The Inheritors - Joseph Conrad & Ford Madox Ford - public domain
I have a huge D'oh! factor going on with this book. The realization that Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford had teamed up for a sort of proto-science fiction novel "in the mode of their friend H.G. Wells" hit me just recently, when I saw a brief article about it in the Guardian. I'm a fan of both writers, but especially Conrad, of whom I made a special study years ago while a student at Beaudacious Bard College, so it is to my shame that I learned of The Inheritors this way, but so it is.
And then, I blushed even harder to realize that I already had it on my Kindle, as part, duh, of the Complete Works of Joseph Conrad, a large file there comprising exactly what the name suggests. Some wee, twee little part of my brain had it marked as "to read one of these days" but when I realized what it was, well, here it is, January 2011 and it's my sixth book for the big challenge.
Calling The Inheritors (full title: The Inheritors: An Extravagant Fantasy) a science fiction novel is maybe a bit of a stretch, though. While a kind of time travel is a factor in the intricate plotting at work in the novel, you shall find no slightly mad inventors at work on fancy Georgian gadgetry here. Rather, the mysterious woman at the center of a the plots nefarious machinations is an "inhabitant of the Fourth Dimension," visiting our hapless narrator's time along with two compatriots whose mission is to undermine and ultimately undo the British Empire in order to bring about their own world, the world they shall inherit.
They have a round-about way of achieving this goal, by means of promoting and then destroying a mad colonial scheme to build a railway across Greenland and thus civilize the island and make it a British protectorate. If the scheme works, it will bring about an international financial crisis, ruin the political careers of several prominent men and yes, leave the Empire in tatters.
Nor is their means to this end any more straightforward; in a very modern and premonitory fashion, it is through the power of the press, first really coming into its own as an engine of political change in Conrad's time, that all this is to happen. And how to manipulate the press? By manipulating one vain, snobbish, dissatisfied man: our narrator.
Arthur Granger is immediately fascinated with the lovely woman with the preposterous story, and is soon so completely smitten with her that he is powerless to contradict her when she starts boldly to assert that she is Granger's sister, an act of impersonation (of a non-existent person) she achieves so perfectly that even people who have long known his family claim to remember her as a tiny tot, to have brought her presents from abroad, to have found her the spitting image of Granger's mother.
I, too, find this "Miss Granger" (she is given no other name in the story) to be the most intriguing part of the tale. Were a whole novel devoted to Irene Adler, Sherlock Holmes sort-of love interest and sort-of foe, it might be this one. She no more than bats her eyes and the protagonist is dumbfounded and completely incapable of exposing her deception; her victims walk willingly into her traps and she moves merrily along to marry one of her co-Dimensionalists despite her earnest protests that it's really Arthur she loves. Which Arthur, of course, falls for -- and this is even after the extent of what she has done, the harm she has caused to society as a whole and to people Arthur cares about (and to his precious name) becomes evident.
It all comes down to one exquisitely excruciating moment when Arthur, temporarily in charge of the newspaper for whom he writes, has the power to publish or pull a story that exposes the awful truth behind Miss Granger's and her partners' various schemes:
I suddenly understood that all the torturous intrigue hinged upon what I did in the next few minutes. It rested with me now to stretch out my hand to that button in the wall or or to let the whole world -- "the... the probity, that sort of thing" she had said -- fall to pieces.
One guess as to what he does.
Reading The Inheritors from the point of view that we do in 2011, as the real inheritors of the world depicted, is a chilling experience. Not only does the book prefigure and describe* much of our current predicament, but also shares much, in close and unpleasant detail, of the kind of thinking that got us here, then and now. As you might expect from the period and the authors (especially Conrad) there is much musing on the good old "white man's burden," on the power of the press to manipulate the opinions of the few who matter and, yes, unavoidably, the rabble as well, but it's the few that matter who must really be addressed by Arthur's pen to further "Miss Granger's" schemes of building up a supposedly philanthropic enterprise until supporting it is practically mandatory, it's so noble, and then dashing it to pieces once everyone's in for it for all they've got. And how is the final blow to be delivered or withheld? By means of an article exposing the misery of the colonized, the ill-treatment of the Greenland natives this railroad is supposed to be helping. The horror, the horror, the Foxconn suicides.
I'm not scholar enough to tease out what in this brief read comes from Conrad and what comes from Ford, but one thing I didn't expect to see and found in spades is something I would not tolerate from either writer -- lots and lots of em-dashes and repeated words. At first I thought it would simply be certain characters; an early antagonist of sorts is regarded, through Arthur's perhaps envious eye at least, as intolerably pompous does it, but then I find it in the text of the narrative itself. The whole -- the whole book -- seems to read the way this sentence does. When was this ever okay?
It's still a great read, though, and not just as a curiosity. While some might complain that the notion of a land development scheme in a potential colony's being able to bring down the Empire is preposterous, the plot is admirably constructed, since at bottom it all plays on "Miss Granger's" ability to play her mark, which is great fun to watch, even as it reveals her mark as already a pretty reprehensible guy**, arguably way more so than is the femme, who knows and cares no better.
Imagine if Irene Adler never came against her Sherlock.
*A long and eloquent passage about how this ruin affects the common man will stay with me for a very long time. Quoted second-hand by an aristocratic older lady who is characteristically moved -- but not so far as to take any action -- by the story she relates, a common citizen of Granger's home county tells the story of another: "I might have been taken the same way but for -- for the grace of God, I'm minded to say. Well, Slingsby's a good man, and used to be a hard-working man -- all his life, and now it turns out that that prospectus came about by the man deMersch's manoeuvres -- "wild-cat schemes" they call them in the paper that I read. And there's any number of them started by de Mersch or his agents. Just for what? That de Mersch may be the richest man in the world and a philanthropist. Well, then, where's Slingsby, if that's philanthropy. So Mr. Churchill comes along and says, in a manner of speaking, 'That's all very well, but this same Mr. Mersch is the grand duke of somewhere or other and we must bolster him up in his kingdom or else there will be trouble with the powers.' Powers -- what's powers to me? -- or Greenland? when there's Slingsby, a man I've smoked a pipe with every evening of my life, in the workhouse? And there's hundreds of Slingsbys all over the country."
**By the time he's referring to the ordinary people most injured by the catastrophe he helped to bring on as "just the material to make graveyards, nothing more" and "little people of absolutely no use but just to suffer horribly form this blow coming upon them from nowhere" you're ready to reach across the ages and pages to slap him if you are at all human.