I've been reading a curious tome by Robert William Cole, called The Struggle for Empire. It's curious because the empire of the title is the British Empire, or rather the Anglo-Saxon Empire, and the struggle takes place in interstellar space. And because it was published in 1900! It has a good claim to being the first space opera ever written.
The basic plot is as follows. It is the year 2236. The Anglo-Saxon Empire rules, not just the Earth, but the entire Solar System and many stars beyond. Its only rival is Kairet, a planet orbiting Sirius which has a vast empire of its own. The two empires have co-existed uneasily until now, but Sirian settlers on a distant planet called Iosia clash with the Anglo-Saxons who nominally control it. The Anglo-Saxon Empire sees its chance and declares war. It assembles a huge fleet of warships and dispatches it towards Sirius. But deep in interstellar space, it encounters an even bigger Sirian fleet. The Earth forces are shattered, and fall back on the Solar System. Neptune is besieged. A titanic battle at Jupiter leads to the destruction of two of its moons and the scorching of its sky. Anglo-Saxon warships entrenched on the Moon ambush the approaching Sirian fleet, causing severe losses, but cannot prevent the bombardment and destruction of the imperial capital, London. But now an English scientist unveils a new weapon which makes Sirian warships fall from the sky. This decisively alters the course of the war: the Sirian fleet is destroyed, and Earth forces penetrate to Kairet and destroy its capital. The Sirians agree to pay a huge indemnity, and their ships are prohibited from leaving their system. The interstellar war has lasted for five years, and the struggle for empire has turned decisively in favour of the Anglo-Saxons ...
A world war early in the 20th century set Britain, Germany and the United States against France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Italy. It was a long and bloody war. Britain was ultimately victorious, 'but not until some millions of her brave sons had perished on the field of battle'.1 Britain absorbed most of the colonies of its enemies. The French and Turkish 'races' dwindle or were absorbed; Russia shrinks to almost nothing. A Federal Union dominated by the Anglo-Saxon peoples (Britain, Germany and the United States) now rules the globe. This is suggestive of Joseph Chamberlain's calls for an Anglo-Saxon alliance.
The conquest of space was effected by the development of anti-gravity (by means of 'peculiarly constituted currents of electricity' through wires wrapped around an object).2 The discovery of new forces -- Dynogen, Pralion and Ednogen -- provide limitless energy. And an engine which can act on the ether which pervades all space provides the means of propulsion. Pioneers rush to explore and settle the solar system, and now most planets are as populous as the Earth. Eventually bigger 'interstellar ships' are built, and the process begins again on an even grander scale:
Dim accounts had been handed down from generation to generation of a certain great man named Napoleon Bonaparte who once nearly conquered the world. Now there were thousands of Bonapartes endowed with colossal intellect, vast energy, and boundless ambition, each burning to wrest for himself a world from the great Unknown. Provinces and countries were not even thought of; they desired to rule over a planet, a system, a universe. There was present everywhere an intense fever for acquisition; men burned with desire to plunder in these new regions. Vast expeditions were fitted out and started off for the regions of space. Many of these were never heard of again, but some came back with wonderful tales of what they had seen and found.3
Later it is explained that these expeditions sometimes fought and killed each other, but because their crimes took place in the deepness of space they were never brought to justice. I think Cole is evoking a parallel with the settlement of the American 'wild west'; at least, I don't think frontiers in the British Empire were ever that lawless, even in mythology.
Space warfare is very reminiscent of naval warfare, circa 1900. There are battleships, cruisers, destroyers and torpedo boats. Flags wave from their upper decks (at least when in a planetary atmosphere). All have rams, and the bigger ships have anti-torpedo netting. Cannon firing explosive shells seem to be the primary armament (the guns are airtight, though this seems to be more to prevent air escaping the ship than to enable combustion). But there are also new weapons, terrible new superscientific weapons. A force which can destroy the cohesion of matter. Ednogen waves which can kill any humans they touch. A means of interfering with the engines of enemy warships. There are new defences, too: 'receivers that could annihilate these forces should they impinge upon them'.4
The ether of space and a kind of matter that could be made to radiate in elliptical waves were the basis of these terrible forces that were about to be wielded by the two great races for the destruction of one another. However, since neither they nor the interstellar ships had yet been used in actual warfare, the leading authorities expressed considerable doubts as to what would really occur in the heat of a great engagement.5
Which was also like contemporary naval warfare -- there hadn't been a great fleet action since 1866 (Lissa), the early days of ironclads.
Cole's new weapons sometimes have unintended effects. Most spectacularly, the liberal use of Ednogen and other forces at the initial battle in interstellar space creates an enormous vacuum in the ether, which (stretching coincidence somewhat) travels through space to arrive at Jupiter at the same time a Sirian fleet is engaging a smaller Earth force (drawn up into a sphere for defensive purposes). But because of the vacuum, the propellers which normally move the ships through the ether spin uselessly: 'Every ship lay helpless like a log, moving along under the impulse of the momentum it had already acquired'.6 But worse than that, the vacuum -- for some unexplained reason -- causes two nearby moons to expand and explode, annihilating both fleets and creating a fiery mass of vapour around Jupiter which kills thousands of civilian settlers. The whole book is like this, a strange mixture of classical, pre-relativistic physics and big-if-not-well-thought-through ideas. There's no sound in space (presumably ether is too thin for soundwave propagation), and Cole is aware of the need for insulation to control heat. Earth has been terraformed by tilting its axis to make southern England pleasantly subtropical. Wireless telegraphy exists, but only has a range of about 300 million miles. Matter can be detected through the waves it sets up in ether. The speed of light is, of course, not a cosmic speed limit, so ships can just keep accelerating: after 85 days of travel the Anglo-Saxon fleet is a good chunk of the way to Sirius.
One of the big disappointments for me was the astronomy and the exobiology. There's no sense whatsoever of the alien, the other. All of the planets are blandly Earth-like, where they are described at all. Even Jupiter and Neptune are just other places for humans to settle on, with air and trees and water. That's somewhat excusable, since it wasn't yet clear to astronomers just how un-terrestrial the gas giants are. But Cole missed an opportunity to inject some variety and colour into his account. The two moons destroyed at Jupiter aren't even named; and it would have been interesting to see what the Anglo-Saxons made of Sirius's white dwarf companion, discovered in 1862. Even more surprising is Cole's lack of interest in extraterrestrials. As far as I can tell, they are all physically identical to humans. Nothing is described of Kairet's culture or history or language, aside from a couple of words. Even some of the solar system's planets have intelligent life on them, but all we are told of these is that 'the natives were quite harmless'.7 This surprised me, given the huge success of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds only a year or two previously, which featured quite alien aliens. I think the reason for this is that Cole is really interested in the struggle for empire in 1900 AD. The harmless natives and the fertile landscapes are simply part of the backdrop to the imperialist project and great power rivalries, and aren't of any intrinsic interest.
That raises the question of whether Cole had any specific geopolitical parallels in mind. I don't think so -- aside from the obvious fact that the British Empire rules the stars as well as the sea, surely a cheery prospect for a late-Victorian imperialist. Kairet doesn't seem like a good match for any of Britain's rivals at the end of the nineteenth century: its fleet is too powerful to be France, its empire too extensive to be Germany, its methods too colonial to be Russia. In fact, the empire which it matches most closely is the British Empire itself. It's a mirror image. The war between the Sirians and the Anglo-Saxons doesn't quite begin like any of Britain's recent troubles. A clash in some distant outpost of empire is kind of like Fashoda (1898), but that involved official expeditions. Trouble between settlers and outlanders is more like the war against the Boer Republics, which was then in its early days, but they weren't great powers. I don't think it's really worthwhile looking too closely for close parallels: Cole is just taking the idea of generic imperial struggle to its ultimate conclusion. In fact, at some points he almost suggests that it's not worth the bother -- though admittedly that's when it looks like the Anglo-Saxons are going to be crushed by the Sirians. It's not quite 'Recessional'.
I've been a bit critical of Coles' powers of description, and it's true that he's no Shakespeare. But he's better than many writers of his ilk, and can be quite evocative when it comes to space battles. I liked this description of the final defence of Earth:
Hither and thither the flashes and streams of fire darted across the sky, now overhead, now low down on the horizon, but never ceasing for a moment. Not a sound came from the battle area; its progress could only be ascertained by observing the movements of the lines of fire. Sometimes the ships were so crowded together in one spot that the sky was illuminated by a frightful glare; then they would spread out, darting their lights all over the heavens. Soon the refuse of battle began to fall down on to the earth: mangled bodies, burnt wrecks, and clouds of thin hazy smoke. When daylight arrived the ships were invisible, but the horrid rain still fell. Night came on, and the long luminous streaks made by the searchlights and the flashes of white and purple flame from the guns reappeared. Huge battleships came dashing along glowing like meteors, singly, in lines, in columns. These were met by other lines of light, and then the surrounding space scintillated like a fine display of fireworks, and in a few minutes the rain of battle came pouring down on to the terrified spectators.8
And, on the subject of gore, note this description of damaged battleships which have returned to Earth for repairs:
Their outsides bore the ghastly traces of the terrible contest. The twisted metalwork was covered with blood, human bodies were lying about in the pierced compartments torn almost to ribbons, and arms, legs, and headless trunks were squashed between bent metal plates and rods, or rammed up between the machinery.9
I borrowed this book a couple of times while doing my thesis (in the facsimile edition put out by Routledge/Thoemmes Press in 1998, together with The War of the Wenuses and Edison's Conquest of Mars) but didn't read it because, well, I had work to do! I wish I had now, because it really does lie within the precursors to the knock-out blow literature I read for research. Not only is London destroyed from the air/space, as noted above, but its inhabitants evacuate the city beforehand and the government (or at least the War Bureaux) moves to a mineshaft for protection from bombardment. And when the Anglo-Saxons return the favour, there's a hint of the knock-out blow: 'But the [Sirian] people soon had enough of the slaughter and destruction, which they had no means whatever of preventing, for they had been taken totally unawares, and so the Government sent envoys demanding conditions of surrender'.10 At the very least it would have merited inclusion in a footnote.
Finally, who was Robert Williams Cole, and what impact did he have? The answer to the first question is nobody knows, and to the second, apparently none. None of the standard sources have any information on him, except that he did write three other novels in the following decade, including a more standard Germany-invades-Britain story called The Death Trap (1907). The name could well be a pseudonym. George Locke, in his notes for the Routledge/Thoemmes Press edition, suggests that the publisher of The Struggle for Empire was a vanity press, which anyway didn't survive long. All I've been able to dig up on the internet is that it was mentioned in The Academy, A Weekly Review of Literature and Life of 31 March 1900 (p. 278) as one of the new books received (link). And according to an advertisement in the 5 May edition (p. 378) of the same periodical, the Birmingham Daily Gazette had this to say:
Mr. Cole possesses an unbounded and vigorous imagination, which carries his readers over all obstacles. His story is entertaining.
It's a shame that he didn't have enough readers to inspire imitators; it would have been interesting to read more early British space opera by other authors, and to see how they stacked up against some of their modern heirs.