Sydney Fowler Wright,
Brian Stableford,

A strange storm has hit the world. Hurricane force winds erupt, the land sinks. In England, water fills the lowlands, leaving only the hills as islands behind. Martin Webster, an attorney in previous, pre-disaster life, is separated from his wife and two children.

Most of the citizens have drowned. Those who survived live on the isolated islands, trying to hide from the gangs that are coming to rob and rape. One of the proposed victims is lovely Claire Arlington, an expert swimmer. She ends up with two men who are ready to ravish her, so she leaves and island-hops until she comes ashore where Martin is brooding on the beach.

A gang of ruffians spots her at the same time, and since she is comely and young, decides to take her as a sex slave. They trap Martin and Claire in an old railway tunnel, planning to murder him and force her to go with them. They have no idea that the Martin and Claire are tough and resourceful, will not only escape from their trap, but will kill most of the villains in the process.

This is high adventure stuff, and Fowler Wright (he disdained the hyphen) brings it off. It was one of his earliest, and the most successful books, selling handsomely in the United States in the late 1920s, eventually being made into a movie.

H. G. Wells pioneered in this type of science-fiction, journalistic, heavy on details, and a superb sense of pacing. Editor Stableford calls Deluge a "scientific romance" --- noting that fellow authors Edgar Rice Burroughs, Olaf Stapledon (Last and First Men), H. Rider Haggard (The Ancient Allen), Jack London The Scarlet Plague were part of the same school.

Those fond of these authors and the earlier works of H. G. Wells --- "The Invisible Man," "The Time Machine," and "The War of the Worlds" --- will find many of the same pleasures in action and style in Deluge.

At the same time, amidst all the action, Fowler Wright has a few didactic lessons for the readers. Martin is not unlike the Time Traveler and the Invisible Man --- resourceful, quick, curious, spirited, full of a sense of individuality. Wells sported a neo-Marxian view of the world, one that was dialectic with a vengeance: the Time Traveler lands in the future where the workers live underground, feeding (and feeding on) the gentle folk who laugh and play on the rolling fields above.

The author of Deluge is even more opinionated, even quirky. I made a list of his bête noires, and they include

  • Lawyers and the law,
  • "Industrial slavery,"
  • Cars,
  • The maternal duties of women,
  • The destruction of Progress,
  • the inferiority of rude laborers but
  • "The tradition of the English Manservant of the better kind, and
  • Motorcycles.
Or as one critic wrote,

    Mr. Wright [sic] considers mankind overcivilized and forcibly expresses his objection to such human achievements as medical science, tarred roads, motor-bicycles, feminism and coal mines. He would have us all return to what he would doubtless call the Golden Age, but which the philosopher Thomas Hobbes more graphically described as a State of Nature, in which the life of man was "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short."

§     §     §

Of major interest to this critic was the set of Fowler Wright's writing. Certainly few others from before --- except for professional journalists --- had come up with the short, terse sentence structure, broken into many paragraphs, reminding us of, at its best, the Red badge of Courage (Stephen Crane) and, at its worst, Time or the New York News. This is Claire as she faces the reality of Martin's wife (once thought dead; miraculously found alive):

    But fate had given her to him, and held her with a tie that she might ignore but which she could not break. It had brought her back from the clean solitudes, from sky, and grass, and sea to the commonness of the life of a new barbarity, for so she felt it.

    And there was no way to break loose. She was no longer free. No longer single. There might be a child.

    She became aware that she was very tired.

    She looked up and they were standing before her. They were hand-in-hand, and Helen's eyes were radiant.

    Martin was looking at the child.

Another constant theme is Darwin, who the author repeatedly pulls in to give philosophical underpinning to the whole, simplified ominously into the Eugenics Movement of the 1920s: "Nature, holding an impartial scale, would not fail to secure that the men most fitted to the new conditions should become the fathers of the next generation, although an individual life might fall to the dice of chance."

And here is Martin pondering the lovely Claire, who has just pulled ashore from a her 25-mile swim:

    He saw that she was one of those who had come though, not by blind chance that saves or slays as it will, but by her own strength and courage. Many of the unfit might still be living, but there should be enough of those who had survived by their own exertions to improve the race of the future.

Despite these meanderings, and despite the fact that Fowler Wright was to go on and compose some fifty additional titles (most, according to the helpful and thorough introduction by Dr. Stableford, greatly inferior to Deluge), this one is worth your time. The vaugeness of the disaster becomes less important as we get wrapped in the story, what with the good guys --- Martin and his loyal band seeking a new world free of incomprehensible laws, the destruction of progress, and, presumably, a world with no motorcycles --- contrasted to the heathenish ruffians out for sex and booty. The leader of the latter pack is the "huge and brutal" Bellamy, viz.: "The froth of liquor was on his mouth, and he licked the pork-grease from his hand as he regarded her."

Despite the almost routine good-guy bad-guys, this is high adventure, where our worthy storyteller makes it so that one near disaster is quickly followed by another, keeping us constantly on edge. And although some of the characterizations are crude, Fowler Wright could put together the brief portrait of Stacey. He was an aging bookish sort, so deeply in his study and in debt that when disaster strikes, he finds himself awaiting the bailiffs "whom he had good reason to expect on the following morning." The delicious portrait will easily remind us of other English eccentrics that we have all known, both in person and in literature:

    He heard the roar of the storm and the crash of falling timber. He heard his chimneys descend, and he had good reason to suppose that the major part of his residence was in ruins. He was not insensitive to these events. He composed a sonnet on Mutability. He wrote it out with a neat precision. He considered the finer points of punctuation with a fastidious care.

--- Maribeth Salter, PhD

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