be putting the full text on line as a free download as part of the next release of my role playing game. It wasn’t illustrated.
The premise is simple; Earth’s Anglo-Saxon Empire and the Sirian planet Kaiet have both developed space travel and technology that includes antigravity, interstellar travel, force fields, and death rays. They dominate colonial empires, which come into conflict as a result of human and Sirian greed. Eventually the Sirians deliver an ultimatum, setting a date for the commencement of war, and the Empire prepares for battle:
At last, when the month came to an end, a vast fleet was assembled at a short distance from London, ready to dash into space and annihilate the foes of the Anglo-Saxon race. There were in all nearly 300 huge first-class battleships, 800 of the second class, 1,600 third, and 500 swift ships to act as cruisers, besides numerous transports filled with soldiers, and a countless host of small craft that performed the same functions as the torpedo-boats of the old days of war on the sea.
The whole of the armament was divided into ten divisions, each commanded by an admiral who was, in his turn, with certain limitations, under the orders of the Admiral-in-Chief who commanded the whole. The divisions were further subdivided, and each subdivision was under a sub-admiral, so that the movements of the fleet could be controlled better. Nearly 2,000 vessels were ready to join the fleet at Neptune, and then the combined fleets were to dash into space and seek their foes.
I should make it clear that I’m not claiming that this book is a lost masterpiece of SF; in many respects it isn’t particularly well-written, and it was published by what may have been a vanity press and soon disappeared without a trace. I do think that it’s an interesting book and well ahead of its time. Most importantly, it shows that most of the elements of modern military SF, at least as applied to space warfare, were already in play much earlier than we might imagine.