Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, The Inheritors

My monthly Kindle Magazine column focuses on out of copyright books. For the October issue I wrote about the product of a collaboration between two great authors. It’s not, however, a particularly good book.

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I’ll never understand how it is possible for two writers to collaborate on one work of fiction without creating a disjointed mess, but it evidently is. My favourite example of this is Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens; a wonderful, heart-warming account of the apocalypse and the end times. But Good Omens, for all its excellence, wasn’t too far from the sort of thing for which Pratchett and Gaiman were already known. What would be far stranger would be for two literary novelists were to get together and work on something completely alien to their genres.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Joseph Conrad and Forx Madox Ford collaborated on a set of novels – The Nature of a Crime, Romance and The Inheritors – covering a variety of genres. Of these, The Inheritors is perhaps the best known.

What makes The Inheritors surprising is that it is in part a science-fiction novel. There exists a Fourth Dimension inhabited by creatures that seem human. Except that they are “a race clear-sighted, eminently practical, incredible; with no ideals, prejudices, or remorse; with no feeling for art and no reverence for life; free from any ethical tradition; callous to pain, weakness, suffering and death, as if they had been invulnerable and immortal.” And they are going to take over the world.

At the beginning of the book Arthur, the narrator, meets one of these Fourth Dimensionists; she appears in the form of a beautiful woman. Pressed to tell him more about herself she reveals her identity and even performs some alarming magic to convince him (in the process she renders the nearby town, and significantly its cathedral, ‘contemptible’). Her willingness to share her evil plan with him seems at first the sort of terrible decision supervillains make, allowing the hero to thwart them. But there will be no thwarting from Arthur, who is contemptible himself. Filled with vaguely-formed high ideals about great art but also a strong desire to be important, Arthur is the perfect pawn. He soon finds himself drawn into Fourth Dimensionist power politics. While the mysterious woman (who is now posing as Arthur’s sister) manipulates him on the one hand, he also finds himself encountering two other Fourth Dimensionists – one of whom claims to be creating a Utopia in Greenland. He does make a few half-hearted attempts to thwart our eventual masters but, being incompetent, he fails miserably.

The Inheritors starts out as disjointed and abrupt – the opening scenes in which the narrator learns of the Fourth Dimension are dreadful. Yet as the power games between these terrifying beings set in, as the secondary characters become more rounded out it begins to be rather good.

And beneath the rather gloomy subject of our demise as a species (and its subtext of the decline of the human race) there is, oddly enough, a ray of hope. At the beginning the woman suggests that our ancestors too came from the Fourth Dimension, and “caught” weaknesses: “beliefs, traditions; fears; ideas of pity … of love”. By the end of the book, it seems that she may have caught some of these diseases as well. Humanity, it seems to suggest, will always be arrived at somehow, even if the humans themselves (ourselves?) are no longer around.
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