12 November 2015

Early SF Tales from the Eaton Collection: The Great Pirate Syndicate by George Griffith

Hardcover, 302 pages
Published 1899
Borrowed from the Eaton Collection
Read January 2015
The Great Pirate Syndicate by George Griffith

Something I've quickly learned in reading novels by George Griffith, is that he's one of those authors who, having got hold of a good idea,* thinks that if worked for one book, there's no reason it won't work for a dozen more. This is basically just like his Angel of the Revolution, Syren of the Skies, or Outlaws of the Air, except that instead of being a band of anarchists, the heroes are a band of capitalists! I don’t know what happened to Griffith’s politics—or if it was just a public backlash—but after two early novels that depict socialists/anarchists very sympathetically, all of his later books seem to go out of their way to demonize them. They use a couple anarchists, but only as tools; they are villainized or mocked. It's a bizarrely far cry from the noble, faultless anarchists of Angel.

Basically, the capitalist cabal decides that Britain isn’t any good at protecting her own interests, so they’ll do it for her. No air-ships in this one, but they do have super-fast ships and a very devastating aerial torpedo and a weapon that polarizes metal. Their actions are justified as being “business”, and sometimes we’re even told their enemies bring it on themselves! As a business, the cabal declares war on continental Europe. Their President: “Nearly all wars have been waged from motives of pure greed, and therefore, taking no higher ground than this, and granted that we are merely going to war to get back for this country what it has lost, either through competition abroad or laziness and stupidity at home, I don’t think that, morally speaking, there will be any more real piracy in our warfare than in anybody else’s. In war I take it that the end must justify the means.” Of course, what belongs to “this country” is a bunch of imperial possessions that were stolen by Britain to begin with, but whatever.

Griffith (here and elsewhere) actually evinces an interesting attitude to the violence of war. As the above quote shows, his heroes never really take the moral high ground, or tangle themselves in knots trying to explain why it's okay to bomb civilians: they basically just go, 'Well, everyone else does it, so why shouldn't we?' Two key exchanges along these lines, the first when they make a French captain watch his ship be obliterated by overwhelming force:
“That is not war. It is murder, assassination!” the French captain had cried when he saw his ship go down.
“All war is that, more or less, m’sieu’.”
And then later, the same guy:
“But m’sieu’, this is not war!” exclaimed the Frenchman.
“No,” replied Philip. “It is not. It is only business.”
Business justifies all, just as reform justified all in Griffith's earlier works.

The conspirators end up blockading Europe until economic collapse forces it to capitulate. They demand that no European nation can make war or have a military or have colonies, and that the Anglo-Saxon Federation controls all trade. No matter what political side he takes, Griffith's racial preferences are clear.

* And it is a very good idea; I think you can argue that as much as Frankenstein and The Battle of Dorking and Robur the Conquerer and The Coming Race are all important works of proto-sf, Angel of the Revolution is where the genre really comes into existence.

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