The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Across the Zodiac: The Story of a Wrecked Record, Deciphered, Translated, and Edited by P.G. (1880)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Across the Zodiac: The Story of a Wrecked Record, Deciphered, Translated, and Edited by P.G. was written by Percy Greg. Greg (1836-1889) was a British poet, novelist and historian who wrote widely in a number of genres. He is remembered today for Across the Zodiac, a significant early novel of space travel.

In Across the Zodiac the narrator's manuscript, which supposedly dates from around 1830, is found on an island somewhere in the Pacific. As a soldier and diplomat, the British narrator spent time in India where he discovered an anti-gravity force which he called “apergy.” Using apergy he builds a ship, the Astronaut, which is similar to an ordinary sailing ship from hull to masts, but it is built for traveling in space and is airtight and has chemicals to produce air and plants to purify the air. The narrator travels to Mars, experiencing weightlessness during the trip. On landing he discovers that it is inhabited by the “Martialists,” people of an older civilization. The narrator is taken in by Esmo, a local authority figure who prevents a mob of Martialists from killing the narrator. The narrator discovers that the Martialist civilization is a type of Victorian nightmare. Although the Martialists are more technologically advanced than humans, their society goes against what Greg and the Victorians hold dear. Universal suffrage led to atheistic communism and then into chaos. A scientific elite arose and imposed order on Mars by creating and forcing a rigidly materialistic cultural orthodoxy onto to the Martialists. The Martians now have electric lights and appliances, motion pictures, dictation machines, advanced sewage treatment plants, dirigibles, electric cars, and submarines. However, women are held as chattel and children are raised by the state, and their general philosophy is rationalism taken to an absurd degree, so that a refusal to accept the result of science is punishable. And since Martialist science does not admit the possibility of space travel, the narrator gets in trouble when he claims to have come from Earth. The narrator discovers through Esmo that there is a secret society, the Children of the Star, who are opposed to the Martialist doctrines and believe in biological families and raising their own children and who work toward the restoration of the ancient Martialist moral values. The narrator is summoned to the court of the Martialist Prince and positively impresses him, winning an estate and several more wives. The Prince tries to get the secret of apergy from the narrator, so that the Martialists can invade Earth, but the narrator refuses, despite an offer of the viceroyalty of Earth, and the Prince respects this decision. A traitor among the Children of the Star betrays them, and the narrator, Esmo, and several of the other members of the society flee to the narrator’s ship. They are attacked en route and Esmo are killed. A civil war ensues, and the Children of the Star win. The narrator then leaves for Earth.

Although not a particularly thrilling or even interesting read, Across the Zodiac has a number of notable elements. Greg created a detailed and credible Martian society and environment and even made up a language for them. John Clute and Brian Stableford label the Martian society a “Utopia,”1 and in that respect the amount of reasonable detail and logical extrapolation that Greg performed for the Martian society is not unusual; Utopian novels, after all, are practically required to describe their Utopias in extensive (not to say excruciating) detail. But Across the Zodiac is innovative in its wedding of the utopia with the nascent subgenre of flight-into-space science fiction. Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865, first American publication 1869) was "the first serious attempt at realism"in space travel, and brought Verne great renown on publication as well as a few imitators. But Greg combined (relative) realism with a utopia on other planet—and was the first American or English writer to do so. The French writer Achille Eyraud’s Voyage to Venus (original: Voyage à Vénus, 1865), published not long after Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, was the first science fictional work to combine realism with an extraplanetary utopia, but Eyraud’s work was never translated into English and was not an influence on Greg. Likewise, while Eyraud was the first writer to create a detailed and plausible extraplanetary alien civilization, Greg was the first writer to do so in English.

While one can’t call Greg’s version of space travel “realistic” or “plausible” due to its use of a made-up energy source providing anti-gravity, Greg’s treatment of travel through space is much more advanced and scientifically accurate than his contemporaries’, and bears comparison with Verne’s. Greg also makes logical scientific extrapolations, like the narrator’s comparative strength to the Martialists due to the lesser Martian gravity and the Martialists having no resistance to an Earth disease which the narrator carries with him to Mars. Although Greg did not introduce the former concept–it appeared in William S. Hayward’s Up in the Air and Down in the Sea in 1863--Across the Zodiac was more widely read than previous books which used the idea. Edgar Rice Burroughs, in his “John Carter of Mars” novels, may have taken the idea of humans having greater strength in Martian gravity from Across the Zodiac. Too, Greg’s idea of a terrestrial disease ravaging Martians may have influenced H.G. Wells in the writing of The War of the Worlds.

The concept of apergy, of an anti-gravity force being used for space travel, was an influential one in later science fiction. Some later writers used apergy itself, including John Jacob Astor, in A Journey in Other Worlds (1894), and Jack London, in “A Thousand Deaths” (1899). Greg was not the first to use the idea of anti-gravity; one earlier example is J.L. Riddell’s Orrin Lindsay’s Plan for Aerial Navigation (1847). But as with the idea of lessened-gravity-equals-greater-strength, Across the Zodiac was more widely read than previous books which used the idea.

Across the Zodiac is in some respects heavily influenced by Edward Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race. Apergy is similar to the “vril” force, and the Martialists’ utopian civilization is reminiscent of the Vril-ya’s society. The Children of the Star, a secret, advanced group within ordinary society, does not come from The Coming Race, however, but rather from other nineteenth century secret society novels featuring secret societies working among ordinary humans to advance the race. The obvious source for this concept are the nineteenth century novels about Rosicrucians and followers of Theosophy–a leading example of the latter is Joseph Alexandre Saint-Yves, Marquis d’Alveydre’s Mission to India from Europe, Mission to Europe from Asia–but secret society novels can be found among the Gothics, most interestingly in Heinrich Zschokke’s The Black Brotherhood (original: Die schwarzen Brüder, 1791-1795), a schauerroman (see: Gothic), which "ends with a vision of Europe in the 23rd century, its prosperity secured by the philanthropic Black Brothers,”3 a very benign secret society.

It’s a pity Across the Zodiac isn’t better written. Greg certainly had the intelligence, apparent education and research, and impulse to make a genuine classic work of Verne-contemporary science fiction. He just lacked the writerly talent to make it a reality.

Recommended Edition

Print: Percy Greg, Across the Zodiac. London: Forgotten Books, 2018.


1 John Clute and Brian Stableford, “Greg, Percy,” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, eds. John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls and Graham Sleight, accessed Feb. 11, 2019,

2 Brian Stableford and David R. Langford, “Space Flight,” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, eds. John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls and Graham Sleight, accessed Feb. 11, 2019,

3 Patrick Bridgwater, The German Gothic Novel in Anglo-German Perspective (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013), 465.

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