03 December 2015

Early SF Tales from the Eaton Collection: A Woman against the World by George Griffith

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published 1903
Borrowed from the Eaton Collection
Read January 2015
A Woman against the World by George Griffith

The protagonist of this novel is a woman whose husband was wrongfully executed for murder because of some obscure point of English law raised by a corrupt lawyer. One imagines George Griffith reading about this happening in the newspapers-- it has a very "ripped from the headlines" feel about it-- and thinking to himself, Oh, this is really rather interesting. I'd like to write a novel about it. Maybe, once her husband his dead... she could revenge herself on society by bankrolling advanced military technology to be used in acts of international piracy by a shadowy cabal! Because, after Angel of the Revolution, Syren of the Skies, Outlaws of the Air, and The Great Pirate Syndicate, it's apparently the only plot he's capable of. I mean, I guess, who wouldn't decide to revenge themselves on ALL SOCIETY after something like this? Also, Griffith clearly has a type: aggressive, take-charge women with no respect for the law, pirate queens.

Lady Sybil is actually pretty aggressive. Despite her goal really just being to get revenge on those involved in the court case, she's willing to do anything at all to get there. Her rhetorical justification for piracy is that the only different between her and a military is a government; if a nation did what she was doing, it would be a war and thus okay, but since she's a private citizen, it's arbitrarily dubbed "terrorism." (I don't think the word "terrorism" is actually used in this book, though.) During one theft, Sybil pronounces, "We shall claim the spoils of war because they are necessary to our existence. Even civilised nations do that." Later, one of her lieutenants argues, "After all, we have as much right to make war on it as the big Powers have to make it on each other, if we like to take the consequences." Is this a sharp critique of the arbitrariness of state-sponsored violence, or does George Griffith just like stories about explosions? The more of him I read, I feel like the less I know.

In her pursuit of revenge, she actually ends up creating a little utopian society, as she needs a port of call to support her fleet of superfast warships, and it in turn needs a whole infrastructure. We're told the folks living on it have it much better than in the World:
There was another very striking feature of the quaint island life which was not without its effects on the after-lives of the exiles. There was no business to be done and no money to be made. All Society conventions naturally and automatically ceased to exist. The social atmosphere was so pure it killed them. Wherefore it was not long before Lady Sybil’s guests and prisoners found themselves, somewhat to their surprise at first, acting and speaking with one another in perfect candour and honesty. Not even Mr. Merrick [a millionaire she's captured] could get the better of anyone in a deal, for there were no deals to make, and the white lies of Society had lost their usefulness. It was a curious sensation at first—speaking the absolute unguarded truth yourself and being able to believe all that was said to you—but they soon got accustomed to it.
The millionaire even learns to do actual work!

Eventually Lady Sybil hangs the real murderer, turns herself into the authorities, and commits suicide-- her men on their ship die before they can surrender, but her island civilization carries on. Her admiral is actually really bloodthirsty (he's Irish), but again, I'm not quite sure what to make of it. Is his bloodthirst admirable or condemned? Or maybe it just is what it is, and he's no different than all the real admirals out there, except that he's honest about his desires.

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