Friday, September 20, 2019

The Inheritors by Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford

Least exciting conspiracy ever
Published in 1901, The Inheritors is a collaborative novel by English authors Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. The story is narrated by Arthur, who is also referred to by his title of landed nobility, Etchingham Granger. While touring a historic cathedral, Arthur meets an attractive woman in his tour group and begins flirting with her. He initially takes her for an American, but she nonchalantly informs him that she actually hails from the fourth dimension. Her purpose for coming to our world is to maneuver the overthrow of the established societal order and thereby become one of the powerful few who get to “inherit the earth.” She invites Arthur to be her toady and convinces him to let her pose as his sister. He acquiesces because he hopes to sleep with her, but the arrangement soon becomes uncomfortable when her political machinations begin to tarnish his family’s good name.

The situation sounds like it has the potential for farcical humor, but the authors play it deadly serious. Is she really from the fourth dimension, or is she just putting on strange airs? If her claims are true, then this would qualify as a science fiction novel. The authors never really explore the idea any further, however, so the reader never really understands the truth of her origin nor is given any reason to care about it. After the unusual claims she makes in the first chapter, Conrad and Ford pretty much just drop the idea and deliver a rather boring political thriller. Arthur is a writer by trade, and he gets a job penning weekly human interest pieces about celebrities. He becomes friends with one of his subjects, Foreign Minister Churchill (not Winston, but a fictional Edward), who becomes a target of the Dimensionalists. Much of the story focuses on the writer’s life, the business of journalism, and so forth, while spooky references are made to a Machiavellian railroad baron’s sinister plot to annex Greenland.

Try as I may, I just can’t wrap my head around Joseph Conrad. On the one hand, the guy has as great a command of the English language as anyone else in literature. On the other hand, he seems bent on using his talents to take various genres of adventure literature—nautical thrillers, tropical exploration, espionage, and in this case science fiction—and render them as boring as possible. I have no prior experience with Ford Madox Ford, who at this time had not yet found his pseudonym and was still writing under his birth name of Ford M. Hueffer. Whichever of them is to blame for this novel’s relentless obsession with the myriad stratifications of the English class system, I wish he would have stopped minutely describing people’s clothing, furniture, and eyebrow movements and just told me a satisfying story.

For readers living in today’s political climate, where politicians get away with murder, the idea that one corruption scandal is going to tear down the whole order of British government and shift power into the hands of a secret cabal seems incredibly naive. And for a far-fetched thriller, as far as plans for world domination go, this one is quite tame and tepid. For all this novel’s pompous malevolence, the gains that are won in the end feel like small victories, the inconsequential ramifications of a dull plot. Anyone approaching this book from an interest in early science fiction will be disappointed, and fans of Conrad and Ford no doubt have greater, better-known works on which to spend their reading time. The Inheritors is best left avoided.

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