The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"A Visit to the Moon" (1900)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“A Visit to the Moon” was written by “George Griffith” and first appeared in Pearson’s Magazine (January-June 1900). “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. He was extremely popular—for a time he was more popular and successful than H.G. Wells, who thought little of Griffith—but he was not a good writer and he embodied many of the worst aspects of the imperial British world-view. “A Visit to the Moon” has substantial Victorian science fictional content but is marred by Griffith’s moral shortcomings.
Rollo Aubrey is a wealthy British adventurer who meets the famous Professor Hartley Rennick and his daughter Lilla while on holiday in the Canadian Rockies. Rennick is renowned as a “Demonstrator in Physical Science in the Smith Oliver University in New York.” He believes that “everything in Nature has its opposite” and that the “forces of Nature” can be split into their “positive and negative elements.” Aubrey is taken with the Professor's ideas and with the “mental and physical charms” of Lilla and so becomes Rennick's partner. Aubrey contributes money and a few sound ideas and thus Rennick is able to divide the “Universal Force of Gravity” into “its elements of attraction and repulsion.” Aubrey and Rennick build the Astronef, a ship made capable of traveling through space by Rennick’s machines which control the “R Force,” the “Repulsive or anti-Gravitational Force.” The Astronef is fully automated and can be flown by only two people or on auto pilot. The ship is stocked with liquid oxygen and air purifiers, and armed with several light machine guns and four pneumatic guns filled with two kinds of shells, one a solid explosive and one a flammable liquid that burns in vacuum.
The Professor dies from complications following a bout of influenza, and Aubrey is left in control of the Astronef. He flies it to New York City, causing a worldwide stir. He and marries Lilla, and then couple sets off to explore the solar system, traveling at 20,000 miles per hour. With Murgatroyd, their Scottish engineer, they find different environments on each of the planets. The moon has monsters, skeletons, and a pyramid, but what civilization flourished there is long-dead and in ruins. Mars has a civilization of nine-feet-tall, English-speaking humanoids who pilot Vernean flying ships (see: Robur the Conqueror). But they are decadent and warlike and attack Aubrey and Lilla. Later one of the Martians tries to rape Lilla, but she kills him in self-defense. Lilla and Aubrey leave Mars for Venus, which has a breathable atmosphere, a lovely, wooded, mountainous landscape, and winged, singing, long-haired humanoids who seem to be sinless. Lilla and Aubrey leave Venus for fear of being "a couple of plague spots in a sinless world like this." On the moons of Jupiter Lilla and Aubrey find well ordered cities under glass and crystal domes. The natives are technologically and culturally advanced; in Aubrey’s words, "they had learnt the lesson that sin is mere foolishness, and that no really sensible or properly educated man or woman thinks crime worth committing.” Saturn is the most dangerous of the planets: the seas are full of vicious double headed monsters, dull, winged creatures fly through the skies, the land is inhabited by eight hundred feet tall trees and giant gorillas. After an exciting and danger-filled trip Lilla and Aubrey return home.
In summary “A Visit to the Moon” sounds like a good Boy’s Own space adventure story. Unfortunately, Griffith intended the story for an adult audience and included ideological subtexts which the modern reader is likely to find distasteful. Lilla is an upper-class prig, humorless and unlikable, and Aubrey–Griffith’s mouthpiece–is completely convinced of the superiority of British, Christian civilization. (The moment on Venus is a surprising, welcome, and unfortunately isolated moment of humility on the part of Lilla and Aubrey). Among the recurring messages of “A Visit to the Moon” are the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race and of Britain and the propriety of the Victorian class system--Aubrey’s treatment of his servant Murgatroyd is particularly unpleasant. Surprisingly, there is also a fin-de-siècle unease and pessimism, with the other worlds, excepting Venus, aging and dying, being arenas for brutal contests of Darwinian racial conquest and elimination.
Of course, these very aspects–the combination of fin-de-siècle unease, the propagandistic display of imperial British values, and the proto-space opera of the story’s plot–make “A Visit to the Moon” critically interesting. The nineteenth century’s trend of having superior aliens flaunt their superiority in front of inferior humanity (see: A Voice From Another World, The Professor’s Last Experiment) is missing here. “A Visit to the Moon,” a product of the new century, is–like its American cousin, Edison’s Conquest of Mars–unwilling to allow its patriotic human subjects to be subjugated to aliens; even the sinless Venusians are, in John Eggeling and John Clute’s words, “feeble."1 “A Visit to the Moon” prefigures the humans-versus-aliens of twentieth century space opera.
The story has also proved significantly influential on the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries science fictional subgenre of steampunk fiction. In steampunk—which after 2008 became an international combination of literature, music, lifestyle, and fashion2--a recurring trope which has been used often enough to become a cliché is the British soldier fighting the heathen aliens. This cliché shows up in works ranging from Marcus Rowland’s tabletop roleplaying game Forgotten Futures (1993) to Ian Edginton and D’Israeli’s graphic novel Scarlet Traces (2002). In steampunk cosplay (fans dressing up as characters from a text or genre), British colonial officers are common, even and especially those with science fictional weapons. “A Visit to the Moon” can be said to be the source of this trope/cliché.
The stylistic and narrative clichés of “A Visit to the Moon,” its nearly absent characterization, and its jingoism and snobbery leave a final impression on the modern reader of a combination of tedium and mild disgust.
Print: Mike Ashley, ed. Moonrise: The Golden Age of Lunar Adventures (London: British Library, 2018).
1 John Eggeling and John Clute, “Griffith, George,” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, eds. John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls and Graham Sleight, accessed Feb. 11, 2019, http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/griffith_george
2 Jess Nevins, “Fruitful Offspring: Steampunk,” in Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, eds. Graham J. Murphy, Anna MacFarlane, and Lars Schmeink (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020), 261.