The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Blake of the "Rattlesnake," or The Man Who Saved England. A Story of Torpedo Warfare in 189- (1895) 

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Blake of the “Rattlesnake,” or the Man Who Saved England. A Story of Torpedo Warfare in 189- (1895). Blake of the “Rattlesnake,” or the Man Who Saved England. A Story of Torpedo Warfare in 189- was written by Fred T. Jane (1865-1916), an unusual man. He wrote a number of novels and stories, many of which were science fiction. He was a commercial artist of some note (see: Hartmann the Anarchist). He was also of great help to the British security service MI5 in the years just before WW1. His interest in warships led to the 1898 publication of his Jane's All the World's Fighting Ships, which was the first of the famous Jane’s series of books on military ships and planes.

Blake of the “Rattlesnake” is set in the 1890s. Political friction between Great Britain and France and Russia have led to a war between the two sides. Blake begins as a naval officer. His torpedo boat is sunk, but he and his men manage to capture a French torpedo boat. Blake is then placed in command of the Rattlesnake, a “torpedo-catcher” which commands three other torpedo boats. With his small fleet Blake attacks a wing of French ships and sinks a much larger French cruiser. Blake is then put in charge of a British pressgang whose job is to forcibly recruit English citizens to join the military. He does not like doing this, and it is a cause of conflict between him and his fiancée, but he does his duty. He takes part in a raid in Cherbourg but is wounded and the Rattlesnake sunk. When Blake recovers he is given command of a destroyer, also called the Rattlesnake, and is a part of a British naval raid on the port of Kronstadt, but the raid goes awry, as French and Russian battleships trap the British forces in the harbor. The Rattlesnake is one of the few ships to escape. Blake makes his way to the Scottish island of Arran and declares martial law. He mines the harbor and makes the island into a secret base where the British Navy can reassemble. When his work is complete he leads the new Navy to the Solent, where they crush the combined French and Russian fleets. Blake dies in this final battle, sailing a dynamite-packed ship into the heart of the enemy fleet and blowing up his ship, himself, and the enemy ships.

As John Clute, Peter Nicholls, and John Grant accurately note, “Overall Jane’s fiction, though crude, conveys a genuine speculative impact.”1 This is an apposite judgment of Jane in macro (his fiction as a whole) and in micro (regarding Blake of the “Rattlesnake”). In the mid-1890s, when war with France and Russia seemed a reality (see: Future War), Blake of the “Rattlesnake” was a timely and topical work whose substantial stylistic and narrative shortcomings were overlooked. But in the twenty-first century Blake of the “Rattlesnake” is a historical curiosity more than a work addressing one of the vital issues confronting England.2 

That being said, however, there is no small amount of intelligent speculation and forecasting in Blake of the “Rattlesnake,” regarding how a war between Great Britain and France and Russia might play out, how it could be won by Great Britain, and what futuristic technology might be used in a near-future war. In the case of Blake of the “Rattlesnake,” that technology is the torpedo powered by compressed air, a recent (1870) innovation whose application in war was thought to be a revolutionary one.3 

Blake of the “Rattlesnake” deviates from the narrative mode of the major Future War novels. The first Future War story, George Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking” takes a narrative approach which can later be seen in novels as varied as War of the Worlds, Douglas Blackburn’s Kruger’s Secret Service, and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951). Each of these novels takes a particularly English approach to fictional apocalyptic events and war, with a focus on mundane details and a shift away from simplistic macho heroics. Even novels like M.P. Shiel’s The Yellow Danger, which have a basic adventure story narrative structure, do not place the protagonist as the prime mover of events. Blake of the “Rattlesnake” takes a different tack and adds the trappings of the Future War genre on to a story paper, Boy’s Own plot. Blake of the “Rattlesnake” was not alone in this approach: the flood of Future Naval War novels in the 1890s, “an effect of the interest in many new types of warship and of the increasing tension between the United Kingdom and France, the only comparable naval power at that time,”4 all featured traditionally heroic protagonists working through traditional action/adventure novel structures. But such novels were a fraction of the overall Future War genre.

Likewise, the politics of Blake of the “Rattlesnake” are a departure from the most of its Future War predecessors. While the Future War genre is inherently conservative and alarmist, most Future War authors stress a more populist form of conservatism. Jane, who was himself conservative, presents a more elitist, authoritarian conservatism. Blake, Jane’s idealized stand-in, is opposed not just to capitalism, bankers, and the businessmen of the City of London–all traditional populist targets–but also to the English workers themselves. Blake dislikes the idea of impressing British citizens into military service but does so anyhow, much to their displeasure, since their obligations to the Crown outweigh their civil rights. And when the coal miners of Arran go on strike and deprive the British Navy of coal, Blake wishes aloud that he could shell the miners. Previous Future War novels were designed to stir widespread public sentiment. Blake of the “Rattlesnake” was aimed at a specifically middle-class audience and played on the prejudices of its intended audience.

The final word on Blake of the “Rattlesnake” goes to Everett F. Bleiler: “As fiction less interesting than many other imaginary war stories.”5 

Recommended Edition

Print: Fred T. Jane, Blake of the Rattlesnake. London: British Library, 2010.



1 John Clute, Peter Nicholls, and John Grant, “Jane, Fred T.,” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, accessed Feb. 11, 2019,

2 Possibly a novel about England militarily confronting France and Russia will become relevant again, depending on how Brexit plays out.

3 Bleiler, Science Fiction: The Early Years, 390.

4 I.F. Clarke, “Future-War Fiction: The First Main Phase, 1871-1900,” in Arthur B. Evans, ed., Vintage Visions: Essays on Early Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2014), 121.

5 Bleiler, Science Fiction: The Early Years, 390.


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