The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Log of the 'Flying Fish.' A Story of Aerial and Submarine Peril and Adventure (1887)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Log of the “Flying Fish.” A Story of Aerial and Submarine Peril and Adventure and its two sequels were written by “Harry Collingwood,” the pseudonym of William Joseph Cosens Lancaster (1851-1922). Lancaster was a prolific writer of British boys' fiction. He was also a civil engineer who specialized in harbor work, and much of his fiction reflects this.
Professor von Schalckenburg is a renowned German scientist. During a discussion at the Migrants' Club, a group of explorers and “wanderers upon the face of the earth,”1 Schalckenburg reveals that he is contemptuous of explorers who use lighter-than-air crafts, especially balloons, and states that only heavier-than-air ships will be capable of navigating the skies. In response to doubters he reveals that he his two most recent inventions will overcome the problems of heavier-than-air ships. Schalckenburg’s first invention is “æthereum,” a new, light metal. Æthereum looks like polished silver and is incredibly strong, “exactly one hundred dimes thad of the besd sdeel.”2 Schalckenburg’s second invention is a crystalline substance that when ground into a powder and mixed with a certain acid works as an explosive. When treated in other ways the substance becomes a source of gas and electricity. With these two inventions Schalckenburg could build a flying ship, except that he is £100,000 short of the required sum. Sir Reginald Elphinstone, a wealthy, square-jawed English adventurer type and a member of the Migrants' Club, instantly agrees and gives Schalckenburg the money. The professor designs his vessel, but attempts to build it using English labor fail, as English workmen are hopelessly lazy, given to strikes, and “despicable” besides, so the Professor imports workers from Germany to put together the aircraft.
The end result is the Flying Fish, a six hundred feet-long metal cylinder, sixty feet in diameter at its middle. The Flying Fish works by “creating a vacuum lift” and is submersible. It travels at 120 mph through the air and at 150 mph underwater, where it is propelled by a “powerful three cylinder pump.” The Flying Fish also has small launches that work like jets, although the ship is not capable of rocket speeds. The Flying Fish is armed with torpedoes, cannon, and six “magazine rifles invented by a Mr. Maxim, a friend of mine.”3 For underwater work Schalckenburg creates diving armor made of æthereum and armed with battery powered electrified daggers.
Schalckenburg, Elphinstone, and Elphinstone's two friends, Cyril Lethbridge, formerly of the Royal Engineers, and Lt. Edward Mildmay, R.N., take the Flying Fish on its maiden cruise. They travel over six miles into the atmosphere (the world record), and then take the Flying Fish into the sea and descend ninety-four fathoms, to the bottom of the Hurd Deep. While underwater the group salvages various naval wrecks, including one formerly captained by a friend of Schalckenburg. They fight off savage aquatic monsters (including a group of conger eels), rescue the crew of an ice-locked barque, discover the remains of a centuries-old Viking longboat and its crew, and discover a warm sea in the North Pole in whose center is an island stocked with wildlife. (The Vikings got to the island first, which greatly disappoints the crew of the Flying Fish). The crew finds a bed of diamonds on the island and harvests it, and then kills half the herd of mammoth living on the island.
After marking the exact spot of the North Pole the group returns to England and publicizes their trip. The Professor donates a mammoth hide to “an eminent taxidermist” and delivers a paper on “The Open Polar Sea” to the Royal Society. The group then takes the Flying Fish to Africa, where Schalckenburg attempts to locate unicorns and the site of King Solomon's Ophir. They eventually find Opir, meanwhile killing large numbers of animals and rescuing a group of Englishwomen from the marital attempts of a tribal king. The final trip of the Flying Fish is to Mount Everest, after which the group returns to England and the Migrants' Club and the Flying Fish is safely parked beneath the waves of the English Channel.
The Log of the “Flying Fish” is typical late-Victorian boys’ adventure material. Likely in conscious emulation of Verne and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Lancaster uses a great deal of space explaining how the ship works. Unfortunately, Lancaster models himself on Verne too well, and also copies Verne’s regrettable tendencies toward infodumps and shallow characterization. Schalckenburg is a less appealing and interesting character entirely from Nemo, and Lancaster lacks Verne’s genius at description and his ability to convey the wonder of travel. The Log of the “Flying Fish” has vast thickets of dense prose which the reader needs to hack through to reach the novel’s interesting bits, but they aren’t worth the effort. The reader is no doubt meant to share the preening and exultation of Schalckenburg and the others, but the novel and the characters lack verve and life. What was successful enough, over a century, to spawn two sequels is only tedious today.
Lancaster’s treatment of native Africans is neither more or less racist than most other similar works. The native king who the protagonists cow into submission is intelligent, but obese and cruel, and the natives themselves are childlike and lazy.
While The Log of the “Flying Fish” is not aesthetically notable or memorable in any way, its nature as a copy of both Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Robur the Conqueror give it a certain symbolic meaning that it otherwise would not have had. The Log of the “Flying Fish” was one in a series of narratives about the power of flight that British authors wrote in the last decades of the Victorian era and the first years of the Edwardian era. Unlike Verne, these British aerial authors “focused exclusively on the uses of airplanes as weapons of whites in the empire. The ‘moral effect’ of the air weapon once again played a prominent role in the colonial subordination of non-Europeans,”4 as in The Log of the “Flying Fish,” perhaps the first aerial narrative to feature an airship frightening a primitive group of African peoples. “Technological achievements such as the gunboat, the railway and the machine-gun had already contributed significantly to late nineteenth-century Imperial expansion, and so it was inevitable that imaginative writers would include the flying machine in their arsenal of wonder.”5 The “air-minded” British authors—and this was largely true of French and German authors as well—made fictional air power into an extension of the imperialist project, either explicitly or implicitly, as in The Log of the “Flying Fish.”
Print: Harry Collingwood, The Log of the “Flying Fish.” A Story of Aerial and Submarine Peril and Adventure. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2010.
1 Harry Collingwood, The Log of the “Flying Fish,” A Story of Aerial and Submarine Peril and Adventure (New York: Scribner and Welford, 1899), 9.
2 Collingwood, “Flying Fish,” 15.
3 Collingwood, “Flying Fish,” 47.
4 Michael Dale Collins, “Forging a Modern Empire of the Air: Race and Gender in Early British Aeronautics, 1908-1933” (PhD diss., University of California at Davis, 2014), 38.
5 Michael Paris, “Air Power and Imperial Defense, 1880-1919,” Journal of Contemporary History 24, no. 2 (Apr. 1989): 210.