Across the Zodiac, Percy Greg, 1880
Why does sci-fi have to be so misogynist? That question lies at the heart of this book review, so we will start with it. Contemporary sci-fi culture is steeped in an antique brew of sexism that dates to 1880. In that year, Percy Greg published a story about a man who travels to Mars in a spaceship. Across the Zodiac originated the sword and planet sci-fi subgenre in which humans travel to other planets and manage to conquer the advanced technology they encounter using only medieval weaponry. I don’t understand the appeal of this premise, but I suppose it might tap into some deep megalomaniacal need to prove your superiority over an entire planet while pretending to be King Arthur?
I have so many problems with this novel. I am just going to tackle them in the order they appear. Percy Greg begins his thrilling adventure story with a long, dull conversation about ciphers conducted by a host of characters whom he does not bother to introduce and who have no importance to the narrative. This book is a stylistic nightmare: plodding, overly detailed and yet haphazard. Just try reading this one sentence:
“And you are the first and only man I ever met who hesitates to affirm the impossibility of that which seems to him wildly improbable, contrary at once to received opinion and to his own experience, and contrary, moreover, to all known natural laws, and all inferences hitherto drawn from them.”
That sentence is a heap trash. All he wanted to say was that the character does not reject ideas that are:
The subtitle of the novel is The Story of a Wrecked Record, which refers to the journal of a solo expedition to Mars that the narrator pulls out of a wrecked spaceship. Before he witnesses the crash, he spends the evening with some Confederate officers, because Greg felt the need to express his sympathy with the Confederate cause before he told a story about Mars. Yep. I found very little information about Percy Greg, except that his other writings express his “reactionary” politics. I think that means he wanted the South to rise again. I’m pretty sure he wanted to reestablish slavery, but he couldn’t so he did it in a novel, except slavery on Mars is based on gender not skin color. We’re getting there.
The writer of the journal describes his ship, its instruments and their voyage to Mars with scientific meticulousness, which is awful. The point of scientific writing is to describe an experiment in such detail that other scientists can reproduce your results. The point of science fiction is to entertain the reader. We can’t reproduce an imaginary voyage to Mars, so there is no reason to provide such a dismal quantity of detail about the journey. Profoundly boring. The endless logging of imaginary measurements takes up 10% of the book. Really. Greg is so abysmally unaware of what readers want to know. If J.K. Rowling wrote fifty pages of the Ministry of Magic quibbling over the Quidditch World Cup negotiations, that would be approximately equivalent to the beginning of this novel. Except that Rowling is a much better stylist.
When the protagonist arrives on Mars we get some nearly interesting description of the Martian geography, ecology and culture. Greg has a moderate amount of imagination, but he expresses himself so badly that it’s impossible to enjoy reading about crystal mansions, highly domesticated Martian animals or any of the rest of it.
Greg delves into complex Martian politics, which are Communist. But Greg is reactionary, so of course Communism is a horrible threat to those all-important scions: family values, production, religious freedom, male dominance, and so on. To be clear, I’m for religious freedom, I just wouldn’t buy the idea that religion is under attack for a ha’penny. “Whatever could not be produced in quantities sufficient for all to have a share was not produced at all.” Horrors! I mean, that sounds great. Women became “equal citizens, with no recognized relation to individual men.” Hooray! Except the reason they are separated from their dependence on men is to free men from the burden of having to feed women when Communism caused a collapse of the food supply. And of course the independence of women is depicted as horribly destructive. All family affection is destroyed. Seriously. I guess Greg thinks that women only love their children because their husbands tell them to. Makes perfect sense. . .if you’re a solipsistic fuck who thinks that women are incapable of thought or emotion that isn’t dictated to them by a man.
This guy actually thought that science would destroy maternal instinct. Uh. I don’t think he understands what science is. It gets so much worse. Equality nearly destroys Martian women. They cannot physically withstand the toll of education. Seriously. When asked to prepare for the same examinations that the men take “half the girls of each generation were rendered invalids for life.” Oh man, I really want to resurrect Percy Greg and force his zombified corpse to read meta studies about girls outperforming boys in school. Anyway, to rescue women from the torture of having to compete academically with men, Martians determine that they’d be better off as slaves. Yep, they’re basically slaves.
That’s not the end of it. It’s not over until the hero has a hareem of underage sex slaves. Really. Martian people are smaller than Earthlings. So, when the hero distinguishes himself fighting for the subculture of Martians that want to bring back religion and other nonsense, he is rewarded with a bevy of child-sized wives. His favorite is Eveena who “might possibly have completed her tenth year, which epoch in the life of Mars is about equivalent to the seventeenth birthday of a damsel nurtured in North-Western Europe.” Why Northwestern Europe as opposed to any place else on Earth? I cannot say.
I can’t write about this trash anymore. I’m sorry I read it. I’m a bit sorry to have brought it to your attention. You are too good to know about this book. He actually states that women are better off as slaves than as equals. Slavery is better for them than equality. Really. Why, in the 1880s would a man need to envision a world in which women are more suppressed? He’s not the only man to do this. I’m looking at you, Edward Abbott.
Let’s put this sorry mess behind us.
Final thoughts: 1. This book is trash on every level. 2. Fuck Percy Greg. 3. Sadly, I’m not surprised to find overt, toxic misogyny in the origins of the sci-fi genre. Granted, Greg isn’t a significant influence on the genre as a whole, but some people must have read this. It is the first of its kind. It helped create space for destructive and disgusting male fantasy in the sci-fi/fantasy world. That space endures today. 4. I am so grateful to the people who are fighting to make space for underrepresented groups in sci-fi. It can’t be easy. Thank you.