The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Outlaws of the Air (1894-1895)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Outlaws of the Air was written by “George Griffith” and first appeared as a serial in Short Stories (Sept. 8, 1894-Mar. 23, 1895). “George Griffith” was the pseudonym of George Chetwynd Griffith Jones (1857-1906), a British journalist and prolific writer of adventure fiction, historical novels, and science fiction. Although not a good writer, he was extremely popular—for a time he was more popular and successful than H.G. Wells, who thought little of Griffith—and embodied many of the worst aspects of the imperial British world-view.
In The Outlaws of the Air Sir Henry Maxim, historically the inventor of the Maxim machine gun, is a member of the Utopians, a secret society centered in London. The Utopians are left a legacy to continue their work, which is ultimately to change the world through a peaceful revolution. Among their plans is to relocate their headquarters to a South Seas island and create a society based entirely on laissez-faire capitalism. Part of the legacy is the design for a special aircraft, powered by a solid-fuel-based rocket. The Utopians build the plane, but a splinter group within the society, led by the black-hearted rogue Max Renault, steals the aircraft. Renault's group are anarchists (called, appropriately enough, The Anarchists), and their goal is the violent overthrow of the established world governments. The Anarchists use modern technology toward this end. Working with Renault is the evil genius, engineer and scientist Franz Hartof, who has built a new type of airship. Using their new ship and a fleet of aircraft based on the Utopian design the Anarchists carry out a number of ruthless bombing raids. Renault is captured and about to be executed when he is rescued by the Anarchists. The Anarchists focus their efforts on London, and using a new type of powerful high explosive, they destroy most of the city, including the Parliament, Scotland Yard, the Bank of England, and the Tower of London. The French and the Russians, believing that the Anarchists will spread to the Continent, declare war on England.
The English government sets up an Aerial Navigation Syndicate, headed by Maxim. He helps design a new aircraft, one superior to the plane whose design was stolen by the Anarchists. This new plane is built with horizontal propellers, similar to a helicopter’s, and is armed with cannon and machine guns. Maxim's plane is better than the Anarchists', and in a one-on-three dogfight Maxim shoots one down and captures a second. After the requisite battles and adventures the Anarchists begin to fall out. Renault is handed over to the British by the other Anarchists and commits suicide, and most of the other Anarchist leaders are killed by the British, French and Russians. Maxim and the Aerial Navigation Syndicate bombard Paris and destroy the Tsar's air fleet of aerostat war balloons and the naval forces of both the British and the French and Prussians and forces a peace treaty on both countries. The Utopians, now masters of the air and sea, institute world peace and found Oceania, a utopian country somewhere in the South Pacific.
The Outlaws of the Air is essentially George Griffith’s attempt at duplicating the success he had with The Angel of the Revolution. The Outlaws of the Air has Angel’s same combination of anarchist fiction and dystopic Future War. But Outlaws is markedly less successful than Angel, lacking the breadth of concept and imagination which Griffith infuses into Angel. Too, Outlaws seems to view both the Utopians and the Anarchists with some cynicism, while Angel’s siding with Terror feels more honest on Griffith’s part. The utopian ending of Outlaws anticipates H.G. Wells’ later novels in showing airpower as delivering a “coup de grâce to...an already sick liberal democratic order, as a prelude to the rebuilding of his ideal world state along technocratic and socialist lines.”1
Sir Hiram Maxim (1840-1916) was an American inventor. In 1884 Maxim invented the Maxim automatic machine gun, which was adopted for use by the British army in 1889. It was perhaps the single greatest advantage that the British army had over its indigenous opponents in Afghanistan, India, the Sudan, and South Africa, and was nicknamed “the devil’s paintbrush”2 and inspired the Hillaire Belloc lines, “Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim gun and they have not.”3 Maxim also invented a steam-powered airplane that actually took flight for a short time. Griffith so admired Maxim that Griffith named the hero of The Outlaws of the Air after Maxim and dedicated the book to him.
Outlaws of the Air is not, in and of itself, of much interest. Like most attempts at duplicating an earlier success, it is best skipped in favor of the original. But Outlaws is a useful example of the wave of apocalyptic fiction which appeared in the United States and the United Kingdom after 1885:4
Overwhelmingly it was a literature written and consumed by the anxiety-ridden urban middle classes. It depicted the nightmare side of rampant Social Darwinism. Growing fear of violent social revolution and the “rising tide of color” was matched by increasing anxiety over the inevitability of world war between the imperialist powers. Microbes, radioactivity, poison gases, and flying machines provided new means of mass destruction, while Schiaparelli and Lowell’s “discovery” of canals on Mars gave temporary plausibility to an extraterrestrial threat. The result...was a proliferation of doom fiction that established virtually all the genre conventions still in use today.5
There was a tradition of apocalyptic literature in English language fiction going back to the destruction of Lisbon in 1755 from a combination of earthquake and fire, a tradition later given substantial life by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grandeville’s Le dernier homme (1805), Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), and especially Bulwer Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). This tradition was in abeyance in England and America from roughly 1850 to 1880,6 but returned with a vengeance in the 1880s, after the publication of Richard Jefferies’ After London, or Wild England (1885), and by the 1890s apocalyptic fiction was in vogue, as seen in The Angel of the Revolution and Outlaws of the Air.
Print: George Chetwynd Griffith, The Outlaws of the Air. Cirencester, UK: Echo Library, 2006.
1 Brett Holman, The Next War in the Air: Britain’s Fear of the Bomber, 1908-1941 (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014), 35.
2 Steven A. Grasse, The Evil Empire: 101 Ways That England Ruined the World (San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2007), 97.
3 Hillaire Belloc, The Modern Traveller (London: Edwin Arnold, 1898), 41.
4 See Roberta Scott and Jon Thiem, “Catastrophe Fiction, 1870-1914: An Annotated Bibliography of Selected Works in English,” Extrapolation 24, no. 2 (Summer, 1983): 156-169, for a starter’s list of English-language apocalyptic novels of the pre-WW1 years.
5 Mike Davis, “Golden Ruins/Dark Raptures: The Literary Destruction of Los Angeles,” in Teresa Stojkov, ed., Critical Views: Essays on the Humanities and the Arts (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011), 88.
6 Davis, “Golden Ruins/Dark Raptures,” 86.