Griffith, G. (1903) The World Masters
Published by John Long, London.
Synopsis: (kindly provided by Adam Baldwin, PGRS, The Open University)
The World Masters has a complex plot, focussed on three main factions all in pursuit of an invention by Professor Emil Fargeau of a machine that can draw the energy from the earth for redistribution. Professor Fargeau is an Alsace, outwardly loyal to the German regime, in place since the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/1, but secretly loyal to France. His son, Victor, is an officer in the German army, but like his father is loyal to France, and passes military secrets to the French government when he can.
After his initial successful experiment in a laboratory, and his realisation that the magnetic poles would be the best place to mine for this new force, Prof. Fargeau offers his finding to the French government, who dismiss him as a crackpot, and in despair and immeasurable debt, he drowns himself in the English channel. He sends a copy of his experiments and plans to his son, who has no financial wherewithal to do anything with it, and seals another set in a box he ties to his clothing before he drowns himself.
Shafto Hardress, his friend Dr Lamson, along with Shafto’s sister, Lady Olive and her American friend and companion Chrysie Vandel, are on a pleasure cruise of Shafto’s father’s yacht, the Nadine. Shafto and Dr Lamson discover the floating remains of Prof Fargeau. The body is brought aboard when out on their yacht, and they discover the plans. Dr Lamson quickly realises the potential of Professor Fargeau’s experiment, and a syndicate is formed, headed by Shafto’s father, Lord Orrel and Chrysie’s father, the businessman Clifford Vandel. This group form a syndicate, ‘The Great Storage Works’, with the aim of providing cheap electricity to the world. Dr Lamson has also understood the inventions capacity as a weapon – the beam that passes electricity to the world can be altered so that it unbinds metal at the molecular level, causing all machinery to break, bridges to fail, engines to seize up.
The syndicate negotiate a lease of Boothia Land in Canada, then the location of the magnetic north pole, identified in Prof Fargeau’s writing as the best location for drawing the energy of the earth. They build a works to gather, store and direct this new energy source with the aim of creating a world monopoly of electricity supply across the globe.
Two other factions are also after this secret, a French nobleman and his daughter Adelaide De Conde, who has been feigning a romance with Victor Fargeau in order to find out his secrets, and Russian Count Valdemar and his daughter Sophie, friends of Lord Orrel. They hear of this experiment and the building of works on Boothia Land, and, despite some personal mistrust, Adelaide and Sophie form an alliance to take control of the Boothia Land works and, by extension, they believe, the world.
Adelaide and Sophie use spies on board the Nadine, about to set off to Boothia Land to survey the works so far, to attempt to cripple it mid ocean so it can be boarded by Russian troops and the ownership of the Boothia works can fall to them. After a pitched sea battle in which Adelaide, a guest on the Nadine, that utilises drugs to disable the yacht’s crew, as well as Maxim guns and torpedoes. The Hardress yacht wins out, with Chrysie manning the Maxim gun mounted on the yacht to force the issue, and continues to Boothia Land with Sophie and Adelaide as prisoners.
A war has broken out in Europe, partially triggered by the uncovering of Victor Fargeau, who has defected to France after the death of his father, as a spy. Adelaide has abandoned him now, and has her eyes set on Shafto Hardress, who is in love with Chrysie, who reciprocates, but is keeping him at arms length. Adelaide’s infatuation with Shafto leads her to fire upon him once she realises he loves another, and a third destructive aspect of the rays from the plant are demonstrated on her, a disintegration ray, powerful at relatively short range, which melts the flesh from her body just seconds after her assassination attempt fails. Sophie, who aimed at Chrysie at the same moment, dies with her in the same ray. Victor was standing with them, and is also killed.
A fleet of Russian ships attempts to take the site by force, and is repelled with the same ray. The ray itself has been adapted and briefly withdrawn from one transmitted at Europe to unknit its metals at a molecular level, making the continuation of war impossible.
The war ends with negotiations between the warring powers, facilitated by the neutral British King. War can continue, says the syndicate, but at a tax of a dollar per soldier per week in the field. Non-payment means the beam will be reinstated and metallic structures will fail.
Having secured peace, and mastery of the world, through both the provision of cheap electricity and the threat of beam, the novel ends with Chrysie and Shafto promising to marry.
The complex plot (the above is a much-simplified version) makes the book difficult on an initial reading. But it is worth pursuing as it touches on themes of gender, both in the realm of female agency, and expectations of masculinity. The Dreyfus Affair is touched on several times, with Victor being a Dreyfus in reverse, passing German secrets to the French. At the time of publication Dreyfus was still guilty in the eyes of the law. Finally, it touches on issues around imperialism and nationalism, and the relationship with capitalism.
“Well, gentlemen,” said Clifford Vandel, about the same moment in Lord Orrel’s library, “I think you will agree with me that the doctor would not have sent a dispatch like this without pretty good reason; and if these people mean pushing matters to extremity, why, of course, it might be necessary for him to, as he says here, freeze them out, in which case they couldn’t get there. And if they couldn’t we couldn’t; wherefore it seems good reasoning to say that we ought to be there first—if we’re going to get there at all.”
“My dear Vandel,” replied his lordship, “it is the best of reasoning; and I am quite sure that Doctor Lamson would not have dreamt of sending such a dispatch without good reasons, and I think I am justified in telling you that this morning I received a confidential letter from an old colleague of mine in the Foreign Office, in which he says that, according to reports of our agents, both in France and Germany, an outbreak of hostilities may occur at any moment within the next few weeks, without warning—just as it did in 1870.”
“Then,” said Hardress, sharply, “if that is so, there simply must be some connection between that and the dispatch of these two expeditions. I don’t often jump to conclusions, Mr Vandel, but I think now that Miss Chrysie was perfectly right. They’re not going to try and get to the Pole at all. It’s the Magnetic Pole they want, and they’ll be there this summer if we don’t find some way to stop them; and I quite agree that we ought to get there first. It may be necessary to show Europe that they can’t get on without us, even in the matter of fighting.”
“Very well, then,” said Lord Orrel, “we’ll call that settled; we’ll make it a summer Arctic trip. How soon can you get us across the Atlantic, Hardress?”
“I can land you in Halifax in six days. We’ll coal up there; and, if we’re not too much crowded with ice, I’ll get you to Rae Isthmus in six days more. Meanwhile I will telegraph to Lamson to have one of his steamers waiting for us on the other side of the Isthmus, and in another week, including the land travel, which may be difficult, we will be at the works. Or, if we find the sea fairly clear, we’ll steam straight up to Fox Channel, Kury’s Strait, and take you straight to Boothia Land. At any rate, the expeditions are only just starting, one from Havre and the other one from Riga, and, at that rate, we should certainly be there a clear month before them, even if they really are going.”
“Then,” said Clifford Vandel, slowly but gravely, “if that’s so, I guess the best thing we can do is to get there as quickly as possible and start the circus as soon as we can. If Europe means fighting—well, we can’t have a better way of proving our power, and showing France and Germany and the rest of them that it will pay them to deal with the Great Storage Trust, than by just making their own war impossible. When they find they can’t even fight without our permission, I guess they’ll pretty soon come to terms.”
“I agree with you entirely, my dear Vandel,” said Lord Orrel.